Panel: "Beyond the Page"

41st Annual UND Writers Conference:
"Mind the Gap: Print, New Media, Art"
March 24, 2010

© 2010 Mark Amerika, Deena Larsen, Nick Montfort, Frank X. Walker, and the University of North Dakota

[Video of this panel is also available.]

[Please note, unless otherwise specified, poetry is presented with published line breaks:
for proper spacing and formatting, please consult printed source.]

Crystal Alberts: A couple of announcements, if you would all please turn your cell phone ringers everybody reaches for their cell phones. If you want to take pictures please do so within the first ten minutes or so. Also, please join us for the rest of the events today. At two, we will have a screening of select films by Cecelia Condit in the Lecture Bowl. Also at two, Deena Larsen is graciously going to teach everyone how to write e-lit, no computer experience necessary. And I believe that is in the Red River Valley room or the River Valley Room. Let's see at four, Mark Amerika will be reading here. At 6, Sans Soleil will be presented in the Lecture Bowl. And, at 8 P.M, Cecilia Condit will be discussing her work at the North Dakota Museum of Art. Now, of course, I also need to give a long list of thank yous: North Valley Arts Council, North Dakota Council of the Arts and the North Dakota Quarterly for their ongoing support. And, now we are about to begin.

Today's panel is "Beyond the Page," and it is moderated by Dr. Kyle Conway. If you have questions, Kathy is in the back along with Holly, and they will be wondering around with index cards and pens. So if you have a question write it down, they will bring it up to Kyle. Now, Kyle began attending the UND Writers Conference in 1996 when he was a freshman at UND. He was an English major then and he teaches in the English department now, having earned his Ph.D. in media and cultural studies from the University of Wisconsin in 2008, his interest is in global media and translation.

Kyle Conway: Thank you. Well, I am really excited to be here as she mentioned I went here as an undergrad and attended all of these Writers Conferences, so it's an honor to be up on this stage. It's also a real pleasure to have the opportunity to moderate this panel, and I wanted to begin by introducing the four writers sitting to the right of me. On the far end of the table, lets here move that, on the far end of the table is Deena Larson, who is a writer who adopted hypertext very early on. One of the things I enjoyed on your website was the 1999 aesthetic of the things that had been there since 1999. She's published over 30 works, ranging from short stories to the interactive mystery novel Disappearing Rain. And her works appear in online journals such as the Iowa Review Web, Cauldron and Net, InfLect, and The Blue Moon Review. Sitting next to her is Frank X. Walker, who is a founding member of the Affrilachia Poets, a group that works to promote the work of African-American poets in Appalachia. He is the author or editor of a number of books, including Affrilachia, Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York, Black Box, and When Winter Come: The Ascension of York. He is currently the writer and residence and the lecture of English at Northern Kentucky University. And then to his left is Nick Montfort, who is an Associate Professor of Digital Media in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He explores a wide range of experimental and interactive forms including, is it, ppg256--is that how you pronounce the title--which is a 256 character poetry generator and Implementation, which is, and I was intrigued by this idea, a novel on stickers written with Scott Rettberg, as well as academic analysis of interactive fiction and books, such as Twisty Little Passages. And then immediately to my right is Mark Amerika, who is a professor in the department of Art and Art History at the University of Colorado in Boulder. He is a digital artist and founder and publisher of Alt-X, an online publisher. He is the author of three published novels, two edited anthologies, and two artist e-books. He is also the producer, director, and writer of an on-going series of limited edition feature length films that are a part of his foreign film series.

Alright, so the theme of this panel is "beyond the page," and the first question I want to ask of the four panelists relates to that theme. And I also wanted to give them an opportunity to introduce their work for those of you who might not be familiar with it. So we are all avid readers, of course, if we weren't we wouldn't be at the Writers Conference, and we've all had the experience of reading on the page in this traditional sense. But I wonder though, how you would characterize your work and the experience that you want your readers to have? So, who are your readers and, how do you want them to experience what you write?

Deena Larson: I'll start. My readers really are people who want to explore, and actually, what I try to do is write for several layers of readers I think about it like a layer cake. On the first...eight seconds, twenty seconds you can go through one my pieces and get something and have fun with it. If you spend five to twenty minutes on it, you can get more and see more insights. And then, you can get really deep and find the secrets and find the connections and find the analysis, and start doing your Ph.D.'s thesis. I like to joke that I'm good and make a lot playing grounds for Ph.D. students.

Frank X. Walker: I like that. I would say that my readers are traditional fans of poetry and people who love history, who may be interested in historical voices that have been silenced or muted or left out of the story. Particularly, the two books that I have about the Lewis and Clark expedition, which try to re-tell the story without reinventing it but re-visioning the story, including African-American, Native American, female voices as opposed to the two superheroes Lewis and Clark telling you what happened.

