Dani Spinosa and Lai-Tze Fan discuss the need for a Canadian digital poetics, as well as for an understanding of its past developments, present shifts, and future possibilities.
Digital reading and writing permeates the literary and academic fields across the nation state that is currently known as Canada. A cursory look at Canadian literary communities and the scholarship surrounding those communities indicates that networked technology is beneficial if not unavoidable for writing and producing books (word processing, typesetting, typographical designing), selling and sharing books, talking about books, and building communities around literary productions. The necessity of digital textuality to contemporary publishing in particular is such that Katherine Hayles argues “print should properly be considered a particular form of output for digital files rather than a medium separate from digital instantiation” (“The Future of Literature” 159).
At the same time, it is clear that networked technologies are not treated as central to the understanding of literature itself, as the “CanLit” community writ large still tends to prioritize print books. A preference for print is reflected even more so in terms of academic study, where the vast majority of Literature departments in Canada--among other countries as well--focus on the study of print texts. When digital humanities interventions do appear in Literature departments, the instruction is often to focus on digital tools for literary scholarship rather than digital literatures themselves.
Of course, this is a generalization. One need only to look at the wealth of literary analysis included in the recently published proceedings of the Electronic Literature Organization’s 2018 Conference, Mind the Gap! / Attention à la marche!, originally held in Montréal, to know that there is indeed excellent scholarship on digital poetics and electronic literature happening in Canada. These conference proceedings, edited by Bertrand Gervais and Sophie Marcotte, reveal a good deal of fascinating critical scholarship around new media and writing, and include some of the biggest names in the field, like John Cayley and Christopher Funkhouser. We might, however, compare the attendance and content of this ELO conference to the Kanada Koncrete conference that took place at the University of Ottawa that same year, and which was focused on the topic of “Verbi-Voco-Visual Poetries in the Multimedia Age.” Despite the clear similarity in subject matter, these two conferences saw little crossover in terms of speakers, attendees. While one conference focused on an international crowd, the other held Canada to its name; arguably, however, Kanada Koncrete was more literary than the interdisciplinary ELO 2018. The foci of the two Canada-based conferences mirror persistent disciplinary silos that ripple in Canadian scholarship. Part of our goal with this gathering, then, is to work on bringing disciplinary worlds together.
Many of Canada’s brightest producers and scholars of digital poetics and electronic literature work out of a variety of disciplines and departments, including English, but also Communications, Media, Fine Arts, and others. As a country, we have not yet seen enough of an infrastructural commitment to digital literatures to warrant a widespread cultural and scholarly investment in its practice and study, but it is not as if Canadian scholars are not interested: as of 2021, some of them are leaving the country for institutions elsewhere where digital literary study has significantly more institutional support.
It didn’t always look like this. For a while, as the earliest predecessors of electronic literature emerged, Canada was at the forefront of experimenting with transmedial and born-digital texts. For example, the renowned Canadian poet bpNichol produced First Screening: Computer Poems in 1984; the work is a small collection of a dozen kinetic visual poems and is widely considered to be a foundational text of digital poetry. Nichol’s work was followed by other born-digital pioneers like Lionel Kearns and later Jim Andrews, artists who groups like the Electronic Literature Organization have anthologized and presented as central to the history of electronic literature and digital poetics.
Canadian writers and artists have continued to innovate in these fields, in particular with the groundbreaking work of Caitlin Fisher, who wrote one of the first hypertext dissertations in Canada, if not the very first. On a global scale, Fisher is recognized for pioneering digital narrative techniques with early works like These Waves of Girls (2001) and for her subsequent works that pushed the boundaries of haptic interactive storytelling, such as Andromeda (2008) and Circle (2012). She continues to innovate the field through her work at the Augmented Reality Lab and the Immersive Storytelling Lab (both directed by her) and the Future Cinema Lab (co-founded by her) at York University in Toronto.
As Kate Eichhorn documents in great detail in her chapter on “The Digital Turn in Canadian and Québécois Literature” in The Oxford Handbook of Canadian Literature (2015), before the born-digital, and continuing to this day, Canada has a long and rich history of the transmedial, digitally produced, and machine-written texts, particularly in Québec. For example, as Eichhorn notes, one of the earliest machine-writing experiments--predating similar machine-writing experiments by American artists like John Cage and Jackson Mac Low--was Jean Baudot’s La machine à écrire (1964) which he completed using “a newly installed computer at the Université de Montréal” (513) and which was “one of the first electronically produced texts in the world and may have indeed been the first book-length publication of machine-generated poetry” (513-4). In her chapter, Eichhorn offers many rich examples: we witnessed Baudot’s early machine-generation experiments; then, there was the adaptation of Darren Wershler and Bill Kennedy’s Apostrophe Engine (1993) to the subsequent machine-generated print text Apostrophe (2006); also, Erin Mouré’s Pillage Laud (1997) produced using Charles O. Hartman’s MacProse program (1996). Clearly, Canadian literature has a long and rice history of machine writing and computer generation.
