Détours: Unresolved Questions about JR Carpenter’s in absentia

The following is adapted from a paper presented at ACCUTE Congress (18 May 2016, Calgary, AB). 

This post will examine the digital potentials for feminist and activist mapping by looking at the important electronic literature example of J.R. Carpenter’s in absentia. in absentia appropriates the now ubiquitous format of Google maps—using both the mapping and “street view” features—to examine the ways that Montreal’s Mile-end neighbourhood has experienced a gentrification that limits and inhibits emotional and feminized means of moving throughout and living within this area of the city. By using bilingual French and English writing (with no useful translation for lost Francophones or Anglophones traversing the text) and a relatively limited set of instructions, Carpenter recreates feelings of limitation and isolation within the city. The subheadings that alter the map—“à louer,” “à vendre,” “perdu,” “trouvé,” and “vide”—tell the story of place that formerly was home to young families, artists, animals, and relationships burgeoning with passion and health. As these buildings are sold and rent prices skyrocket, in absentia works to record what is lost when businesses and corporations usurp the city.

Through its interactive nature, in absentia immerses the reader/player in the streets, following graphic “détour” and the shadows of former pets as they clutter the map and dislocate former residents. In this way, in absentia is an extremely affective text where residents of other Canadian cities cannot help but feel their lives and experiences echoed in the text bubbles that emerge. The reading process here echoes the communal nature of in absentia’s production, wherein, as the site’s ironically-named “home” page states: “in absentia launched on June 24, 2008, with a dance party in the parc sans nom, between Saint-Laurent and Clark, under the Van Horne viaduct. New stories were added over the summer, in English and French.” I want to pay homage to this communal, underground, and joyful nature of the work’s production by incorporating voices of current residents of Montreal, and especially of Mile-end to speak to the ways in which the processes of gentrification and eviction have continued throughout this vibrant area of the city in the eight years since Carpenter presented this work.

The relationship to place and to mapping has been a concern of feminist poetics for a long time, especially in Canadian poetry. Poets as diverse as Marlatt and Brand, Atwood and Robertson, use alternative, personal, affective, and experimental mapping to revise their understandings of place to suit a feminist poetics. We could also say that some of the better parts of Canadian experimental poetics (male-dominated as they have been) are preoccupied with the same resistant mapping processes; after all, what is The Martyrology except a giant map? Though clearly and specifically located in Montreal, the narratives and brief personal anecdotes she includes in in absentia might be the experiences of any of us who have been poor grad students or artists renting crap apartments in any Canadian city. In “a louer” Carpenter includes an anecdote dated 1992:

My apartment is so cold someone from a warm place must have built it. I curse that ill-informed immigrant—from Portugal, or Greece maybe. Tile floors in the hallway, in the bathroom, in the kitchen; pale blues, pinks and a honey-golden sheaf-of-wheat motif. The windows don’t close properly and the walls are too thin for insulation. Now I’ve heard it all. Sneezes, grunts and telephone conversations. Country music, salsa and bad hip-hop.

The cartographic project now—so often impersonal and, in postcolonial terms, so often at the expense of indigenous personhood—becomes a search for home and for the personal instead of the traversing of new and external spaces. Drawing from issues of hypertext (via George Landow) and feminist mapping practices, Carpenter in her lecture “Mapping Web Words” writes this of cartographic practices:

Cartography is arguably a literary invention—maps offer a singular point of view defined by a specific vocabulary. We imagine our anarchic, moveable, anonymous world in the guise of a readable map. And we labour under the illusion that we can know the world by naming it. Looking back at my early web projects, I see them now as ‘sites’ of longing for belonging, small stand-ins for home.

Carpenter’s mapping is unique in that it maps a real place. And, it does so in order to bring the reader/player/viewer of the work into new and unique forms of reader engagement. On the level of navigation the “reader” of the work gets to make some agential choices Carpenter uses Google mapping technology (of which by now we are all too familiar) to track and critique the gentrification of Montreal’s Mile End, famous as a hub of artistic production and community (it’s where we get Grimes, Drawn & Quarterly and Ubisoft, for example). This brings users into the community and allows them to become, however distantly, a part of that artistic group, and to begin to feel its dissolution. In absentia, as a bilingual English and French piece, is uniquely Canadian and uniquely Quebecois, and its interest is in merging the intensely personal alongside the impersonal project of mapping and geo-tagging. The convergence of personal with more impersonal data-gathering tech is a hallmark of electronic literature more generally, and has been used extensively, especially as a feminist project, in Canadian electronic literature. In absentia is an almost disorganized and difficult-to-navigate collection of maps, narratives, images and text (some from Carpenter, some from other voices) that attempts to present the reader with some agential choices about how they receive, interpret, and navigate its pages, calling into question how we navigate maps and other impersonal datasets digitally, and how this practice informs the ways we navigate space IRL.

This is why the comment bubbles in in absentia that are attributed to voices other than Carpenter’s are so frequently affective, personal, and confessional (and occasionally included without names. For example, under the “perdu” tab, a narrative pops up from a graphic road sign in which a new speaker leaves a lengthy comment recording this loss:

I lived for awhile in a lovely one bedroom flat, on the ground floor, complete with veranda where I could sit and watch the street. One day a handsome young man stepped up and told me he’d been born in that flat and could he please visit, and see inside. We became fast friends, often rambling together on the mountain. One moonlit night we wandered there and played on the swings. That night Marc told me he was dying, HIV positive. I left Montreal and that apartment. Several years later I returned, and visited his grave, then the swings—then feeling bold, I went to the apartment, knocked on the door and said: I was born here, and can I please visit and see inside.