Nick Montfort: I heard Bruce Sterling talking about his novel Schismatrix one time and he said the readers for this book haven't been born yet. And I sort of I feel sometimes that the readers for my work are robots that not been built yet. But, I do want to create something in my collaborations in the work that I do individually with computation, pieces that are online, pieces that are in print, I want to do something to explore language in various ways and so people who want to come along with me on that journey, some of it's in prose, some of it's, you know, in the form of poems, some of it's not immediately recognizable as either one. But people who want to investigate and see what those edges and what those meanings might be...those are the people I think who are interested readers.

Mark Amerika: I'm enjoying just listening to them. I'm enjoying myself, but I think probably my readers are, tend to be folks who have what I would call historical empathy for literary forms, but who are also curious about how these forms are going to survive into the 21st century and beyond and are curious as to what the possibilities are for literature as we start seeing things like online social networking evolve and twittering and mobile media devices and access to all of these gadgets that enable us to become what I call a "DIY" or do it yourself or amateur practitioners. So its people who have a love of language, who are familiar with, i.e., have historical empathy for literary forms, but are also not blinding themselves to the fact that things are changing, that book culture, publishing itself is changing and that we, in a way, we're trying to figure out a way to make sure that this love we have for literature does not go extinct.

Kyle Conway: Well, these are really interesting answers. I'm jotting things down feverishly.

Deena Larson: I would like to point out too, that a lot of people are overwhelmed by this; a lot of people come up and say "My God there's so much stuff!" So I'm going to make a plug here. If you go to, you'll see something called a web-shelf. I have listed a lot of these works in the order it's going to take to read them. So if you have four minutes, you can go to this part. If you have ten minutes you can go to this part.

Kyle Conway: So one of the things that was striking about your answers was this idea of exploration and curiosity. Historical empathy for literary forms, I like that phrase. And it gets sort of to my second question, which also relates to this theme of "Beyond the Page," but in a different way. So as I went, as I was preparing for this panel, I tried to read as much of each of your works as I could. And interestingly, the one that generated the most questions about New Media for me was the more conventional book of poetry, which, you know, is Frank X. Walker's book Buffalo Dance, which is a book, and not electronic. But, what I found really interesting about it for those of you who haven't read it, I'll summarize it briefly and perhaps Frank will say more. It's about York, who's the body servant of William Clark, who of course accompanied Merriwether Lewis on their exploration of the American West in the early 19th century. It's a series of poems that draws heavily on the readers' knowledge of texts that aren't there, mainly the Journals of Lewis and Clark. And so, as you go through and read this, it's all about Lewis and Clark, except Lewis and Clark don't necessarily have a voice other than occasional epigraphs at the beginning of poems. And so in order to read it, you have to go beyond the page that is sitting right there and this made me think of the nature of hypertext. I teach media classes and I explain hypertext to my students as texts that link to other texts; it's as simple as that. But in Frank's poetry this is where I saw this in a really lively way, and so what I wanted to ask was, we frequently talk about newer convergent media or internet as new media and I'm wondering how new is it really? And if other types of works operate in this similar manner.

Nick Montfort: I have to note for everyone that Frank has his Moleskin notebook out here that he's writing in, but he also has his iPhone right here. It may be be indicative of something.

Deena Larsen: Going back to the hypertext and how early it is, I think it's extremely early: Blake, with his imagery and his text. We've been doing this for a long time. And yesterday, Art was talking about the early Japanese Art, and you've got your words, your images merged. This isn't new, what's new is our ways of exploring it, like Nick was saying, we now have moleskin and iPods.

Frank X. Walker You know, I think I want to come it at a different direction. I think about Mark's comment about making sure that our love for literature doesn't go extinct. And as a poet, I know that we're, as a community of writers, are afraid of books becoming extinct and I think somehow that suggests we may become obsolete as writers of books, which means that we aren't acknowledging other potential forms. And I think our other fear is that the old tradition or the community sharing of poetry could go extinct. But I think that's the challenge. I think if we get away from it needing to be in a book and focus on making sure it stays communal and making sure it stays oral that the form is not as important. That if we can keep those things alive, then we'll create those jobs for our grandchildren and, you know, I think that's what I'm concerned about, my son taking care of me when I'm an old man.

[Audience Laughter]

Nick Montfort: Yeah,so, you know, I think Mark is the one who started this discourse of extinction, obsolescence, right, this discussion. We are afraid about the future of the book and the future of reading. We have this, you know, reports from the National Endowment for the Arts, "Reading at Risk." The other side of that coin is that the people who are working, certainly the ones working on the computer on the network computer doing work in hypertext and interactive fiction and poetry and story generation, that comes from an excitement about the literary, you know, a wish to participate in the literary. Not so much to drag the book along into this new sphere, but to drag along what underlies our love of the book, and our interest in the book and our interest in reading. And so, I think that the other way of thinking about it as, you know, newspapers begin to disappear and as people wonder what's going to happen with books and they think about issues like this is, is that there are, you know, is to imagine will the computer be a place for entertainment, for video games that entertain and amuse us, which I love by the way and which I write about among other things. But, will it also be a place for aesthetic experience, for visual art, for music, and for literature? Right? Can we do those things on the network computer? Of course we can, it has the capability, it has that power. it has that generality, and so it is something that is bringing a literary impulse into that system and is exploring that, is opening that up in new ways, but it doesn't have to be...we're not creating Biosphere 2 or something. We don't need to go and rescue something that's in danger, but rather we can breathe new life into this system, which we know the potential and the excitement of. We can make it into a literary system as well.

