Towards a Theory of Canadian Digital Poetics

Defining Digital Poetics

  • By digital poetics in this paper I mean those works of literature that are either transmedial or born-digital; the tried and true definition on the Electronic Literature Organization’s website stresses that electronic literature, of which digital poetics is only a part, is  any piece of literary or word-based art with”important literary aspects that take advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer.”
  • Leonardo Flores’s talk, “How E-Literary is My E-literature?” at this year’s ELO conference presented the definition of electronic literature as a sliding scale rather than a yes or no box to check.
  • He provided six primary categories through which we can determine if something is “elit” or not, and how sophisticated its use of networked technology is. They are:
    • Language (no use of language -> functional use -> artistic use)
    • Digital Media (static -> time based -> including user input)
    • User interaction (trivial -> meaningful choices -> including data from input devices)
    • Computation (none -> computation used in creative process -> computation used during reception)
    • Network (none/offline -> used in the process -> vital to the reception)
    • Culture (oral/print culture -> interrogating digital media -> within and engaging with digital cultural traditions)
  • It also lets us look at the ways in which the genre of e-lit differs in different communities; what is e-lit to gamers might be radically different from what is e-lit to scholars of the print-based avant-garde.
  • What is significant about Flores’s re-evaluation of the ELO’s definition is how much it prioritizes user/reader engagement.

Third-wave DH and National Literatures

  • If the first wave of DH was “quantitative, mobilizing the search and retrieval powers of the database, automating corpus linguistics, stacking hypercards into critical arrays” // and the second wave was “qualitative, interpretive, experiential, emotive, generative in character” (according to the “Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0“) // the third wave is a necessary merger of both.
  • This now frequently discussed move into a third-wave 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 early, quantitative days of DH but without neglecting the importance of experiential and affective analysis.
  • One of these more useful elements may be the role of a national literature in the context of electronic literatures and new media studies.
  • Obviously, 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.
  • The issue of a national literature has 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 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.
  • 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.
  • Eichhorn brings up the question of a national literature in an elit context 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 whichever country.
  • But, in 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, graphic designers, engineers, programmers, PIs, librarians and archivists, and so on.
  • The production of elit frequently involves collaboration with nonhuman entities like programs/apps, search engines, text generators, or source code.
  • Elit is also often made from human collaboration, especially internationally, and frequently results in self-publication online or in online journals.
  • Canadian digital poetics has tended towards the poststructural skepticism of authorship by producing elit that is largely concerned with generative work, source or seed texts, remixes, cut-ups, and plagiaristic borrowings.
  • In many ways, this works to create a tight-knit community of Canadian poets who pay homage to their influences and recognize the silliness of single-authorship; BUT, it has also resulted in the tendency of Canadian digital poetic works that do not credit or do not adequately credit the authors of their source texts.
  • I worry about this practice. It is especially problematic on two fronts:
    • first, the often free or open-source distribution of remixed work becomes a real problems for Canadian writers who are not affiliated with post-secondary institutions or who depend on their writing sales for their livings;
    • second, as the Canadian avant-garde has been for so very long, this practice is typically dominated by white men affiliated with universities who have significantly less to lose through the compromise of authorship.
  • This paper argues that while Canadian digital poetics has historical been more interested in deconstructing authorship and embracing noise poetics, what is more interesting is the radical potentials of digital and transmedial works to engage with readers rather than to dwell on the complications of authors.

Against the “Digital Turn”

  • 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 the digital.
  • In 2016 with many decades of transmedial and digital poetics under our belt, we must now work to define a Canadian literature that has already turned digital.
  • This paper presents a Canadian digital poetics that has, with some exceptions, had its eye keenly on the past, and on print, rather than looking forward to the engaging and radical potentials of networked connectivity.
  • The visual concerns of Canadian digital poetics are heavily indebted to concrete poetry, especially as it was interpreted in the print medium by earlier Canadian practitioners like bpNichol or Steve McCafferey.
  • Its aural concerns are heavily indebted to sound poetry as it was interpreted by early Canadian practitioners like the Four Horsemen.
  • Where Canadian digital poetics do engage with locative or spatial concerns, these are frequently approached using mapping tech or other qualitative means met with the intensely personal, almost confessional, and highly affective intrusions.
  • And finally and most importantly, Canadian digital poetics has tended toward author-effacing conceptualism rather than the kind of reader engagement we see in other electronic literary communities in the US or Europe.

The Legacy of bpNichol

  • A lot of Canadian digital poetics has followed Nichol’s footsteps; this is not surprising, though, because a lot of digital poetics has followed Nichol, whose First Screening: Computer Poems (1984) is one of the first born-digital poetic sequences EVER.
  • In First Screening, Nichol extends the concerns of his concrete and typewriter poetics (most notably in Konfessions of an Elizabethan Fan Dancer) that are well-established in the wealth of scholarship surrounding this work.
  • It is important to identify the primacy of First Screening in the field of digital poetics. As Geof Huth notes, “These poems appeared so early in the development of digital poetry that Nichol felt justified in including ‘FIRST’ in the title to these, but primarily these were screenings, movies of words.”
  • In many ways, Nichol’s work in First Screening extends the authorial disruption of a poetics that was already so concerned with formal and material experimentation into a medium (the digital) that sought to connect that authorial disruption with an invitation to readers to be more autonomous in their engagement with the text.
  • As Frank Davey details in his critical biography, aka bpNichol, Nichol purchased an Apple IIe in 1983 and began learning BASIC programming language. By 1984, he had completed the “manuscript” diskettes (5.25” floppies) of what would become First Screening and sent them to Underwhich Editions, who would produce a very small run of a hundred numbered copies (245-6).
  • Later in the year he revised these disks and sent them to Red Deer College Press for wider publication (280). But, programmed on the Apple IIe, the poems were already trending towards an obsolete technology. Red Deer didn’t publish until 1993 when a graduate student at the University of Calgary translated the code to Macintosh HyperText (319n1); the “translation” was written on HyperCard, and itself obsolesced about ten years later.


  • In First Screening



Visual Elements


Aural Elements

  • Kaie Kellough with Jason Sharp, “L_LL_L LL”

Locative and Spatial Media

  • Michelle Gay, “Error Code” (hand-stiched computer error code)


  • Kate Pullinger, Inanimate Alice


  • JR Carpenter, in absentia and other mapping pieces


  • Caitlin Fisher, “Circle” and other augmented reality pieces


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