In speaking to current and former residents of Mile End, I discovered the same willingness to discuss community and intensely personal loss. One friend told me that the idea of community is part of what drew her to Mile End in the first place. “I would run into people I knew all the time: on the street, at the laundry mat, on the mountain, in cafes, at shows, on rooftops, at spontaneous afterparties,” she told me. “I worked for a youth community organization—so I was constantly trying to cultivate community. But it was happening organically all around me. Friends of friends of friends all studying or working in the arts/social justice world sharing resources and skills… This Mile End community has followed me to Toronto.” Later, she added,

I got accepted in my first-choice Master’s program at York… So I moved. I was so depressed when I first came to Toronto. The city landscape seemed so ugly and devoid of community. It’s like no one cared about aesthetics or beauty here. I missed the sounds, scents, and movement of the Mile End. I missed running into people. The only neighbourhood that made any sense to me was Roncesvalles … I liked the narrow sidewalks and small local shops. It’s conducive for talking to people.

We might argue that digital mapping practices can have the effect of Toronto’s ugly downtown core: impersonal datasets, geo-tags that do little except geo-tag, and one million Starbuckses. But, what in absentia demonstrates is that they can also be Roncesvalles, a neighbourhood I had the pleasure of living in for one lovely year, or Mile End, or whatever the correlative neighbourhood is here in Calgary. And it’s not the only project to do so: Carleton University Hyperlab’s mapping of Lansdowne Park or Stan Douglas’s Circa 1948 all interrogate the impersonality of mapping in a similar fashion. And, what’s more, Carpenter’s project has some significant oversights. For example, Carpenter discusses issues of rising rent, of the immigrant experience, and of the problem of needing to commodify one’s art to continue it, but it more or less fails to address the larger questions of uneven development, particularly because of the way that gentrification often plays out across lower income neighbourhoods, to say nothing of the fact that in absentia almost completely fails to address issues of race and indigeneity despite their centrality to discussions of gentrification and spatial injustice. We might say that these are not her project—and that’s fine—but it is worth noting what conversations are not included in a project that works so hard to include diverse and disparate voices.

I’d like to completely change the direction of this post by resolving something that I didn’t realize when I set out to write this. When I originally conceptualized this project I imagined that this paper would, above all, look critically at the mapping practices of in absentia to make a case for the importance of Canadian electronic literature, and of the activist and feminist features that make Canadian electronic literature such a valuable contribution to the genre. I argued that with Carpenter at the forefront of new and innovative work in Canadian electronic literature and digital poetry (she currently has three works included in the Electronic Literature Organization’s online collections), Canadians from across the country are leaving their mark on this new genre. I guess I still believe that that’s true. I also still might argue that in absentia demonstrates the unique contributions Canadian writers offer to the digital literary community. But, upon further researching this piece, and in brief discussions with the author, I realized that looking carefully at in absentia led me not to be able to develop the genre of Canadian elit, but to start to collapse those terms.

See, Carpenter is a pretty vocal critic of the term “electronic literature,” identifying more comfortably with the designation “web artist” but frequently being referred to by scholars (like myself) as a writer of electronic literature. Even her website, LuckySoap.com can’t seem to decide on a designation. The link in the header for “electronic literature” brings you to a page with the title “Digital Literature” and a URL webprojects.html. When she was asked in an interview why she felt her work was being categorized and interpreted as elit, Carpenter laments:

It has to do with canonization; once you’re categorized, it’s hard to change the way your work is read. The Electronic Literature Organization (ELO) website has a definition of Electronic Literature that I don’t fully identify with. It doesn’t quite cover certain aspects of my work. Most Electronic Literature scholarship still orients itself in relation to literary tradition and the book; I do a lot of work in relation to the book, but I also do a lot in relation to landscape, visual art, collage, assemblage, performance, and so on. … Sometimes writing about my work in terms of only literature excludes those reference points.

And to be fair, even though we experience, traverse, and yes ultimately “read” in absentia from the comfort of our own computers in our own homes or offices, Carpenter’s work in this piece probably has more to do with locative media projects, performance pieces, or installations than it does concrete, typewriter, or earlier generative poetry which are the clear predecessors of works that more easily fit into the “electronic literature” or “digital poetics” categories.

Carpenter makes it very clear in interviews, especially the few questions of mine she was able to answer via email last week, that she really considers new media art (the broadest term I can think of to encapsulate all these digital projects) to be an international community, and that she considers herself to be an international poet and artist. But what’s really interesting about the whole thing, and what could have been the focus of this paper if I knew it in time, is that she concedes that the effects of the gentrification of Mile-End might have something to do with the feelings of dislocation that pervade not only her work from that period, but her thoughts on genre and national literatures in elit altogether. As she wrote to me,

not long after I wrote that lecture/article [“Mapping a Web of Words”], I was evicted from my apartment and so in effect from my neighbourhood. I moved to the UK in 2009 and have lived here since. I am not sure I would have known what to say about a Canadian elit, even if I’d stayed. I still have a lot of connections … in Montreal, but it’s always been a very international community for me.

What’s more, Carpenter isn’t utopian about the radical potentials of the digital project as some earlier practitioners like the aforementioned Landow might have been, but rather she argues that the digital poetics merely exacerbate the difficulties of identification and categorization that already exist. As the tongue-in-cheek disclaimer that precedes her introduction on Brick Books’ “A few digital poets presented by Jhave” notes, Carpenter’s work demonstrates that “[t]he difficulties of belonging are compounded by internet-based digital poetry.”

So, I don’t really know if in absentia teaches us anything about the category of Canadian electronic literature, a genre I want to exist so badly because it looks good on paper and sounds an awful lot like the kind of shit that gets funding. If anything, it’s the exception that proves that there ain’t no rules. That the radical potentials of digital writing are becoming reified slowly but surely not by organizations like the ELO or the ELMCIP who work tirelessly to demonstrate the variety of works they uneasily lump into these weak and porous categories, but by readers and scholars like me who use funding applications and conference paper proposals so try and make them fit.

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.

Grain
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’tClick.it). 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.”

