New Directions in Digital Poetry by C.T. Funkhouser

Thursday, January 24, 2013

New Directions in Digital Poetry

by C.T. Funkhouser
Continuum Academic Publishing

I came to C. T. Funkhouser's New Directions in Digital Poetry thinking of myself as a somewhat seasoned digital poet who has written using various text generators and interactive programs for about six years. After reading this book for an hour, though, I learned that naive was probably a more accurate descriptor, as I discovered just how narrow and outdated my understanding of digital poetry really was. And while Funkhouser, an associate professor at New Jersey Institute of Technology and editor of the Newark Review 3.0, doesn't offer a straightforward definition of digital poetry, it soon becomes clear that a strict definition would be more of an obstacle than an aid to experiencing these digital works in an open and meaningful way. Still, reading through the introductory chapters and the many “case studies” that follow it, I was able to put together a working definition of my own:

dig·it·al po·et·ry noun: a genre of poetry that (1) is composed by processes involving computers and/or network technologies; (2) is experienced via an electronic medium beyond print or screen representations of printed pages and makes use of animation, interaction, hyperlinks, audio and/or video; and (3) presents an artistic and literary experience in which language is a primary aesthetic component.

Instead of using a bulky (but still reductionist) definition like this one, Funkhouser introduces digital poetry through attentive and engaging studies of twenty-four works created individually or collaboratively by sixteen digital poets, and in the process makes it very clear how much this ever-evolving genre has to offer to someone willing to take it on.

New Directions is meant to be a companion to his previous book on the subject, Prehistoric Digital Poetry. That first volume documented the early years of the genre (1950s–1990s), and established the historical literary record for what was to follow the watershed moment in 1995 when the World Wide Web first took shape. New Directions picks up where that work left off, providing new contexts and interpretations of digital poems written from 1995 to the present in light of the many new technologies and methods for digital poetry's creation, appropriation, and distribution. Flash, Shockwave, Java, JavaScript, HTTP, RSS, PHP, MySQL, CSS, Second Life, Processing—these are only some of the technologies used and exploited by digital poets, and some basic knowledge of these frameworks and languages may be helpful in understanding what digital poetry is, how it’s made, and what it can do. If your head started spinning after reading that list, though, that’s not a problem. This book is not written for technical or academic readers alone, nor is it intended to be a complete critical survey of the genre; as Funkhouser makes clear at several points in the book, his intention is to make the appreciation of digital poetry accessible to as many interested readers of poetry as he can.

Early in the book, Funkhouser outlines a major problem he hopes his studies can address: “Too often in the field of digital literary criticism (or poetics), the minute particulars of works . . . are overshadowed if not obliterated by theoretical considerations.” New Directions keeps the theoretical discussions to a minimum and is very much a book of minute particulars, providing a wealth of close readings of digital poems which are crucial for educating a new audience in how to read, view, or interact with these works. Since poetry in any form already presents readers with unconventional and often challenging uses of language, one must acknowledge that digital poetry only adds to these difficulties, placing new and often alienating demands on its audience. Through the case studies, Funkhouser aims to provide a guide to these challenges so that readers will be more equipped to enjoy and understand digital poems.

The works explored in New Directions are by and large multimedia works that incorporate some combination of text, image, sound, video, animation, and user interaction, seriously challenging readers’ ideas of what poetry is and what it can do. Some, like Jim Andrews's Arteroids, force a reader to question what it means to read a poem whose interface has appropriated a classic video game's design (Atari’s Asteroids) and added literary elements through the poem’s settings and gameplay. Some challenge the concept of authorship through a complex, large-scale appropriation of texts and automated or semiautomated generation of poems, like Jim Carpenter’s now defunct Erika, aka Erica T. Carter or Etc3. (You might recall the uproar caused several years ago by the electronic publication of issue 1, which was one of Erica T. Carter’s more mischievous achievements. Thousands of automatically generated poems published in issue 1 were attributed to over three thousand poets, most considered avant-garde, setting off a heated controversy on listservs and poet blogs like Silliman’s Blog. Some poets “included” in the anthology wanted their names removed, some thought it was a brilliant attack on authorship, and others thought it was a nice jest in good humor. You can read a complete collection of the blogosphere’s reaction to issue 1 in issue 2.)

Some of the pieces in this collection take advantage of the expanded “page” size available with digital media. Angela Ferraiolo’s Map of a Future War, more a wilderness of capitalist alienation than a map, is a sprawling interactive work composed of symbols, logos, text, and links. Here’s how Funkhouser describes the experience of first encountering the work: “Viewers ultimately discover Ferraiolo has prepared a device that creates and assembles a series of collages containing interchangeable, discernible, separate attributes and texts.” Finally, Jody Zellen’s Without a Trace is a daily generated, noninteractive Net poem that uses Photoshop filters to produce “traced” line drawings of news images from a given day; RSS feeds from the New York Times are also drawn from and incorporated into the daily collages, along with empty cartoon dialogue bubbles taken from an online comic. All of these works challenge established ideas of what poetry is by placing poetic experiences within new media and combining the literary with elements from other art forms.

In spite of decades of dismissive treatment by many who see such works as an affront to more standard forms of poetry, digital poetry continues to grow in terms of the numbers of practitioners working in the genre, its nascent presence in the academy, and its relevance to a culture that increasingly depends on and defines itself through its network and communications technologies. Because digital poetry is so unlike poetry in print, Funkhouser’s goal here is to encourage patience and openness toward digital poems, stressing that we should build a “personalized perspective on a work” and remain “open to any possibility.” I subscribe to Jackson Mac Low’s claim (made in his speech “Poetry and Pleasure”) that poetry of any kind is essentially about generating pleasure—through the emotions, the intellect, the voice, or even disorientation of the senses and sensibilities, all things that digital poetry can do extremely well using compositional methods unavailable to poets writing for print. By emphasizing the pleasures and moment-to-moment experiences of digital poems more than theory and poetics, Funkhouser has succeeded in both making these poems exciting and making a convincing case for their poetic and aesthetic value. I have yet to encounter any critical work that does as good a job at orienting a newcomer to this new literary world.

I’m not sure that digital poetry will seriously challenge the dominance of print poetry anytime soon, but who really cares? It has already begun to establish a territory of its own wherever the language arts and electronic arts intersect. Explorations of digital poetry’s uncertain and ever-changing terrain are invaluable for poets, scholars, and readers. What C. T. Funkhouser has given us is in New Directions in Digital Poetry is a detailed and thoughtfully drawn map of this terrain and a guidebook for all who seek the strange pleasures of this digital art form.