What is the role of E-literature?
Before I offer my thoughts on these questions I should pause to confess my newbie status in the world of E-Literature. Im one of those cavemen who still composes first drafts on legal pads (admittedly an upgrade from wall carvings, but a far cry from the world of the E-Literature author). I've often joked that should I become famous I could be the first poet to be endorsed by the Pilot pen company; though I suppose we'll probably see Amy Winehouse espousing the virtues of sobriety before we see a famous poet, but I digress. I am a newbie, a novice, a virgin who has arrived at the E-literature orgy well after everyone else has disrobed. A year ago I hadnt even heard of electronic literature. Attending a presentation by Stephanie Strickland changed that. I was enthralled by the woman and her work. I decided, despite my technological limitations, to find a place for myself in the world of E-literature that Strickland now embodied in my mind.
What exactly is electronic literature?
I've spent a lot of time with this question. The very basic answer is that it is literature that employs programs, applications, and computer codes that make a caveman like myself cringe with fear. I must confess that the process of selecting work for this issue included a call to technical support and several volleys of profanity launched in the direction of my laptop, but the fine work in this issue was well worth battling my technical limitations. I'm digressing again; back to the point: according the results of my Google search electronic literature is, "a literary genre consisting of works of literature that originate within digital environments."
This definition is a great starting point, but it seems to imply something that I'm not entirely sure I agree with. The use of the word originate implies that electronic literature comes into being or is birthed in digital environments. This isn't true. I would say that electronic literature exists in digital environments, but I wouldn't agree that it is necessarily always born in those environments. I'll talk about this more when I discuss the piece Forgetfulness.
I've come to view electronic literature as literature that requires a digital environment to be fully experienced by the reader. The work can be born in any number of environments. It can even, sometimes, be pulled into the print world (as shown by Stephanie Stricklands WaveSon.nets). You can waltz into Borders and pick up the book, sit down with a cup of coffee (or the reading beverage you prefer), and enjoy Stricklands work (okay, youll probably have to pre-order the book, because none of the major book retailers have a good selection of contemporary poetry). Stricklands book is an enjoyable read, but when you put the book down and log onto the website youre treated to richer sensory experience. This is electronic literature: a full sensory emersion into the work. I think of electronic literature authors the way I think of playwrights: powerful and lucky, because they have a level of control over the audience experience that those working in print simply cannot match. What I admire about the electronic literature author is how much of this control they relinquish to the audience. The author controls what you see and hear when a specific button is pressed, but unlike the playwright, they have the ability to allow the audience to decide what buttons to press and when to press them. This results in work that exists as a constant dialogue between the author and the audience.
Is there an inherent power dynamic (inferiority or superiority) between E-literature and print literature?
Well this is a loaded question, isn't it? Im sure if I polled most folks in English departments across the country print literature would be victorious by an overwhelming margin. Im also sure those same folks would overwhelmingly vote for William Shakespeare as the greatest living playwright. Does this mean that William is truly the greatest? Some would say yes, but I'd say no. I'd say no, because popularity doesn't prove much. Shakespeare is the safe answer. It is a reflex. It is something English majors are programmed to say, because it is simply an accepted truth. Shakespeare has always been there, always been the best. The same is true of print literature. It dominates the landscape. I went through five years of undergraduate education roaming the halls of an English department and never once heard mention of electronic literature. My lack of exposure is most likely due to the fact that the professors I was working with had no exposure themselves. I would venture to guess that academias efforts to enforce print literatures' superiority are due largely to a desire to avoid change and a reticence to embrace something new.
Humans are creates of habit. Were comfortable with what we know. We know books, with pages, that tell stories. Books and stories that exist in digital environments, that aren't linear, that require us to interact, aren't familiar.
What is the role of E-literature?
