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ROBERT KENDALL - SEPTEMBER 1999 FEATURE  

  

The Cortland Review

FEATURE
 
David Lehman
  Tom Disch talks with poet and critic David Lehman about his daily poems. David reads three poems from his upcoming book.

Lyn Lifshin
  A Day in the Life: Lyn recounts the details of her day.

Robert Kendall
  Tales from the Hard Disk: The future of literature online.

John Kinsella
  Familiar Territory: Changes of Tense: the next chapter in John Kinsella's continuing autobiography series.

Robert Kendall

Robert KendallRobert Kendall's hypertext poems have been published on the Web and on disk. He teaches hypertext poetry and fiction for the New School's online program, runs the Word Circuits Web site, and has written extensively about electronic literature. His printed collection of poems, A Wandering City (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 1992), won the CSU Poetry Center Prize. He has also received a New Jersey State Council on the Arts Fellowship and other awards. More of his writings are available on his home page.

Tales from the Hard Disk

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Some 15 years ago, I began the daily ritual of sitting down at a PC keyboard. Everything about the machine on my desk—from the industrial-gray exterior to the businesslike display of diagnostic routines upon boot-up—proclaimed that here was a tool for Serious Work only. Yet it wasn't long before I began to scratch the surface and discover otherwise. Alongside the productivity applications were opportunities for renegade flights of the imagination. The means for writing poetry lay right next to the tools of the programmer's trade. I soon found myself all too often veering from the path of a good day's work to plunge into the wild underbrush.

The serious work for which I had bought my computer was typing and printing poems. Yet here I was forever being distracted from my similes and metonyms by the urge to romp with one of the programming environments I had allowed onto my hard disk like so many stray cats. The poem would go unfinished while I became engrossed in scripting elaborate word processor macros that would let me automatically format my poems or rebreak lines with a single keystroke instead of the usual five or six. What was the attraction? Was it simply the allure of inefficiency...the thrill of modern science letting me accomplish, through hours of programming, what could otherwise have been done with a few seconds a day of typing? I was, after all, a poet—one of that strangely inefficient breed willing to devote a lifetime to saying such things as "I love you" or "We're all going to die someday" in the most complex way possible.

Unable to determine its cause, I saw my silicon addiction grow worse. Among my many clandestine programming ventures, I built a database to track my submissions to editors. It facilitated selecting poems to send out and targeting the magazines most likely to publish them. My interest in the fate of the poems themselves was sometimes overshadowed by my fascination with simulating the nuances of the submission process in software.

I guess it was around this time that it dawned on me—I was hooked on playing God. I had programmed the database to become a little self-contained universe dominated by the interaction of two forces—editors and poems. It did my will with the smallest possible amount of direct input from me. In this little data ecosystem, the poems were driven by their own need to keep moving until they were embedded like sperm in the magazine pages that would give them birth/publication. The most fertile magazines (those that liked my work) rose to greater prominence, while the infertile (those that just didn't get it) gradually headed toward fossilization. At least so it seemed in my binary-fevered brain.

The program was sexy, logical, and elegant in a way that the realities it simulated were not. The poems themselves went out into an imperfect world where mail could get lost and editorial decisions could be arbitrary. The database records were entered into a pristine virtual world that ran like clockwork. Even recording rejections in my database gave me a certain satisfaction.

Yes, I was under the spell of the virtual, and at what cost? Poetry is of inarguable practical value. It gets me through the day. It helps make sense of life. It can endure through the generations, while a computer program—that reckless expression of faith in the immaterial, that means of giving form to pure thought—endures until newer technology renders it useless. My 15-year-old poems are still with me, but the macros that auto-formatted them were abandoned when I tired of rewriting the code every time the latest word processor upgrade left it inoperative. My finely honed submissions database now teeters on the brink of Y2K obsolescence. The creations of the programmer are but anonymous drops in a bucket that is periodically emptied and refilled by technical progress.

Yet the allure remains. What besides programming logic so well exposes the elegant patterns and symmetries of process that lurk beneath the clumsy goings-on of life. What else can so effectively refocus reality through telling metaphors? What else can make the actions of thought into the physics of a virtual world? What else can graft a piece of ourselves onto the way the universe works?