In addition to the machine-generated text, Canada’s earliest forays into digital and electronic literature included a good deal of transmedial work. For example, the publishing house Coach House Books, which has long been a pioneer of print-based experimental literature publishing in anglophone Canada, spent several years in the 1990s and early 2000s digitizing their catalogue and producing born-digital works such as W. Mark Sutherland’s Code X (2002), originally distributed on CD-ROM. More often, Coach House produced digital supplements to their existing print work, such as Darren Wershler’s NICHOLODEONLINE (1998), Damien Lopes Sensory Deprivation/Dream Poetics (2000), or the digital companion to Steve McCaffery’s Carnival panels. Indeed, in the late 1990s and early 2000s in Canada, a strange phenomenon emerged wherein authors of visual and concrete poetry produced transmedial, digital companion pieces to their published print-based books. These transmedial pieces were, it seems now, emblematic of a trajectory that could have delivered formalist poetry into digital poetics, but that ultimately relegated digital poetry to supplementary material, presented as companions to print works which remained the “real” poetic contributions. And, while works such as McCaffery’s Carnival continue to generate substantial scholarly discussion, Coach House has not maintained the digital repositories, so many of these digital elements are no longer accessible.
We are and have been excited by these complex interplays of print and digital media. But, even as our reading and writing is clearly dominated by digital media, it’s clear that CanLit and its scholarship continues to prioritize print as more “serious” and more “literary” than its digital counterparts and companions. Some of the examples named thus far, after all, are indeed print works with digital supplements or digital processes. Today, their lack of upkeep suggests that Canada saw an early and lively foray into electronic literature--but also that these texts and publishers did not yet envision a space for a world of distinctly digital literary production, nor a readership that is invested in interactive, haptic, and multimodal works.
In light of this, our objectives in assembling this electronic book review gathering are not only to include what has been accomplished in early digital poetics in the 1990s and early 2000s, but also to represent what new literary voices and digital experiments can be identified in Canadian scholarship and poetics, along with the trajectories that can be traced among seemingly separate histories. We want to show that print and digital writing in Canada were never as disjointed as they may seem.
In this gathering, scholar Sean Braune takes up this formalist tension between the print book and the digital companion piece in his analysis of Wershler’s NICHOLODEONLINE. In his essay, Braune argues that the essential experimentation of Wershler’s print book NICHOLODEON: A Book of Lowerglyphs (1997) is both extended and transformed by way of the digital supplement, and that while some of “[t]he content is repeated between the print and the online versions, … the experiential aspect of moving through the text is drastically different” (CITE). Wershler’s work in NICHOLODEONLINE is a useful place to situate a discussion of Canadian literature’s uneasy relationship with the digital, as his clear adoration for Nichol’s work--which Braune calls his Nicholphilia--is shared strongly by much of the Canadian literature community. In Ontario poetry circles especially, Nichol is a patron saint, a leader in the lyrical and the avant-garde, the sound and the concrete/visual communities alike. Too rarely are his contributions to digital poetics acknowledged, despite the efforts of scholars such as Lori Emerson and Stephen Cain to foreground those contributions. Wershler’s NICHOLODEONLINE is also a useful place to begin this gathering as the work’s position as a digital supplement to a print book symbolically represents the continued perception in Canadian literary writing and scholarship that the electronic literary text is, at best, supplemental, and at worst merely a translation or extension of the real work of print. This gathering, of course, refuses such a rudimentary divide between the print and the digital, looking insistently at the transmedial as an important element of Canadian digital poetics.
As such, this gathering looks at the rich variety of transmedial literature, digital poetics, and net art being produced across Canada to try and make a case for the continued centrality of digital media and digital methodologies in CanLit, even as we acknowledge the persistent privileging of print in this industry. In order to do so, this gathering looks at various digital methods used to produce print books, extending the earlier work done by Baudot, Wershler, and Moure. For example, in his essay on the digital methods used to produce Jordan Abel’s print collection, Injun (2016), Alois Sieben reads the collection through David Garneau’s concept of the “screen object” as Indigenous decolonial methodology, where Abel “carves out” his poetic object from the massive corpus of public domain frontier literature, revealing a text that refuses to be read through dominant--read: settler--reading strategies. Indeed, as Sieben writes, the text of Injun is designed to “frustrate its usage by visitors, especially those schooled in settler modes of reading Indigenous texts.” Sieben similarly argues that a reading of Injun requires a repositioning of some of the popular trends of digital humanities research--like topic modelling and distant reading strategies--that all too often reproduce colonial ideas of the large corpus as a plunderground of texts. DH tools and distant reading practices like the method Abel uses to produce Injun often reflect the kind of neocoloniality seen in Matthew Jockers’s argument that the digital pathways of the “‘new’ world are paved with gold and the colonizers have arrived”--a quotation Sieben rightly and effectively derides as both “unfortunate” and as reflecting the clear coloniality of this kind of DH mindset. But here, as Sieben observes, Abel’s work intervenes in that ‘new world’ kind of enterprising, producing a text that distant-reads as it writes back to the racism of these frontier narratives, a writing back made possible in part through the text’s transmediality.
