DigPo

I want you to do me: Jim Andrews and New Media Poetry

Prezi

This paper originally presented at the Two Days of Canada Conference: “The Concept of Vancouver.” St. Catharine’s, ON, 13 October 2016.

Last month at the conference as part of the launch of CWRC (the Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory) in Edmonton, I presented a paper on the state of Canadian Digital Poetics. Afterward, Lori Emerson asked me if I was having trouble determining which works constituted “digital poetics” and which were just “e-lit” in the broader category. Telling a digital poem from, say, hypertext fiction was easy work. But part of the radical potentials of electronic literature is that those genres blur quickly and easily. So, how does one tell a digital poem apart from other works of electronic literature? I said I didn’t care. She didn’t care either. She said she usually thinks that these genre designations are vestiges of print-culture and print-criticism. They didn’t really work here. Jim Andrews’s “Seattle Drift” is about that. Only he said it twenty years ago. I wasn’t listening… because I was ten. But I’m starting to listen now. Originally, I had wanted to present a paper comparing the authorial limitations of “Seattle Drift” and Andrews’s Stir-fry Texts, probably a more well-known project, but I found there to be too much happening in the very brief and deceptively simplistic “Seattle Drift” to relegate it to the bit player next to the more robust and maybe more scholarly accessible Stir-fry Texts. So here I am trying for the next fifteen minutes trying to nail down a poem whose whole deal is that it drifts, moves away, disperses. My mom used to say difficult tasks like this were like “nailing Jello to a tree.” “Seattle Drift” is definitely Jello; my scholarly work trying to situate this piece is still that damn arborescent metaphor. As part of my larger project working to define the uniquely Canadian contributions to the fields of electronic literature and digital poetics, this paper tries to situate a work that “used to be poetry” but “drifted from the scene.”

For those of you unfamiliar with Jim Andrews’s work, “Seattle Drift” is a fairly representative piece. Hosted and still accessible on Andrews’s site, Vispo.com, the work was originally distributed through Cauldron & Net: A Journal of the Arts and New Media Volume One in 1997. Andrews wrote the code in Javascript updating the DHTML with Marko Niemi in 2004 to make it work on PC and Mac, and again in 2015 to adapt it for mobile users. If you visit “Seattle Drift” you encounter a fairly simplistic page layout: the poem, white Arial font on a black screen, looks like a short, simple, and typical poem, if it is a bit humorous and tongue-in-cheek. It reads: “I am a bad text. / I used to be a poem / but drifted from the scene. / Do me. / I just want you to do me.” This last line might provoke a curious reader to look at the hyperlinks above, though one might not be able to tell that they are hyperlinks unless the user hovers their cursor about them. The user here is presented with three hyperlinks: if they choose, they can “Do the text” which results in the algorithmic movement of the words to the right and bottom of the screen until no words are visible; if they choose during that movement, they can “stop the text,” leaving the words and punctuation marks wherever they ended up; at this point the user has the option to “Discipline” the very bad text, returning the words to their “rightful” order. Despite the fact that these are links that initiate, stop, and restart the function, the reader never leaves this page. The poem has a tendency to disperse, but otherwise the work is fairly cohesive. This makes it a bit different from some of Andrews’s other work; as Kate Hayles observes in Electronic Literature, other examples of Andrews’s work, like On Lionel Kearns or Stir-fry Texts demonstrate his indebtedness to a history of avant-garde poetry like Burroughs’s cut-up (19-20). Instead, “Seattle Drift” focuses on presenting words and punctuation marks as separate entities relating to each other but acting independently. In “Digital Langu(im)age,” Andrews observes:  “each object might have various properties in addition to its usual appearance and meaning and place amid other words. My piece Seattle Drift is an example of such a text. When you click the text that says ‘Do the text,’ the words in the poem eventually drift independently off the screen. Each word has its own behavior, its own partially random path of drifting off the screen. Each word is a kind of little language widget, langwidget (Andrews, “Digital Langu(im)age — Language and Image as Objects in a Field”). And certainly each word has its “own” behavior, which is seemingly random but quite clearly organized by a pretty straightforward algorithm: a randomizing function determines if the word will move left or right, or up or down, with a heavy bias toward downward and rightward movement; the range of movement is statically regulated by a movement function with these numbers in parentheses determining how far in pixels each word will move, the first for the x axis, the second the y.

