The digital landscape is comprised of lines, tendril connections between events and objects, moments (past, future, present) and ideas. The field of digital poetry is driven less by mountains of accepted theories and practices than by the intersections of the artist/poet’s life and their expression of those experiences through experimental and nearly unclassifiable digital creations. Digital poetry began as – and continues to be – a wild and lawless land. There are no clear rules, no dominant conventions, no semi agreed upon canon of “great works”, not even a clear definition for the slim entry fields of grant proposals. Indeed, in 2008, the Electronic Literature Organization put forward a project with the United States Federal Archives who were collecting websites to spider (web bots) and archive in the national collection. Many digital writers were upset with this “canon building” activity, fearing this sweep of websites might be the only digital writing future aliens and/or archivists would ever know. The archive went forward, but it was clear despite decades of digital literature production, there continued to be a strong resistance to “pinning down” the genre. This story speaks to two common traits of the digital poet. First, they are typically mavericks, cowboys of the poetry/digital art world. And yet most have no desire to become pioneers, to lay roots and build towns, as they are quite satisfied with the occasional job rounding up code and/or fighting those greedy mine owners who want to tame hypertext. And secondly these electronic verse makers are continually riding the ever-changing gusts of technology, their practices bending, swaying and almost always breaking during spring storms. Even the term group, in the great cowboy tradition, only fits during weekends at the Saloon after some wayward academic conference. Yes there are, to continue beating the western theme, the clerks, pulp novel historians, theorists and railroad barons bred books, conferences and dissertations on the genre. And eventually the barbed wire fences and criss-cross of highways might force these wanderers into burgeoning suburbs, to backyard gardens and the occasional horse ride into the wilderness. Compared to poetry in general, or any other literary field, digital poetry and its larger brother/sister Electronic Literature is a small frontier land, comprised of an incredibly diverse and spread out, but sparse population of writers/artists and scholars both academic and independent.
Strangely, the number of people creating digital poems has not increased dramatically in the past ten years and yet the scholarship around the works has grown substantially. Anecdotally, conversations with fellow digital poets might suggest that as the attempts to package digital poetry by theorists increase, the playground atmosphere seeps away, diminishing the experimental base of the genre. Digital poetry currently exists in a strange space, a borderland between legitimacy and passing fad. I do not pretend to understand all the nuances and factors that might lead this genre to its future success or eventual disappearance. A first step though is to explore what digital poetry is, to attempt to uncover a definition of the genre.
Defining digital poetry is not about clarity, nor is it concerned with easily identified creative products. Instead, digital poetry is more of a continually changing process, a way of translating the world, and more about intentions than intentionally fitting into categories. So how does one define a genre, certainly one so new and ever changing as digital poetry? Because there is no overall consensus on the matter, I will attempt to identify commonalities and, combined with my own understanding of the field, create a baseline description for digital poetry. This “compiled” description is a diving board, a portable ladder, a box of coloured pencils/paper, a stick of non-toxic craft glue and the description built will be elusive, ever changing and defiant.
Digital poetry, as old as computers, is still more the subject of special editions and collected works, rather than the broad acceptance of filtering into everyday language of the literary/arts world. Brazilian academic Jorge Luiz Antonio provides an almost sarcastically long list of terms for what comprises the genre, nearly all combining some technical descriptor with the word poetry. For example there is Hypermedia poetry, Click Poetry, Kinetic Poetry, Internet Poetry, and perhaps the most technically broad and accurate of them all Computer Poetry coined by Théo Lutz in 1959. At the end of this list (and before) he even apologizes for not being exhaustive. While it appears his intention is to provide a historical context for the field’s development. Instead what seems to be arising is a field unwilling to define itself, as if the true term was some impossible to pronounce string of hypens, hypers and all manner of grammatical gymnastics.
Poet Stephanie Strickland has written many treatises attempting to define, and redefine digital poetry. Her article “Writing the Virtual: Eleven Dimensions of E-Poetry”, puts forth a self-admitted contradiction. Although she provides us with eleven states E-Poetry typically inhabits, she concedes that “Writing native to the electronic environment is under continual construction (poiesis) by its creators and receivers.” What we are left with are eleven laws for a lawless land. Specifically, such statements as the 11th – “Soft ephemeral space in any number of dimensions is created and disassembled or dispersed inside an overall default situation of hybrid states of mixed reality” – are both inspiring to the writer and yet so open ended as to suggest the goal of E-Poetry is to recreate the cosmos, to rebuild the micro/macroverses around/inside of us. Here digital poetry seems less a classification, and more its own language, relearned and changed by each new speaker.
