(c) 1995 by Poets & Writers, Inc.
always been a remarkably adaptable art form. It's at home on the lips of
the storyteller or the actor. It happily dons the accoutrements of song.
Even the printed page may spawn extraverbal hybrids such as visual poetry,
calligraphy, and illustrated books. Now the range extends still further.
The computer--that remarkable melting pot of all communication--has become
another medium for expressing the incomparable beauty and power of the
A growing number
of poets and fiction writers are using the personal computer to stretch
the boundaries of the written tradition. From the electronic pen come poems
and stories that couldn't be represented in print--work that can exist
only on the infinitely flexible "cyberpage" offered by the personal computer
The new electronic
literature breaks the bonds of linearity and stasis imposed by paper. In
digital form, a story can draw readers into its world by giving them a
role in shaping it, letting them choose which narrative thread to follow,
which new situation or character to explore. Within a "page" of poetry
on screen, words or lines can change continually as the reader watches,
making the text resonate with shifting shades of meaning. Written work
can "improvise," altering its own content every time it's read. With its
power to mix text, graphics, sound, and video, the PC can extend the ancient
interdisciplinary traditions of writing.
This emerging genre--often
called interactive literature, because the reader can interact with it--has
gained an inexorable momentum in the past few years. Such prominent writers
as William Dickey, Thomas M. Disch, and Robert Pinsky have tried their
hand at interactivity, and the medium has attracted many other talented
practitioners in this country and abroad, as well as a number of publishers
devoted almost exclusively to it. It has garnered favorable critical attention
from such conservative voices as The New York Times Book Review and
The Washington Post Book World and spawned an eloquent body of critical
theory. Interactive literature has found its way into the curricula of
English and writing departments at many colleges, including the New
School for Social Research in New York, where I teach interactive poetry
and fiction. (See sidebar.)
Woe, by Michael Joyce
[click on thumbnail]
Fueling the new
genre is a mushrooming interest in electronic publishing. Books of all
types are coming out on computer-readable disks, with the PC screen substituting
for the printed page. The new field is seeing activity from many of the
nation's largest publishing houses, including Bantam Doubleday Dell, Macmillan,
Paramount, Penguin, Putnam, Random House, Simon & Schuster, and Time
Warner, as well as university presses such as Oxford, Yale, and Columbia,
numerous small presses, software companies large and small, and even self-publishing
authors. Publishing on disk not only allows new ways of creating books,
but also throws open the doors for entirely new distribution channels that
may have far-reaching implications for literature.
For example, one
of my interactive digital poems is
afloat on a sea of computer networks, where it has been read by hundreds
of people across the country who have downloaded it--that is, transferred
it via modem to their own computers. At least 9,000 copies of this poem
have been circulated worldwide by distributors of shareware (software that
users can try out before they pay for it). My interactive poetry with music
has also been exhibited at an assortment of venues, ranging from the Geraldine
R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Waterloo, New Jersey, and a Barnes &
Noble bookstore in New Jersey to the Franklin Institute Science Museum
in Philadelphia and art galleries in New Jersey and Philadelphia.
By means of a PC and audio equipment mounted in an exhibition space, the
poetry becomes a literary artwork/performance that attracts people of all
stripes who watch, read, listen to, and interact with it. Electronic authors
Malloy, and Jim
Rosenberg have given similar exhibitions at such places as the Guggenheim
Museum Soho in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles,
the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Royal Festival Hall in London, and
several university galleries.
I first ventured
into electronic poetry in 1990, after publishing poetry in numerous printed
magazines and completing a book of poems (A
Wandering City, Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 1992).
I saw the computer as a potentially valuable accomplice when I took my
poems on the road for readings. Displaying the work on the PC monitor seemed
a solution to that age-old problem faced by the poet as performer: the
ear is not always as adept as the eye at taking in the nuances of the poet's
art. Subtle word-play and verbal interrelationships are often lost on the
ear, not to mention line layout and quirky spelling or punctuation. The
computer screen can preserve all that the printed page has to offer, while
imbuing the poem with the dynamism of a live performance.
I began fashioning
kinetic visual poems for the PC, calling them SoftPoems
to reflect both their software genesis and the malleability of their text.