Mark Amerika: Well, just think of just the concept of writing, we'll move away from literature for a second and try to expand that concept. This is a writing or writers conference and so the way that I approach my practice is as a kind of, I guess you could say, an interdisciplinary media artist who has, at his core, a writing practice. And so for me, whether I am doing a live audio visual post-production set with a computer where I am really mixing live sounds and images like a DJ or VJ would, or if I have my mobile phone and I'm on location doing a video shoot while at the same time reading some interesting literature and philosophy and sampling from it and remixing it into the subtitles so that it becomes an integral part of the narrative that I'm developing as a film director, or if I'm jotting down in my notebook a poem of the day, for me it's all interconnected to one core writing practice. And so the thing that I was getting at in terms of historical empathy and extinction is, of course, for any university I think it's really important that the university play a role in all of this as well. And so it's not just a matter of studying literature per se, but also of trying to re-imagine what writing as a practice is and opening up other kinds of multimedia languages to students of creative writing, especially, so that they can develop these multimedia literacy skills as well and experiment with these literary forms that we are all kind of referring to.

Kyle Conway: Another interesting commonality that I found in all of your works was that you're working to give people something that they didn't have before, now each of you it's something different what that thing is. So in the books on York, for instance, Frank is working to reclaim a voice that had been lost to history and the others are working to give readers choice at how they interact with the text so that... Nick, for instance, describes the pleasure of interactive fiction for the reader as the pleasure of figuring out a puzzle actively working through a narrative rather than being led passively through this narrative. And when I played around with Deena's mystery novel Disappearing Rain or with Mark's FILM TEXT--I'm not sure what noun to put in front of that. Experimental film, multimedia, I'm...actually how would you?

Mark Amerika: They called it net or internet art.

Kyle Conway: Ok, that's appropriate. A lot of the pleasure of these texts was you open up this webpage, you sit down and you're given a little bit and you, but you can see that there are links. So you click on the links, you're thrown into the middle of it, and it's this puzzle--and I love puzzles--and there's something fun, something intensely pleasurable about finding how this goes together, discovering those little pieces, discovering those new things. The thing is though, Nick points out in his book Twisty Little Passages that there's a paradox. The reader's more active, but the author still controls the puzzle. And so my question for you is this: how is giving voice to the voiceless, different than the voice itself? Or how is giving choice to the choice-less different from that choice itself? Does that make sense?

Deena Larsen: I think it does, and I think part of the answer of that is the connections, and it's in the way you choose to follow things. In my Marble Springs, I'm writing about the women in a Colorado town in the 1800's. And, I'm actually showing this from a voiceless trunk. It's an authorless piece that obviously has authors, and you find that about Rachel. Well, Rachel mentions Emmy. Emmy mentions the White Owl Saloon. Well, at the White Owl Saloon, you've got Bridget, who is the mistress to Pastor Horner, and so you go on to all these different little connections that you would never see in that town. And the way that I've put it together, you walk through the town; you can go through the graveyard; you can go through different places to find these forgotten voices. And I think it's more, like you were saying, the exploration. If I explore and I find this voice on my own, how much different than that is that than I go page one page two, page three? And I also want to mention that my definition of electronic literature is literature, text, that requires some other element integral to its meaning. So when they ask me to print out Marble Springs for my Master's thesis, I was like "you can't do that to me! It's not gonna work!" And as long as you get that it's not gonna work that way on a piece of paper, then you've got electronic literature, then you've gone beyond the page.


Nick Montfort: Yeah, I mean,there are things that, perhaps, you can document on paper, but not present as the original work are the types of pieces that we talk about as electronic literature. I think that a choice is not an essential element of that, and I have, for instance, you know poetry and story generation systems that aren't interactive. They don't take any input from the user; they just produce their output, but they use computation. And there's other mash-up systems and, you know, other sorts of things that use stores of data or access the network, do things that the computer can do, but aren't particularly about offering a choice, they're offering a new sort of artifact to someone. So they're saying, you know, here is this object that is something else besides a book or a poem as you know it. And it is taking advantage of some capabilities, multimedia database computational of the network computer that we have, and offering something different for us, and a different way of encountering language, a different way of engaging with otherness with the literary, with strangeness and so you can do that. Of course, a book is a great, offers a great deal of choice, you can turn to any page very easily, start reading it at any point if you want. And in fact this is something if it's a really good book, once you read it, you may want to do that, you may want to turn to your favorite passages and look at them again, right. And, you know, so this idea of authorial control or reader choice is one perspective on it, but it's also just saying like is this an interesting object for you to encounter as a reader? Is this something aside from what choice it offers? Is it something that is really going to open you up to language in a new way and give you a new perspective, give you thoughts about some, you know, existing journey or documents or history or connect you to new ways of thinking about how words go together.

