Toward a Literature Moving Outside Itself:
The Beginnings of Hypermedia Poetry
A poetry exists created by writers (and programmers/producers) who rely on the computer to bring their visions to the world through the effusive light and linkage of the screen. In fact, this "essay" (and resultant proto-anthology) is composed at a unique moment where the contents of an entire literary configuration -- hypermedia poetry -- can be outlined, described and considered in a few "pages." Of course, just about everything in this essay needs to be expanded; additions and revisions will be made. This HTML version ignites such an expansion.
At present, all poetry which uses a computer screen as hypertextual interface falls into at least one of five categories:
Hypermedia: Includes graphics, moving visual images, and soundfiles linked with (or instead of) printed text; a variety of intertextual associations and graphical combinations are possible.
Hypercard: Alphabetic and visual texts are arranged on a series of digital filecards and linked to each other; some titles include sound; Supercard enables video.
Hypertext: Historically, written text only, with links to other writing; some titles include static visual images; gradually evolving.Network hypermedia : Predominantly exists on the World Wide Web (WWW); currently without synchronous sound and video capabilities.Text-generating software: Programs which automatically arrange words and images.
In addition to whatever virtual inventions come along, electronic poetry, in the future, will exist as a conglomeration of the different types of interconnective materials listed above. Presently, "Scriptors," as Michael Joyce calls writers who create constructive hypertext, are just beginning to find ways to use visual space as a trigger and response to language. Their work will eventually lead to a proliferation of multimedia, hypertextual stagings of literary texts.
Preceded mainly by poems and poetry programs designed in Hypercard, Poetry In Motion I (Voyager , 1993) is the first advanced hypermedial presentation of contemporary poetry. Adapted directly from Ron Mann's video (originally a film) of the same title, the Poetry In Motion cd-rom relies heavily on miniaturized versions of the video's performances and interview/commentary segments. A digital step beyond a printed literary anthology, these publications benefit by the inclusion of the author's voice alongside the typographic text.
In a review of Poetry In Motion I, whose structure is mimicked by Poetry In Motion II (Voyager, 1995), Ross MacDonald criticizes its design because, "There are no biographies of the poets, no bibliographies, not even information about where and when the interviews and readings took place." Both cd-roms are without hypertextual features. Very little forcomes from them. De-contextualizing the work of these writers, leaving the reader with little post-textual substance to follow up on, is a glaringly antiquated way to present literature in this supposedly expanded form. Had the editors taken the small step of compiling background information, and linking it to the poet's materials on the cd-rom, a layer of some value -- easily enabled by the technology -- would have been added. By programming in a network connection, linked to any number of scholarly databases (which could be channeled through a publisher- maintained Web Site), readers would be able to use these cd-roms, literally, to launch into a much larger zone of related texts. The Poetry In Motion Web Site does contain a few links to exterior texts, such as Caffeine Magazine, The Electronic Poetry Center , Literary Kicks, and Sites dedicated to the work of William Burroughs, Tom Waits, and Charles Bukowski. A direct link from the cd-rom to a thoroughly developed version of the Poetry In Motion WWW Site (including connections to encyclopedic resources) would indeed further the idea of a poetry in motion. Eventually, the equipment's capabilities will be used in such a way, perhaps surpassing the historical limitations of a discretely produced literary title.
Robert Kendall's project, A Life Set for Two, presents a different approach to hypermedia poetry. Kendall successfully resists and alters what he refers to as the "static structure" of hypertext, where "the nodes themselves remain as fixed as pages of print." In this piece, "Variable nodes change their texts according to factors such as their context within the current reading." A Life Set for Two changes "dynamically in response to the different situations in which the reader places it." This means that the text customizes itself according to settings ("states") selected by the reader. Animated words then spill into their order on the screen, their color and order reflecting the reader's choices. In the version of A Life Set for Two which appears on The Little Magazine cd-rom , the patterns the words take are programmed to allow perhaps five dozen combinations. Thus, it is a singular, insular, and limited text, with no sonic dimension. The forthcoming version is likely to carry more features, and will have more text, including, hopefully, the author's useful essay, "Hypertextual Dynamics in A Life Set for Two". This title will probably be considered one of hypermedia's first equivalents to a chapbook of poetry.