What else? Well, poetry for one thing. I realized that the need to write programs sprang from much the same source as the need to write poems. It was yet another way of exploring my environment through language. This insight made programming no longer seem such an ignominious calling. In fact, it began to look like a sensible thing for a poet to do. It was time to put programming to Serious Work.

So began a decade-long preoccupation with interactive electronic poetry. I became obsessed with combining the two languages—English and computer code—into a single poetry that was part text and part encoded behavior. Hypertext links, lines that change upon rereading, text-structuring algorithms, and words that move and mutate entered my writer's toolbox alongside such old standbys as enjambment and assonance. The words themselves conjure up scenes and feelings and associations in the reader's mind. The way the textual structure changes in the reader's hands illuminates the subtle and dynamic mechanisms (causality, contingency, perspective, chance, implication) behind these scenes and feelings and associations. I have added a vocabulary of function to my work.

How the text responds to its environment is as important as what it says. In "Frame Work" (Iowa Review Web, 1999), the interplay among texts in different frames explores the way the mind refocuses among modes of perception. The patterns of change and recurrence in "Dispossession" (Eastgate Reading Room, 1999) demonstrate the effects of wiring metaphors to the world in different ways. "A Life Set for Two" (Eastgate Systems, 1996) examines how memory actively reshapes the past.

Most of my first endeavors in digital poetry were distributed on disk, usually by mail order or direct sales at poetry readings. In this medium they always seemed to perch uncomfortably somewhere between book and software package. Now there's the Web. Thanks to this new publishing vehicle, readers are becoming accustomed to the computer monitor as a poetry delivery system. Poets who write for the Web are getting used to a marriage of text and computer code, routinely opening their poems in their text editors to see HTML tags interspersed among the words. In this environment it almost seems unnatural not to have a few hypertext links or animated GIFs in there with the text. What does it all mean?

What happens when a new method of transmitting poetry arises? A look backward may be instructive here. We can't be certain of the effect that the invention of writing had on the previously oral traditions of poetry, but judging from what we know of early writing and the surviving oral traditions of literature, the change must have been significant indeed. Writing fundamentally altered the nature of poems and stories. For the first time they became objects—entities with a physical existence outside of human memory. As objects they became (relatively) immutable. They could be put in a closet for a generation or two, ignored, and then rediscovered. They could have an author's name permanently inscribed on them.

Now with the Web, literature becomes something different again. Poems and stories published online are no longer objects. Now they are...what exactly? Technically they are expressions of programming logic. A set of instructions that tells the Web browser what to display. Web authors must write for the computer as well as the reader, whether they think of it in these terms or not.

Writing for the computer can mean simply adding a few tags for line breaks or italics, or it can mean (as it does for me) building poems from functions, program objects, and variables: wielding verbs that are actions instead of just words, nouns that have behaviors, sentences that are entire dramas unto themselves. How could a poet resist the call of a language that embodies rather than denotes, a language moored not in meaning but in virtual being? What writer doesn't want to play God?

The promise of perfect virtuality is never truly fulfilled, however. No matter how high the software flies, it can never quite escape the gravity of imperfect reality. There are bugs, viruses, hardware incompatibilities. Perhaps this failed state of grace takes us deeper into the human condition than would a software that was truly a tool of the gods. I admit, though, that when my head is spinning from debugging and my hands are aching from repetitive strain injury, I sometimes have to seek refuge in conventional print-bound poetry. Picking up the pad and pencil to write can be as refreshing as eating an apple straight from the tree after a week of gourmet meals.

Failure is not something to fear. Even printed poetry ultimately fails us. At some point we must stop trying to taste the apple imagery and take a bite of the real fruit. Otherwise we starve. When all is said and done, a writer's success depends upon the failures of language. The perfectly accurate words for describing something don't exist, so any description must create the subject anew from surrogate materials and revel in that false creation. Language can't truly replicate so it re-creates instead, and this re-creation in its boldest form is literature. We have spent centuries debugging our language and enhancing its features, but we have also spent just as long learning how to exploit its failures. Now we have before us the glories and failures of a new kind of language.


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Tales from the Hard Disk, by Robert Kendall
TCR September 1999 Feature

 

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