Subsequent Screenings: The Legacy of bpNichol in Canadian Digital Poetry

This post is largely taken from the paper I delivered in Patrick Durgin’s “Artists Who Write Objects” seminar at SUNY Buffalo’s “Poetics: (The Next) 25 Years.” It is a substantial revision of my NeMLA paper.

This paper began, as my title clearly indicates, as an attempt to track the influence of bpNichol’s pioneering work of digital poetics, First Screening: Computer Poems (1984). I don’t know how Nichol is received wherever you are reading this, but in Canadian literature, and especially in Toronto where I live and work, Nichol is—to pun on a poetic motif throughout his oeuvre—the patron saint of the long/serial poem, the Canadian concrete poem, and, in a lesser sense, the Canadian sound poem and typewriter poem. I make no great leap in appointing him patron saint of the Canadian digital poem as well. The creation of First Screening is heralded by nearly every history of digital poetry as a pivotal point where visual and innovative poetry began to make real forays into the digital realm and his influence can be felt in Canadian digital poetry quite clearly. This paper will look to three works where Nichol’s influence is clear: Jim Andrews’s “Seattle Drift” (1997), Damian Lopes’s Sensory Deprivation (1998), and Darren Wershler’s NICHOLODEONLINE (1998), to demonstrate not simply Nichol’s influence, but also and more importantly how this influence allows us to discuss national literatures in the context of digital poetries and how the digital conditions of the text affect the potentials for reader engagement with the texts as objects.

By digital poetics, I mean those works of literature that are either transmedial or purely born-digital. I take a cue from Sandy Baldwin’s really lovely essay “Against Digital Poetics” for the electronic book review, where he argues that digital poetics needs to be concerned with “de-scription” and that it must “treat the net not as a new telecommunication system added to other writing systems but as a netting that captures or contains digital writing in a great ephemeral surface or skin, as a productive (poetic) layering of bodily markings and remarkings.” What Baldwin calls for here is, in essence, a transformation of the way that eliterature, and to an extent DH in general, has tended to view networked technology. Baldwin’s comments here are indicative of what has since been termed a movement into the third wave of the digital humanities. The move from first to second wave DH was a move, to crudely summarize it, from the qualitative datasets and textual mappings championed by Franco Moretti’s “distant reading” to, for example, Stephen Ramsay’s “algorithmic criticism” that works to use DH’s qualitative data (word maps and other visualizations, patterns, counts, geo-tags, and so on) as a jumping-off point for a new kind of hermeneutics, ones that are, as DM Berry notes, qualitative, emotional, and experiential. The “third wave,” which I am most interested in, highlights the “anomalies” of traditional humanities research by uniting the qualitative and experiential trends of the first waves.

So, if the first two waves of digital humanities has been championed as post- or trans-national in its embracing of “World Literature” and “distant reading,” then perhaps this so-called third-wave of DH offers us the opportunity to return to some of the more useful elements of print-based criticism with new eyes and a plethora of resources presented in the earlier days of DH. One of these more useful elements may be the role of a national literature in the context of electronic literatures and new media studies. The role of a “national literature” in an era of globalization has been significantly critiqued by critics of print-based literature; Adam Carter’s chapter on “National Literature, Canadian Criticism, and National Character” outlines these quite well in a Canadian context. Building on Frank Davey’s arguments in Post-National Arguments, Carter recognizes the critical value of a national literature that moves beyond the “drably uniform” national characters that have to be abandoned and instead looks to a national literature that embraces historicity, hybridity, and heterogeneity.

But, what does this mean for a national digital poetics? Well, the issue of a national literature has in some ways been addressed in the context of electronic literature by Luciana Gattass in her article “Digital Humanities in Praxis: Contextualizing the Brazilian Electronic Literature Collection,” where she uses her project of creating a specifically Brazilian Elit collection for the ELMCIP to look at how such practices may help to “discuss and problematize quantifying trends in humanistic scholarship.” I, like Gattas, come to this intersection of DH and national literatures by way of more conventional literary study and not programming or computer science (to lay my biases bare), so maybe it’s not surprising that I am interested in discussing a “Canadian eliterature” where the national qualifier refers to, in Gattas’ words, both the “incommensurable notion of a ‘national literature’ and to a mere geo-tag” simultaneously. Looking to national literatures of digital poetics moves what is often discussed as the intangibility or ephemera of digital poetics into a distinctly materialist sphere.