The Little Magazine Volume 21 (1995) is the first digital multimedia literary journal to be published in the United States. As editor of this cd-rom, I am ready to offer some criticism. First of all, its contents are not mechanically linked to anything outside of itself (i.e. the WWW). This possibility was presented as an option during production by technical editor Ben Henry. Now, with a more developed understanding of hypertext, I seriously regret not taking the time to construct it. Had we built-in a connection to our web site, cd-rom readers with hardwired connections to the Web would be able to access an extremely expansive range of materials from within the discrete text. For instance, a reader intrigued by "The Myrmidons of Oblivion", Will Alexander 's tirade about the Internet (and cyber-reality), could move from the cd-rom to a Web adaptation of this text (currently under construction). This would open up the possibility of what I now think of as biodirectional -- that is, living -- links, where the reader, interacting with literature, is able to access an ever-building network of related texts. In addition to whatever connections "The Myrmidons of Oblivion" holds, links could be made to other archives of work by Alexander on the Web, and other organized links. This is just one of many examples of where a text contained on this cd-rom could be usefully extended by external links to already networked materials. These materials could be gathered by multi-layered menus, or amendable indexes, and search engines, to advance the utility and purposes of a literary journal.
Ironically, another feature The Little Magazine lacks is intertextual connections (i.e. connections within itself). As is, its contents remain textually seperate from each other. With the exception Robert Kendall's text (which is a limited hypertext), and the collaboratively written fiction, Monique, there are almost no hypertextual qualities to be found on this cd-rom. Most pieces feature interactive bidirectional links which have terminal points. About one-fifth of the pieces on the magazine include non-linear features. The visual counterparts to vocalizations by Trudy Morse (images by Don Archer), Lee Ann Brown (images by Lee Ann Brown), Katie Yates (images by Lisa Kaplan), H.D. Moe (images by Marty McCutcheon) , and Purkinge (images from an unspecified source) are the strongest examples of this style of presentation.
There are pieces on the magazine which are worthwhile contributions to the literary genre of hypermedia poetry. Benjamin Friedlander's piece, "Home", unveils the archaeology of a short poem. Beginning with the initial screen, which shows the poem's original handwritten version, a viewer moves to three subsequent typescripts of the poem. Its "final" version on the cd-rom is delivered in the form of the author's voice reading a draft of the poem which has not appeared on the screen. Revealing a poetry in process, such multimedia techniques and certainly hold obvious advantages in the preparation of scholarly editions of writing, or in any situation where multiple layers of the same basic text are engaged simultaneously. Works by Robert Grenier, Lee Ann Brown, Joyce Hinnefeld and Jim Hauser, Susan Brenner, my collaboration with Nathaniel Tarn, and other pieces on the cd-rom favor a "slide-show" approach to their presentations. Grenier's work, because it has been presented as colorized xerox copies in recent years, has confounded many editors. It is near perfectly reproduced in The Little Magazine , augmented by an edited narration of a slide presentation given by Grenier in 1994. The "rapid changes of imagery" in Brown's post-New York School poetry are well served by the computer's ability to actualize the fire of the language of the poem. By randomizing the scripted images of the author's photographs of urban and rural landscapes, the movement of the language in the poem is materialized. Geographically based writing by Hinnefeld and Tarn is accentuated by color images of the same terrain. Brenner's piece, "Exquisite Corpse," is read via a photograph taken of a recent gallery installation. A viewer enlarges Brenner's images, which incorporate words, by clicking their location on the screen. Some of these images are linked to theoretical materials which underlie the installation's thematic content. Again, multiple levels of poetic content instantaneously accessible to the reader via the screen.
The Beat Experience CD-ROM (Voyager, 1996), is another instance of non-hypertextual hypermedia, using the computer to project sounds, images, and video clips. In actuality, there is an inexplicable lack of Beat writing here, defying, rather than defining, both hypertext and literature. The poets are represented by their pictures (images), video fragments from their cultural surroundings, and soundbites of their writing. The only written language to be found, besides bits of biographical and contextual data, are unlinked excerpts from Naked Lunch, On The Road, and HOWL. Through samples of Beat poetry and related milieu, various cultural connections and conditions between these writers and an era gone by are indicated. Few of its shards are sealed in this project.
To their credit, Voyager has developed an interesting, if problematic, Beat Experience Web Site. Animations and images from the cd-rom are presented in a way which simulated the cd-rom. Still, there is only superficial content. Readers without graphical browsers will find only an advertisement at this site. The purpose of The Beat Experience is not quite clear. Is it supposed to simulate the environment of the lives of the Beat writers and artists? If so, how likely is it that such a feat could be accomplished on the computer screen? These are straightforward questions posed to editors who have created a vaguely literary product.