Code X: Experiment as Digital in Canadian Elit

What is elit?

Because this is a digital humanities panel, I am assuming that I don’t have to do too much work in defining electronic literature or arguing for its inclusion in literary study. But, because this is a paper on definitions I would hazard only this problematic in terms of defining the field. By electronic literature, and in this paper I focus specifically on digital poetics, I mean those works of literature that are either transmedial or purely born- (and raised-) 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.

That is, in titling this panel “Trans/forming the Digital Humanities,” the organizers use the slash to acknowledge at once the relative nascence of the field and also the divide that is happening between what are termed first and second wave digital humanists as they transform the field as well. The move from first to second wave DH is a move, to crudely summarize it, from the qualitative datasets and textual mappings championed by Franco Moretti’s “distant reading” in the first wave 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.

What is the purpose of national divides/genres in elit? 

If the first wave 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 second-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 early 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.

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, 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.

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 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 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 texts in elit also frequently involve 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 also frequently results in self-publication online or in online journals. All of this complicates the already-complicated role of a national eliterature.

Being past 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 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. So, with all this as preamble, I am now prepared to argue that Canadian elit 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 bpNichol; 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. For the rest of this paper I’d like illustrate these points by using three central works of Canadian elit: Darren Wershler’s electronic version of his print-based book of poetry, NICHOLODEONLINE, Mark Sutherland’s born-digital Code X, and J. R. Carpenter’s in absentia.

Visual

The visual elements of Canadian elit, especially in its early years, are clearly heavily indebted to the traditions of concrete poetry and typewriter poetics of the Canadian avant-garde over the past century. With bpNichol as the most popular figure at the convergence of these two genres, his influence can be clearly felt in Canadian eliterature, but the influence of concrete internationally (by way of the US and Brazil especially) and other Canadian and American pioneers of typewriter poetics (eg. Steve McCafferey) are also clearly evident. These points of influence are probably best demonstrated by NICHOLODEONLINE, the electronic manifestation of Darren Wershler’s first book of poetry, NICHOLODEON. While most of the poems and supplemental materials on NICHOLODEONLINE are simply digital reproductions of the print book organized in unique (and often difficult to navigate) web design, the poem I have used today as a representative of Canadian elit from NICHOLODEONLINE is “Grain: a prairie poem,” a piece that shares a good deal with the early kinetic and Java experiments of elit internationally, but one with a clearly Canadian bent. Its interest in using letters to represent the flatland and horizon of the Canadian prairies as well as the growth and spread of one of Canada’s major exports, wheat, functions as a metapoem that demonstrates the influence of other Canadian poets (Nichol’s and McCafferey’s presences looming in the background) as well as the obvious influence of Canadian poet Dennis Cooley, a pioneer of the genre we now call the “long prairie poem.” Compared to the length of other kinetic poems, we could even say that “Grain” is relatively “long” and its inclusion in the mass of poems hosted on NICHOLODEONLINE makes is kind of serial. What is most striking is that the poem is clearly indebted to the way the concretists and early typewriter poems use and mess with the grid (see Nichol’s Konfessions of an Elizabethan Fan Dancer or McCafferey’s Carnival panels as examples) but also how the animation of a digital, kinetic poem is freed of some of these limitations.

Aural

The influence of concrete and of typewriter poetics is also pretty clear in W. Mark Sutherland’s Code X also published by Coach House Press four years later, although I am much more interested in its aural properties. Code X, the packaging for the original CD-ROM boasts, turns its “readers” into collaborators on a transmedial sound poem and concrete poem by turning their computer keyboards into sound poetry producing machines. Each key places a typewriter-font collection of seemingly-randomly-placed letters on the screen while at the same time queuing an audio track of Sutherland’s vocal performance of the letter. So what’s interesting here is that the features of early concrete and typewriter poetics get matched with the common vernaculars of sound poetry’s major players like Kurt Schwitters, and especially their interpretation by the Canadian sound poetry collective The Four Horsemen, which included Nichol! What’s more, more than in NICHOLODEONLINE, “readers” here become engagers, players, who make some interesting agential choices in the text. This kind of reader engagement in the text, and uniquely in this case in the aurality of the text, gets met with the clear influence of avant-garde traditions; this point of convergence becomes a major feature of Canadian elit as a national literature.

Spatial

We see similar process of reader engagement on the level of navigation and some agential choices on the part of the “reader” in J. R. Carpenter’s in absentia, a work of electronic literature that uses Google mapping technology to interrogate gentrification of Montreal, Quebec’s Mile End neighborhood, famous as a hub of artistic production and community (it’s where we get Grimes, Drawn & Quarterly and Ubisoft, for example). In absentia, as a bilingual English and French piece, is uniquely Canadian, and its interest in merging the intensely personal alongside the impersonal project of mapping and geo-tagging. The convergence of personal with more impersonal data-gathering tech is another hallmark of elit more generally, and has been used extensively (especially as a feminist project) in Canadian electronic literature. In absentia is an almost disorganized and difficult-to-navigate collection of maps, narratives, images and text (some from Carpenter, some from other voices) that attempts to present the reader with some agential choices about how they receive, interpret, and navigate its pages, calling into question how we navigate maps and other impersonal datasets digitally, and how this practice informs the ways w navigate space IRL.