In this work, the words establish their rhythms by appearing and disappearing
a few at a time, moving around on the screen and undergoing other visual
transformations. I drew on age-old traditions of word as art object, language-painting
with different fonts and colors. To enhance the verbal choreography, I
synchronized original music to it with the aid of multimedia software--a
natural outgrowth of a life-long interest in combining poetry and music.
The result was like a song with the words written rather than sung.
My PC began accompanying
me to my poetry readings. It started out as an experiment that I feared
might elicit only confusion or worse, yet it quickly became one of my most
effective and accessible links with an audience. My computer display soon
showed up at all manner of places, penetrating well beyond the usual literary
circles. I was surprised to find my digital creations appealing to people
who previously eyed poetry as if it were some unpleasant-tasting vegetable.
This led me to use them as tools when I taught poetry in New Jersey high
schools through the Dodge Foundation's Dodge Poets program.
I had begun working
in the electronic medium assuming that I was the only writer inspired (or
deranged) enough to do so, but I gradually became aware of other kindred
spirits, some of whom--like William Dickey, Michael
Joyce, and Judy
Malloy--had answered the call of the silicon muse years before I did.
I was part of a new literary movement and didn't even realize it.
pioneers are exploring the computer as a vehicle for malleable, nonlinear
writing unlike anything from the world of print on paper. They use a technique
called hypertext, which allows the reader to pursue various diverging and
crisscrossing paths through a story or poem. The writer can link any section
within a text to many other spots in the same work. A segment of writing
can therefore lead to any of several alternative continuations or digressions
rather than just the next page.
Here's a typical
example: In Stuart
Moulthrop's hypertext novel Victory Garden (Eastgate
Systems, 1991), the reader encounters Harley and Veronica flirting
in a bar. Hitting the "Enter" key continues the story's current thread,
resuming the conversation between Harley and a friend as Veronica leaves.
Alternatively, the reader can select among words that appear highlighted
within the text, each leading onto a different narrative path. For instance,
choose "another table" and the story follows Veronica as she goes to wait
on another customer. Choose "Veronica" and the narrative digresses to a
bedroom scene between her and Harley.
Victory Garden, by Stuart Moulthrop
[click on thumbnail]
By this process
of choosing which links to follow, readers determine the order--and therefore
also the contexts--in which episodes of a story or poem appear. They assemble
their own versions of a fictional world in much the same way that they
piece together unique, personal versions of the real world from the fragments
of their own experience. The text becomes a real environment that the reader
can interact with and alter rather than just a description of one.
Joyce inspired me to embark on my own hypertext expedition. I departed
from the usual approach, however, using my background in computer programming
to develop a dynamic hypertext technique that allows a reader to change
not only the ordering of text sections but also the content of each in
response to different situations.
For example, the
first few lines of any section may vary to create an appropriate transition
from or response to whatever precedes it. Key phrases might be added or
removed, depending on whether or not the reader has already seen a related
part of the poem. Thus, if the reader encounters a passage that introduces
a particular theme, the program may alter passages the reader visits much
later on, adding to them a few lines alluding to this new theme. The way
sections are linked together also changes in response to the reader's progress.
I put the technique
to work in my book-length poem A Life
Set for Two (Eastgate Systems, forthcoming), which uses as its
structural model the human mind itself, with its dynamic twistings and
turnings. The reader roams through ruminations and memories of failed love,
as if following different trains of thought. Like thoughts, these sections
interact with one another, creating logical interconnections. The reader
can also change the mood of the poem at any time, which affects the content
of each section the way different frames of mind can color reminiscences.
A Life Set for Two, by Robert
[click on thumbnail]
The dynamic structure
of A Life Set for Two is partly an effort to minimize the discontinuity
attendant upon complex hypertext literature that frequently lets the reader
jump between distantly related spots in the writing. Disjunction can certainly
be an effective device, but I wanted to moderate it with appropriate transitions
provided by the program. The dynamic approach also gives new meaning to
the process of rereading, since a text section is often different upon
two successive perusals.
My approach to
interactive literature is just one in a field with nearly as many approaches
as practitioners. During the last few years, dozens of writers have published
fiction or poetry of this variety, and the offerings are extremely diverse.
Two of the first
notable writers to venture into interactive territory were Thomas M. Disch
and Robert Pinsky. Both created hybrids that straddle the line between
computer game and genre fiction, requiring the player/reader to unfold
the text of the story by typing in the actions of the protagonist. Disch's
Arts, 1986, now discontinued) weaves a mystery story with multiple possible
outcomes. Pinsky's Mindwheel (Synapse Software and Broderbund Software,
1984, now discontinued) is a surreal fantasy holding many puzzles (some
in the form of poems) that the reader must solve before progressing further.