A Netscape gateway would increase the density of this publication. The Beat Experience could branch into something far more substantive and interesting. The actual web, or interactive fabric, of the Beat poets -- the poetic and social relationships and concerned shared by these writers -- is in certain senses fascinating. The Beat Experience, lacking intellectual and networked development, cheats readers out of a potentially much more enriching hypertextual experience by stunting its reach. Directing readers (either by reference or built-in link) to a Site such as Levi Asher's Literary Kicks would be the first step in extending outward. Visually, Literary Kicks contains only static images. Instead, background materials on the writers and their writings, their interpersonal connections and influences, which the CD-ROM lacks, are present. Literary Kicks unquestionably needs more depth and breadth. However, a branch to these texts would be an inherently excellent complement to The Beat Experience. Since McClure, Burroughs, Kerouac, and others already have Sites dedicated to their work, might it not be interesting to program opportunities for the reader to be brought to this possible present, rather than plunging them into the past? It is somehow ironic that the annotated version of HOWL (Harper & Row, 1986), is actually much more hypertextual and contextual (though it doesn't have sound clips or moving images) than this cd-rom. A short-stride in the progression of digital literary arts, The Beat Experience is a slick pseudo-documentary of a literary movement.
Laurie Anderson's cd-rom Puppet Motel (Voyager, 1995) is not particularly a literary title. However, its design is poetic. A reader is presented with a virtual space, and is left to discover various nooks and crannies of art and language performed in various "rooms" therein. The reader finds, hears and reads poetry, music -- Laurie Anderson playfully at work. Beyond interests in what her already high-tech art brings to this medium, I was intrigued to read in the instructions that there are links from Puppet Motel to the WWW. Unfortunately, on several viewings, I have been unable to find its place on the cd-rom (though Laurie's double, a talking puppet, pops up in the "Green Room" and says, ["There's supposed to be an Internet connection around here."]). Anderson's web site at Voyager is called the Green Room. This is presumably the point on the Web to which Puppet Motel connects. The links here are to Anderson's performance schedules, hints for Puppet Motel, and other information. While not completely reaching outward, this is a beginning. This type of design represents the future mode of electronic publication. [ Note: at the last revision of this site, 3/98, The Green Room was not in service. ]
If only briefly, it is essential to bring hypermedia poetry currently available on the WWW into this discussion. The Web is the largest existing hypertext, though there are some limitations to its present form. Compared to the titles discussed above, there is limited versatility in terms of its authoring capabilities. Nevertheless, it allows direct links from written and graphical texts to subsequent texts. Christy Sheffield Sanford , Loss Pequeño Glazier , The Little Magazine Volume 21b, Diana Slattery, Andrew Stone , Alexis Kirke , (whose MEDICAL NOTES OF AN ILLEGAL DOCTOR is a "hyperpoem" which "can be mutated by the reader"), and others have created important multimedia works of poetry on the WWW.
Slattery's Alphaweb and Sanford's work -- more than a dozen varied hyperpoems on the Web -- is especially graphical. Sanford's "Boucher En Vogue" and "Spring" use the Web's hypermedial capabilities to great effect by linking to sites outside of their own texts. Stone's poem, "The IndraNet" , is the only other poem I've found which links to any sources outside itself. It is precisely this approach to hyperpoetry which will enable writers working in this medium to create an innovative (and instructive, if mechanical) open-form poetry in years to come.
Though none of it is bio-directionally linked, work on the Web by Eduardo Kac, John Cayley, and Jim Rosenberg are also directly related to the materials here. Kac's work takes experimental poetry into a new area. He has created "Holopoetry", words and images imbedded in lasered holograms, a medium whose flexibility allows for numerous manifestations from a single work. Kac has created Secret, the first VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) poem on the Web, "the words are dispersed in the semantic darkness of a potential space." Cayley's Wine Flying displays non-linear explorations of a classical Chinese quatrain, translated and scripted by Cayley. His ongoing series, Indra's Net, presents several approaches to hyper-presentation of poetic material. OISLEAND , the most recent installment, is a series of "frozen and painted" holograph poems. In an announcement for OISLEAND in Hypertext Literature (Vol. 27, No. 1), Cayley writesOisleand is an exploration of the translation of one written language into another. In its cybertextual form (as computer software encoding a literary object - specifically a HyperCard stack and graphics files which you may download as shareware) it uses mesostic techniques to sow the text of wither original or translation within the spelt of words of the parallel text in its corresponding language."Rosenberg's hypercard title, Intergrams , is a precursor to multilayered hypermedia. Through Diagram Poems , The Winding Interval , Valences , and other titles, he has extended several of his projects onto the Web.
Hypermedia poetry projects in process include the on-line Rossetti Archives project, available on the Web. This project is "a structured database holding images of Rossetti's works in their original documentary forms...marked up for electronic search and analysis." The entire archive reportedly contains over one hundred thousand digital files. A much smaller database in progress is Robert Bertholf and Charles Jones' work with Robert Duncan's The Opening of the Field. The first demonstration of this project used the technology of a particular hypermedia program to illustrate sources for Duncan's text and to represent this manuscript's various layers of drafts using a rudimentary system of links. Richard Tillinghast is said to be at work on a CD-ROM sponsored by Time-Warner, bringing poetry together with artwork from the University at Michigan museum. The ultimate condition of these texts is unknown.
