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Currents in Electronic Literacy
Fall 2001 (5),
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[A short autobiography:] An official biography for Marjorie
Coverley Luesebrink would begin in the usual way: Marjorie
Coverley Luesebrink constructs electronic hypermedia fiction
as M. D. Coverley. She is the author of Califia and other hypermedia
fictions including . . . . However, that is not the biographical
information I am asked about by readers. People usually want
to know how I (or anyone!) arrived at the exotic destination
of hypermedia fiction. Since electronic fiction is a relatively
new field, any tracing of a career would be hypertextual in
itself: multilinear channels that converge on an unforeseen
but fortuitous destination. The paths that I have taken - writing,
teaching, explorations with technology, and an ongoing artistic
quest - were all useful career experiences for writing hypermedia
I wrote my first poem at age 7.
It was called "Oh, Glorious Day." Enough said! But
I can still remember the white-buffalo clouds roaming across
a prairie-blue sky. All through many years of writing and publishing,
I relished recreating that feeling - the excitement of crafting
a sensory reality in words and images. Yet print writing, for
me, always seemed limiting in some way I couldn't define.
And then came the computer. Suddenly
it was possible to experiment with typefaces. Even as a magazine
editor, I had not had the liberty of setting twelve, or fifteen,
different arrangements and studying the effect! Soon, too, one
could bring images onto the page as well! I bought my first
computer in 1981. It was going to be another fourteen years,
though, before the technology was sophisticated enough for me
to bring my creative dreams together into narrative form. In
the meantime, I learned everything I could about graphics, sound,
and authoring software; I also started collecting material for
the electronic book I wished to write.
Then, in 1995, serendipity: I was
awarded an NEH grant to study hypertext fiction with Katherine
Hayles at UCLA. The workshop, "Literatures in Transition,"
focused on the work being done in new media criticism and hypertext
writing. The workshop provided a grounding in the early poetics
and aesthetics of the medium. I had the time and opportunity
to study the work of the writers who were involved with this
intriguing new literature (I recall my delight at understanding,
in a magic instant, what it meant to be able to tell a story
with a structure like Marble Springs, Deena Larsen's
seminal work). The seminar also coincided with major advances
in the technology. First, the WWW had just gone public: one
could use images, sound, and a multilinear narrative structure.
Also, freestanding authoring devices such as Storyspace, Director,
and Toolbook were becoming available. All at once, it was possible
to write using sensory and interactive elements as an integral
part of the text - as text, if you will.
While I was at UCLA, I brought
home a copy of Toolbook. The minute I had created a page - text,
sound, color, image - I was enchanted with the process. By the
end of the weekend, I had mapped out the first version of Califia.
While Califia took considerably longer to complete,
each day was an adventure in a new, experimental language of
narrative. And, in September 1995, I published "The Virtual
Mausoleum" on the Web with Orange Coast Magazine
(the first on-line issue). Today, it seems hard to believe that
a specific artistic vision, a random collection of skills, and
the enabling technology would all intersect and merge into a
field as interesting as hypermedia fiction - and that I would
get to write some of it.
do you define your work--what categorizations/classifications
(traditional or otherwise) would you use to distinguish
e-poetry in general and your work in particular?
Although I have published some
poetry, I consider myself a fiction writer. The appellations
that I normally employ are Electronic, Hypermedia, and Interactive.
However, all of those "new" descriptors modify the
essential project of fictional narrative writing. The fact
that some of my works have been published as poetry, I think,
draws attention to the nature of the WWW. The Web tends to
favor short segments of prose-text is difficult to see on
the screen, readers don't like to scroll, the medium itself
encourages a multiplicity of sensory inputs. Short sections
of prose are not necessarily poetry, but it is sometimes difficult
to draw the line. In my "Rain Frames" (http://califia.hispeed.com/RainFrames/rainfr1.htm)
the navigation device was a repetitive refrain, giving the
impression of a poetic form, even though the piece is essentially
are you doing in e-poetry that cannot be done in more traditional
modes (such as linear paper)?
All of my fiction and poetry
must be read on a computer. The borderline between "on-paper"
and "not-possible-on-paper" may seem porous, but
in fact it is not. Backgrounds, illustrative images, and
unusual typefaces have been a part of linear text productions
over the centuries. They do not necessarily require an electronic
format. Rather, the elements of my work that require a computer
are more likely to be structural: I am interested in developing
works in which the multilinear aspect is foregrounded, works
in which the images, sound, and movement interpenetrate.