READER ENGAGEMENT

Each of these three examples demonstrate, to some extent, the ways in which we as readers are able to make interventionary and agential choices in our reading of digital texts, and in this way they are not quite demonstrative of Canadian elit, but rather exceptions that prove a rule: that the Canadian avant-garde, and especially its DigPo/elit genres, have tended to focus their work more acutely on the author-effacing traditions of a conceptualism that seems to be taking over experimental and avant-garde communities internationally (Canada is no exception). Where elit in some other countries has tended towards some more powerful and interventionary reader engagement (the ELO contains some wonderful examples of this), Canadian elit for the most part has been made up of texts like these where reader/player engagement involves navigate within a set of predetermined parameters or choose from a limited set of options. In Carpenter’s in absentia, for example, we have limited choices to how we can engage with the space (as polyvocal and communal as it may be). We view piecemeal the text, the city, and the narratives, and we do do in our own self-determined order, but we do not alter the text or intervene in it in any significant way. In Sutherland’s Code X, we do seem to alter the text—the way it sounds, the way it looks—but only slightly; the voices and visuals are predetermined, and though they look random they do ultimately form a pre-written textual “whole” that speaks of the reading process of the digital text as leading to the end goal of making adequate and  substantial meaning from the text at hand (or cursor): “reading was a road a car a mnemonic mechanism driving towards form and meaning.”

Conclusion

If we are to see Canadian eliterature as taking the place of the politically irresponsible and by now tired forms of conceptualism that have heretofore dominates experimental literary circles for the last decade or two, then we need to see a Canadian eliterature that doesn’t simply shirk off the interesting a valuable elements of textual study (like national genres, for example) that can contribute insight into textual study beyond metadata, beyond geo-tags that speak only to a time and a place of textual production. The national literary history and cultural, social, and geographical elements of a “Canadian elit” contribute much to the study of these three texts. And what’s probably more useful in the long run is that reading these three pieces as parts of a larger national eliterature that is just now fully taking shape points out those elements of the genre that we do need to focus on or pay more attention to. What this process has taught me, at least, is that to continue a politically responsible Canadian experimentalism, we have to move past “digital turns” and author-rejecting conceptualism and use the visual, audio, and spatial possibilities of digital poetics to engage more fully with readers, to view networked technology as more than just telecommunication and cat memes 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.

 

This paper was originally presented at NeMLA 2016 in Hartford, CT for the panel “Trans/forming the Digital Humanities.”

Guest Post!: Andy Weaver on Robert Duncan

Hi all. Sorry for the most recent radio silence. I recently took over a course directorship and it’s been taking up all my time for the last little while. Seems that this is the perfect opportunity to share with you all the first guest post proper on [generic pronoun], my ever-brilliant former supervisor Andy Weaver‘s recent work on Robert Duncan, from his most ACCUTE paper. Please feel free to comment and share; and remember that if you are interested in writing a guest post or contributing to [generic pronoun] there’s a tab for that at the top!

Also a quick reminder that Weaver’s newest collection of poetry, this, is now available for purchase right here.

Robert Duncan: Reading as Divine Insurrection

To begin, an anecdote. Robert Duncan relates in The H. D. Book a telling example of the importance of reading to his life and his work. On a pleasant October day in 1938, Duncan was outside, “sprawled on the grass” of the UC Berkeley campus reading aloud to two friends from the Black Sparrow Press edition of James Joyce’s poetry (59). His reading was interrupted by the 11:00 bell that called all lowerclassmen at the university—including Duncan—to attend their Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (R.O.T.C.) classes. “Away toward duty,” Duncan writes, “the one command of the State over us, the dutiful students went. In time. Toward the eleven o’clock drill. To march in time” (64). But, caught up in his reading, and emboldened by his friends’ requests to stay, Duncan remains, skipping his military training. “I never went to Military classes again,” he states. “I ceased going to other classes that I had found a sham. I had come into a poetic order more commanding than my fear of military and school authorities, of going on to take my place as a member of some professional caste” (66). This life-changing moment was brought on and entrenched by Duncan’s commitment to reading, to remaining a reader rather than a military officer or a degree-obsessed student.

A growing body of recent scholarship on Duncan has worked to centralize the role of reading in his creative process. Clément Oudart, for example, has extended Duncan’s own notion of “reading-writing” in order to examine the role of “genreading” and “underwriting” in Duncan’s later work, while Reading Duncan Reading, a recent collection of essays edited by Stephen Collis and Graham Lyons focuses on the role of derivation in Duncan’s poetry. While this work on the role of who, what, and how Duncan read and how that reading shaped his own writing is a foundational element to reimagining Duncan’s poetry as a site of textual interweaving, little attention has been paid to how Duncan envisioned the process of reading in and of itself. Specifically focusing on excerpts from The H.D. Book, Duncan’s study of Modernist poetry, as well as from his serial poems “The Structure of Rime” and “A Seventeenth Century Suite in Homage to the Metaphysical Genius in English Poetry (1590-1690),” I will argue that reading, for Duncan, was much more than a way to gain material for his poetry; instead, Duncan envisions reading as a site of insurrection, where the reading subject must constantly and productively deconstruct and reconstruct her subjectivity. Moreover, Duncan’s poetry imagines this process of renewal as enacting divinity within the reading subject by placing the reader at the centre of a nexus of reception, recreation, and dispersion. Reading, then, is a process that engages Eris, the concept of divine strife that Duncan considered necessary for both creativity and ethical living. Consequently, the process of reading for Duncan also underpinned the individual’s relationship with the community. The processes of deconstruction and reconstruction, of syncretism and dissolution, inherent in the individual’s action of reading also reverberate into society, as the individual must constantly reimagine and reconceptualize the actualities of her society, as well as her own relationship with that society. Reading, then, lies at the centre of Duncan’s social, creative, and ethical processes, and functions as a divine insurrection.

To begin, it’s important to understand a basic point about Duncan’s conceptualization of reading. In The H.D. Book, Duncan states that “The Universe is a book of what we are and asks us to put it all together, to learn to read” (121); he reiterates this point later, arguing “Living is reading the message or poem that creation is about” (314). That is, the entire world is a text for Duncan, and he believes that our engagements with the world should be properly considered reading. A poem on the page, then, is merely a transcription of a larger act of active reading of—and in—the world. This conflation of world as text relies upon Duncan’s notion of “rime” [sic], which flows from his belief that the world and everything in it is joined and suffused by an immanent organicism. Since everything is necessarily related for Duncan, everything in the world inherently has resonances with everything else in the world. These resonances are Duncan’s rimes. As he says, “Rime has its fullness in the correspondence throuout [sic] the universe. Thus the higher poetry has its order in hidden rimes, known to those who love thru correspondence” (CLPP xlii-xliii). Peter Quartermain, in his introduction to Duncan’s Collected Later Poems and Plays, succinctly states the relationship for Duncan between poetry and the world: “any poem [is] a shifting event among, inextricably linked with, other interconnected events—not poems only, indeed, but the world” (xliii). Reading, then, is Duncan’s basic relationship to the world.

