When I was a kid, I loved the Choose Your Own Adventure stories. They transformed reading from a passive pastime into an active one. I was suddenly invested in the monsters and mayhem sprawled across the pages – it was my life on the line! And best of all, I could read them with my brother. We shared a bedroom one summer and would take our turn each night reading the next chapter aloud and then painstakingly deciding on our chosen course.
One of the great things about the Choose Your Own Adventure model, for kids but for adults too, is that there is fluidity in the narrative structure. You can find yourself back in places you have already been, discover new places quite unexpectedly, and the suspension of disbelief is a given.
It was Emily Craven in Adelaide who came up with the idea of integrating physical landscapes into digital stories, and using the Choose Your Own Adventure model as the roadmap. Earlier this year she created and hosted Choose Your Own Adelaide Adventure. Facilitated by a series of QR codes placed around Adelaide city that could be scanned with a smart phone, the code linked the participant to the next part of the adventure where they could then choose from several options to continue the story. Each new part of the story took place in the location of the QR code.
Just as the Choose Your Own Adventure model lends itself to narrative experimentation, so does digital storytelling and digital reading. The digital medium gives the creator freedom to experiment with linear narrative in a way that is not disruptive to the reading experience but, rather, is essential to it. Indeed, the way most of us read digitally is already non-linear, hyperlinking our way from one page to another. The obvious next step is for the story creator to incorporate that non-linear model into the writing from the initial stages.
Given that both the Choose Your Own Adventure model and digital reading allow different and non-traditional approaches to narrative, so it goes that they would then be ideal structures with which to develop non-narrative writing forms.
Hence, Choose Your Own Poetry Adventure.
A partnership between Queensland Poetry Festival and if:book Australia, we asked three different poets to create a Choose Your Own Adventure series through the streets of Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley. The Valley was chosen as it is the site for Queensland Poetry Festival, but it is also a rich hunting ground for imagery and storytelling with its abundance of night spots, unusual characters, markets, and alleyways. As predicted, the three poets used the Choose Your Own Adventure forum in different ways, highlighting the possibilities of using digital spaces to experiment with poetic storytelling, challenging both the means (digital) and the artform (poetry) to interact with one another and therefore enhance the reader experience.
For her adventure, poet Carmen Leigh-Keates adapted her verse novella, Second-Hand Attack Dog. Her novella is set in the streets of the Valley, following the fortunes of Rodney, a rock muso. Carmen’s adventure was all about the nightlife of the Valley, the bars and the clubs that give the Valley its reputation (good or bad, depending on your inclination). Carmen’s adventure highlighted just how well a poem can be enhanced by a sense of place, and also how understanding of a place can be enhanced through a cultural interpretation of itself.
Chris Lynch’s adventure played with the notion of time and place. At each junction, you were given the choice of stepping into the future, going back in time, or remaining in the present. The poems brought the reader’s attention to specific details in the landscape which in turn enhanced the imagery of the poetic, and by drawing us through the Valley in time Chris was able to reference Brisbane in her many guises:
the beat, the beat, the beat beat Joh; the beat the beat the beat beats on
Julie Beveridge’s links to the physical landscapes were a lot more subtle, drawing the landscapes into the poems, rather than the other way around, invoking the Brisbane River in one poem, and then the Valley prostitutes in the next. Images recurred throughout the series to tie the non-narrative poems together, and Julie also played around with the notion of choice, asking the reader to not only choose their next destination, but also the next word in the poem.
As a discrete project in and of itself, the Choose Your Own Poetry Adventure series produced some fantastic poetry that was well worth the reading. More than that though, it provided a fertile experimentation ground for how poets can use the range of digital devices and online tools now available to challenge their own practice and reach new and different readers. Another interesting outcome of the Choose Your Own Poetry Adventure series was how it subverted some of the commonly held assumptions about digital engagement.
We regularly hear the lament that the internet is contributing to a rise in antisocial behaviour. I’m no expert on behavioural psychology, but the Choose Your Own Poetry Adventure was an excellent paradigm to demonstrate that, when used differently, digital engagement can easily be a shared experience. Just as my brother and I found out as kids, the Choose Your Own Poetry Adventure series naturally lent itself to co-reading. Simon Groth took his mini-me through the streets of the Valley, and when I went out for lunch on Sunday I saw groups of two’s or three’s huddling over a shared smart phone.
We also hear over and over the lament that the easy and frequent access to digital spaces means that we are increasingly disconnected from the present and the ‘real’. Choose Your Own Poetry Adventure on the other hand, did just the opposite. It used digital means to anchor the reader to the physical space around them, prompting them to spend time on park benches and at bus stops, and to notice details and nuances that most of us would unthinkingly walk on by.
The aim of all art, of course, is for the reader/viewer/watcher to experience the world through a different lens, if only momentarily, whether that be the physical world, the spiritual, emotional or intellectual. The Choose Your Own Poetry Adventure series is all about that aim – challenging the creator to reimagine the physical world and the potentials of their own artform, and then challenging the reader to see and understand the familiar everyday through new eyes.
Our next step is to turn Choose Your Own Poetry Adventure into an enhanced e-book, combining audio, visual, and written work. So stay tuned…
Sarah Gory is a reader, writer, and cultural producer. She is the Director of Queensland Poetry Festival, and works in the programs team at Queensland Writers Centre. Prior to moving to Brisbane, she was the manager of the National Young Writers Festival (2009 – 2010), and worked at Oxfam Australia.