Existing mainly on local area networks, numerous hypermedia programs and projects handling poetry have been designed to suit educational purposes. There are at least six text generating poetry programs available on and off of the Web. At least two other cd-rom multimedia anthologies of canonically oriented poetry are in circulation. They feature non-interpretive, non-linked readings of "classic" American poems. Some basic hypertextual poetry, programmed in HTML (hypertext markup language), is up on the Internet. Primarily, these hypertexts give readers a couple of options for links to follow within the body of each stanza, leading into successive stanzas within the same poem. Their links are direct and unchanging. An abundance of poetry is archived at various sites and in hundreds of straightforward (i.e. ascii, non-hypertextual) poetry magazines on the World Wide Web. These texts exist without links to anything outside of their own indexes and associated HTML files.
The gist of my criticism is by now clear. These illustrations of hypermedia poetry expose it as a self-encapsulated form. It has not yet found a way to maximize the "branching" abilities enabled by computers and their connections to networks, as Ted Nelson predicted all hypertexts would. Though technology allows it, hypermedia poetry has yet to push outward to texts beyond itself. Obviously, when a piece of writing links to a graphic image, or vice versa, it is linking to something "beyond" itself. That is not what I mean here. What I am interested in are the possibilities which open up when a myriad of satellite links are available, putting literature into a developed zone of interconnected digital materials. It is undeniable that computers have already changed the look of poetry in print, also how it is mechanically presented. Why not take it one step further and -- digitally -- handle (and I will take up that awful ambiguous buzzphrase, here I mean literally digitally handle) "the materiality of language"? Why not allow the coding of language -- and imagery -- itself to become and reflect that trip (i.e. experience) we also form it into?
Hypertext writers and theorists such as Jay David Bolter and Michael Joyce adopt freely the concept of "the late age of print." However, their approach and treatment of hypertext literature in many ways remains situated well within the boundaries of print culture and methodology. In their work it is often difficult to discern a radical reconceptualization of what reading or writing is. Their texts are primarily word-based, primitive restagings of what would and could be printed texts for computer presentation.
Poetry's relationship to the world relies less on narrative and a character's behavior within the text than it does with the project of building a world, or creating an atmosphere for the reader to embody through language and other effects. The question becomes, what is the computer going to do with language which captivates the mind as poetry as an oral and printed form has across several centuries? The focus, to me, is not as much on the surface as it is on the subtextual language which manipulates the text presented to the reader. I believe electronic -- digital -- poetry is going to find a way to wave itself within a much larger textual context. As the book feeds the mind and the body via the page, computer texts will fill the senses with other stimulae as moving images, sounds, and links become part of the text. Rather than containing its captivating qualities between its own pages, poetry in the future automatically places itself in the world of secondary texts. A positive de- centralization occurs, where a poem -- and the culture of a poem -- can then be analyzed in terms of what it is linked to.
In his last piece of writing, published the day after his death in The Washington Post, Jack Kerouac asks, "In fact, who cares...if Marshall McLuhan had wanted to be the biggest barbarianizing influence in the globe he couldn't have come up with a better idea...than that linear reasonableness of the printed word is out, and the jiggling behinds of placards are in?" This essay answers Kerouac, suggesting that the linear reasonableness of printed word was barbarianized long ago. And while there are obviously problems to the hypertextual delivery of literature, it may hold some promise and utility, if designed and constructed appropriately. There are people who do care about the preservation and promotion of important literature as it moves towards being digitized, who do not perceive it as the ball and chain of an invisible emperor, taking away our time, and spirit.
Michael Joyce remarks in his presentation at the 1996 ACM Conference on Hypertext that, "the pure boundedness of its linked space that will distinguish hyperfiction in the age of the web." My perspective reverses what Joyce sees. It is a type of boundlessness of its linked space that will distiguish texts in the future, especially in terms of what scholarly editions are made of (see McGann "The Rationale of HyperText" and The Rosetti Archive). I would agree that the systems which comprise this "linked space" are near empty as of yet, so it is difficult to consider them practically. Not that poetry needs, in any way to explain itself, but it will begin explain itself in a multitude of ways, given collaboratively created or mechanically formed bio-directional links. One expects, if not demands, a different type of experience from a form containing sounds, moving images, where links between different texts appear before a reader's eyes. The substance of the text should be provided through its medium, using what the medium has to do what it can do. When the best elements of the current forms of hypermedia are drawn together, we will see poetry taken to a much larger textual level.
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