Mark Amerika: Yea, well don't forget that that the artist-author also has a lot of choices, right? They can choose to pursue their art projects in whatever way they so desire. I'm thinking of particularly back to an experience I had with the late great author Kathy Acker--has anyone heard of Kathy Acker--a fairly radical feminist writer, who experimented with the art of appropriation. And I remember her she was visiting some of us in Boulder in Colorado, this was just before she passed away, and a friend of mine who went motorcycle riding with her up in the mountains, because she was really into motorcycle writing, as well as body modification and weight lifting and all kinds of cool stuff. He was a disc jockey at our local public radio station, and he invited her to come onto his show. And he hadn't really read her work, but he was just fascinated with her as an individual when they went motorcycling riding. So he wasn't quite sure what he was getting into, and I went along for the ride as well. And it's interesting because, again she's an appropriation artist, she's known for gleaning texts from lots of different sources then assembling them into this kind of pseudo-autobiographical style, and so he asked the question right at the beginning of the interview, this was on live radio and said "Where do you get your voice?" And she said, "What voice? I just steal shit," which was kind of interesting of course because I mean, of course, the FCC rules too. Fortunately, our wonderful PBS station didn't get fined for that. I thought that was kind of interesting, she's so, I guess the point is though is that, where do you find voice as an author and that's part of the selection process as well. And then how you want to develop those personas that fill those voices over time, of course, is part of the creative process. And given the new media technologies that we have access to today, Nick was just mentioning programs, for example, that might create automatic mash-ups or remixes of sorts. This, of course, feeds back into a lot of the early appropriation styles of authors, like Acker, but also many before her too. Like Comte Lautréamont and his Songs of Maldoror, 19th century writer who was considered one of the first plagiarists, who was actively sampling from source material of his time, what we might call today called Goth, like Gothic lit, and things like that, and integrating them into his own playful and persuasive performative style. And so then you can also, of course, take on these voices if you're possibly envisioning writing as performance as well. So you think of like a performance, plagiarism, persona, remixing these styles, appropriation, authors always have these choices and they are constantly turning to these sources to stimulate their own, their own writing.

Frank X. Walker: I would just like to add, regarding York, I think the, my original emphasis for the Buffalo Dance was to give York a voice, let him tell his part of the story, but my audience responded in a very specific way. After hearing from York, many mostly female members of the audience would say what about his wife? What did she have to say? What about her story? And I hadn't thought about that and I admit that honestly I was just trying to take care of York. And then that expanded during a visit to Nez Perce reservation in Idaho, I was given a copy of the transcribed oral histories of the tribe that talked about York and his relationship with Chief Red Grizzly's daughter. So he had a second wife, and now I have this information and they gave me the information and said do something with it. And so the second book that deals with the Lewis and Clark exhibition really is kind of influenced by an audience and outsiders' desire to hear from beyond York, even beyond, to broaden the story as much as possible. My mother always used to say there are two sides to every story, and then there's the truth. So it seemed to me the more points of view around the same story, the closer you get to the truth. So in that sequel, there are actually twelve different speakers, in addition to York, mostly female, that I feel like round out the story in a more full way, even though I thought the book, the story was finished at the end of the first book, but, you know, according to the audience, it definitely wasn't finished. So, I'm not sure what people will complain about being missing next.

Kyle Conway: Well, the audience has been asking some far more interesting questions than I would have come up with so I'm going to turn to those now. And I have quite a collection of them here. I think what I'm going to try do, in order to ask as many of these as possible, is I've been trying to pair them so that thematically there are similar questions. But the very first one that came in asks, this one's addressed first to Mark then to everyone. A New York Times describes, a New York Times blurb describes Mark's work Grammatron as grappling with the idea of spirituality in the electronic age. So can you briefly tell us about Grammatron and discuss with the other panelists what is the role of spirituality in the electronic age? It's a great question that I could not have come up with myself. So, I'm...

Mark Amerika: Maybe it has to do with religiously checking our email every day.


Mark Amerika: No, but it does have to do with practice actually, daily practice, so, but in general, but Grammatron itself is a remix of the Kabbalah. In some of the stories that inform some of the developments of the Kabbalah in its time, but it takes it into the future. So if you read Grammatron, it's at, you'll find that the protagonist's name, the persona's name, the artificial intelligence name, the anthropoids name, it can be any number of things, however you want to address this lead character, avatar, is Abe. A-B-E. and Golam, G-O-L-A-M. And, of course, I'll let you run with the Biblical references to Abe. Perhaps not everyone's familiar with Golem, G-O-L-E-M, which, of course, is the old myth about the monster in the basement of the synagogue in Prague, who by having certain letter put on his head either comes to life or is turned into clay. And many folks read that myth as being kind of the first intimation of a kind of sci-fi style if you read that story, and so there is a kind of cyberpunk, cyborg characterization of this figure. And I thought well, first man, if you will, first cyborg, this makes for an interesting interface and that's loaded term, interface, for this avatar who is now going to appear through texts and links and the experiential writing style, as well as some of the animated images and sounds that appear in this very early hypertext, right, because it is one the most elaborate early hypertexts to appear on the internet, we're talking like early 1997. And so as a consequence, as I was talking about Acker's work and others, those who are interested in appropriation and assemblage, the act of remixing persona, I was very interested in reading about the Kabbalah, not for the sake of becoming a Kabbalist like Madonna might have, although someone did refer to me, once I released Grammatron, as the Madonna of hypertext. I don't know why. But, I was really, I was really interested in finding ways to remix some of the script that was apparent, some of the almost speculative script that was apparent in the Kabbalah text that I was reading the translations thereof, into the narrative of Grammatron. And it became really kind of a fascinating exploration of how the past can make this idea of historical empathy, how the past really does inform not only the present, but the way that we speculate into the future, how you might think of it as like speculative fiction, just like there are speculative markets out there, how only by creatively visualizing the future can we actually kind of make it come to be. And that to me is something like related to a spiritual practice, although not in a very conventional sense.

