October 2008

Kate Greenstreet


An Interview with Stephanie Strickland

In recent years, more and more poets have become interested in moving their poems off the page and onto the screen where new levels of interaction with the reader/viewer are possible. Stephanie Strickland is a pioneer in this area. She teaches hypermedia literature and serves on the Board of the Electronic Literature Organization. Her book V: WaveSon.nets/Losing L'una (Penguin, 2002) was the first book of poetry to exist simultaneously in print and on the Web as one work. True North was published in print by University of Notre Dame Press and as a hypertext disk by Eastgate Systems in 1997. (Both books were winners of the Poetry Society of America's Alice Fay di Castagnola Award, chosen by Brenda Hillman and Barbara Guest respectively.)

Strickland isn't giving up paper: her poems currently appear in many print journals, New American Writing, jubilat, Colorado Review, 1913 a journal of forms, American Letters & Commentary and Denver Quarterly among them, as well as in online journals like Critiphoria, MiPOesias, Octopus, Electronic Poetry Review and Drunken Boat. Her fifth book, Zone : Zero, just out from Ahsahta Press, includes an interactive CD. As far as I know, this is a first.

How did you first become interested in interactive poetry?

When I was a kid, from age 7-14 I lived in a Chicago suburb, and I wanted to be an architect. My parents had a book of photographs of wonderful buildings, and Frank Lloyd Wright's Running Water absolutely won my heart. A house that was a waterfall that was moving!

My dad was an engineer, and I was attracted to "hands-on" and to structures. I did major in math for a while in college -- long story of being deflected from it. But I'm still a math groupie. When Wolfram introduced Mathematica, a software that allows you to input small changes and see how an equation performs, I was enchanted. I knew that if I'd had that as a kid, I would not have been deflected.

My conception of poetry was already changing and straining against the limits of the standard print book in The Red Virgin: A Poem of Simone Weil, where the contents are arranged index-style, meaning to indicate one can read the poems in any order. And then again, in True North, I wanted the 5 sections of the book to "revolve around" the central axis of the 5-part "True North" poem. It is hard to enact these conceptions in print unless you make a so-called artist's book. I first got involved with hyperspace when I did a Storyspace version on disk of True North.  

For me, the digital or electronic form was partly about motion, partly about the illusion of 3-D, partly about interaction, partly about a huge potential space of structures that could interact and overlay.

You've created six digital poems in the last ten years or so, and two of them are on the interactive CD that will accompany your new book Zone : Zero. The earliest of the two is the hypertext poem The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot. What was the original spark of inspiration for that project?

Well, the honest (in the sense of contemporary) answer to that question can be found in Seven Reasons Why Sandsoot Is the Way It Is, an informal account written for the informal Cybermountain gathering/symposium in Denver, organized by Deena Larsen.

Today, I'd say it felt like I'd been hit by the tsunami of digital culture, cybertext, all those possibilities. Though in the '80s I'd worked on automating a college library and was aware of computation, I'd not been aware of it with regard to writing or my own poetry writing.

I did belong to the Society for Literature and Science, and through it I heard of the NEH Summer Seminar "Literature in Transition: The Impact of Information Technologies," offered for the first time in 1995 by Prof. Kate Hayles at UCLA. I was accepted as an independent scholar and poet. At this seminar, I was introduced to the Web (itself just introduced), Netscape, MOOs, midi files, Apple machines, Hypercard, Storyspace, works made in these media and others, some on CD -- an overwhelming cornucopia.

I think the Ballad was made in response to this immersion, and the knowledge that from thereon I would be living in/between these worlds. Where that is, be it augmented reality, the true world, or other terms that have been used to position us inside geophysical-and-virtual realities, is still up for debate.

slippingglimpse, your most recent electronic poem (also included on the CD), uses Flash to combine text with videos of ocean patterns seen along the Atlantic coast. Would you talk a little bit about how the ocean "reads" the text in that poem? What are chreods?

In slippingglimpse, we use motion capture coding that assigns the text to locations of movement in the water. The metaphor is that the water's motions provide a scanning, as our eyes scan text. In each video, an average of 12 text items is tracked by looking for changes in color of the water every 10 pixels. Every time that change exceeds a certain threshold, that location is saved in a matrix. This procedure is carried out every 10 seconds for the duration of the video.

In the poem, we aim to give equal weight to two kinds of language: to weight natural languages and human readers equally with non-human languages and non-human readers. The computer is, of course, a non-human reader; but, in this piece, so is the water -- and the water, as well, is a non-human text, a text affected by gravity, by chaotic attractors and catastrophic changes in state, patterning itself into forms that continuously renew. These forms are called chreods.

The term comes from Waddington (working on embryonic development) and is then taken up by the mathematician René Thom in his catastrophe theory. Paul Ryan, the slippingglimpse videographer, speaks about it in his Earthscore system, from which I'll quote a bit:

In nature, the combinations of the basic seven catastrophes are multiple and not readily apparent. Yet the underlying structural stability of discontinuous phenomena in nature can be understood by careful observation. Each "event pattern" can be understood in terms of its "chreod." Chreod is a term taken from the Greek that means "necessary path:" "chre" meaning "necessary," and "ode" meaning "path." If any natural process is disturbed it will return to the pathway necessary for its structural stability, like a flooded river returns to its riverbed. These necessary pathways of nature, or chreods, can be intuited though an artistic use of video observation... and then rigorously modeled using the seven elementary catastrophes and variations on these seven...

Building up a vocabulary of chreods can give us an articulate set of notes with which to score natural phenomena. For example, I did a tape of horseshoe crabs laying their eggs in the Jamaica Bay of New York City, a natural process regulated by a chreod. The crabs only lay their eggs in the wet sand during the ebb tides created by the full moon in June. This assures maximum protection for the eggs from predator birds and land animals. The birthing activity takes place within a necessary figure of regulation. If you destroy that figure of regulation, that chreod -- by stripping the beach of sand, for example -- you have destroyed the natural process of birthing in that site. 