Lori Emerson, in Leonardo Electronic Almanac’s special issue on digital poetry adds to the argument defining E-Poetry. And while others like Strickland are happy to swim in ethereal language, Emerson sees a danger in the murkiness. She argues, “While we have to acknowledge digital poetry as part of our current cultural moment, this acknowledgment is doomed to vagueness as long as we cannot say what digital poems are let alone adequately describe their behaviour.” In attempting to address this doomsday scenario, she attempts to pin some of digital poetry to the “mathematicization of space”, and “poems reflecting thinking that is based on either Euclidean or non-Euclidean principles of mathematics”. As we see with other definitions or partial attempts to pin down digital poetry, Emerson is also correct. Digital Literature requires an intimate engagement with numbers, equations and geometry. But is this just restating Stephanie Strickland’s point? If the world, as some would argue, is born from and moves to the beat of maths, then again Digital Poetry becomes the foggy, near spiritual engagement with the our real and created universe. Metaphysics is often used to classify that which we cannot or will not define.
But should we even separate digital poetry from its print counterpart, defining it as anything but simply poetry? Poet Majorie Perloff, in a chapter from New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts, and Theories, asserts “no medium or technique of production can in itself give the poet (or other kind of artist) the inspiration or imagination to produce works of art”. Digital poets have a fetish for the trickery of technology, but the content of their poetry, the inspiration behind their artistry is not tied to digital magic acts. It comes from the play between the poet’s internal and external worlds. In concluding her point Majorie quotes Bill Viola: “I don’t like the label ‘video artist’,” the great video artist Bill Viola, once remarked. “I consider myself to be an artist. I happen to use video because I live in the last part of the twentieth century, and the medium of video (or television) is clearly the most relevant visual art form in contemporary life.” And certainly interactive technologies are for digital poets what video is to Viola, another albeit more complicated and dynamic pen and paper set, new tools for an old art.
Where we arrive, after this brief survey is an understanding that digital poetry defies, it seems, the traditional notion of classification. Perhaps this is due to the perceived youth or newness of the genre causing a “let’s wait and see what happens” attitude among practitioners and theorists. Or maybe it’s the way digital poetry uses the tools of and borrows from so many other art and literary fields. A digital poet must be website maker, games creator, video artist, programmer, painter, musician, interactive designer and wordsmith. And with each new change in technology, so too goes the digital poet: today a net-artist and tomorrow an iPhone developer. Indeed the anti-defining attitude the genre so brazenly wears is as important a component of any digital poetry definition as the multimedia tools it inhabits.
As for my work, I find classification is sometimes more determined by the opportunity than specific intent. Internally, I might think of my work as digital poems. But externally, when I describe my work for the purpose of submitting to exhibition calls or to be published in journals or applying for grants, I fluctuate to emphasise the aspect of the work that most neatly fits the submission call’s description. This might be considered “cheating” or wishy-washy opportunism by some. And at times that criticism might be correct, as I’ve been guilty of de-emphasising the poetics in my work for the chance at large visual arts grant. However, I would also argue that my flexibility is pulled/coaxed/harvested from the very core of digital poetry. Again as Strickland stresses, digital poetry is its own ever-evolving language of all the texts available, electric and otherwise. Entirely vague and problematic? Of course. Exciting and adventurous, chaotically building and destroying meaning and convention? Thank heavens, yes. Absolutely and anti-absolutely, yes.
Jason Nelson is a digital and hypermedia poet and artist. He is a lecturer on Cyberstudies, digital writing and creative practice at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia. His work can be found at http://www.secrettechnology.com.
Links to Explore:
- Jason Nelson Digital Poetry: http://www.secrettechnology.com and http://www.heliozoa.com
- Electronic Literature Directory: http://directory.eliterature.org/
- Brazilian Digital Poetry from Jorge Luiz Antonio http://vispo.com/misc/BrazilianDigitalPoetry.htm
- Stephanie Strickland http://www.stephaniestrickland.com/
- Lori Emerson http://loriemerson.net/
- E-Poetry at the University of New York, Buffalo http://epc.buffalo.edu/e-poetry/
- ELMCIP Knowledge Base for Electronic Literature http://elmcip.net/knowledgebase
- Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam E-Poetry Collection, 2009 http://www.poetryinternational.org/piw_cms/cms/cms_module/index.php?obj_id=14865