A quick look at these movement ranges shows that some words, like “a” and “the” and some of the punctuation, are given much greater range of movement, causing them to recede from the text much more quickly. On the other hand, some words like “poem” and “text” and “drifted” move more slowly and remain on the screen longer: “text” is almost always the final word on the screen, moving 2 pixels horizontally and 1 pixel vertically where others, like the “a” that precedes “poem” moving at 5 pixels in each direction. While each “doing” is different, for the most part a similar outcome is reached, as you can see in this “doing” I “did” and used for the background of this Prezi. The movement of “Seattle Drift” is partially randomized, partially organized, with the user/reader determining when and where it starts, stops, and starts over again, an interaction that Katalin Sándor describes as the work “address[ing] the reader by a somewhat limited interface-rhetoric” (150). But, Paula Trimarco points out, this interface is also somewhat optional; you can read and engage with the poem on a traditional level by visiting the page but not clicking the hyperlinks. The poem only “drifts” “if readers choose to become an active participant in the work” (89). For Trimarco, the “active” readership invited (no, begged for) by the work reverses what she sees as the usual power structure of reader and poem. She writes, “The tenor in this brief poem is informal and suggestive of a relationship between reader and text which might be interpreted as similar to parent and child or sadistically between two lovers, which in a sense reverses the power relationship between reader and poem, as the poems gives the order (in the command ‘Do me’) and the reader follows by clicking on the words on the screen” (Trimarco 89). I think that the parent and child reading is a stretch, and that neglects the clearly erotic and sadomasochistic embodied poetics of the piece. “Seattle Drift” expression a very intimate desire to move the power of the poem (its meaning, its potential for exegesis) into the hands of a user who exerts control over the piece by starting it, stopping it, and disciplining it back to its traditional lineation. The poem desires its own abuse, desires that it be made bad (or perverse) by the reader’s “abnormal” or non-traditional actions upon it. The relationship between reader and poem in this case is intimate, on the one hand, but also highly performative on the other, not unlike sadomasochistic sexual practice. Moreover, its tendency to resist logical linguistic and hermeneutic traditions aligns it with the alogical nature of erotic practice.

In his Ideas of Space in Contemporary Poetry, Ian Davidson describes the movement of the words in “Seattle Drift” as “slightly jerkily” (173), a comment that Alistair Brown drew out not because it is inaccurate, but rather because the “slightly jerk[y]” movements of the words in “Seattle Drift” point to two issues: the relationship between the code and the tech that is used to view it, and the multiplicitous and reader-centric readings this mutability suggests. On the first point, the reader’s experience of “Seattle Drift” is highly dependent on whatever device is used to engage with it (as is the case for all digital or digitized texts, of course)! After all, there is no software, as Kittler reminded us. So too there is no “Seattle Drift” save through the devices each user/reader uses to engage with the piece. On the second point, Brown remarks, “Displaying the text on a larger screen (such as my 27 inch monitor) means that there is more black space to the right and below for the poem to move into, before the words drift entirely off screen. The poem would offer a different sense if played on a mobile phone screen. As a performative experience, the poem is not medium-neutral: changing the medium on which it runs also changes the range and representative possibilities of the poem” (np). Each screen, presents limitations to the viewing of this work. It bears noting that, as Leonardo Flores writes, the words will continue drifting even after they leave the constraints of our screen: “if allowed to drift for a long period of time, would create an enormous virtual space in the browser that would require serious exploration of that space using scrollbars to find them” (81). As such, any starting and stopping of the work presents an artificial delineation of what the “poem” is at that point in time/space.

