Behind the Scenes of Poems that Go
Cruising was published in the fifth issue of Poems that Go, the new media poetry journal that Ingrid and I started in the spring of 2000. Ingrid and I are partners in art and in life, and at that time we were also working together designing websites. Our mutual love of both poetry and web design lead to an interest in the possibilities of electronic literature and exploring the relationships between words, form, language, and code. On a whim and in a span of about three weeks, we registered the domain name, sent out solicitations, and launched the first issue.
The idea of Poems that Go got its roots in 1999 at a poetry reading at the Baltimore Book Festival. At the reading there was a very animated signer who, in one instance, transformed an average poem into a completely different animal. After the reading, we were both inspired by how this signer acted as an interface between the audience and the poet. His expressions were intense, exaggerated, wild, and his hands lifted the words and threw them into the air. The combination of reading and signing brought something new to the work that would not have been achieved by the reading alone. All of this started us thinking about exploring the ways multimedia could introduce another layer of signs to a poem.
The first issues of Poems that Go featured time-based work, all made with Flash, and all animated, cinematic-style pieces with a beginning, a middle, and an end (see for example, Car Wash and While Chopping Red Peppers). At the time, we were interested in presenting alternatives to hypertext and hypermedia. We looked for shorter works that relied extensively on visual media and we wanted to preserve the linearity of a poetry reading. I remember receiving some initial criticisms (“Why isn’t it clickable?” and “You fail to take advantage of the interactive possibilities of the web environment” ); but we saw the conscious decision to restrict interactivity as part of the work’s meaning.
In 2000, Flash was gaining a lot of attention, but it was also garnering a fair share of criticism for perpetuating “look what I can do” attitudes about web design. The dot-com bubble burst as we launched our first issue of Poems that Go, although we didn’t know this at the time. Many artists rejected proprietary software products like Flash because the closed-system went against the tradition of sharing and the open-source nature of the web. Ingrid and I liked Flash because it was easy to use and we had more control over images and sound with minimal knowledge of programming. The work we published in early issues of Poems that Go was somewhat anti-hypertext fiction, which we perceived as being too insular. We saw hypertext literature as a “closed system” because it was mainly read by other hypertext authors and literary scholars. So while there was not a big popular audience for hypertext literature, Ingrid and I , in our young, naive ways, wanted poetry for the masses. We were also curious about what it meant to force linearity on a hypertext world, to make beginnings, middles, and endings in a non-linear networked environment.
Although this initial question seemed like a good one, by our third issue we were ready to explore new ways of thinking about temporality. In 2001, while working on Cruising, we began combining time-based and reactive media in a single work. (Because we came from the worlds of graphic, web, and publications design we were more familiar with John Maeda’s concept of reactive media rather than Espen Aarseth’s notion of ergodic literature). The text of Cruising existed first on paper. Ingrid wrote it while she was in grad school studying Creative Writing and Publication Arts at the University of Baltimore. The original version, (which I will sheepishly admit was a love poem written for me), had a few extra lines leading to a different ending. With edits, we both felt the poem was a great candidate for a Poems that Go collaboration for experimenting with linearity and nonlinearity. And with the Baltimore Book Festival signer as a muse, we believed that new media could introduce a new symbolic layer to Cruising that would operate between the theme of the poem and the work of the reader.
Together we worked out the visual aesthetic for the piece, shooting the photographs and selecting images and a color scheme. We recorded Ingrid’s voice reading the piece, and went through several versions before we decided on the one that exists in the final version. (How do you think the poem would be different if we chose the first version that was recorded?)
I worked on the interface, which was an adaptation of Yugo Nakamura’s “slider menu” presented in the second version of his Mono*Crafts website. Yugo offered the source code of his navigation technique to the Flash community (while the technology is proprietary, Flash users often freely share code and advise). Early experimental Flash sites like Yugo’s presented navigation schemes as something that a user had a master, rather than as something “intuitive” and obvious. The notion of having to learn to use and master navigation fit well with the “driving” and navigation subject matter of Cruising. It was also a productive way for us to explore the relationship between reader and poet.
The interface is absolutely central to this piece; as the element that forms a boundary between two things, it highlights the work that a reader must do in order to make the poem meaningful. And unlike our earlier time-based work, where a reader passively sat and listened, Cruising borrows the reader’s action in order to pose questions about the relationships between words, themes, metaphors, and interaction. While the reader learns to control the pacing, direction, size and flow of text and images, the poem is read aloud. And while the guitar riff continues infinitely, the poem is only read once. We wanted to illustrate the ongoing and repetitive act of cruising, while at the same time presenting the struggle between the speaker and reader—fighting for control of the wheel, the landscape, the ride, the view, the poem. Ultimately, this is a story of just one person’s experience while cruising, which is why the spoken part of the piece is linear. But when this narrator’s story ends, the reader is free to continue “cruising” back and forth until they decide to end the poem.