In the slippingglimpse digital poem, Paul has used various videographing and video editing techniques, such as color correction, contrast adjustment, slowing of speed, direction reversal, and image repetition, if those techniques helped to "read" the chreod.

Do you see Flash as an improvement on hypertext? Do you want to continue to work with both (or either)? Do you envision some other format that you're working you way towards?

I have a kind of vision, or feeling, of what I want and then seek out what I can do, or collaborate with someone to do, to enact it. We look for whatever software is available (to us) at the time that is the best support for it. It is a trial-and-error process, but certainly for dynamic drawing or animation or video tracking you have to go past hypertext. Also there is always a conflict between commercial software like Flash and open source software. Which is most widely accessible, which will be supported longest, we have no idea.

You've said in another interview that "Poems are words that take you through three kinds of doors: closed doors, secret doors, and doors you don't know are there." Do you see the doors that can be opened by poems that move as different from the doors opened by poems that lie flat on a page? Or is the difference more a matter of velocity?

Yes, different doors.

And these do not in any way displace the openings that occur on the page.

Words are used differently on the page and in these media -- and these media are themselves so diverse, and changing so rapidly, that there is no short answer as to how they use words differently. Sometimes things go more swiftly, but in my pieces I tend toward slowing them down. A lot of the ambient work, like John Cayley's, is like this -- meditatively slow and rewarding intermittent attention.

How words are best or most effectively used inside digital writing remains to be seen -- not in the sense that there is a best, but in the sense of best practices, as taught in design schools. Some think the best uses will emerge with regard to SMS texting, or with regard to works made collaboratively by large groups of people. Many experiments of this kind have been tried, fail, tried again, fail better....

Do you enjoy reading your work to an audience?

I do, though I am often nervous, a kind of stage fright. But it is a wonderful thing to connect with a live audience. I am less nervous reading now, after doing many tech presentations, because in a straight reading the only tech likely to fail is a microphone, which feels like a huge burden has been removed from the situation.

However, I do very much like to read/present the digital work, even though more tech problems have surfaced than I could have dreamed, because the poetry seems to come across more directly. The e-work is a collaboration of many kinds -- with other people and with non-human agencies -- and it is much less likely for people to identify the poetry with you as an ego or personality. You can speak "for" the poetry, so to speak, when you voice it.

Are you interested in making digital work that incorporates voice and other sounds?

I've made one collaborative work, Errand Upon Which We Came, which incorporates sound. It is difficult in that it adds another element to track, both artistically and technically. I'm not fond of sound that "illustrates" or "captions" or directly voices text onscreen. Things like sferics (lightning-induced radio signals), or the sound of image -- because we can transform those signals one into the other -- that sort of thing fascinates me. It's an old German Romantic dream to turn acoustic signals into light ("fire-writing" as Ritter called it), but he didn't envision the reverse translation, I don't think. I also love the basic resonance there in any building, when there is "no" sound being made in it -- I don't know enough to work without a collaborator, however.

The texts of the two poems included on the CD are actually just a small part of Zone : Zero. There are five 'zones' in the book: Zone  Armory  War, Zone  Moat  Else, Zone  Dungeon  Body, Zone  Rampart  Logic, and Zone  Mote  Else. The epigraph is from John Cage: "We forget that we must always return to zero in order to pass from one word to the next."

Could you tell about the process of writing the manuscript that became Zone : Zero? Body/mind, slavery/freedom, human/computer, emotion/logic, violence/compassion, myth/mathematics are some of the dualities you bring into play -- were there conflicts you attempted to resolve by writing these poems? Would you say that the manuscript sprang from a dilemma?

Not from dualities -- or triplicities, or, or.... The beginning of the poem "X-ray Eyes" possibly addresses this,

If 1 is unio
and 2 di-lemma,
if 3 is a witness, or his testimony,
and 4 the quartet, the quire, the square,
who is
5 . . . . . and can I
recognize her by the way she talks...

It is the sense of living among these fortified zones, you might say, that gives rise to the poems. The War Zone and the (Computational) Logic Zone seem to reign at the moment, and the Body Zone is deeply contested and conflicted. Each of these zones is structured by its own dualities, by history, by language, by archaeology, and their calcification threatens life -- or life must be wrested from them. (I think of Alan Sondheim's latest video work or Second Life performances as wresting bodily life from them, moving it to a new edge.) So living among these, or in/between these, is where life happens: sometimes that space gives the sense of a moat, a watery path that slides and tumbles; and sometimes a mote, a rarely seen smallness in the air that dances in uncharted spaces. Our old views of time and space don't serve well to locate this moment from which life can begin again.

Thus, my question, who is 5? The 5-point ellipsis that follows that question gestures toward the unsaid, all that is implicit, not yet surfaced, not yet languaged, all that remains to come forward from undrawable space, not simply the 3-point ellipsis's "and so on and etc." One of the great conflicts is between language and mathematics, yes, if you use those as shorthand for imagination and calculation, but either of these can drift toward analysis or toward magic.

If you consider these poems to be acts of research, do you feel that you'd answered certain questions when the book was complete?

No, there is never "an answer"; the result of research is to open up deeper, older, newer, more free-flowing or more urgent questions. The result of research is to begin again, having incorporated more, been more transformed; a sort of "Look! We Have Come Through!" feeling, as D. H. Lawrence says.


Kate Greenstreet's first book, case sensitive, was published by Ahsahta Press in 2006. Her second, The Last 4 Things, will be out from Ahsahta in 2009.