“Seattle Drift” reveals its artificiality, relating it to a long history of highly formal print-based avant-garde but also requiring a rethinking of the divides that make that history possible. As Flores observes, “this e-poem enacts a critique of current and historical poetry scenes in order to create a space for a new e-poetry scene” (Flores 172). For Roberto Simanowski, part of what “Seattle Drift” does is present and interrogate “the new possibilities of concrete poetry under the conditions of their being digital” (np). But, more than that, as Simanowski goes on to observe, the poem resists classification, resists logical discourse, and instead relishes in digital and embodied play. He writes, “I drifted from the scene, says the poem when it is in proper order, but ends up all the more in the void when you try to help it. … As the theory of différance, whose playful adaption ‘Seattle Drift’ seems to be, tells us, to name something is to reduce it.” (np). In this way, hermeneutics, exegesis, and the other concerns of most scholarship and classification become acts of disciplining, in both the positive (playful, erotic) connotations and the negative (limiting, classifying, stabilizing) ones. When the act of “disciplining” the digital poem is made explicit, we as readers and as scholars are able to point to the ways that this practice limits the poetry but also to revel in the play that is still there for us in the process. Indeed, “Seattle Drift” reminds us that not only authorial control, but also critical control and readerly control are illusions. In Sàndor’s words, the poem “exposes language in its rhetorical-tropological elusiveness, which makes any (authorial, interventional) control over the text illusionary” (150).

So then, why present this research at this conference? Andrews is often credited as a Vancouver-based poet, but this poem is called “Seattle Drift” and it is written, as Andrews tells us in the source code, “in the spirit of Seattle” during the three or so years that Andrews lived and wrote there. Moreover, “Seattle Drift” also signals Andrews’s collaboration with Joseph Keppler and the rest of the “Seattle crew” (Flores 111) from 1997-2000, when Andrews lived in Seattle and when he produced this work and others like it (Enigma n, Stir-fry Texts, Millennium Lyric) (Flores 113). But, I argue, the drifting and frequently overlapping/obscuring movement of the words in Seattle suggest another reading, recalling the visual and phonic similarities between Seattle and “settle,” and act that Andrews’s transnational collaboration and his border and genre blurring poetics in this and other works resists. Reading “Seattle Drift” as a digital text that drifts back and forth between Vancouver and Seattle means also that it interrogates the closedness of assigning geographical boundaries to poetic “scenes” (which might make texts “bad” in some scholarly circles). Vancouver, as the site of “scenes” of poetry like TISH, makes it an especially fruitful location from which to draw this line of argument. Making this observation more appropriate is Lionel Kearns’s association with TISH; Andrews’s work (critically and poetically) on Kearns stresses the tenuous nature of aligning Kearns’s work with TISH or with any school. Not to mention TISH’s connection to Black Mountain or to the New York School. Plus there’s the internationality of the Vancouver Poetry conference, and many other nodes of connection all of which are facilitated even more with the addition of networked computing to the mix. To tie this all up nicely, the movement of the poem allows Andrews’s Vancouver-based poetic concerns to literally drift toward Seattle. The words move south and east and the term “drift” suggests a movement by water; it literally heads toward Seattle. The poem doesn’t just resist category and exegesis; it makes you feel very naughty for wanting that at all.

 

Works Cited

Brown, Alistair. “Reading the Source of ‘Seattle Drift.’The Pequod Blog, 15 September 2012.

Davidson, Ian. Ideas of Space in Contemporary Poetry. Palgrave MacMillan, 2007.

Flores, Leonardo. Typing the Dancing Signifier: Jim Andrews’ (Vis)Poetics, University of Maryland, College Park, 2010.

Hayles, N. Katherine. Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary. U of Notre Dame P, 2008.

Sándor, Katalin. “Moving (the) Text: From Print to Digital.” Between Page and Screen: Remaking Literature Through Cinema and Cyberspace, edited by Kiene Brillenburg Wurth, Fordham UP, 2012, pp. 144-156.

Simanowski, Roberto. “Fighting/Dancing Words: Jim Andrews’ Kinetic, Concrete Audiovisual Poetry.” Dichtung Digital, translated by Florian Cramer, 26 November 2001.

Trimarco, Paola. Digital Textuality. Palgrave MacMillan, 2015.

 

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