Kyle Conway: Anyone else care to address the question?

Mark Amerika: I wouldn't go there.

[Audience laughter]

Frank X. Walker: We collectively pass.

Kyle Conway: Alright. Well this, I have three questions here that are all thematically related and they all relate to temporality, so I'm going to ask these three together. The first, how do you deal with the fact that new technologies become obsolete so rapidly: so DVD becomes blue ray; there's flash drives and other software programs? So that's the first question. Are steps being taken to preserve pieces of electronic literature that are written in formats that are losing support in modern operating systems? And then, so those are temporality in the technology sense, and then this one has a more existential side to it. Discuss your views on the enduring value of your works. Is existing in the moment enough?

Deena Larsen: I want to talk about that personally. Marble Springs is written in HyperCard, which had its last year of fame and operability the same year that Marble Springs came out in 1993. So, if there are any people out there who would like to help us preserve these works that were foolishly done in HyperCard and other software systems, please come forward, we will welcome you with open arms anybody, anywhere please. And we will be showing these works, there will be a new media show, I'm not sure where, somewhere, but I do have them to be shown on obsolete computers here. When I wrote Marble Springs, it was a very personal writing experience for me. And I thought, you know, after the five years of programming, after all of this work, it's worth it just to have done it, the act of writing is enough. And twenty years later, I hope to hell that's true, but I think it is. And so, yes, this is worth it even if it becomes obsolete, even if we have issues with it. However, we are learning. We are getting better about things, and from here forward, Nick Montfort and others have worked--and you'll talk about preserving archival literature--so there are protocols. There are standards that we are trying to develop to keep this going. And in terms of enduring value, I think it's the same for any literature. We all want our works to be read, but at the same time, we also have to realize that they aren't going to be read in the same context. Here, I don't think anybody under the age of fifty can understand Romeo and Juliet, for example, because why the hell didn't Juliet just text him? You know what's going on here? Why the hell did they have to die, because they could have just communicated? We don't understand that period. We'll never be able to read that. We'll never be able to understand those materials in the same way. And I think it's even worse or better or more intense for our hypertext, our HyperCard because we won't get that system back. We won't get that thrill of "this is a link." When I first started this all those many years ago, I had to teach people literally "this is a mouse. This is a computer screen. When you use this thing here, the cursor shows up here. If you click on that, you get more text." Oh my god. The intensity, the excitement of that possibility was incredible, was huge. And I don't think we're going to recreate that. So that is already gone in terms of time, we are so far beyond that now, and its only in this lifetime that we can say that. So the enduring value, I think, is going to be like Nick was saying to a future that we can't even imagine. They're going to be reading our works in ways, in fonts that we cannot even imagine just like Romeo and Juliet could not imagine texting each other.

Nick Montfort: Although if AT&T is your carrier actually, you could probably see how their communication got mixed up, possibly. Yeah the, I think, you know, the reason works endure is not, is very, very seldom the reason that they're of initial interest, in their own cultural moment. And so these questions are quite related, because if, in fact, you can't run a piece of electronic literature ten or twenty years into the future, then you really won't have any way of knowing whether it's of enduring worth or value, which is something that ultimately readers in a culture have to determine. I mean the author might have some ideas about what will be interesting about a piece, but it could be right or wrong, you know, depending upon what it is that is needed by that culture and the readers interested in, that they engage with. So there have been some projects, the Electronic Literature Organization, which I've been a part of for while, has had this preservation/archiving/dissemination project. It's not active right now. In fact, you know, I was advocating to have a HyperCard reader developed as part of that, but I don't know if that was the right time, the right organization to undertake that. We don't have any way of looking at a rich body of work. There's more a hundred pieces, including pieces by, you know, Douglas Adams author of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, he wrote some HyperCard stacks, John Cayley. Stuart Moulthrop has pieces, who--Stuart will be here later today and tomorrow--has pieces in HyperCard, some of his early work. And we don't have, we don't really have access to this unless we maintain like original 68,000 architecture Mac's running system eight or something like that.