In another analysis of a print book produced by inherent digital methodologies, this gathering includes MLA Chernoff’s analysis of Rachel Zolf’s Human Resources (2007), which they argue, in its experiments with the potentials of bookish formal features, “demonstrates that different kinds of readerly engagement are possible, reinventing the meaning of noised poetics.” These experiments come as a response to some of the processes through which both funds and information are distributed to artistic practitioners in Canada. These are often governmental systems of support upon which Canadian writers rely, but which also risk projecting creative standards and expectations to be followed, standardizing creative output, and creating an artistic community wherein art is derived from and potentially beholden to the larger state structures. In this sense, Chernoff’s observations of Zolf’s reinventions show a desire to explore what else is possible for readers and writers alike, and how digital tools and methodologies might help us to address what kind of new writings and readings might be made possible in contemporary poetics.
What is key in both of these essays is that the scholars both look to the digital methodologies as inherent to the political interventions of both collections. And it is significant, too, that in both works the poet is using the digital tool to circumvent and to ultimately disrupt the colonial and state-sanctioned authority of previous documents. And while these three works--Wershler’s, Abel’s, and Zolf’s--are brilliant and important texts, they are both still essentially print texts--distributed primarily in print format--though with digital supplements or digital processes. These works do indeed suggest a foray into digital poetics, and a persistent consideration of the digital as an important element of poetic production. But, these texts don’t really envision digital space for the poetics. Or, as Chernoff eloquently puts it, Zolf’s collection, like Abel’s, “does not expand the technological horizons of DigPo per se,” but instead uses the digital methodology to expand the horizons of print.
Alongside these major transmedial figures of Zolf and Abel, this ebr gathering positions scholarship on some of the most important figures of the last ten years of Canadian digital poetics: J. R. Carpenter and David Clark. If you come to this gathering by way of digital poetics and net art, these names are likely quite familiar to you. If you come to this gathering by way of Canadian literary communities, that is much less likely, though Carpenter’s print-based work--especially 2018’s An Ocean of Static (Penned in the Margins) or 2020’s This is a Picture of Wind (Longbarrow Press)--has seen substantial crossover appeal over the past few years. Both Carpenter and Clark’s works that are discussed in this gathering are born-digital projects, but they are also both using digital tools as extensions of other analogue tools or artistic formats (maps of cities and stars, photographs, the piano). As the essays in this gathering demonstrate, textuality is just one of many elements of the born-digital work, and both Carpenter and Clark work on exploring and pushing the digital limits of interactivity or operability, playability, and other haptic and ergodic elements. While we are starting to see an increase, slowly, in the discussions of born-digital works in the contexts of literary communities, Clark’s and Carpenter’s works, for example, remain seriously understudied, particularly from a literary lens, despite the clear relationship between both works of electronic literature and the larger interests of CanLit scholarship.
In his essay on Carpenter’s Entre Ville, Carl Watts argues that the work “presents an accessible and conventional image of Canadian literature in order to at once indulge in and critique nostalgia for a print-based literary culture.” And significantly, Watts calls Carpenter’s “an increasingly commented upon Canadian work,” with the clear implication that as of late several studies of Canadian poetics have pointed to or “commented upon” Carpenter’s work, but it is very rare that a literary scholar does the critical work of close reading it. Refreshingly, Watts does indeed give Carpenter’s work the critical attention it deserves, providing astute close reading and literary analysis throughout. Watts’s analytical approach to Entre Ville reveals, too, the strangeness of the critical neglect of new media writing in Canada because Entre Ville, like so many electronic literary works, is “specially positioned to explore the traditionalism inherent in mainstream conceptions of literature, literary culture, and cultural production--including most especially parallels between Montreal literature and new-media literature.” That mediated literatures in particular are so understudied may be surprising (especially to global readers and scholars), as they so often deal with many of the larger issues of print-based CanLit, such as the representation of multiplicities (in languages, cultures, and forms) and the need for cultural preservation and support.