This type of story/game has become a very popular form of entertainment
on the PC.
It was Michael
Joyce, however, who really opened up the electronic frontier to serious
writing, blazing the hypertrail in literature with Afternoon, a story.
in 1987, this hypertext novel requires the reader to unravel interwoven
strands of narrative to make sense of the story. The reader's efforts parallel
the struggle of the story's main character to learn whether his son and
estranged wife have been killed in a car accident. The Washington Post
Book World described this work as "an arresting, intricate, delicately
contoured prose sculpture, and a noteworthy piece of recent American fiction,
genre considerations aside."
was published in 1990 by Eastgate Systems
(Watertown, Massachusetts), an innovative electronic publisher that has
become the most important force in fostering and promoting interactive
literature. Eastgate currently offers more than a dozen works of hypertext
fiction and poetry. (See sidebar.)
most significant product of Eastgate Systems is Stuart
Moulthrop's Victory Garden. Notable for its linguistic virtuosity,
this work is the most ambitious and sophisticated embodiment yet of the
hypertext novel. Hypertext gives an unusual immediacy to this recounting
of many events unfolding at once in different parts of the world during
the recent Gulf War. It also ideally accommodates the novel's obsession
with the blurring of the boundary between reality and TV brought about
by the news media's war coverage. Switching among the narrative threads
becomes like channel-surfing through people's lives.
Eastgate publication is Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse (1992) by
McDaid. More a satirical literary potpourri of loosely connected writings
than a novel, it invites readers to explore its text in unconventional
ways. For example, choosing among various graphic images (such as Tarot
cards or the rooms of a house) will take readers to different points in
the text. Or they can select alphabetized entries from a dictionary inspired
Dictionary of the Khazars. Also from Eastgate is Judy
Malloy's its name was Penelope (1993), interesting for the way
it strings passages together in a different random order every time it's
read, emulating the fragmentation that takes place in human memory.
Larsen's Marble Springs (Eastgate Systems, 1994) holds a special
attraction for poetry teachers. This collection of hypertext poetry about
the inhabitants of a 19th-century community encourages readers to create
and add their own poems about some of the characters.
Marble Springs, by Deena Larsen
[click on thumbnail]
shorter hypertexts, such as stories and poems, Eastgate has launched a
magazine on disk called the Eastgate Quarterly. An early issue contains
Intergrams (1994), poetry that lets the reader uncover
different layers of text superimposed on different areas of the screen.
Among offerings planned for future issues are the interactive poems of
the late William Dickey, well known for his many printed books of poetry.
Dickey began experimenting with electronic poetry ten years ago, combining
hypertext, graphics, and sound effects into evocative artistic expressions.
the only press dealing in interactive literature. Hyperion
SoftWord published Rod
Willmot's long, often haunting hypertext poem Everglade, in
Gibson's much-publicized Agrippa: A Book of the Dead (Kevin
Begos Publishing, 1992, now discontinued) is a poem on disk that permanently
erases itself as it scrolls across the computer screen, endowing writing
with the fragility of memory.
Wellsweep Press in England brought out John
Cayley's six-volume Indra's Net (1993-1995), which includes
poems that generate their own text in a different way every time they're
read. It also offers Cayley's translations and electronic renderings of
Classical Chinese quatrains. "Traditional Chinese poetry invites non-linear
reading," says Cayley, who presents the text in a way that makes this quality
growth of the Internet (the much-talked-about global network of computers)
has spawned another type of publisher for hypertext literature. The fastest-growing
branch of the Internet, called the World Wide Web, is structured as a vast
repository of interlinked hypertext documents, which you can browse by
connecting your computer to the Web via a modem and an Internet service
provider. Many locations on the Web now contain works of hypertext fiction
and poetry. If you want to explore some of these, a good place to start
is the Web site called "Hyperizons:
The Search for Hypertext Fiction," which contains links to most of
the other sites devoted to hypertext literature.