Well, we don't know whether this stuff is going to be of lasting value, because we can't access it. So, I think more needs to be done, not at the expense of creating new work and enjoying it in our current moment, but I think that it would make sense to acknowledge that these are pieces of our cultural heritage. There are things that are being created that are meaningful at the time their created and will maybe be of lasting value. It's not, it's not, we've gone beyond the point where the novelty value of electronic literature is its sole or main feature. I mean it may not have broad appeal. We may have not reached the market that, you know, comics, another fairly recent art form, has in the U.S, but it's certainly not just because its flashy looking and new, there is more to it.

Deena Larsen: But I do think that we really do need to make a push for keeping these legacy works. I have a lot of them at the Maryland Institute of Technology and Humanity now. I gave them all of my old discs and they are going through and very carefully keeping them. I have over fifty Mac Pluses and Mac Classics in my attic. We live in a very small house; it's a major investment. But we need more than just these sporadic efforts and we've got to find a way to do it, because there is so much there: John McDaid's Uncle Buddy's Fun House. William Dickey wrote some incredible HyperCard works that never got published. There is so many voices that never even got the chance to sing. So you can't understand them; you can't see what's going on. And it's a double whammy because when these works were created, we didn't have the audience; we didn't have the savvy. The audience wasn't in the fut.., the audience was way in the future here. We're back here, and they died before we could get the audience.

Nick Montfort: And we did put a very small set of poems of Dickey's on the New Media Reader CD, but not the full edition that you prepared that you edited, which is really significant and interesting work that for a variety of reasons, technical, legal, publishing, basically no one can see. Maybe if they go to Maryland.

Deena Larsen: Yeah, you'd have to go to Maryland. E-mail me and I'll show them to you, and e-mail me and I'll get you these works. We've worked through, we don't want to get into copyrights and legal issues, I'm sure, but we have worked through those for Dickey and for my works.

Mark Amerika: Another strategy, which is not really for everyone, but it's one that I've pursued is that you can look at your works that experiment with literary form and bring them into other media as visual art and performance works. So, there is, of course, a rich history of philanthropy, cultural philanthropy here in the States especially in collecting art. And so one of the things, one of the strategies I've developed is that I actually present my work, which is informed by my writing practice, as art, and limited edition art at that. Not all, of course Grammatron is on the internet for free, as are a number of my works and so they participate in that distributed gift economy, and I'm glad that they do, although they will probably be collected and preserved I'm hoping by a museum. So museum culture, of course, is responsible for collecting works and archiving, as well as educating the public and putting them in art-historical context. Again that's not necessarily the answer for everyone, but I've found that to be the best route for me and what I'm doing.

Frank X. Walker: And I'll only add that I would hope that as an artist, as a writer that a lot of work will endure because it's just that damn good, you know. I have on my iPhone, I have several e-books. And Sherlock Holmes on an airplane in my hand is just as good as by the fire at home under a quilt, well almost as good. But it still works, it's still quality literature. I think the aesthetic value is something that I don't think we can afford to sacrifice, in spite of the novelty, in spite of the convenience, in spite of the curiosity of whatever format it's in, if we still, as artists, hold ourselves accountable to the aesthetic value. It has a stronger chance of enduring.

Deena Larsen: And also with that enduring, I really think that what we have done in the last twenty years is lost the equivalent of the Library of Alexandria. We will not know the literary quality; we will not know what's going on, simply because they can no longer be read.

Kyle Conway: These next two questions are very different from that last one. And they have to do with craft, I think. So what would you do to be able to get the readers' attention and how does play come into your creative process?

Deena Larsen: I wrote a paper once called "The Eight Second Rule" and actually now, I think, it would be more the eight nano-second rule. You've really got to grab somebody's attention very quickly, but not only do you have to do that, in that same eight seconds you've got to get their attention, explain what the piece is about, show the personality of the piece, and then tell them how to read it. So when you pick up a book, you kind of know what to do, when you pick up one of these pieces, you don't. The beauty of these things is that every single piece is unique because there's a billion infinite ways of doing these things. The difficulty is that every one of these things is unique and in that eight seconds you're grabbing their attention and explaining how to work it. And I have trouble, I will confess. Stuart's Under Language, I'm reading it in an internet café and I can't get the thing to work. And, dang it! So I call up Stuart go "what the hell!" But you know, I happen to have Stuart's phone number, you don't. So it's one of those, you do really do have to figure out what's going on quickly. It's a problem. I try to do it with flash; I try to do it with an interesting line. Other people have done interesting instructions. There's different ways to do it, but it something that people, as writers, have to be cognisant of.