Hypermedia work changes the nature of transitions between
one idea and another, or several others. Navigation can
be designed to indicate both co-ordination and subordination,
movement between story and meta-story, present and past,
one voice and another. Perhaps more importantly, e-literature
can use media to make metaphors that embed the physicality
of the work itself. In "Endless Suburbs" (http://califia.hispeed.com/EndSub/endless.htm)
I used an applet to make a duplicating machine that kept
turning out less-and-less accurate copies of a car and a
suburb: the graphic acted as metaphor for the plot and for
the meta-story, as well.
you "collaborate" with others (for instance, outsource particular
technological aspects of a "poem"), do you feel this affects
the poem's "authorship?"
I have collaborated with others in several different ways
- the WWW environment seems very conducive to this. Collaboration
can take many forms - everything from a close-knit, "one
vision" creation to collections - projects where several
authors work separately on a common theme. In the pieces
I have done with poet Stephanie Strickland ("To Be
Here as Stone Is," http://califia.hispeed.com/SI/stone1.htm;
and "Errand Upon Which We Came," http://califia.hispeed.com/Errand/),
the collaborative process involved months of e-mails and
then stints of several days in front of the computer together.
The "co-authorship" there represented a unity
of vision, a shared experience. In other collaborations,
notably with Ted Warnell (*The Negative Confessions*), I
wrote the text and did not participate in the design. We
worked entirely by e-mail. We shared credit because our
contributions were roughly equal. In other collaborations,
such as Christy Sheffield Sanford's The Book of Hours
of Madame de Lafayette, Sanford was the "Director"
of the project and each author of a segment was given credit
for that "hour."
It seems to me that when separate
individuals bring different skills to a project, they should
be recognized in some way in the authorial credit - unless
one has bought a specific, programmed sequence or a piece
of media. The authorship of an electronic text is not solely
in the "text," it is a product of a combination
of elements - and these, together, constitute the "authorship."
Who are your readers and how are you interacting with
them? How is youraudience similar to and/or different from
that of the traditional poet's?
I think the answer to this question may differ between poets
and fiction writers. Poetry has always had a dedicated audience
- people who prefer poetry above all other genres and follow
the developments closely. Fiction, on the other hand, has
had a perhaps larger, but less committed audience. Regardless,
both fiction and poetry readers tend to be conservative
- they like the printed book, tend to be more comfortable
with well-established technologies. It is probably true,
for this reason alone, that the audience for hypermedia
fiction and poetry is very small. The interaction with this
small audience is very interesting, however. While, with
a print book or poem, the author rarely hears from a reader,
the WWW facilitates reader-author communication. With just
a mouse-click, the reader can e-mail the author with questions
and comments. While informal, these exchanges are useful
and can be remarkable for the quality of feedback.
excites you about this new medium for poetry? And what particular
drawbacks (if any) does working with electronic technology
From the first moment I sat down at the computer with an
authoring system that allowed me to blend text, image, sound,
and structure, I was thrilled with the possibilities for
creating a new literature. Six years later, that excitement
persists. My print work for years before that anticipated
a form that would allow me to distinguish between modalities
- I even had several "type face elements" for
my Selectric typewriter! Hypermedia seems to be the optimal
way for me to tell stories. Of course, the technology is
difficult, and I address that elsewhere in "The Mirror
of Simple Annihilated Souls."
How are you integrating/embracing other media such
as sound, animation, and navigation?
All of my work, since 1995,
has included sound, animation, multilinear navigation, and
extensive use of graphics. For the past year I have been
experimenting with motion (Flash, video) and human voice
files. I find that there is an upward limit to the number
of media elements that can work harmoniously together. It's
not clear exactly what those limits may be, but I think
we will see e-poets and narrative writers continuing to
explore the possible blends going forward.
kind of aesthetic is emerging in the field?
I believe that the answer to
this question is still not clear. Hypermedia poetry and
fiction are in a developmental stage, yet. Perhaps the best
thing for the field would be to retain an open mind about
what e-literature might become. Poets are exploring a myriad
of avenues - everything from Jim Andrews's sound poems to
Deena Larsen's Kanji's to John Cayley's text-based engines.
The sheer scope of this new work indicates that a variety
of aesthetic criteria may be appropriate for evaluating
do you think the future holds for e-poets and e-poetry?
At some not-too-distant date,
we will reach the place at which all media are at home on
the Web, equally. That is, the constraints against spoken
word files will be no greater than those for transmitting
text files. At that point, I believe, the field will begin
to stabilize. I think we will begin to see works that reflect
the best use of all media to construct a piece. If this
is accompanied by a corresponding stability in the authoring
environment, we shall surely see more works of unquestionable