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Loss Pequeño Glazier:

With Code in Hand: an Inventory & Prospectus for E-Poetics

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Abstract

Poetry is a field of writing/programming that presently finds itself disorganized in its sense of relation to digital practice. This is uncharacteristic for a literary genre that has been at the forefront of innovation in the 20th century and has included Futurism (social space of mechanization), Oulipo (procedure), the work of MacLow and Cage (chance generation of texts), and other paradigm-shifting investigations. There's no doubt that poetry has entered the digital age -- programming has notably been used to produce printed texts by Cage, Mac Low, and Hartman -- but its entrance has been tenuous, at times even duplicitous. Unlike interactive fiction and scholarly electronic editions, e-poetry's game plan is not clear.

What is instructive at this point is an inventory of innovative poetic practice in the digital media. This paper offers a catalog of poetic practice from hypertext through new media to programmable media. The inventory also considers the tropes & materiality of such practices before offering a prospectus for e-poetry in an attempt to demarcate a field of practice for the work of innovative poets in the digital media. (It must be noted that for a text to simply exist in electronic form does not necessarily make it a work of electronic literature. "E-poetry" and "e-poetics" are terms used here to encompass innovative poetic practices in various digital media.)

Poetry's Digital Presence

Poetry's entrance into digital culture has been in fits and starts, at times stunted, ironically, by technology itself. Curiously, one of the first ways that poetry showed itself en masse on the digital horizon was the "Here are my poems" trend that occurred when the World Wide Web first became popular. Contrary to any advance into a digital poetics, computer technology was used to generate thousands of home pages of often sentimentalized and formally conservative personal poetry. On the other hand, a separate genre of poetry called cyberpoetry, has developed. This is a sometimes interesting genre of textual presentation, employing tools of new technology for a range of visual effects, marking a certain social relation to computer technology. Despite the fact that both these phenomena are interesting, the focus of this study is on the innovative poetries. That is, work that explores the material possibilities of writing/programming in a tradition (with earlier precedents) extending from Futurism, though Modernism and Postmodernism, along with related poetic practices.

What signs are there that the innovative poetries have not developed a clear sense of place in digital textual production? There is the dearth of any mention of digital poetries in most teaching anthologies. Even the two-volume Poems for the Millennium, an anthology edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris that focuses on innovative poetries of this century, devotes very little space to e-poetries: 13 out of 1682 pages or less than 1 per cent of its attention. Considering the significance of computer technology to writing/programming as we proceed into the next millennium, it is striking that the greatest technological advance in writing in this century is given such sparse attention. Since the compilers of this volume are accomplished and highly regarded anthologists, one cannot fault them. One can, however, claim that this paucity of coverage is a reflection of a general lack of recognition of the various accomplishments of e-poetries; this also points to a significant lack of understanding about e-poetry's crucial place in the tradition of innovative poetry.

A distrust of the validity of digital practice is also reflected in the present lack of stature accorded electronic publication, particularly in academic circles. This may also spill over to pollute e-poetry's sense of validity. As a further example, electronically-based projects such as Phillipe Bootz's remarkable Alire seem to have received little recognition.

Another barrier to a coalescing of e-poetry's identity has been its divided audience. This fragmentation of audience has been exacerbated by the proprietary nature of computer systems. The most notable controversy here is the PC vs. Mac conflict. The Mac presently controls only a small percentage of the computing market, a fact which I think has largely limited the audience of Mac-based practioners such as John Cayley. (Rosenberg's situation is somewhat mitigated because his work is marketed by Eastgate.) Further, there are seminal works in the canon of e-poetry that are barely accessible because they were written in earlier applications, for example, in hypercard.

Presently, text generation programs evidence the same climate of disarray. This is evident considering that, presently, a single multi-platform program for the computer generation of poetry does not exist.

A final piece of evidence about the general lack of a definition of e-poetry lies in the fact that we are faced with an inadequacy of vocabulary for discussing e-poetries. First, there are several terms that might and might not include e-poetry: Aarseth's "cybertext," Kac's "new media poetry," digital poetry, electronic poetry, and cyberpoetry among them. These definitions are all useful to varying extents. However, if we define e-poetry as: (1) writing/programming that engages the procedures of poetry to investigate the materiality of language; and as (2) work that cannot occur in any other medium, then we begin to approach a working definition. ("Writing" is used here in a larger sense than its sense as "typography characters as transparent carriers of meaning" and can inolve images, applets, characters which can't be interpreted, etc.) This definition will further take shape if we examine the various practices that constitute e-poetry.

An Inventory of E-Poetic Practice

A working definition of e-poetries can be extended by an inventory of present practice. Such practices cross numerous platforms, operating systems, and programming languages. Any such inventory must, of course, begin with hypertext/s.

Hypertext/s

"Hypertext" is a word with different connotations depending on who is defining it. "Hypertext/s", the varying practices of hypertext, cover a much broader range of practice than most people think and are certainly not limited to works written with HTML. There are numerous and sharply contrasting and contested hypertext systems, as evidenced by the alt.hypertext FAQ, among other sources. Even considering Aarseth's accurate assertion that "hypertext is a logical extension -- and hardly a revolutionary substitution -- of the communication technology that both the Enlightenment and modernist literature is based", (Aarseth 82) there are some potential innovative uses of hypertext. These opportunities vary by platform. Rather than focusing on software issues, it is more instructive look at hypertextual practice by conceptual framework. Four major classes of hypertextual practice are of greatest interest.

