Stephanie Strickland is the prize-winning author of five books of poetry, most recently Zone : Zero, which includes two interactive poems on CD. She co-edited the Electronic Literature Collection/1 and a recent issue of the Iowa Review Web. Strickland currently teaches in the Graduate Poetry Program at the University of Utah and reads and lectures internationally. She spoke with Gulf Coast via e-mail last winter about electronic literature and her new book.
Eric Ekstrand is a second-year MFA student at the University of Houston, where he holds an Inprint/Brown Fellowship and teaches freshman composition. He works with Writers in the Schools (Houston) and his poems can be found in Poetry, the Indiana Review, and New South. He is a senior reader for Gulf Coast.
Elsewheres and Inbetweens:
Eric Ekstrand sits down with Stephanie
Eric Ekstrand interviews Stephanie Strickland
Eric Ekstrand: How has the work of the poet changed in the computer age? Or has it?
Stephanie Strickland: To quote from a grant the Electronic Literature Organization is preparing, “software permeates contemporary societies. Therefore, if we want to understand contemporary techniques of control, communication, representation, simulation, analysis, decision-making, memory, vision, writing, and interaction, our [work] can’t be complete until we consider the software layer.” I believe that is a true statement, and if so, it should interest poets. I believe it is part of the work of a poet in the computer age to “consider the software layer,” its effect on writing and on everything that conditions writing.
The work of the poet is, of course, larger than that. Every respect in which the poetic word is an address to an other is a special responsibility of the poet, one Celan virtually immersed himself in. And beyond that, the potential of language is a poet’s domain. The sum of all that has been and can be spoken to a living person today—as Buber said, all that can be “lifted by a living speaker into the sphere of the living word”—that heavy lifting is the job of the poet.
EE: Is there a relationship between computer language and theory and human language and theory?
SS: I think so. I think we live in an era of foundational change. We haven’t really absorbed the huge shifts in the understanding of time, space, and the quantum that occurred at the beginning of the twentieth century, nor even really have we fully understood the meanings of evolution, all of which bear on our understanding of our world and ourselves. We have developed a lot of beautiful mathematics that, however, sometimes stand in place of physical understanding. But technology quests, like the one for quantum computing, keep sending us back to foundational questions. This is really exciting, as long as one continues in search. It is really difficult, if what you do instead is hunker down, bunker in, believe experts without holding them to account, feel overwhelmed, or succumb to fear, which is what has happened both to our political life and also a lot of academic life.
EE: In the eighties and nineties people were very excited about poetic possibilities presented by new software like Storyspace as well as the PC and general access to the Internet. It seems to be talked about less these days in literary circles. Is this the reality? Is the hypertext revolution over before it began? Are there other hypertext and electronic artists and poets working today whom you admire?
SS: I think that in many respects literary life has actually moved to the Internet, or to the Web, with the huge profusion of blogs, zines, and the like. Many listservs for poets, from the original Buffalo Poetics, to special groups like the Flarf group or Pussipo, or large groups like Wom-Po, bring poets into better contact with each other. E-mail and electronic submissions are becoming the de facto standard for communication in the literary world.
With respect to literary works that are “born-digital,” hypertext fiction had its heyday in the early nineties and is just one of those sorts of works. By born-digital, I mean works that could never exist in print, could not be “printed off” the Web, so I do not refer to the huge number of printable poems distributed digitally on electronic screens. I refer to work that intrinsically requires ongoing computation for you to be able to experience it. You can find such work in the Electronic Literature Collection, volume 1, which I co-edited in 2006. It is online at http://collection.eliterature.org/1/.
Some of the many electronic artists and poets I admire are John Cayley, Donna Leishman, Alan Sondheim, Brian Kim Stefans, Jim Andrews, Giselle Beiguelmann, Talan Memmott, Jim Rosenberg, Ed Falco, M. D. Coverley, Jason Nelson, Daniel Howe, mez, geniwate, Reiner Strasser, Young Hae-Chang Heavy Industries, Maria Mencia, Regina Célia Pinto, and Ana Maria Uribe.
EE: You are on the board of the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO). What is their work and has working with this organization affected your writing?
SS: Electronic literature pushes the limits of media by using them in ways that typically are more experimental and diverse than other kinds of digital documents. As our grant says, “This has made e-lit a test bed for a future in which an increasing proportion of documents will be born-digital and take fuller advantage of networked, new-media environments.” Quoting the grant language again, “Electronic literature forms present models for integrating the hyperattentive practices of media interaction with the immersive cognitive practices of literary reading.”
Thus the ELO has worked on several fronts. It has been at the forefront of trying to facilitate and promote the writing, publishing, and reading of literature in electronic media, by providing an electronic meeting place for its practitioners at http://eliterature.org, by creating an online showcase of such literature, by affiliating with international partners and other digital arts organizations like Turbulence, and by sponsoring conferences.
EE: It seems to me that there is a perishability involved in working with electronic media that is more pronounced than when working in more physical ones. Preserving electronic art poses different difficulties than, say, printed books or a painting on the wall, and also in the appreciation of this kind of art when technologies are so rapidly altering. Have you found this to be true? Has this affected the way you compose in electronics and also in your print work?
