Try to Shut Your Screensaver Off: Interacting with Non-Interactive Literature

In the brief preface before Dream Life of Letters, Brian Kim Stefans explains how the poem began, interestingly, as an analog poem written by alphabetizing the words in a response to gender and literature given by Rachel Blau DuPlessis in an e-mail roundtable. Stefans rearranged the words of DuPlessis’s piece into alphabetical order, but his preface indicates that he was not pleased with the poem he produced as a result. He suggests that it does the work of the early concrete poets but does not add anything to the discussions of the visual and the poetic already undertaken so famously by the genre’s pioneers: Gomringer, the de Campos brothers, et al. As a result, he enhanced the piece using graphic design, color, and animation to produce the Flash-based poem we now have databased on the ELC. The ways in which Stefans works through and beyond the issues of the concrete text in Dream Life have been a major feature of the (admittedly limited) scholarship on the poem, and can be found particularly well-considered in Mirona Magearu’s “Making Digital Poetry: Writing with and through Spaces.”

Instead of adding to an already exhausted conversation, I would like instead to turn to Stefans’s comment slightly later in this preface in which he addresses the role of the reader. He writes:

I don’t wish to explain much more about the piece here, except to say that it is not interactive. I decided that it was much more like a short film than an interactive piece, and there didn’t seem any natural place to let the viewer in that way. … It takes about 11 minutes to run once loaded. You should try to shut your screensaver off, or it may take over the screen sometime into the piece.

Because the poem is available now most commonly through online viewing in a browser—and owing, too, to the increase in availability of much quicker internet than when Stefans first distributed the piece—these notes on “loading” and elsewhere about “downloading” the piece seem archaic,[1] but they speak already to the ways that the rapid pace of technological change speaks to a greater reader freedom and greater variance in the ways that different readers will encounter the text. This is different than the fact that different people read print-based books at different paces and in different spaces/environments. It speaks instead to the kind of reader interactivity that is so pervasive in the digital realm of literature that Stefans feels the need to address the lack of interactivity in his piece and the ELO includes Dream Life with the label keyword “non-interactive.” What I’d like to argue is that Dream Life is interactive, but perhaps not purposefully so. Its existence as a Flash animation—a now relatively outdated mode—and its dissemination through a website (read: browser) rather than a downloadable program or a CD demonstrates that digital texts invite reader interaction—and reader limitation, too—in a way that downgrades the authority of the author over the way that the poem is read and interpreted.

In her article, Magearu also notes the limited reader interactivity in Dream Life, and she refutes Stefans’s absolute claim to no interactivity via her labeling of the piece as “transmedial” (348), a label that serves digital humanities by letting them distinguish between born-digital works, analog or print-based works, and works like Dream Life that occupy a liminal space between these two modes. Rather than categorizing Dream Life as born-digital like I erroneously did in my first post on it last week, Magearu writes of its transmediality: “I consider it a ‘Flash translation’ or an avatar of DuPlessis’s text to which it responds and with which is in dialogue” (348). She even identifies the fact that Stefans himself undermines his claim to being “not-interactive” in a later text, Fashionable Noise, in which he argues that in electronic literature, “unlike with a movie (or at least one in the theatres), you are invited to go back and look at each section as a discrete unit, and in fact when you view the piece a second time—after it’s been fully downloaded—the index is one of your options along with ‘run the poem’” (33). So, actually, the reader does sort of interact with the poem. And, because it emerges from the browser as a pop-up, I can alter its shape (changing the rectangular ratio but never changing the fact that it is a rectangle), change the size, zoom in and out, cover it up with another browser, add music,[2] or any other possibility that would literally alter how I see/read the text.

Screenshot of Dream Life of LettersI don’t want to sound utopian about digital possibilities again; I know that I can veer too easily in this direction. So, it should be noted that the animation of Dream Life from print to Flash does limit the way the reader interacts with it vis-à-vis the time it affords its readers/viewers to read and interpret the words. As Magearu also points out, “[u]nlike the onscreen performance in which letters and words are in constant movement and formation, the print version of the poem displays them in a space in which they can be both read and watched. In this way, space invites readers to pause at their own speed and reflect on the meaning of the words and on their spatial arrangement” (350). The Flash poem offers some words a good deal of time on screen. “Gender,” for example, repeats and moves along the screen for so long (with bouncing “g”s to add to the effect) that I started to question whether or not it was a word at all! But, this rapid movement, the succession of words just outside of the reader’s control actually attests more to the ways that this digital piece draws a reader in only to encourage the dissolution of his or her subjectivity through viewing. In fact, many of the words that zoom past us on screen or that are manipulated so quickly that they are difficult to focus on are words that suggest a subjectivity in fracture. Consider the following examples:
Screenshot of Dream Life of LettersScreenshot of Dream Life of LettersScreenshot of Dream Life of Letters Screenshot of Dream Life of LettersScreenshot of Dream Life of LettersScreenshot of Dream Life of Letters

So, though Magearu eventually concedes that she “consider[s] that the poem displays minimal interactive qualities” (352), what the poem does is encourage the dissolution or dis-integration (to harken way back to my work on Duncan). And, really, the readerly interventions in Dream Life are indebted in no small part to the transmediality that Magearu identifies, and this is a liminal space where the subjectivity of the reader dissolves within and throughout the text. It is, as Magearu describes, the perfect place for such a dissolution:

The trans-medial space is an ephemeral in-between space, which results out of transactions from source-code space to production space. This space is as transient as the digital poem is. This means that the trans-medial space exists and emerges spontaneously. (353)

In this way, the transmedial is presented as a kind of temporary autonomous zone! It is thus especially significant that Stefans choses the alphabet form, a form that is precisely not spontaneous, transient, or ephemeral. As Jacquelyn Ardam’s “The ABCs of Conceptual Poetry” indicates, the alphabet is a favourite organizing feature of experimental and conceptual poets (everyone from Silliman to Pound has had their way with it, it seems) particularly because “[t]he alphabet is not developmental; it is teleological, but it doesn’t evolve” (140). Conceptualism’s treatment of the alphabet and the abecedarian form has been traditionally irreverent (an oxymoron, maybe, but still appropriate), and Stefans’s is no different, as demonstratedScreenshot of Dream Life of Letters by the poem’s “index” which boasts alphabetized but not letter-specific stanzas (is that still the right word?) and the cheeky option to “run the whole
damn thing.” It’s attack on normalization and organization in this case may be easy and obvious, but it speaks to a larger dissolution of categories and selves that I feel is integral to the way the poem gets read and distributed.

[1] So too does the idea that someone must “try” to turn his or her screensaver off. You would be hard-pressed, I’d imagine, to find someone who’d read Dream Life and still have to “try” to turn off a screensaver. Does anyone even use a screensaver anymore, anyway?

[2] Again, this is different from simply playing music while reading a print book. Books are silent (typically) and videos/animations are quite often accompanied by sound. So are many online graphics, games, &c.


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