cite this article as
Currents in Electronic Literacy
Fall 2001 (5),
- You are
six, just starting school. The teacher turns to the blackboard
and starts to move her hand up and down. Everyone else around
you is busy copying something. You look at the black stuff and
see the same black that's always been. What is going on here?
What mind-link do the teacher and other students share that
you don't have?
- You are
sixteen. By now, you've had the eye exams and heard the diagnosis:
legally blind--attendant with glasses, therapy, etc. Now you
go to the movies and people around you are screaming from something
they see on the screen--something that you can imagine, but
not grasp entirely. How do you know what the others are seeing?
Is it that the bad guy has a knife or a hideous face? How can
you tell what you are missing?
Until about four years ago, I was legally
blind. I could imagine what a tree looked like, or what marks
on a blackboard meant, but I could not understand. When I
got my sight (a combination of factors, but mostly new technologies),
I understood what a tree was, with its slender lines and individual
leaves all moving gently in slightly different directions.
So I've lived in both worlds--at least enough to understand
that you cannot know or even imagine what it is you do not
have. You cannot even begin to form the question about what
you are missing because you don't know that there is something
to ask about. For me, there is beauty in both worlds; it isn't
that one is better than the other, or that one is more privileged.
If you are blind from birth, you can imagine what the difference
between flipping on and off a light switch is, but you will
never know for certain. We are all blind in that we do not
see in infrared or ultraviolet. What are we missing?
In this age of political correctness, in which
handicaps become challenges and we strive for full equality,
I want to make an obvious point: Giving a blind person access
to a work does not mean that the person will experience it
in the same way that a sighted person experiences it. Artists
can explain paintings in words: "This is a little blonde
girl in a blue frock clutching a black watering can, with
deep strokes of paint which blur the edges, creating an impressionistic
look." But they cannot capture the same sensations--both
physical and emotional--that viewing the same painting will
When I was in high school, I went to the movies
with Diane, a deaf girl. We always sat through the films twice.
The first time through, I would spell the dialogue into her
hand. The second time through, she would spell the details
into my hand--what people were wearing, how they moved, what
the monsters looked like. We did not have the same experience
that a sighted and hearing person had. But we could talk about
the same movie with our friends.
Now electronic poetry has raised the stakes
from a different experience to a different interpretation
of the work. Meaning in this new media depends on symbiociation--the
deep connotations and associations of images, movement, structure,
and sound that stretch the meaning of the text. To get a glimpse
of this, think about William Blake's The Tyger. In
the illuminated version, we see an almost friendly tiger,
which belies the "fearful symmetry." For centuries
people missed the irony in this poem until scholars started
to look at the associated imagery. Electronic poetry takes
the illumination much further--using imagery, sound, and other
means to provide subtle and not-so-subtle undertexts that
contradict, support, and expand the text.
In my "Sea
Whispers," these undertexts of meaning are conveyed through
structure and navigation. The poem itself is embodied in the
Japanese kanji, or ideogram, for sea. As you move along outer
radical (the drops that mean water), you first feel the sea
spray and develop a sense of the dream shore, the outer limits,
of the sea. The inner radical (the top line and divided square
that means every) can be broken down into man (the top line)
and mother (the divided square). I used the man radical to
show the search of the horizon--the search for meaning. The
mother radical compares our dreams and reality. The whole
kanji thus forms the structure, the inner meaning, of the
sea. If you cannot see the picture of the kanji and the structure
of the piece, then this navigation breaks down entirely--just
as you miss the point of the movie if you cannot see the villain's
So when Currents asked me to create an accessible
site, at first I said that it could not happen, that I could
not convey the subtle undertext without recourse to the visual
picture of the kanji. After a great deal of wrangling and
experimenting, we compromised. I did not create an accessible
version of "Sea Whispers";
I created an entirely new poem. This new poem provides a different
experience--just as going to the movie and signing the meaning
into our hands was an entirely different experience from seeing
and hearing the movie. You can still talk about the same themes,
the same ideas that I hope to bring out in "Sea Whispers." But
it is not and cannot be the same poem--and it has a very different
subtext and symbiociation.
"Sea Whispers" is actually a pretty simple
example of this symbiociation between structure and meaning.
I am now working in flash and experimenting in sound as well
as motion--adding more dimensions of experience and undertexts
which cannot be easily translated from visual to text only.
If accessible connotes having the same or similar experience
or even wringing the same or similar meanings from a piece,
then I cannot make these newer works accessible. I can and
may re-create the ideas, emotions, and undertexts from one
electronic poem into a non-visual, non-auditory poem. But
these will be two very different and distinct works--each
offering a unique beauty.
Electronic poetry is just beginning to explore
the vast possibilities in this new media. If we hobble the
media by requiring it to provide the same experiences and
equal access to all, we will slam the door on an amazing art
form--just as much as if we required all paintings to be completely
understood by the blind or all symphonies to show their nuances
to the deaf. Rather, we can open the doors in both worlds
and create works that hold meaning in both the visual and
nonvisual worlds. Let's embrace all of the potential for electronic
poetry--visual, aural, animation, structure, and more. Let's
access everything we can and in every form we can.