Unwritten Poems…

What follows is a formula that I used for a symposium last summer called epoetica < http://www.hyperrhiz.net/symposium>. This semester (Winter 2008), I will be using this formula to kick off a course in Electronic Literature (ENG 360).  My hope is that I will be able to get my students thinking about Hayles’ “media-specific analysis” by starting with texts they know already and moving into unfamiliar territory.

The first run of the formula brought mixed results.  I felt that the timing for the exercise (in the summer, when people were traveling) interfered a bit with the success of the overall exercise. In addition, the exercise would have been improved with a greater sense of community among participants.

This time around, we will have a larger group (all undergraduate students, none of them very familiar with electronic literature).  We will have regular -face-to-face contact time, lectures, and supplemental reading assignments.  And, students will be graded for their work, so there is an added incentive for participation.  Rather than using a WordPress interface, we will be using the university’s Blackboard system, and reading/participation will be restricted to registered members of the class and invited guests.


Electronic poetry is one of the many culturally appropriate tools for generating knowledge about the human self. Its unique character can only be understood, obviously, through an understanding of its media specific strengths and weaknesses. These strengths and weaknesses tend to spin on the same axes. The most stunning unique quality circulates around the question of technics (referring both to “technique” and “technology,” as a particular way of responding to human life as a series of “problems” with “solutions” that can be known, improved, and transferred through empirical means.)

Electronic Literature, as a form that was born quite consciously as a response to emergent technics (both hardware and software), opens up the door for literatures that can reveal something to us about the nature of the technical system. It can force us to think critically about technics and it can offer the possibility of more efficient technics.

As someone who writes about technology, this is the crux of electronic literature: Is human intelligence indispensable? Or is it obsolete? To be fair, the deck is stacked in our favor for the time being. Computers have limited creative talents. I want to believe that the best works are the expression of minds that could and would create in other media. Even if the medium itself tends towards exceptional feats of technology, at some level, there is a human intelligence behind the creation (although the individual artist can claim less and less of that glory). And, even if the artist’s genius plays only a complementary role, I feel that this adds a significant human element to distinguish it from a purely technical creation.

As you can see, I have elected to put my opposable human thumb on the scale, however irrational it may be, if for no other reason but to prove that stupidity, error, pride, love, or whatever you want to call it remains as a defining feature of who we are and what we do.

In the process of writing down these thoughts and working towards an assignment, I suppose I have revealed a great deal about my underlying concerns. I arrive to the scene of “electronic literature” as a student of popular culture. Convinced of the merits of Barthes and his followers, I like to insist that all communication is “text,” and that text includes all the signs that are used to make meaning. Against the inertia of past print technologies, the early popular culture scholars insisted that images, sounds, gestures, etc. all contained meanings, denotative and connotative, inflected by their context, theoretically nested many times within multiple systems of meaning. The result is that “poetics” has always, for me, included a broad range of communicative acts and accidents, which have become increasingly archivable via print and new media technologies. New Media criticism began in the field of popular culture studies avant la lettre through the study of semiotics. Such criticism has become ordinary to me.

So, to get to the point, I cannot show anyone how to write “Electronic Literature.” I can only present a few proto-critical concepts and exercises which can do what scholars in my field have done before me: Argue for an inclusive definition of text. Thus my exercise will focus on non-alphabetic aspects of text: Context, time, structure, atmosphere, and audience.

This activity will require people to select an existing work and re-envision it with the other components in mind. Not to write a poem–but to think about these elements as features of writing. Features which were once spoken for by an alphabetic print culture, but which now have been opened up by new technologies and techniques, and which have returned poetry to its origin: A living, performed enterprise, dependent on the hope that human experience is defined by its singularity.

In short, the focus is on the presence of the piece. Not in some authorial, authentic, theoretical sense, but in terms of something that can happen to a person as they encounter a text. This has always been possible with print–but now it has become a little more open and a little more possible, if nor no other reason than it is less constricted by the relatively narrow range of possibilities of alphabetic texts.

The Exercise:


At least 6 participants (myself included). This body should consist of equal numbers of theoreticians, artists, and students. [I might boost this number to 9 or 12, but at this point I’d like to keep the ratio the same so that we get a good mix of perspectives.]

An online forum (Blogging software with password restricted comments would probably work well for starters).

Server space to host any hypermedia works that result.


5 or 10 weeks, depending on mutually agreed upon schedule. Each portion of the exercise should take no longer than an hour or two for each participant to complete. In addition, participants should allow time to respond to their partners’ postings.

The Schedule (for a 5 week project):

Each participant selects a print-based poem that they would like to focus on. If possible, provide a link to a copy of the piece so that your colleagues can read it, too.

Week 1: Identify the piece’s temporal element. Consider its duration, its moment, its progression. What is the time of the piece? [Use any means or media to communicate your insights to the rest of the group]

Week 2: Imply the poem through context. Create detailed “stage directions” for the piece (be as empirical or phenomenological or philosophical as you like). [Use any means or media to communicate your insights to the rest of the group]

Week 3: What are the analagous atmospheric elements (sounds, textures, visuals)? What does the poem feel like? Does a poem feel like anything? [Use any means or media to communicate your insights to the rest of the group]

Week 4: Introduce variance and/or chance into the structure. What are the critical moments of the piece? How would variance or chance change the piece? [Use any means or media to communicate your insights to the rest of the group]

Week 5: Introduce yourself as author, editor, reader, critic, and/or poet. Write or create brief piece on your creative process vis-a-vis the work in question. How did you read it? How did this change? [Use any means or media to communicate your insights to the rest of the group]

As the symposium progresses, we would each get a chance to comment and respond to how others answered the question. At the end, we can see what we have. Some people might have creative pieces, others might have essays. We could also use the exercise as a springboard for further collaborative work.

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