A number of publishers
have ventured into multimedia literature, in which visual elements, movement,
and usually sound are as important as the text itself. Diskotech
has launched Holly
Franking's Negative Space, the first in a line of "computer
video novels" that meld text, graphics, and video. Chatfield
Software markets multimedia poems by Hale
Chatfield, and GRIST On-Line publishes
the kinetic visual poem Hiroshima, Hiroshira, Hirosh'ma (1994) by
literature is not part of today's mainstream, but this may change as an
increasing number of readers become accustomed to books on disk and more
and more publishing houses venture into electronic publishing. Reference
and children's books have been very popular in electronic versions for
five or six years, and there are now more encyclopedias sold on disk than
in print. Literature on disk is slowly gaining acceptance.
Hundreds of novels,
stories, and poems that were conceived for the printed page are now available
in electronic format. The vast majority are reprints of works that have
already appeared in print, though some noted authors--including Kathy Acker,
Robert Coover, Alice Fulton, David Ignatow, Stephen King, and William T.
Vollmann--have published work electronically either instead of or before
publishing it on paper.
this nature are distinct from interactive literature, but some of them
do use the resources of the PC to bring something new to the writing. For
example, the two-volume anthology Poetry in Motion (Voyager
Company, 1992 and 1995) supplements printed poems with digital videos
of the authors reading the work, and In My Own Voice (Sunburst
Communications, forthcoming fall 1995) includes audio recordings of
contemporary poets. Voyager has released an electronic edition of Michael
Crichton's novel Jurassic Park (1992), which the author describes
in the preface as a "more complete version" than any other, since it contains
sounds and images that helped inspire his writing. Another digital adaptation
is The Complete Peter Leroy (So Far) (Voyager Company, 1995), in
which Eric Kraft uses hypertext to link together a series of his novels,
allowing the reader to trace different themes and relationships that run
through the works. ClariNet's Hugo
and Nebula Anthology 1993 of award-nominated science fiction augments
one of its works with extensive hypertext annotations by the author.
The ClariNet anthology
is distributed on CD-ROM--a format similar to the audio CD but accommodating
computer-readable data--and exemplifies another advantage of publishing
literature electronically. Its vast storage capacity makes the CD-ROM a
uniquely inexpensive, compact repository for large collections of writing
that can easily be searched electronically for study purposes. ClariNet's
publisher believes his sci-fi collection to be the largest anthology of
contemporary fiction ever produced (it even includes five complete novels).
Library, the Bureau of Electronic Publishing,
and other companies offer CD-ROMs containing hundreds of classics at prices
ranging from $50 to $150 per disk--a fraction of what the works would cost
in print (the Bureau edition includes illustrations and recorded readings
of some of the works). The $595 Columbia Granger's World of Poetry (Columbia
University Press, 1995) packs 10,000 poems onto a CD-ROM. Chadwyck-Healey
offers a CD-ROM edition of the complete works of 1,350 British poets, though
only libraries will be able to afford its $51,000 price tag.
are also having an impact on little magazines. They make possible such
ventures as BLAM!, an aggressively provocative
product of New York's East Village, which uses audio and animation to turn
text into interactive performance art. Anyone with a PC, a modem, and access
to a computer network (such as CompuServe or the Internet) can put together
a magazine with negligible production costs and make it available to thousands
of network users who can download it to their own computers for free. There
are now dozens of such magazines with a literary focus, some predictably
bad, others (like Postmodern Culture
and GRIST On-Line) of very high quality.
The World Wide
Web is giving a boost to literature on many fronts. It's providing a home
to many new literary magazines and archives, letting authors publish their
own work at little or no expense, giving print and electronic publishers
alike the opportunity to disseminate free samples of their wares, and letting
writing programs put the work of their students before a broad reading
The biggest obstacle
to the widespread acceptance of electronic books and magazines is currently
the primitive state of the technology for reading them. Staring at today's
computer screen just doesn't have the same attraction as curling up with
a good book. However, industry experts expect the eventual arrival of an
inexpensive paperback-sized computer with a screen that matches the readability
of the printed page. Then the electronic publishing boom will begin in
Although few among
the proselytizers of digital publishing predict the disappearance of printed
books any time soon, it's hard to imagine that the technology won't have
a profound effect on the reading and writing of future generations. It
certainly wouldn't be the first time that technology has altered the course
of literature. Would the flowering of the novel have been possible without
the printing press? Think about literature before the invention of paper
or of writing itself.
is likely to flourish because it satisfies some strong artistic needs.