This is the question that most excites me. I think every so often we need the boundaries to be expanded. We need the old ways to be pushed aside. Print media has dominated the landscape for a very long time. It has been the only mode of expression of the literary artist. Electronic literature has changed that. E-literature has added another venue for literature types to express themselves. I like to think of E-literature as what happened when the kids from the English department started dating the computer science folks. E-literature authors are scientists telling stories. They're experimenting in a genre that is still in its infancy. It took print literature hundreds of years to engrain itself into popular culture. I cannot say that E-literature will follow the same trajectory. Perhaps the works in this issue and the other pieces of E-literature floating around in cyberspace are simply previews of the next evolution of literature. Perhaps works like these will die off and be replaced by some other form of expression. The one thing I can say for certain is that as long as there has been a dominant form of expression (print media) there have been those working outside that form seeking other ways of expressing themselves.
What They Said by Alan Bigelow
Every time I experience this piece I think of George Orwells 1984. I spent most of eighth grade staying up way past my bed time to read that book by flashlight (I read it three times that year), so for me anything that makes me think of 1984 is especially exciting.
The screen evokes something both old and new: an old time radio manufactured in some alternate future. The first time I viewed it I went along the stations from right to left (the instinctive reading order), but on later viewings I surfed around randomly like someone watching late night television struggling to find something worth watching. As I took in the slogans on each station I couldnt help but think that what Bigelow had created was the view screens from Orwells nightmarish vision.
What I like most about this piece is that I was able to bring my Orwell reading to the experience. There is no note from the author directing me to that conclusion. I love that I was able to immerse myself in a sensory experience that mirrors something from a beloved book from my youth. I also appreciated that the content (both text and visual) offer important commentary on current events. I appreciate art that is saying something.
i made this. you play this. we are enemies. By Jason Nelson
I was drawn to this piece because it added another dimension to my understanding of electronic literature. I was already operating with the understanding that E-literature allowed for and often required reader interaction, but this piece takes it to another level. Rather than simply activating the piece the reader is transformed into a player and the piece becomes a game. I have to confess that I found the piece both challenging and addictive. I spent several hours trying to beat the game.
After interacting with the piece several different times I found that there are really two ways of approaching it. The first is to play as a game and try to find the easy route to the next level. This proved to be a challenge, but I'm pretty awful at computer games. The second was to randomly explore each level and approach it less as a challenge and more as an exploration. I found this route far more rewarding (perhaps because it removed the pressure I felt when I approached it as a game to be beaten. When I fell and had to start over it was simply an opportunity to explore more of the level rather than a failure).
I wish more artwork invited us to play in the way that this piece does.
Forgetfulness by Ico Bukvic & Denise Duhamel
This piece is really exciting, because it shows a piece of poetry born in the print world making the transition into the digital world. It is work like this that makes me say not all electronic literature originates in a digital environment. This piece originated in the print world, but has become something different and extraordinary in the digital world.
As a long time fan of Denise Duhamel I was first exposed to this piece as Mobius Strip: Forgetfulness from her 2005 collection Two and Two. Despite the directions in the back of the book I still wasnt sure what a mobius strip was. The directions called for me to take scissors to the pages of the book, but being a severe bibliophile that simply wasnt an option. I lived in my state of ignorance until Duhamel came to read at Virginia Tech last November. She brought a copy of the poem in its mobius strip form and read from it. The mobius strip is like an infinity sign and the idea behind using it as a poetic form is that the poem has no true beginning or end. The reader can enter the loop at any point and exit it at any point and come away with something. The print environment of Two and Two lacked the dimensions to allow the poem to truly be read in this passion. Books require the poem to have a first and last line.
By pairing Duhamels words with the technical artistry of Ico Bukvic the poets original visions has been brought to life. Well, that isnt entirely true, I havent asked Denise this, but I dont think she had music in her head for this poem, so Ico has brought an additional level to the experience with the addition of his original composition, which augments the reading of the poem.
I believe this type of collaboration is truly one of the very exciting aspects of electronic literature. It allows writers who have been confined to the page to break free and share their work in ways previously not possible.
I believe each of these pieces displays the very exciting possibilities inherent in electronic literature. I hope you enjoy interacting with them as much as I have. Thanks for reading.
This issue wouldn't be possible without the technical guidance of of Jeremy Hunsinger, the patience and support of Ed Falco, and the contributions of the four talented artists who contributed to this issue. My thanks go out to all of them.
Managing Editor, The New River Spring 09