cite this article as
Currents in Electronic Literacy
Fall 2001 (5),
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Robert Kendall (www.robertkendall.com)
is the author of the book-length hypertext poem A Life Set
for Two (Eastgate Systems) and other hypertext poetry published
at BBC Online, The Iowa Review Web, Cortland
Review, Eastgate Hypertext Reading Room, and other
Web sites. His electronic poetry has been exhibited at many
venues in the United States, Europe, South America, and the
Philippines, and he has given interactive readings of his work
in many cities. His printed book of poetry, A Wandering City,
was awarded the Cleveland State University Poetry Center Prize,
and he has received a New Jersey State Council on the Arts Fellowship,
a New Forms Regional Grant, and other awards. He teaches electronic
poetry and fiction for the New School University's online program,
runs the literary Web site Word Circuits and the ELO's Electronic
Literature Directory, and is a co-developer of Word Circuits
Connection Muse, a hypertext tool for poets and fiction writers.
He has written many articles about electronic literature for
national publications, such as Poets & Writers Magazine,
and he lectures frequently on the topic.
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?
This is actually a tougher question
than it might seem. When I first started writing electronic
poetry in 1990 there was no terminology at all for this sort
of work and I wasn't aware of anyone else working in the field.
I felt compelled to come up with some sort of catchy label
for what I was doing, so I dubbed it "SoftPoetry."
This had the double meaning of software-based poetry and malleable
poetry - appropriate since the work used animated text and
interaction. I also described the work more generally as "interactive
video poetry." Gradually I became increasingly interested
in the interactive potential of electronic poetry. Though
"hypertext" didn't fully describe all aspects of
the work I was doing, this term had the benefit of being already
familiar to many people, especially after the rise of the
Web. So I became a "hypertext poet." Some of the
pieces I'm currently working on aren't very hypertextual and
rely more upon other techniques, such as animation. So am
I now a "hypertext poet with Flash tendencies"?
"Electronic poetry" is a nice, all-purpose label,
but it doesn't immediately indicate that the work is somehow
different than conventional poems that are simply published
electronically instead of in print.
are you doing in e-poetry that cannot be done in more traditional
modes (such as linear paper)?
Well, the list is a long one.
(See http://www.wordcircuits.com/kendall/poetry for an index
of my work.) I started out with animated poetry, sometimes
set to music. This poetry incorporates performance elements
into the textual dimension rather than the oral dimension.
Then I began working with adaptive hypertext. "A Life
Set for Two" attempts to simulate the dynamic workings
of memory and the volatility of emotional states. The text
is malleable in the way that reminiscences can be malleable
in the mind of someone looking back on past events. Other
hypertexts explore shifting states of awareness and the
shifting aspects of interpersonal relationships. They let
the reader experience the volatility of these elements directly
rather than just digesting my descriptions of them. Then
there are the opportunities to experiment with shifting
juxtapositions of imagery and to extend the associative
reach of image and metaphor through hypertext links.
One of my current poems is
a detective game (or perhaps a metagame), which invites
readers to solve a mystery by looking for clues as they
explore rooms, alleyways, and paths through the woods. The
piece tracks the reader's score and there is a winning outcome
and a losing outcome. The mystery is the nature of knowledge,
self-knowledge, and identity, which of course is insoluble.
So the poem is really about our processes of creating our
own answers for the unanswerable. To enhance the archetypal
B-grade movie quality of the whole thing, the text and images
are accompanied by a musical soundtrack (which I composed
- I have a Master's degree in music).
I'm also working on some Flash
poems that create new formal structures for poetry based
on progressive alterations within the text. This technique
is meant as an alternative to the rhyme, meter, and word
repetition that form the basis of traditional verse forms.
you "collaborate" with others (for instance, outsource particular
technological aspects of a "poem"), do you feel this affects
the poem's "authorship?"
