"Why is this poetry?" a guest asked me at the Library of Congress, where I was exhibiting Adam Sulzdorf-Liszkiewicz's afeeld at the Library's first Showcase of Electronic Literature April 3-5, 2013. The guest looked a bit like the humanoid figure made of letters in "Alphabet Man" pictured above, the top swoop of the "g" turning his mouth down in consternation.
Sometimes poetry makes you feel dumb, as in a dream when you're taking an exam and realize you forgot to study. In Sulzdorf-Liszkiewicz's "Alphabet Man," just one of the several short poem sequences in afeeld, the figure surveys a tower of letters that dwarf him.
"Why is this poetry?"
As the exhibit guest asked me that question, his son–eight years old? Nine?–stood silently at his side.
I told them that Adam Sulzdorf-Liszkiewicz's poetry, although it's made of letters, is not meant to tell a story. We are accustomed to poetry as music, metered and rhythmic. Visual poetry like Adam's is like sculpture.
"Concrete" poems arrange words on the page to enhance, enact or deliberately conflict with the words' meaning. It's playful, even if the overall impression is serious, because the reader toggles between two ways to ascertain meaning. One solves a puzzle to read visual poetry. In rhymed and metered poetry, the poet has already solved the puzzle. The poem is the proof of his solution. Sometimes we read their poems aloud, and this is a kind of participation. It can be magical. But when you read it again, you can't help but anticipate it.
The man and his son visited the electronic literature exhibit because they were killing time before their tour started. They were our ideal audience. I pointed out the books I'd curated from the Library's vast collection to illuminate the e-lit. I suggested that they type their own concrete poems using stencils of bats, cats and stars that I'd cut out of manila folders. I walked them over to typewriters we'd set up so guests could fabricate their own work, experience poetry not as a finished object but a physical craft.
The man, like many other guests over thirty-five, was piqued with nostalgia. He rolled paper into the manual machine and punched the keys hard.
I noticed the boy wasn't with us. He was clicking fast on the screen where afeeld was displayed. I deduced that he was playing "M!ndsweeper."
It occurred to me the boy was enacting an answer to his father's question.
Without a player, M!ndsweeper is an open browser, an empty grid. As the boy clicked it, an algorithm populated the grid with letters and shapes, always involving the square the boy has clicked. Together the boy and machine made poetry that suggested words and ideas, but were not. The language made by M!ndsweeper resembles to me the truncated speech of text messaging, where one letter or repeated letters ("kk") can stand in for an idea. I didn't think this when I first played M!ndsweeper a couple of years ago, but now I do. A reader clicks once, twice, seven times: at some point, a multi-hued red starburst with an exclamation point at its center punctures the grid and ends the game. The user then can choose whether to reset, publish or print the final screen.
Printed poetry traditionally ignores the materiality of print – typography, kerning (space between letters), the shape a poem makes on the page. It also largely ignores (or remains ignorant of) the reader's reactions, having no way to register them.
Change the font or kerning of a print-based poem, and its meaning stays the same. It's immaterial.
Visual poetry is different. It's aesthetic is material and specific. It doesn't assume that poetry's goal is always to prompt reflection on human subjectivity.
In fact, even to frame playable media like M!ndsweeper as "poetry" invites destabilizing questions.
The moment you read the title "M!ndsweeper" and automatically flip the "!" into an "i," you've accepted the poem's ethical proposition that a diacritical mark stands in for the "i," for human subjectivity. Then you and the machine play until stuff blows up.
Why is this poetry?
I thought you'd never ask.
When we play visual poems, human and machine meet on neutral ground where neither controls the meaning.
Visual poetry hints at the possibility that human subjectivity isn't a priori more central or significant than a machine's. Or a toaster's. Or a comb's. That maybe subjectivity has little to do with processes by which the world works.
afeeld is poetry of the interface: a set of games or designs that mark a specific space and time where human and machine collaborate for fun. You can print out a memento of your play. You can ask the game to share that screenshot in social media on your behalf.
It's a small gesture in itself but a bold illustration of how computational poetry differs from printed poems, which are fixed forever in their shape like the desiring lovers in Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn."
Poetry like afeeld is Copernican. It unfurls an imaginative expanse where the giant ball of fire at the center of our universe doesn't revolve around earth. Print poetry is not naive but it is Ptolemaic. Poet and reader have discrete roles, and the poet, as puzzle maker and solver, sits higher on the Great Chain of Being.Copernican poetry knows earth revolves around the sun. It is a poetics of action and collaboration. Reflection is a collaborative action performed between humans, machines and code. Alphabets. Abacus. Papyrus. Pencil. Cloud. We get smarter together.
Poetry is the interface. Let Adam take you afeeld.– Kathi Inman Berens
7 August 2014