Such reading, though, also both relies upon and extends another fundamental concept for Duncan, which is productive strife (or, as he tends to refer to it, Eris, the Greek goddess of strife and discord). Duncan saw the world as a place of insurrection, strife, and flux, a place underpinned by a Heraclitean basis of incessant change. The most basic ethical relationship to the world, for Duncan, was an attention to the moment at hand—since the world is constantly changing, we must set aside any responses, opinions, beliefs, etc., that we formed in other moments. We must always open ourselves to the change that is occurring in each and every moment. The way to maintain this openness is to remain a reader—as opposed to a knower—of the world. By constantly reading the world, we engage with the flux occurring before us.

Reading, then, appears throughout Duncan’s work, especially his later poems. “A Seventeenth Century Suite,” for example, foregrounds the act of textual reading by interspersing Duncan’s responses amongst a series of poems by Sir Walter Ralegh, Robert Southwell, George Herbert, Ben Jonson, and John Norris. The sequence implicitly argues for the inevitable interplay between Duncan’s own writing and his 17th Century counterparts. More importantly, though, the sequence highlights Duncan’s conflation of textual reading and world reading, stating in a response to Southwell’s “The Burning Babe,” “wherever in the World I read / such Mysteries come to haunt the Mind, / the Language of What Is    and I / / are one” (CLPP 511). Reading, then, opens the reader to the world, placing her in a position of productive strife that drives a constant reconceptualization of both the world and the reader’s own identity. Or, as Duncan says in a poem responding to Ralegh’s “What Is Our Life,”

Against my body,   against my soul,

against my spirit,   I go then

into the destruction of the grades of me,

to the undoing of those hierarchies [….] (CLPP 509)

The self must be constantly deconstructed and reconstructed in direct response to the world, and reading is the action that drives that incessant dissolution and reconfiguring.

This idea reoccurs/rimes throughout Duncan’s work, especially in the serial poem “Structure of Rime,” where he describes both himself and his poetic self as a sculpture constantly being remolded in a series of lost wax molds: “song, cire perdue, river of me that flows away, melted from cast after cast, wax releasing fingerprint-fine intensions of the man from the world that is a worker in men” (CLPP 133).

Reading also works hand in hand with writing for Duncan, since he conceptualizes the reading process as necessarily active, involving a constant organizing and reorganizing of the world/text. Drawing on his theosophic upbringing, which stressed a syncretic understanding of reality, Duncan describes the world as a mystery text that needs to be decoded by an active reader: “It was not a dogma nor was it a magic that I understood for myself in the Theosophic world about me, but I understood that the meanings of life would always be, as they were in childhood, hidden away, in a mystery, exciting question after question, a lasting fascination” (H.D. Book 146). Such a worldview also situates the reader inside the process of creation, as a seeker who must develop the mysteries of the world, though the reader cannot hope to solve those mysteries. Consequently, readers actively reveal “The quest for meanings” in life:

By associations, by metaphor, by likeness of the part, by fitting as a part of a larger figure, by interlinking of members, by share, by equation, by correspondence, by reason, by contrast, by opposition, by pun or rhyme, by melodic coherence—what might otherwise have seemed disparate things of the world as Chaos were brought into a moving, changing, eternal, interweaving fabric of the world as Creation (146).

Consequently, the act of reading becomes a spiritual, even divine action. Images of reading and writing as divine occur throughout Duncan’s work, perhaps nowhere more directly than in The H.D. Book: “we who take our lives in the afterlife of Christendom in writing and in reading must come across hints of the Word as we follow the word and of the Presence as we find a book lively” (349). For Duncan, the process of encountering the world is a never-ending process of reading the world, actively assembling correspondences or rimes, while simultaneously actively disassembling correspondences from previous encounters of reading the world. The self must maintain itself in a state of flux, one that both underpins and is derived from this divine action of reading/writing the world. As Eric Keenaghan states, for Duncan “individual freedom exists in waiting obediently to respond to an other’s invocation,” and I would only clarify that such an invocation can come from either a textual or worldly other (123). Looked at in such a light, Duncan’s well-known stance as a derivative poet cannot be limited to his use of texts; instead, he imagines all of his work as equally derivative, whether it be derived from a poem or from the world text. As he says “I am […] a derivative artist, not an original, having only that authenticity that I have inevitably in my inevitable human condition. […] I do not express meanings that are my own, I work in meanings which I receive or find in research” (qtd in CLPP xxxvii). Or, as Peter Quartermain succinctly puts it, “Derivation, in Duncan’s sense of it, is the very condition of being human” (CLPP xxxvii).

However, reading—and the derivation it allows—is much more than the condition of being human, and even more than a divine action. Perhaps most importantly, Duncan imagines reading as an ethics. In a sense, reading is the ethical stance that engages the individual in the process of properly living in the world, and it does this by bridging the human and the divine, by exposing the divine in the world in which we live. As Duncan writes in the second entry in the “Structure of Rime,” “What of the Structure of Rime? I asked,” and he receives the reply that “An absolute scale of resemblance and disresemblance establishes measures that are music in the actual world” (9). That’s not the easiest sentence to parse, but it’s important to note that Duncan sees an “absolute scale of resemblance and disresemblance”—that is, a divine, immanent text of rime—that provides measures (a way of assessing, but also, in the poetic sense, of providing a rhythm, a latent structure) that underpin the actual, physical world. In other words, the type of ethical reading that Duncan calls for allows the individual to engage with (though not to understand or know) the divine that exists in the physical world. Going along with this view of reading, Duncan imagines writing as the active process of revealing to others the divine that he has uncovered for himself as a reader. In the very first lines of the first entry in “The Structure of Rime” series, Duncan writes:

I ask the unyielding Sentence that shows Itself forth in the

language as I make it,

 

Speak!     For I name myself your master, who come to serve.