After all, though his seminal book Digital Poetics: The Making of E-Poetries (2002) is now thirteen years old, Loss Pequeño Glazier’s analysis of the ways digital poetics encourage critics and readers not to rethink modes of production and dissemination, but rather to merely become more aware of these conditions. Glazier argues that

we have not arrived at a place but at an awareness of the conditions of texts. Such an arrival includes recognizing that the conditions that have characterized the making of innovative poetry in the twentieth century have a powerful relevance to such works in twenty-first-century media. That is, poets are making poetry with the same focus on method, visual dynamics, and materiality; what has expanded are the materials with which one can work. (1)

Moreover, Glazier publishes this book shortly after early manifestations of all three of these digital poems are “published,” making his analysis of their “conditions” all the more pertinent. But, if we think back, Nichol’s earlier work in concrete and typewriter poetics (see, for example, Konfessions of an Elizabethan Fan Dancer), as well as his consistent support of small presses, independent presses, and chapbooks makes clear that his work in poetry was always clear tied to its modes of production and dissemination; Toronto’s prestigious poetry chapbook award is named after him and his legacy in considering the material conditions of writing, publishing, and reader is quite clear in Canadian poetry. But drawing a line between poetics that have always been concerned with its/their material production and digital poetics isn’t so easy as chronology might make it seem; the question, for example, of national literatures because highly contested and complicated.

This issue has also been addressed to some extent in the context of Canadian electronic literature by Kate Eichhorn in her chapter on “The Digital Turn in Canadian and Québécois Literature” in the Oxford Handbook of Canadian Literature. In this chapter, Eichhorn brings up the question of a national literature in the context of digital literatures by pointing out the fact that texts are typically attributed to a national literature by way of the citizenship or residence of the author, the geographical location of writing, or the fact that a work is published in said nation. But, in digital poetries and electronic literatures, Eichhorn notes, these factors are frequently complicated. For example, many of the individuals involved in the production of elit do not identify as authors, but rather as artists, engineers, programmers, PIs, and so on. The production of digital poetry also frequently involves collaboration with nonhuman entities like programs/apps, search engines, text generators, or source code. Digital poetry, for example, is often made from human collaboration, especially internationally, and also frequently results in self-publication online or in online journals. All of this complicates the already-complicated role of a national electronic literature.

Eichhorn’s argument for a “digital turn” in Canadian literature is useful for me in that it really pushes forward a conversation about Canadian electronic literature in a way that incorporates the usefulness about geographical or national literary study (identify trends, considering socio-cultural, historical, physical, and geographic factors, and so on) while allowing for the complication and line-blurring offered by digital textual production and dissemination. But, in 2016 with many decades of transmedial and electronic literature under our belt, we must now work to define a Canadian literature that has already turned digital, and in doing so has not revolutionized anything but has only laid bare the extent to which poetics (and especially innovative poetics) has always been concerned with the material and technological conditions of its production, dissemination, and reception. So, with all this as preamble, I am now prepared to argue that Canadian digital poetics can be best described with four primary issues or preoccupations: that its visual concerns are heavily indebted to concrete poetry, especially as it was interpreted in the print medium by earlier Canadian practitioners, namely Nichol; that its aural concerns are heavily indebted to sound poetry as it was interpreted by early Canadian practitioners, namely Nichol again and his work with the Four Horsemen; that its spatial concerns are frequently approached using mapping tech or other qualitative means met with the intensely personal, almost confessional, intrusions; and finally, that it has tended toward author-effacing conceptualism rather than the kind of reader engagement we see in other national electronic literatures, like in the US or much of Europe. My previous paper on this issue in last month’s NeMLA annual conference in Hartford, CT focused on the three first issues, so I would like instead, in light of considering these poems as objects, to focus my attention in these last few pages on the fourth term: how do Wershler, Andrews, and Lopes use Nichol’s influence to produce texts that invite reader participation in the material conditions of the text to varying degrees of agential or autonomous choices on the part of the reader.

Fig. 1: Darren Wershler. “Grain: A Prairie Poem.”