Mark Amerika: Well, I mean, I'll focus on the question about play. Because so much of what I do really is play, I feel like the luckiest person in the world, like I can actually make a living here, in America, during the Great Recession playing. But it's not that unusual. I mean, I think of it in terms of playing music, so for me it's really similar to say what a jazz musician would do. Like if you're a part of a jazz quartet and you're doing different covers like Lester Bowie doing different covers for, on his, off a pop album. My idea is--getting back to the idea of appropriation, remixing, assemblage, collage, this sort of thing--is that there is all this source material out there. There is basically source material everywhere. And I get to tweak my processual filters as a kind of improvisational, or with the computer you might say a hyper improvisational, player who is playing with the source material and is able to spontaneously, you might say, develop these works of art and do it with a lot of different gadgets and through a lot of different media forms and genres, a lot of which I'll show in my presentation today at 4 o'clock. So for me it may not be a saxophone or an electric guitar, although sometimes I play electric guitar, that I'm always holding in my hand. It could be a mobile phone; it could be a laptop, for example, in a live audiovisual performance set. So for me play is what it's all about. There would be nothing else to offer if it wasn't for play. I mean I think of Ornette Coleman who was interviewed in The Guardian about two years ago and I may be paraphrasing him here, but he said something like "I didn't know you had to learn to play, I thought you just had to play to play."

Deena Larsen: This is stuff is fun. Reading this stuff is fun. Writing this stuff is fun. It's worth it. It is fun. You can play with the stuff. And I think that's part of the problem. People come up and say "I didn't know the right way to read it. Oh my god, I'm wrong, I'm so scared!" No. There is no right way to read this stuff. There is no right way to write this stuff, just go out there and have fun and explore it!

Frank X. Walker: When I heard the word play, I think of my own kids. I know that my son and daughter are very different. My son is the intellectual in our household and for him play is an intellectual game. For her, it's about giggling and being entertained. And I think about trying to please both of those appetites in the same space, you know. I know for me and my poetry friends is that I believe as far as the attention, the desire to get attention, I think people come to poetry because they don't have lot of time, but you still want the experience of visiting a museum. You want the power of a three hour movie, but you want it in twenty-four lines, so all we have are the images to drive that the emotional undercurrent to make that happen. But, at the same time, I do plant things in my own work. There are things in Buffalo Dance that are there just for fans of poetry that hopefully you might experience on the surface and not know it happened, but if you have more than eight seconds. For instance, if you, if you love haiku, in the Buffalo Dance there's a couple of poems that talk about the haichu, and I won't say any more that, and that will make it fun, because you can play trying to find the answer. At the same time, for individuals like my son, who need a intellectual challenge to have fun, I think there are things that are more engaging on that level, you know, the reference earlier about each of the poems introduced by an excerpt from the Lewis and Clark journals. And when I had a chance to actually see what a copy of those journals looked like, you know, remember if you're at least 45 or older, you know, the encyclopedias have things that happen in a series that take up two or three bookshelves. If you are under 30, then the encyclopedia is a disc. It's that different, but you still need that same information. My son needs those links. He needs to be able to see something and then need to go look up that word or be challenged by that word or to not understand an image and then learn something else, that it's always connected to something else. My daughter, she doesn't want it. She wants to be satisfied in that moment and in that space. If she leaves the poem to look up a word, she's not coming back to the poem. So I think our challenge is how do you satisfy multiple appetites? And it still qualifies as play.

Nick Montfort: So in response to the first question I guess, if I had a strategy for getting the readers' attention, it would probably have something to do with stunning, disorienting, and bewildering immediately, which then again would give me more than eight seconds, actually, because people would, you know, probably be unable to stand up and walk away. But with regard to play, I have a different sort of idea that has been mentioned, you know. You have a very intricate gear box and that play in that system is the amount for which the gears can move freely and everything else is constrained, and I construct these very highly constrained formalist types of systems to compose my work, so that there is almost nothing that I can do as an author because so many options have been taken away. And the play that I look for is just that ability to within the shapes that the English language itself through all of its history is giving to me that I have the ability to make a few small moves.

Kyle Conway: Well thank you, we have time for about one more question. But before that, Crystal has asked me to announce that the New Media exhibit is at 115 Hughes. And so the final question I want to ask, at a couple of points, a number of you have pointed out that we are at a university and there's a real role for the university to play in the propagation of this literature. And so my final question comes from someone who is asking about pedagogy, in particular, since this is where we are. As a composition teacher who already uses visual projects in her composition classes, I'm wondering how do you all feel about the future of composition.

Deena Larsen: Actually, I just am writing a text book and will be testing it out at 2 in the Red River Room on how to write this stuff, because right now what we're trying to do, we're asking you to create a symphony when you've been born deaf. We don't have the tools that make it really easy to play with this stuff and so I've created Fun Da Mentals, and that's also on my website, where you can look at the reading techniques like links and sounds and images and see examples of how they're used, so you can see different parts of it, and then there's an exercise that you can take any student through and there's no excuses in this exercise for pedagogical "I don't know what I'm doing!" No, it's very simple. You go through the steps and then there's a free form exercise that you can use with composition students to get them to create their own works. And I've basically done this so you don't need a computer, all you need are articles you'd find around a classroom already, because we've got to make this simple. We've got to get this into the pedagogy. We've got to get this at the university level, the high school level, the elementary school level; we've got to get this stuff taught. We teach writing 101 and we've got to start teaching electronic literature because it's a way of thinking, it's a way of connecting. If you start doing these writing exercise with links, all of the sudden the kids are going to learn cause and effect. It's going to take effect in physics class. It's going to take effect in math classes. It's going to work out. I did a blog entry, and I'm going to forget the guys name, of "Teaching on Thursdays" and we've got a list of how you can use electronic literature in every single academic discipline at a university and you can read it, you can see what's going on and then follow those questions, because we've got to get this infiltrated into the university system.