Writing is first a search in obedience. (CLPP 8)

The poet—who, for Duncan, can be anyone who “will not take the actual world for granted” (CLPP 8), that is, one who remains attentive to the world-text at any/every moment—then, is both master and servant, one who is always obedient to the text that she or he is reading, yet also the creator of the particular manifestations of that text that she or he actively reads, thereby discovering the rimes between things. As Duncan puts it, “The poet and the reader, who if he is intent in reading becomes a new poet of the poem, come to write or to read in order to participate through the work in a consciousness that moves freely in time and space and can entertain reality upon reality” (H.D. Book 199).

As an ethical stance towards the world, reading also forms the basis for Duncan’s conceptualization of individual’s relationship with the community. In a simple sense, this happens through the notion that everyone reads the same text, the world-text, even though we might be reading different manifestations or iterations of it. Trusting in the divine elements that suffuse throughout the world, Duncan, in “The Structure of Rime X,” argues in favour of what he calls “ThiŸ [sic] ever-lasting of thΛ [sic] first things,”[i] those unknowable divine elements that rime throughout the world text. Later in the same poem, he reiterates his belief in this divine text: “For thΛ sea is thiŸ and clover reminds me of ever. ThiŸ learning is in re- and in turning that forms a ring to reach thiŸ word thΛ. Abounding faith for thΛ sound restored” (CLPP 65). Punning on the two pronunciations of “the/thee,” where the former is a definite article and the latter functions as an objective second-person pronoun (now most often used in anachronistic references to a divine being), Duncan implicitly conflates the divine in the particular. The references throughout this poem to returning (the sea, a ring, the sound restored, in the passage I just mentioned, but also in the riming description that follows of children building and rebuilding sand castles and Galahad’s search for the Lady of the Grail) rime together through Duncan’s belief in the inevitable resonances of divinity throughout all of creation. Consequently, every person is a part of what Duncan terms the “grand collage” or “What Is,” the larger community of the entire world (CLPP 298).

In a more complex sense, though, Duncan’s theory of reading shapes the individual’s relationship with the community by continually imagining that relationship as one of interweaving, response, and derivation. The result is that, just as the individual self is constantly in a state of flux due to its reading of the world-text, so is the actual world constantly shifting because our engagements with it are continually renewed. In “The Structure of Rime XXVII,” Duncan writes, “Angry, confused, then in a cloud in which the Queen is hidden, the workers are released from the old order into the Great Work beyond their understanding. They must go beyond the bounds of their art,” before ending the poem by stating that “In the dawn of the new artist’s vision, the Old World, let loose from what we thought we knew or would take for granted, exhibits itself without rest” (CLPP 490). Thought of in this way, all artists—in fact, all people who actively read the world-text—are continually reshaping the world and all of the communities inside it. By working together, in response with each other, they weave the Grand Collage that is both the world and also the societies in which we live. Consequently, the interplay between Duncan’s writings and his 17th century forerunners in “A 17Cth Century Suite” and the numerous dedications and allusions to the work of other artists in “The Structure of Rime” series offer a subtle but important insurrectionary critique of contemporary society. As Eric Keenaghan argues,

Duncan found himself at odds with the new regime of humanism on the grounds of what Shannon Winnubst describes as liberalism’s ‘enclosed’ sense of the individual that reinforces laissez-faire competition. His late work evinces an awareness of a phenomenon that democratic, queer, and third wave feminist theories are only now starting to articulate: ideologies of the autonomous, liberal subject result in competitive nationalism, ethnic conflict, and factionalist pluralisms based on identity politics. (111)

Thus, the many statements Duncan offers for the porous boundaries around subjects function as a subtle societal critique. “The streams of the Earth seek passage thru you, tree that you are, toward a foliage that breaks at the boundaries of known things” (CLPP 15) and numerous other comments reimagine the subject outside of neoliberalism’s carefully enclosed selves. Moreover, in The H. D. Book Duncan offers a parade of examples where reading literally (such as in the anecdote that began my discussion) or figuratively challenges the structures of society in order to bring about reformation. Perhaps the very best example of the latter appears at the very beginning of the book: “It is some afternoon in May, twenty-five years ago as I write here—1935 or 1936—in a high school classroom. A young teacher is reading…” (35). Duncan goes on to tell the story of Miss Keough introducing him to the work of H.D., and how that introduction changed his life. More pertinently, though, is Duncan’s description of Miss Keough as a reader-teacher, one who went against Bakersfield’s “proving ground of the professional middle class, where [students] were to learn by heart the signs and passwords of that class” (36); instead, she “all but confided that the way of reading required by our project was not only tedious but wronged what we read” (37). The inspired reader-teacher, rather than merely passively passing on the expected curriculum that would be worthwhile only as preparation for a test that would serve as a step towards joining the dominant middle class, teaches her students (or Duncan, at the very least), that literature can reveal “something to do with keeping open and unfulfilled the urgencies of life” (43). Duncan sums up the experience by stating simply that “What I was to be grew in what she was” (39). Reading H.D.’s poem brings about that revelation for Duncan. Listening to another person read that poem brings about that revelation, and that revelation opens Duncan up to the world in such a way that the community’s assumptions about identity, society, and the world will remain in productive strife for the rest of his life and throughout all of his writings.