These three texts consider the role of the reader in the digital texts to different degrees of reader engagement. In Darren Wershler’s NICHOLODEONLINE, the web-based version of Wershler’s first print-book of poetry, NICHOLODEON, Wershler makes explicit his indebtedness to Nichol by name and all the poems are either digitized versions of their print predecessors or kinetic reinterpretations that use Java primarily to extend the material concerns of the print poems. In the example linked from Fig. 1, Wershler’s extension of the concerns of Canadian concrete poetry is clear, as is his use of the kinetic potentials of the digital form to concrete poetry’s desire to use and alter the grid of the typewriter. “Grain” is demonstrative of the numerous poems included in NICHOLODE-ONLINE insofar as it functions, as a .gif, external to the intrusive potentials of the reader. The level of reader engagement with NICHOLODEONLINE, then, lies in the navigation of the site itself, which is more poetic than most. In order to arrive at poems, the reader must navigate through unmarked or cryptically-marked pages with no usual indexation and a generally unhelpful homepage. For the most part, despite the kinetic potentials of the poems therein, NICHOLODEONLINE does not invite engagement with the reader in any intrusive or agential level. This is common in Canadian electronic literature (see, for example, JR Carpenter in entre-ville­ or in absentia).

Fig. 2 Jim Andrews, "Seattle Drift." Disciplined.
Fig. 2 Jim Andrews, “Seattle Drift.” Disciplined.

In Jim Andrews’s “Seattle Drift,” the reader is instead invited to “Discipline” the text as it moves and becomes disorganized or undisciplined in a seemingly random manner (a quick look at the source code shows that the words move based on a fairly basic algorithm of somewhat random but clearly governed movement with the ultimate goal of the entire poem eventually moving off-screen). By “Disciplin[ing]” the text, the reader forces the poem into traditional lineation (see Fig. 2). Andrews’s invitation to the reader to “Do the text” signals the kind of reader engagement we see in digital poetries from other countries, but that is relatively uncommon in Canadian electronic literatures. But, the fact that the poem’s words move more or less on their own shows that what the reader can “Do” to the text is fairly limited, a metaphorically represents the ways in which readers of digital poetries tend to read and categorize works based on a “scene” of poetic genre that dictates the ways in which a poem can/should be read/engaged with. While the choices a reader can make in “Seattle Drift” are limited and do not really intrude on the text itself, by allowing readers the option of starting and stopping the text’s movement and altering the visual elements to varying degrees of disorganization (see Fig. 3), “Seattle Drift” encourages readers to be agential in the ways that they engage with the poem.

Seattle Drift
Fig. 3 Jim Andrews, “Seattle Drift.” Undisciplined.



Fig. 4 Damian Lopes, Sensory Deprivation.
Fig. 4 Damian Lopes, Sensory Deprivation.

Finally, Damian Lopes’s Sensory Deprivation is, like NICHOLODEONLINE, the digital/web-based version of a previously print-based book and, also like Wershler’s site, the most a reader can do to engage with the high visual poems therein is to navigate an unmarked and maze-like website. But, Lopes approaches this issue in a quite different way that forces readers to evaluate not just how they approach and engage with poetry but also how to engage with digital text and with websites in general. After the reader is instructed to “watch where you point that thing” (Fig. 4), the reader at first unknowingly and then with difficulty and some degree of confusion navigates through Sensory Deprivation by hovering his/her cursor over selections of the images, challenging our usual point-and-click way of navigating web pages (an issue cleverly taken up by Don’ Because the hover points are unclear and the pages change quickly, engaging[1] with Sensory Deprivation can give the illusion that the reader has no control or understanding of how the pages move/turn even though it is his/her cursor that creates this movement after all. The poems in Sensory Deprivation are, for the most part, fairly typical visual/concrete poems (see Fig. 5, a Canadian map filled with the words “our stolen native land”), but what is really fascinating and important about Sensory Deprivation is the way that is reconsiders reader engagement with the digital text.

Fig. 5 Damian Lopes, Sensory Deprivation.
Fig. 5 Damian Lopes, Sensory Deprivation.

What reading these three texts in the context of national electronic literatures shows us is that we need to start to see a Canadian digital poetics that doesn’t simply shirk off the interesting or valuable elements of textual study (like national genres, perhaps) that can contribute insight into textual study beyond metadata, beyond geo-tags that speak only to a time and a place of textual production. Reading these three pieces as parts of a larger national digital poetics that is just now really taking shape points out those elements of the genre that we do need to focus on or pay more attention to, ie. reader engagement. We have to move past “digital turns” and author-rejecting conceptualism and use the engaging potentials of digital poetics to allow for more intrusive, agential readers, to view networked technology as more than just telecommunication and to see it as way for all of us (as readers, writers, and critics) to start making significant agential and interventionary entrances into texts we have too often viewed from a distance.

[1] Because it cannot adequately or only be called “reading.”


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