Preservation and support--culturally, institutionally, technologically, nationally--becomes a conversation in which Canadian digital poetics should be deeply invested, as these factors merge sociocultural interest with infrastructural needs. The loss of Flash on December 31, 2020 meant the loss of unique works of e-lit, including artist David Clark’s 88 Constellations for Wittgenstein (To be Played with the Left Hand) (2008). In a striking essay by Giovanna di Rosario and Nohelia Meza, Clark’s Flash-based work “uses/adapts/reinvents ‘canonical’ rhetorical figures—verbally, visually, and aurally—to visually express philosophical concepts,” where these canonical figures refer, primarily, to the three figures of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Charlie Chaplin, and Adolf Hitler (all born in April 1889). Di Rosario and Meza examine Clark’s interplay of various types of “semiotic units,” including videos, sounds, images, and linguistic texts to create a kind of “visual music.”
The obsolescence of Flash also meant that many texts considered to be in the e-lit canon have been lost, including Caitlin Fisher’s These Waves of Girls (2000), winner of the inaugural Electronic Literature Organization’s award for fiction. In an interview with Fisher, Lai-Tze Fan asks about the history of this work and the contexts of its loss. Their dynamic conversation also includes Fisher’s origins into the field of e-lit as inspired by her multidisciplinary training, questions about materiality, and grapplings with containing multitudes of stories in form. Readers may be interested in knowing that despite Fisher’s reputation as a literary artist and media practitioner, her influences do not originate from print literature: “almost all of my touchstones for influence seem to have been either e-lit or theoretical texts or particular kinds of visual arts practices of the 1970s.” Fisher’s work points clearly to the necessarily diverse perspectives of mediated literature and new media arts, as well as the unique routes through which e-literature practitioners may arrive at their practices.
Scholarship of electronic literature needs to be cognizant of the slipperiness of the literary signifier. And, we need to be cognizant of the slipperiness of the “digital” designation as well. As Bertrand Gervais notes in an interview with Dani Spinosa, the term “digital” has become a strange kind of catch-all for all sorts of media that use computational structures, and it plays well into securing funding for creative and scholarly projects alike. Gervais notes that “the word has a strong echo in the public sphere,” more so perhaps than the “electronic” moniker we have typically used in English to designate “electronic literature.” Gervais notes that in the French, there was a historical shift in the earlier use of the term “hypermédiatique” or “hypermedia” towards “littérature numérique” or “digital literature.” And this is reflected especially in the ways that these kinds of scholarly and creative projects get access to funding--the same kind of funding politics that Zolf critiques in Human Resources. As Gervais goes on to observe, the designation of a project as digital “seems generic enough to be used in numerous contexts. Thus, provincial and federal agencies all have programs dedicated to financing “digital” culture, art, literature, projects and infrastructures.” We have opted for the latter in the title of this gathering, but embrace the fluidity of the terms for the genre throughout, including variant uses of terms like electronic literature, e-lit, new media art, hypertext, transmedia, digital poetics, electropoetics, and so on. We are not interested in reifying or unifying these designations, and particular enjoy how meanings shift across uses of these terms. Instead, we work to follow in the vein of Gervais’s work with NT2, recognizing the literary elements of these kinds of works without requiring them to adhere to generic requirements.
Following this line of thought, we want to note that Abel, Zolf, and Wershler (albeit in different ways and at different career stages) are all significant figures in the Canadian literary avant-garde. This gathering looks to reposition those works as exemplifying digital poetics by connecting them with Carpenter, Clark, Fisher as literary artists working in the digital, new media arts genres, despite the fact that all three of these latter figures may push against the literary label, often preferring designations like new media artist, net artist, or just artist.
In addition to these useful designations and ways of thinking about the interdisciplinary contributions of e-literature, we believe strongly that Canadian artists, scholars, and artist-researchers can continue on the path of embracing mediated language arts of all kinds as valid forms of the literary and of literature. We believe, too, that digital scholarship should work against the persistent siloing of the “digital” by making scholarship accessible and attentive to readerly needs. As Gervais argues persuasively in his interview about the decision to publish the 2018 ELO conference proceedings in an open-access digital format, “As we see more and more editors shy away from essays and monographs, because they are not profitable. It is important to explore other modes of publishing, not just cheaper modes, but modes that answer direct needs, modes that enable conventions and uses to evolve.” It is our hope that this gathering continues in Gervais’s and Fisher’s footsteps, advocating for ways of reading the digital in CanLit as open and opening, as interdisciplinary and multiplicitous, and as answering the direct needs of readers and writers alike.
Dani Spinosa and Lai-Tze Fan would like to thank Joseph Tabbi, Will Luers, Astrid Ensslin, and Eric Schmaltz for their support in assembling this gathering. They would also like to thank Caitlin Fisher and Bertrand Gervais for agreeing to be interviewed and for their generous insights into Canadian digital poetics. Finally, Spinosa and Fan thank the authors for their patience and wonderful contributions.