Brian Kim Stefans on KLUGE, Programming, Pound, and Paragraphs

I started programming computers in the very early 80s, on pathetic little things like the ZX-81 and the Vic-20, when I was about ten or so years ago.  Mostly video games. It wasn’t until high school that I took up poetry, primarily under the posthumous tutelage of Ezra Pound, whose injunction to never waste a word, include nothing that does not contribute to the “direct presentation of the thing,” was very useful for someone used to programming with only 16k available.

I returned to using computers in the late 90s after the internet hit, and as I became fascinated with the array of graphics, video and animation programs that were becoming available to the consumer. It all seemed to happen when I wasn’t looking, as I had rejected computers as being anti-humanistic when I turned to poetry — or at least anti-social. I dropped out of my English Ph.D. program to re-teach myself computer programming and get in on the excitement of the web.

My first pieces were pretty horrible, of value only to the small clique of poets who were similarly looking at the uses of computers in the context of “poetry.” While I don’t think “The Dreamlife of Letters” is terrible, it is still among those works I was doing that seemed to deal with ideas that were entirely peculiar to those of us familiar with the trajectory of Concrete Poetry, latter-day Futurisms of all natures, Language Poetry, and a particular expression of radical politics. It’s successes are due to the attention I paid to movement, which I thought of as dancer-like, since I had aspirations to create digital backdrops for performance.

At this time, I also explored algorithmic painting (see the “eye candy” link on Arras), and made eventually created a series of algorithmically-generated videos called “Flash Polaroids” using sequenced digital photos. More recently, I’ve begun making videos, and so plan eventually working on projects that are entirely visual. (I think of much of the experience with algorithmically generated art as a form of “reading” — reading the code that generates the visual image through the unfolding of the image itself —  a theory I’d like to elaborate upon sometime.) I love learning new software — I’ve also done work in Maya, the 3D animation software, though haven’t found any use for this knowledge.

My more recent projects, including Kluge, the Star Wars piece, and a later project called “Scriptor” which isn’t online (but will rather be a series of projectors) attempt to use texts that are less informed, or entirely not
informed, by Language Poetics or the poetics of the fragment. My sense is that text that is eventually going to be subjected to manipulation by code should start with in some sort of conventionally “whole” and accessible state. The general thread tying these later works together might be the fact that they are all “alternative readers,” which is to say, they provide different ways of reading than the ones we are most comfortable with, such as letters on a page or arrayed horizontally on a screen. My early “settings” of Dan Farrell’s The Inkblot Record and Christian Bok’s Eunoia gave me the sense that all I was doing was providing an “alternative reader” for these books, though I think neither of these early pieces were entirely successful on that level.

Kluge is 36-paragraphs, each of which is 60 characters across and 20 lines long. It was an attempt to write a poem that was, in a sense, ready to be manipulated by code; to do this, I used some light Oulipian constraints as well as other structuring priciples. It is written something like a computer program itself; each paragraph is, in some ways, the same “object” (as in object-oriented programming) with each of its methods turned to different ends.

The word “seasons” is supposed to suggest television seasons, especially long-form narrative shows like Lost in which the same set of characters are more or less shifted around into different narrative strands based on the contingencies of the market. (It was also supposed to suggest the “Seasons in Hell” of Rimbaud as each season involves some sort of description of a torrential love affair). I was also thinking of certain minimalist composers like Steve Reich and Alvin Lucier, for whom forward progression through a musical composition was only recognizable over long periods of time; hence, each succeeding paragraph was a rewriting of the one prior.

The application, which isn’t done yet, is supposed to provide you with a variety of ways of reading the same text — referring back to this “alternative reader” idea. So, if you are reading one of the “New York School” sonnets that are dynamically generated everytime you hit the “S” key, you are also still reading the original texts, offering a new critical perspective.

The original concept of the Kluge application was for it to be a video game, with the motivation for playing being the desire to read the text cleanly —  hence the scraping mechanism — but I don’t think it turned out to be much fun. But hitting “G” lets you play the text like a game of Breakout, which I think still involves reading the text, even if one or two words at a time. I’d like to move more in the direction of creating text-art that uses gameplay mechanisms — this seems to be one of the “holy grails” of electronic literature right now — which doesn’t only mean changing the types of texts one normally comes across in otherwise standard video games, but making the interaction with the text itself part of the game.

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