SS: That is certainly true! If you want relative imperishability, you can work with stone like my friend the mathematician-sculptor, Helaman Ferguson. He is quoted in two of the “slippingglimpse” sections in Zone : Zero. However, I find that rather than going to consult the acid-free edition of an encyclopedia at my local library, I tend to use online resources. I can find poems more quickly online than at the library. There may be many mirror sites online. The question is a social one of what the community wants to preserve. I think there is little doubt that much of what the world is preserving at this moment is in electronic form. Whether this is good or not should be a matter of active and informed debate! Most certainly, work that takes advantage of special software features is dependent on that software remaining in circulation and remaining functional with changing browsers, etc. Neither the open-source community nor commercial software developers can guarantee this. I would say that you have as good a chance to have your electronic work preserved—if it becomes valued—as you do to have an artist’s book, something like Tom Phillips’s A Humument, for instance, preserved.
EE: How does time play into the particular experience of your electronic work?
SS: I think time is key—one huge driving intuition for me about poetry is that it is wrong to spatialize time, which is what happens to poetry on the page. Illuminated manuscripts, Mallarmé, concrete poetry, much of experimental poetry aims to open up the grid of the print frame and its relation to a Cartesian graph which represents time as just another dimension of space. This is again a foundational question. Poetry is an architecture of time, whether spoken, or spoken silently within. I think electronic space, configurational space, allows me to evoke architectural time better.
Actually, each of my works gives a different experience of time. With regard to the Zone : Zero digital works, “The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot” is a hypertextual, jumping, associative kind of experience like going wherever you want in a museum. “Errand” means negotiating print time and movie time at the same time. “Vniverse”— and “Vniverse” as just one part of the whole poem, V: WaveSon.nets/Losing L’una—lets you experience different kinds of waves of time. The new poem, “slippingglimpse,” deals with the interaction of video and text where the water has become the first reader, so that a non-human time comes to the fore. This is both an environmental meditation and also a turn to considering the computer itself as a serious reading partner.
EE: Simone Weil’s life and work has figured prominently in your earlier collections, and she appears in Zone : Zero as well, but fleetingly. Is Simone still a taproot for you?
SS: Always. She keeps me honest. She makes me know that courage and going against the grain have a place in every life, no matter how bleak the conditions of your world may appear, perhaps especially if the world seems to be falling apart and reverses outpacing gains, as was of course the case during her lifetime as a refugee from the Third Reich.
EE: What does the role of interactivity play in your print and electronic work? Is the reader of your hypertext poem different from the reader of your print?
SS: Absolutely different. One thing an electronic work does is teach the reader a new way of reading. Usually in fact, in this early stage of the e-lit game, the reader has to learn a new interface for each work; beyond that, the intent of these works, and much else about them, requires a new kind of positioning, stance, and care on the part of the receiver. For instance, you may be asked to watch print and read images simultaneously, a reversal of what you are used to doing.
EE: I have to admit, when I hear “Hypertext Poetry” I immediately think of a poetry of intellect and rigorous experiment. But I was happy to find in Zone : Zero (in addition to intellect and experiment) real tenderness, especially in “The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot.” Not sentimental, but sincere. Are you a romantic?
SS: Not in the literary sense—Romantics seem focused on their own sensations or the growth of their own minds. I have not found “romantic” people to be particularly “tender”; they are too swept away by the force of their emotions to pay attention to what tenderness might require. With Simone Weil as a muse, I guess plainspoken words, that feel like they have to be spoken, have a strong claim on me. Also, I am always relearning what the world is like. Every day. No unitary mind grows up and gains control. I think the playfulness in my writing perhaps goes together with the joy of making. But address, the issue of whom you address, why do you need to be dwelling on this, now, in this way, seems very important to me as well. I don’t always know why, in fact I probably never know why, ahead of time—only after I’ve done the work I think I have to do.
EE: Geography and space seem important in the collection. The book is divided into “zones” and poems like “Survey,” and “Islands (Invaginated by Saltwater . . . )” are kinds of linguistic maps (among other things). Are you borrowing Bishop’s idea of the poet as a faithful cartographer of the experienced world, or is the speaker of these poems a different kind of mapmaker?
SS: The zones are important—body, war, logic and two elsewheres—as is the inbetween or zero zone, but I do think of time zones as much as zones of space. “Survey” spans a world from unthinkable bigness of the universe (we now literally teach the age and size of the universe, not metaphorically long ago and far away) to the homeless person on the corner. Can we even “experience” worlds that run from the nano- to the super-macro and kind of run over the human scale in the meantime? “Islands” in the end is a description of lungs, the complicated mathematical space that the veins and arteries and bronchioles share. With CSI, medical imaging, and so forth, we act like we have experienced the inside of the body, the atom, the gene, the galaxy, but have we really? Again, it is an issue of the kind of space that computation alone provides.
EE: Now that Zone : Zero has gone to press, are there questions or problems that writing the book drummed up for you that weren’t answered or resolved by the writing? I guess, do these poems anticipate poems yet unwritten? What are those?
SS: Well, for me, each book leads me on to the next, and I have written a number of poems toward my next manuscript, Huracan’s Harp. Here I see us all as caught up together in a worldwide dynamic system, so it is both ecological in focus and an outgrowth of “slippingglimpse” I would say. How do we manage both science and virtuality (the space computation creates) to live our lives and not run away from them—where do we find that touchstone of plain words that need to be spoken and at the same time take on the very fancy footwork of the systems that surround us? How would Simone Weil do it? That is always a question I am left with. How to live an ethical, open, hopeful life in a hard time, a time that is unfairly terrible for so many people on earth.
For more about Stephanie Strickland and electronic literature, visit stephaniestrickland.com, the Electronic Literature Collection, or issue 9.1 of the Iowa Review Web, which Strickland co-edited.