Harry Burke

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Sophia Le Fraga, "TH3 B4LD 50PRANO or English Made Easy" (Detail), 2014

Words may shape the way we think, but so too does the substrate on which we scribe them. From Gutenberg to the A4 leaf, few things more than the page have determined how information is transmitted. And as we transition to digital space from analog, it has foremost been the page that’s carried us between the two modes.

But with chats and video, Genius layers and sound streams now embedded within a field long reserved for plain text, it’s clear that the space of language is rapidly thickening. As writer Harry Burke goes on to explore here, it would seem that words as deployed by poetry today, have begun to make a life beyond the margins of the page.

  • For various reasons we wanted to get poetry off the page … media crossover … Off the page and into the dustbin of history. It was the 60s, so everything seemed possible. The poetry reading became the poetry event became the performance. (John Perreault, review of “Code Poems” by Hannah Weiner, Poetry Project Newsletter, 99, 1983.)

Penny Goring’s “DELETIA: self portrait w no self” (2015) is a 70+ page poem published on the multimedia publishing platform NewHive. A startup operating out of San Francisco, NewHive provides “a blank space and custom tools to simplify the process of creating rich multimedia experiences on the web,” and allows its user to combine text, moving, and still imagery, sound, and code via a drag-and-drop interface. [1] “DELETIA,” a sophisticated, multisensory work, is typical of the website, incorporating home videos, recordings of Goring singing and reciting her poetry, self-portraits collaged onto advertising imagery, and 3D animation, among other material. Essentially hybrid, it focuses on the presentation of language more than the language of presentation, and in this suggests a value derived from the fact that all elements within its frame are critically legible as a single work of poetry within the parameters of contemporary verse, more so than visual art.

Penny Goring, "DELETIA: self portrait w no self“ (Detail), 2015

In 1992 William Gibson published “Agrippa (A Book of the Dead)”; thanks to the fame of its author, one of the first high-profile electronic poems. Accompanied by an artist’s book, the photosensitive pages of which faded after one read, “Agrippa” was published as a 3.5 inch floppy disk for the personal computer. Once loaded, the 305-line poem was programmed to scroll to its end at a predetermined speed, at which point it performed an encryption-like effect that rendered it unreadable. A day after its release, the diskette was “hacked” and the poem uploaded to the early World Wide Web. In 2003, Gibson uploaded the text of the poem to his personal website. [2]

“Agrippa” is one example in an explosion of digital poetics in the ’90s, whereby poets experimented with technologies like Flash, hypertext, and VRML (virtual reality modeling language), which would serve as precursors to ebooks, NewHive, the Twitterbot, and various micropublishing formats today. Yet does it remain the same poem if we read it on an emulator rather than a perishable floppy disk, knowing we can do so as many times as we like? The poem is unprintable, maybe even irreproducible – impossible to quote in its full dimension in a format like this printed magazine.

By many accounts, the twentieth-century poem was defined, perhaps foremost, by the format(ting) of the page. Experimental modes such as concrete poetry may have freed language from the line, but continued to submit to the margins of the page – or as critic Marjorie Perloff has noted: that which what we call “free” verse nevertheless ignored “the active role that white space (silence) plays in the visual and aural reception of the poem: the line, after all, is anchored in a larger visual field […] by no means invariable.” [3] Yet Perloff was predominantly interested in poetic language that “cannot be absorbed into the discourse of the media.” [4] What about when poetry embraces media? When poetry considers the larger visual field beyond the “finite real estate,” as author/artist Johanna Drucker calls it, of the white rectangle? [5]

Bunny Rogers, "Sister Jackets," 2012

The page is a digital as well as analog technology. PDFs, for example, gain authority by looking and functioning like a page; even the OS X in-house word processor is called “Pages.” Yet the page is no more interminable a convention than writing by hand, and the digital suggests a life beyond it. Developed in 1987 by Microsoft, the RTF (Rich Text Format) intends cross-platform document interchange, allowing text files to function on different word processors in different operating systems. It enables text to move around yet maintain shape (its font and other formatting emphasis) and musicality as it is given meaning by different platforms and thus contexts. Though humble, the RTF is indicative of poetry in an expanded media as it emphasizes exchange and transferal over static ground. Publishers like Gauss PDF (East Coast US based, founded 2010) have been pushing an expanded notion of poetry within and of media. Referring to the Gaussian Probability Distribution Function in statistics, not the proprietary filetype, the outlet’s name plays on a slippage that is characteristic of its publishing ethos (they still, stubbornly, publish many highly experimental PDFs). Browse their catalog and you will find works like “While Flipping Eggs” (2014) by Inger Wold Lund, published as an RTF; “Cross-Stitch-Mouth” (2013) by Holly Pester, published as a ZIP file containing images, audio, and Photoshop and GarageBand files; and “TH3 B4LD 50PRAN0; or, English Made Easy” (2014) by Sophia Le Fraga, published as a video. Similarly expansive poetry is as easily self-published as documentation online, with writers like Kate Durbin, Juliana Huxtable, and Bunny Rogers stretching their poetic practices into the realm of the embodied and performative.

These poet-artists work close to, if not way into, the borders of art, but how fervently should we protect these lines of separation? Their work interrogates the performativity of language as much as the language of performativity, affirming a poetics as much as an art practice. If perhaps loose, this distinction pinpoints a difference in process rather than in ground or location. To echo Keller Easterling’s words on architecture in infrastructure space, I am speaking here about a difference between “knowing how” to do something and simply “knowing that” it is something that correlates with the way language is used today – which is to say often hybridized with emoji, or bundled in tweet-length form. [6] The poem, perhaps only ever just resting on the page, again moves beyond it, allowing voice, personality, and subjectivity to return and challenge the existing critical hegemony of syntax and diction. And if text today still seems tied to the webpage, these forms of dynamic mobility suggest it won’t be for long.


[3]Marjorie Perloff, Poetry On & Off the Page: Essays for Emergent Occasions, Alabama 2014, p. 145.
[4]Dies., Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media, Chicago 1991, p. 78.
[5]Johanna Drucker, “Interpretation in E-Space,” http://www.johannadrucker.com/pdf/interpretation.pdf.
[6]Keller Easterling, “Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space,” London/New York 2014. Instagram recently stated that “nearly half of text” on their platform contained emoji (increasing to over 60% in Finland). See http://instagram-engineering.tumblr.com/post/117889701472/emojineering-part-1-machine-learning-for-emoji.