Works Cited

Duncan, Robert. The Collected Later Poems and Plays. Ed. Peter Quartermain. Berkeley: U of California P, 2014. Print.

—. The H.D. Book. Ed. Michael Boughn and Victor Coleman. Berkeley: U of California P, 2011. Print.

Keenaghan, Eric. “Robert Duncan’s Radical Humanism; or, On the Crises of Reading and Falling in Love.” (Re:)Working the Ground: Essays on the Late Writings of Robert Duncan. Ed. James Maynard. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print.

Quartermain, Peter. Introduction. The Collected Later Poems and Plays. By Robert Duncan. Ed. Quartermain. Berkeley: U of California P, 2014. xxv-lii. Print.


[i] In a prefatory note to the poem, Duncan explains that “thiŸ• has the sound of tree and / thΛ has the sound of nut” (CLPP 65).

State What: The Anarcho-Conceptual Syndicate’s Politically Responsible Conceptual Writing

I will admit, as most “readings” of conceptual poetry must also admit, that I have not read Scaffold in its entirety. But I should like, at this point in my digestion, to share with you readers my first feelings about the text and the way that it engages with the existing literature of conceptualism. My first reaction was one of such extreme affective engagement with the text that I had to turn away from my screen some four pages into it. Scaffold is moving, jarringly so, in a way that other conceptual pieces about violence—in particular Vanessa Place’s Statement of Facts—are not. In earlier posts on conceptualism I referred to Statement of Facts as a sensationalist text that bombards its readers with traumatizing and then desensitizing violence. Scaffold does not tend towards the same sensationalism. These speakers rarely recount the violence of their actions that brought them into the penal system, nor do they dwell on the violence of execution that awaits them on the other side of their speeches. Rather than a book that restates the voices of those in power—for example, guilty parties in sexual violence cases who are appealing their guilty verdicts—Scaffold presents apparently guilty parties in the position of victims of a larger violence by a larger and more powerful guilty party, the American government. It even gives this power a name, though never a voice. He is Warden, Chaplain, an anonymous but omnipresent masculinist figure that stands between the sentenced and his or her loved ones, his or her victims, and the outside world. The Carceral Voice, the preface names it, too. The repetitive carceral narrative that meets violence with violence.

The figure of the Warden becomes a kind of character throughout the work, supplanted occasionally by the Chaplain in statements where the speaker appears particularly Christian. These are unsurprisingly common; after all, this is America and these are people who have faced their impending deaths with a knowledge we can never have and with the persistent call of the penal system to repent and to plead for forgiveness for their sins. In the preface to Scaffold, the Anarcho-Conceptual syndicate makes clear that the image of the Warden must serve as a symbol for the overarching power (of violence, of government, of a typically white male voice that insists on the power and importance of the conceptual text), even though he was not put there intentionally. As the preface indicates, “[u]ncannily, a repetitive story emerges over the course of the document, featuring its own unique conventions and characters (such as the omnipresent, yet ever-silent, Warden). Here though we hope that strength in numbers can overcome the Warden.” In some ways, by allowing these voices to aggregate and to collect, Scaffold works to overcome the figure of the Warden that would have these voices silenced.

This uncanny repetitive story is clearly marked by the affirming refrain of the inmates speaking a Molly Bloom-esque “Yes I do,” presumably a response to the Warden or Chaplain figure (who, without voice in these “exchanges” can only ever be a figure whose presence seeps into the shadows rather than looms above us). It comes in many forms—“Yeah,” “Yes, Warden,” “Yes sir,” and many more iterations, though it is usually “Yes I do.” These inmates, these victims of what the text’s preface terms a “racially motivated state violence,” are finally—quite finally—offered the chance to speak into and through the conceptual text. It’s, as far as I know, the first time these voices are interpolated and integrated into the conceptual poem; it does however bear significant resemblance to the names of the lost victims inscribed onto the watery surface of M. Nourbese Phillips’s Zong.  The “Yes I do” also recalls the call-and-answer motif that pervades writings from Black North America for the last century; a call-and-answer trope with a history in oral poetry, African literature, and Caribbean song (to name a few sources). But in this case the question(s) posed by institutions of power are not included; instead we get a barrage of responses, to voices that reach beyond their finality. Their repeated “Yes I do” affirms the right to speak against a state violence that disproportionally murders black perpetrators. Their “Yes I do” resonates.

The primary goal of Scaffold is to give a voice—or to point to the already existent, already speaking voices—of the oppressed, the silenced, the criminals cum victims of a state violence. As the text’s preface states adamantly at its close, “Rather than reading the autopsy report of yet another black civilian, anarcho-concepts restore words to the mouths of the dead, of the jailed, of the silenced. Anarcho­-concepts seek out a better future: a future in which everyone commands a voice and a platform and a poetry” (emph. in original). As an anarcho-concept, Scaffold refuses to let its conceptualism treat language as “stuff,” will not sit back and watch scholars read into its politics (or worse sit back and pretend the text has no politics).

In this one-sided call-and-answer, the responding voice is resoundingly irreverent in places. Some voices repent, atone, and apologize for transgressions. Still others maintain an innocence that feels all the more painful following the period that ends their sentence(s) and ushers in a new “Yes I do.” But what is most fascinating about the statements included in Scaffold is the ones that remain irreverent; that do not concede to ceremony, to religion, to the power of the Warden or the system that supports this figure. Some effort is made to silence these voices still, as on pages seventy-eight and seventy nine where two separate profanity-laden statements are redacted with square brackets. There is a statement between these two apparently too profane statements but it follows the conventions of the rest of this collection (“Take care of yourselves. I love you. Tell my kids I love them” [78]), but the two that have to be censored demonstrate an irreverence that is both fascinating and disturbing. The first maintains the speaker’s innocence with an anger and a cynicism one can only assume comes from the length of his incarceration with the full knowledge of his impending execution. He speaks:

The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man—convicted to a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do. From God’s dust I came and to dust I will return—so the earth shall become my throne. I gotta go, road dog. I love you Gabby. [Remaining portion of statement omitted due to profanity.] (78)

The second is decidedly more angry, more irreverent, refusing to make a coherent statement in the manner that Scaffold presents repeating over and over in a brutal parade of state violence. This speaker maintains his/her innocence in a heartbreaking and painful response that refuses to atone or to ask for forgiveness:

Statement to what. State What. I am not guilty of the charge of capital murder. Steal me and my family’s money. My truth will always be my truth. There is no kin and no friend; no fear what you do to me. No kin to you undertaker. Murderer. [Portion or statement omitted due to profanity] Get my money. Give me my rights. Give me my rights. Give me my rights. Give me my life back. (79)

When the next “Yes I do” comes it’s heartbreaking. It hurts. And it hurts because as the reader you’re the Warden. Not like in Statement of Facts where you’re the jury; not like Soliloquy where you’re everyone else in Kenneth Goldsmith’s world. Reader, you put that period. Reader, you ask the untyped question. It’s not a perfect analogy, but in a way it’s true.

 

NEW LOGO

Hi all,

Just wanting to post here to alert you to the fact that [generic pronoun] now has a beautiful, radical logo from the brilliant Eric Schmaltz. If you like it, you should think of checking out his stuff (which is everywhere), and especially to check out his upcoming exhibit “The Assembly Line of Babel” Friday, September 25th at the Niagara Artists Centre (info here).

Now get back to work and I’ll get back to work and I’ll see you here next week with either an essay or a poem or both.

Work in progress: Suci Vidal

Slittinus g her wrists like a Stoic
with laurel trees imported from Italy, buy”> om Itat,
the Lisbons’ station wagon tri ason waged to sneak by in the darkness.

We saw at once tippaw at hat Bonnie,
as children ts As chiwe had expected,
Cecilia merely seemed balanced on the pole like a girwole liymnast
to watch what would happen next, e. we could see.

“It wakened,  s my first suicide.”
Only the family past the alled pascoffin.

We know portions of the diary by heath=diary rt now;
occasional references to this or that consthoor thapiracy theory crop up.

From clues later discovered, it appeaorted, itrs Cecilia’s ascent,
a few minutes later, as though on cue, Mary served bHut eers.

When we askeera when wd him to sum up his impression of the girls’ emotional state at that point
and with a deot nd witep earth sound,
he rested his hands on her shoulders, then dropped the to his side th to his.

Mr. L” whilesbon receded into a mist.

He continued to pump students for answers by pretending to strangle them, and scandthem, ratched out equations on a cloud of chalk dust,

when she finally turned to face re ned to him, he went mute,
confronted with clusters of cle fisters ver girls blushing at Trip’s approach.

The girls weup The gire right in choosing to love Trip,
distraught at the hands of love as wef were.
No boy was ever so cool ansyar so cd aloof.

He began driving by the Lisbon house in hopes of getting a glimpse o.  a glif her,
a fuzzy aura surrounded n t surronher.

The Lisbons wck he Lisatched it with the acceptance of a family accustomed to bland entertainment,
Chase ready to swing his m” o swinnew Louisville Slugger.
Then, in an endlgn =, in aess profusion, the leaves snapped off and came floating down,
an attempt or completion happened every mattened einute, a completion every eighteen minutes.

Their white faces drifting in slow moht=g in stion past us
twice  a wt fw, twieek,
neither her husband nor her daugrtrnor hehters mentioned it.

Woods where Ind inds wheians had bent trees into giant bows,
Mcupn her.r Oliphant the theater director
explained that he and his wife had certaip>.

Joe Hill Conley claimed to tap at willigo tap l the energy of his chakras.

They g ththem.  ently liftens the material from the girls’ chests.
“Dad’ll smell it on you,” een on yoBonnie said from the backseat,
the confessional surrough ional ndings of the bathroom.

“align tif”> No don’t,” said Mary,
its ornamental ths orna gardens replaced by redbrick houses.
Her gums has recededem”
and it wasn at tfroit was t unusual to find a dead one squashed by a car.

According to thers rding boys’ descriptions,
“It’s the stress. That ped ress oor girl’s under so much stress.”

Mr. Lisboo Mr.n was sitting in his La-Z-Boy
> ny repDr Hornicker began to revise his view of the Lisbon girls.
“Her pillrls “Heow must leak.”

But before ss” but behe was out the door,
cucabout peering from his garage,
because of the shifting winds from the factories and the ri brs and sing temperature of the earth,
nor did he think it odd theh, k it oy kept her in the basement.

Virgin suicide
What was that she cried?
No use in stayin’
On this holocaust ride
bribr>
She’s my virgin suicide

It wasn’t unco orasn’ mmon to see a family gathered on the lawn at a safe distance.
Fiwone spoknally,
a psychedelic “craft candle” Cecilia haen’t  Cecid bought at a street art fair. 

The telephone titi telepolled eleven times before Mr. Lisbon answered. 

But the Lisbon girls kept to impersonal topics ignnal to(We
then on the nailed board,ligailed
revealing ll , rivea soft white plumpness.

She made to leave, but stoe? ave, bpped again.

The acibbonsdomino game still called for a three or a seven.

Even we who had tried to save the girls,ave ths same to consider ourselves temporarily insane,
the steely precisvacteely ion of what she never succeeded in being:
atheming pllowing a lifeguard to reach down from his chair,
ang ve lineything that had belonged to the girls.

Mary was still alive l still at this point, of course.

There was a lot of peass a lconfusion at the cemetery that day.

We thought it just revenge on the young couple who hadeveuple w set themselves to purposefully on removing signs of the Lisbon girls,
as we were slowly carted into the melanchmy the molic remainder of our lives.

“All wisdom ends in paradox,” said medox,  Mr.

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.