1. Closed-system or "classical" hypertext. Eastgate.
2. Open-system. Ted Nelson. Web-based hypertext. Innovative practices in Web hypertext: e-nation project, cybpheranthology, hypertext in visual poetry, etc.
3. Rosenberg's polysemous hypertext concept. Limited circulation.
4. Disorderly links concept.
New Media
1. Sound works. Interestingly, though sound has proliferated through the Web, uses of sound in e-poetries has been somewhat limited. Use of non-representation audio works are extremely rare.
2. Works for three-dimensional performance. Kac.
3. Video work.
New media works mark crucial advancements in computer generated writing/programming and their importance cannot be understated. Certain of these, Kac's holograms for example, may, of necessity, be self-constituted (similar to Rosenberg's hypertexts) and may not necessarily be able to literally integrate with other works in an e-poetical writing/programming terrain. It should be noted that when new media works do integrate, their potential for reaching a larger audience is increased.

Programmable Media

Programmable media consist of works which either try to place component elements within a time relation to each other or texts that are constituted (either in real-time or via a single, previous execution) through a written program. (Procedural works, especially when employing computer technology, such as my own "grep" works, form a different branch of this category.)
Visual works.
Cayley's programmed texts. (But limited circulation.)

Tropes & Materiality

Choice of media does not of course, exist in a vacuum. Any writing/programming practice chooses specific positions and dynamics, tropes, and various approaches to engage the material qualities of the texts that are produced. These can be broken into broad categories as follows.

1. Rhetoric: hierarchical vs. flat approach, lexia vs. pages, frames, spawned windows, visual/textual density (clutter vs. clean).
2. Programming elements: width/length of pages, links/nilks ("Nilsk" is John Cayley's term for ineffective links; I form the plural of "nilsk" as "nilks"), ergodic "stress", rhythm, non-fixed or "unbound" status.
3. Imaging systems: jpegs, gifs.
4. Performance engines: html, animated gifs, java, javascript, perl, cgi's, Director, image maps.
5. Code horizon: how visible the code is.

A Prospectus for E-Poetry

One must accept the fact that an absolute common ground will never be precisely laid out and that divergent proprietary programs will repeatedly plague access to various e-poetries. Nonetheless, one can look to the existing common ground, the Web, and begin to develop an action plan that can be effected in that shared space. For one thing, practices that have existed in separate fields may now begin to watershed within the open architecture of the Web, avoiding the platform fracture that further extends the divisions already present in poetry.

Though the Web is a space dominated by trivial texts weakened by flurries of commercial intrusions, it is also a place where web poetries can begin to incorporate multiple practices into a more generally accessible on-screen performance, extending the reach and impact of those practices. What has yet to be realized is a thorough re-invention of the possibilities of the Web as medium.

1. For link-based hypertext, one can begin to think of a future beyond the dull, passive link ("nilsk") that would combine radically different uses of the link, unpredictability, self-constitution, single-use, and creation-on-the-fly, with alternatives in the visual presentation of the link, including hidden, context-sensitive, and mouseover type links.
2. Metabrowser technologies such as frames, spawned windows, client pull, and other techniques can be used to destabilize the notion of a total or complete reading and add polysemousness to on-screen textuality.
3. Programming has produced numerous static, "fait accompli" texts; these can be incorporated into the corpora of poetry on the Web. Programming developments, however, also point to the possibilities of greater interactivity and to performance of real-time reader-unique readings made available to an audience greatly larger than before. (Programmed texts contrast sharply with "interactive fiction" because, rather than providing a set of static choices, texts are literally created as they are read.
4. Finally, the status of code as writing must being investigated and experiments in pushing and pulling the code horizon should be undertaken.
This prospectus calls for a collecting of writing/programming practices in a shared terrain where diverse performances may be witnessed. The word must circulate and must be viewable regardless of platform, corporate interest, or national boundary. (Packaging of discrete works may still occur in this model.) Though the Web will not necessarily be a permanent medium, it is, like the book, a temporarily stable delivery medium for writing/programming -- and use of a shared space is called for. The Web and the writing/programming presently on it barely begin to explore the multi-faceted possibilities of its materiality; this locus for e-poetry is rich with the potentials of a practice that is multiple. Certainly, the code-reader relation is a fundamental site for investigating the potentials of e-poetic reading. Importantly, the materiality of the Web should not be overlooked in the attempt to see who can race to the ends of the Web the fastest. (As if it there were an end to it!) This prospectus does not intend to merely offer an encomium to the Web, but to urge an investigation of the possibilities for using it as a bearer of multiple practices. It is also a call to investigate the materiality of this pliant reading surface; one on which, with code in hand, e-poetries can begin to constitute the critical mass of work necessary to define a truly millennial poetry.

Loss Pequeño Glazier, Director, Electronic Poetry Center, State University of New York at Buffalo (glazier@acsu.buffalo.edu)