I have never done collaborations, though I am interested
in pursuing the collaborative route in the future. When
you're creating all the text, graphics, and programming
elements single-handedly, work progresses very slowly,
so I'd like to start letting others take on some of the
nontextual elements of my work. Yes, working with, say,
a graphic artist would make that person a co-creator of
the work and their contribution could (one would hope) be
as important to the end result as the text. Interestingly,
when one person creates the text of an e-poem and someone
else does the graphics or programming, people generally
seem to regard the creator of the text as the work's author.
The term "author" still seems to be tied to purely
textual production, though this may change. It's interesting
that in traditionally collaborative fields, one person also
is seen as the principal creator, whether fairly or not.
In plays, it's the playwright rather than the director,
while in film it's the director rather than the screenwriter.
In musicals and operas, it's the composer rather than the
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?
The audience for my electronic work seems much larger and
is certainly more international than the audience for my
traditionally printed poetry. I know I have readers from
all over the US and from overseas. The audience for the
Web work is also more diverse in terms of its interests.
The traditional channels for poetry are fairly narrow -
you reach the few literary people who are willing to attend
live readings and follow literary magazines. Electronic
poetry, however, attracts not just the usual poetry crowd
but also people interested in visual art, technology, and
new cultural developments. There's also a very large academic
audience for new media work. A number of people are teaching
my electronic poetry in college classes, and I've even stumbled
across a few student papers about my work that were put
online. I often get email responses from readers of my Web
work, but feedback from strangers about my printed poetry
is rare indeed.
excites you about this new medium for poetry? And what particular
drawbacks (if any) does working with electronic technology
Working in the electronic arts is like being one of the
first explorers to enter a fascinating new country. You
know there may be amazing things around any bend of the
river. It's exciting to be involved with taking literature
in new directions. I also very much like working at the
edge of several different media, playing with the interactions
among text, visual art, music, and programming.
There are some very serious
drawbacks, however. Achieving cross-platform compatibility
is always a major headache and limits what you can do. Having
to line up the necessary equipment for live readings (LCD
projector, screen, etc.) limits the venues at which you
can give readings of your work. By far the biggest problem
is that of software obsolescence, though. It drives me to
despair that my early work will no longer run on modern
systems and that my current work may have to be constantly
revised to keep it accessible to future systems.
How are you integrating/embracing other media such
as sound, animation, and navigation?
My first electronic poems were
heavy on animation and synchronized music. There was no
industry standard for Windows multimedia software back then,
so I migrated from one program to another, creating work
in three different software packages that are all off the
market now. Seeing my work become unreadable after a few
years sort of put me off working with complex animation
and audio for a long time. But now that Flash has established
itself as a standard for animation and audio that seems
to be here to stay (at least for awhile), I'm diving in
and taking up where I left off in the early '90s with multimedia.
I have also explored a wide variety of approaches to hypertext,
and each of my hypertext pieces makes use of a different
kind of aesthetic is emerging in the field?
A number of different aesthetics
have arisen, many of them contrasting quite strongly with
one another. You have people like John Cayley whose work
depends heavily upon randomization or quasi-randomization
in the tradition of John Cage and Jackson Mac Low. There's
a strong emphasis on theoretical underpinnings here and
(except in some of his most recent work) the poetry is generally
unadorned by nontextual elements. At the other end of the
spectrum is much of the Flash poetry on sites like Poems
That Go. Audio and video are placed on equal footing with
text, or often dominate the text, and there's an emphasis
on accessibility in the manner of street poetry or East
Village performance poetry. Then there's everything in between
and around these approaches.
do you think the future holds for e-poets and e-poetry?
I think that new aesthetics
will continue to emerge and we'll see even more stylistic
diversity. Work will become more sophisticated as software
improves and we become more skilled with using it. Collaboration
will also become more commonplace, expanding the range of
the work. I think that as the Web becomes more and more
familiar to poetry readers (perhaps even becoming the primary
means of distribution for poetry), Web-specific poetry (that
is, e-poetry) will come to be taken for granted. But I think
it will always continue to surprise us.