Mark Amerika: We do this, or I do this in the department of Art and Art History at the University of Colorado as well. It's a little bit different than a comp class. Some are related to what, at our university, we call the program in writing and rhetoric, but it's uniquely filtered through kind of a new media and art theory and history prism. What I've done is if you can go to see the student built website. It's at, I was fortunate to get that URL. And it's a totally student-built website, and what we try to do is we try to integrate research of digital art and electronic literature with writing in and with the new media that this work exists in, right, as a part of the network culture. So the idea that the students are introduced to the internet art and electronic literature that's actually on the web and then they're asked to curate their own exhibition online with a curatorial statement and links to the projects, etc. And so not only do they have to, you know, scan and then dig in deep and find the works that they want to select for their own exhibitions, they have to come up with a theme. They have to develop some concepts around that theme. Then they have to build literally build a website that is an online exhibition that points to those works and then has its own element of what, in the past, I've called "digital design literacy." And so there's multiple skills that they're developing, right, they're developing their writing reading rhetorical skills, their technical skills, their digital design literacy skills, and their research skills all in one project. The other great thing about it is that that work, or the best of that work then gets loaded up to the site where we collect all of this stuff. And students who come in subsequent classes are then able to look at what the students before them have done, and use that as a source material to spur them on. And so in the first half of course, they're kind of using the site as a resource, and then for being able to do that they're asked to give back to the site for the second half of the course and then that process just repeats itself.

Nick Montfort: I mean, you know, I think that it would be hypocritical if not to take a practice that we ourselves as writers really find liberating and that we enjoy and that works for us and to share it with students. So this is so in the context of composition classes, particularly about a writing class, an experimental writing class, that I teach, you know, I bring in a box of scissors and have people cut up text and collage things out of them. I do several assignments like that throughout the semesters. You know I send them to go steal and plagiarize texts, you can imagine the types of conferences I have with my students about this: "William tell me honestly, did you write this yourself?" But these are things that bring people into relationship with language that is new and different and it makes them think about their reading and their writing, you know, and in really radical new ways. And if that's the goal, I mean if we have a basic sort of five paragraph essay, you know, constructing expressive argumentation, this may be something else, but if we want students to go beyond that and encounter language and put things together in really radical new ways, we should certainly invite them to partake of the same techniques that we enjoy in writing and that we use ourselves.

Frank X. Walker: And I'll just say that I think that, you know, visual art is the easiest direction to go to supplement and stimulate those kids into writing something, but why stop there? You know look at the other potential art forms: there's music, there's dance, there's theatre. Get them out of the classroom and then make them write about that experience. I think that's...and part of my requirements for students is to attend public events of their choice, but to write about it or them. In my poetry classes, they get to choose their own text, but they have to write about it. But we write about the same questions, the same themes, but they get to choose. We have exercises where when they learn how to edit, they have to use language from songs that they're familiar with. This works with fourth graders, you know, what song do you have in your head? Use that as a text. So that you can connect with them where they are, and then take them someplace else. I think that's a good goal for me to try to steal, borrow, share.

Mark Amerika: I guess that one other thing that I would add is that in addition to that site where their curating their own online exhibitions and then having to write their curatorial essays and come up with their themes and concepts to support their theme and their selections. On a weekly basis, they're also reading a lot of stuff, including, for example, William Burroughs The Cut Up Method etc., and asked to respond on their individual blogs that they all have access to from the group, from the class website. So they are always reading each other's blogs and commenting on them, as well, which of course means that because these aren't internal blogs, like only available on the local university servers. They're actually public. So if we think of the idea of getting published as going public we, I make it clear very early on that they're going to be self-publishing a lot of their work, that they are going to be primarily the ones who read it and respond to it, but it is out there and so they have to rethink their relationship to the world as it evolves around the idea of not just coming up with their ideas, but also going public with it.

Nick Monfort: Speaking of the university's role also, I have to, I just have to ask. I'm hoping that some of our work has been censored by your university's network censorships software, and so don't embarrass any one by telling us now, but please come and let us know, but we will be delighted to find that, that happened.

Kyle Conway: Well, we've reached the end of the hour. I wanted to mention quickly that the blog that Deena mentioned is called "Teaching Thursdays" and it's through UND's Office of Instructional Development. But I hope you will join me in thanking the panelists, this was an excellent panel.

[Transcribed by Jessica Butler; Reviewed by Dr. Crystal Alberts, November 27, 2010]


Contact Information

Crystal Alberts

Associate Professor of English

Director, UND Writers Conference

276 Centennial Drive
110 Merrifield Hall, Stop 7209
Grand Forks, ND 58202