It's been hailed as the logical culmination of postmodern tendencies such
as making the reader a partner in constructing the meaning of a work, but
there are deeper attractions.
From the earliest
times, writers have been drawn to alternatives to linear narrative that
make storytelling more flexible. Devices such as the story within a story,
the flashback, and the subplot are precursors to hypertext. The dynamic,
interactive nature of the new genre may also let us recapture something
that was lost when oral literature gave way to a written tradition. Poems
and stories carried solely on the tongue are constantly reshaped and revitalized
by improvisation. Storytelling is partly a skill of spontaneous interaction
between teller and audience. In its purest form, as it arises in the bar
after work or at the family dinner table, it must respond to the perplexed
question, the raised eyebrow, the stifled yawn, and all the other cues
that signal the narrator when to elaborate and when to cut to the chase.
fiction may engender characters that communicate as if they were actual
people. A step in that direction has been taken by Jeffrey Morrow and Janet
Murray of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), developers of
a program called Character Maker, which uses rudimentary artificial
intelligence to unfold a work of fiction by responding to questions and
comments that the reader types in. This makes the act of reading much like
having a conversation with a character in a story.
has other interesting implications for poetry. The malleability of lines
on screen opens up possibilities for many new formal alternatives to traditional
verse structures. The instructional program PoetryStar (Chatfield
Software, 1991) demonstrates this with a strict Petrarchan sonnet by
Chatfield in which each line has four alternative versions. Every time
the sonnet is displayed, the program randomly chooses a version of each
line, with very intriguing results. The 256 million possible combinations
all maintain the strict metrical structure and rhyme scheme. A similar
feat had previously been accomplished in print by Raymond
Queneau in his Cent Mille Milliards de Poems (Gallimard, 1961),
but only rather awkwardly by means of lines printed on strips of paper
that the reader must fold into different combinations.
Kerman's Colloquy: The Interactive Poem Authoring System (forthcoming
from Eastgate) offers another new twist to old forms, letting poets create
interactive work within formal constraints that are conceptually similar
to those governing the sestina. A Colloquy poem appears on screen
a few lines at a time, with the reader determining which lines are next
added to the poem by selecting any word from the lines already there. The
selected word then begins the next new line.
endowing poetry with graphical variety, movement, and sound gives it a
physicality that immediately engages readers on a sensual level. Like the
sensuousness of rhyme and meter, electronic multimedia entices readers
in and invites them to discover the poem's less accessible places. This,
along with the new distribution avenues the medium opens, may help poetry
regain some lost popularity.
books of poetry could benefit from hypertext. Rather than confining the
individual poems in a collection to a single, sometimes arbitrary order,
an author could link them together in different ways, letting the reader
explore various alternative orderings or groupings that emphasize different
relationships among poems. This approach could also extend to many long
lyric poems, since these are often cast in loosely connected sections that
don't necessarily demand a single linear reading.
is no longer solely the domain of the technological savant, thanks to rapidly
improving software for creating electronic books. Authors can choose from
a variety of programs that simplify working in the interactive medium,
including Eastgate's Storyspace, which is intended largely for creating
hypertext fiction and poetry.
Tackling this new
breed of writing is now little more difficult or risky than trying one's
hand at any other unfamiliar genre--and it should be regarded as a new
genre, not a potential replacement for traditional forms of literature.
Like any distinctive medium, it requires first-time practitioners to rethink
some elements of their craft to use it effectively. It can also demand
some artistic readjustment as the hypertext author learns to relinquish
to the reader some control over the final form of the work. This doesn't
mean giving up responsibility for the structure of the writing or somehow
losing authorial claim to it. If anything, the structural responsibility
increases, for the work must maintain coherence in the many possible permutations
it can undergo. For a novelist or poet, adapting to interactivity is a
little like venturing into theater work, which also requires entrusting
part of the creative process to others--in this case, actors and a director.
With its aesthetic
kinship to oral tradition and live performance, the new literary technology
points toward a deepening rather than (as some fear) a lessening of the
human element in writing. It also provides some comfort when one contemplates
a coming century that many expect to be dominated by interactive electronic
media (we already have interactive television, movies, and record albums
in fledgling form). If the genre flourishes, it will mean that no matter
what else we encounter in the digital future, there will always be something
of spiritual and intellectual value--namely literature--to put up on the