cite this article as
Currents in Electronic Literacy
Fall 2001 (5),
- This issue of Currents is devoted to
the poetics of electronic poetry. We offer two new creative
works, Deena Larsen's "Sea Whispers" and Marjorie
D. Coverley's "Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls."
We also offer two other pieces by the same authors, Coverley's
"The White Wall: Re-Framing the Mirror" and Larsen's
"What You See Is Not What I See." These texts reflect
on the poets' coming-to-terms with our editorial commitment
to publishing material that is accessible to readers who have
- A few words of explanation are in order.
- For some time now, it's been Currents'
policy to publish texts that are accessible to readers who have
disabilities. To that end, our submission guidelines point authors
to the "Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0"
published in May 1999 as a formal Recommendation of the World
Wide Web Consortium (W3C) following two years of work by the
Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI).
When we began hashing out ideas for an issue
about digital poetry and its emerging poetics, we agreed that
we should leave this existing editorial policy in place. We
would ask poets who expressed an interest in submitting their
work to take the steps necessary to ensure that their new poems
would be accessible to readers with disabilities. I am one of
those readers (I'm blind), so there was a personal and pragmatic
reason for raising this concern. But this is not merely a personal
issue, nor is the purpose merely utilitarian. As the companion
essays by Deena Larsen and Marjorie Coverley clearly indicate,
the call for accessibility also raises a number of important
aesthetic and political concerns, which deserve serious discussion
by serious people. Let the games begin!
A unique experiment
- This is a unique experiment. As far as I know,
Currents is the first Web-based literary/scholarly publication
to set such expectations. I'm not aware, either, of efforts
involving other formats (such as CD-ROM or DVD) to create new
works of digital literature that are accessible to people with
- So I was thrilled when I heard that Coverley
and Larsen had taken up the challenge, and we are proud to publish
the fruits of their labors. Their companion essays include links
to the texts they originally submitted to us, so that our readers
may compare them with the transformed documents that emerged
through their "wrangling," as Deena Larsen calls it,
with the accessibility guidelines--and occasionally with me,
as I responded to what they had done, pointing out places where
my screenreader and I ran into trouble, offering (probably unwelcome)
suggestions, obtruding on the creative processes of autonomous
- I know that neither writer is fully satisfied
with what she achieved. But in one sense, at least, the experiment
has succeeded beyond my imaginings, opening up important insights
into the challenges posed by the effort to achieve Web accessibility
for people with disabilities.
Wrestling with the accessibility guidelines
- That Larsen and Coverley wrestled hard with
the accessibility guidelines is evident in intriguing and thoughtful
essays that reveal a strong sense of frustration tinged with
a certain excitement--o the siren call of what's difficult!
The essays, like the poems, are lovely, and I'll leave you to
read them for yourself, and to make the appropriate comparisons
between the texts they submitted and the texts we've published
here. But I do want to address some of the concerns they express
and, I hope, make it clear that my--our--goal is to open up
new avenues for experimentation and exploration, not to close
things down, not to "stifle" expression for the sake
of political correctness, as Larsen worries we might.
- The works published in this issue of Currents
open a window into the processes and pitfalls of attempting
to "retrofit" existing Web sites for accessibility.
They also throw into relief a certain habit of mind, a reflex
response that I've observed in many other Web-authors faced
for the first time with a call for accessibility. Perhaps not
surprisingly, both poets appear to have thought first in terms
of recuperation, of providing access to existing work rather
than creating something new--just as architects and civil engineers
are often called upon to retrofit existing buildings or other
structures to meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities
Act of 1990. In the end, though, both artists raise questions
about how new work might or should address the issue
- Both Deena Larsen and Marjorie Coverley are
brought up short, at first, by what I've described elsewhere
(Slatin, 2001) as the "Prime Directive" of the "Web
Content Accessibility Guidelines," the demand that authors
provide "equivalent alternatives" for all visual and
auditory material on the site. Marjorie Coverley quotes the
complete text of Checkpoint 1.1, the first of 14 guidelines
(each of which has its own checkpoints as well):
1.1 Provide a text equivalent for every
non-text element (e.g., via "alt", "longdesc",
or in element content). This includes: images, graphical
representations of text (including symbols), image map regions,
animations (e.g., animated GIFs), applets and programmatic
objects, ASCII art, frames, scripts, images used as list
bullets, spacers, graphical buttons, sounds (played with
or without user interaction), stand-alone audio files, audio
tracks of video, and video. [Priority 1]
- This catalog of elements is worthy of Whitman
or Marianne Moore, and it's a stopper, with its bland assumption
of "equivalence" among image, sound, and text; we'll
come back to it later. Deena Larsen doesn't give us much detail,
in "What You See Is Not What I See," about the "great
deal of wrangling" it took for her to get from "Sea
Whispers" as she'd originally conceived and constructed
it to a text that is not merely an "accessible version
of "Sea Whispers" but a "different poem"
altogether. Yet she also is concerned that the call for "equivalence"
masks a more disturbing effort to impose a boring sameness on
readers' experience, and thus on the texts that engender that
- The poem Larsen first sent us was an integral,
tightly organized whole depending in crucial ways on the visual
quality of a written sign:
In my "Sea
Whispers," . . . 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 [the] 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 . . .
- By contrast, the "accessible version"
of "Sea Whispers" published here exploits an auditory
conceit. Among other things, it takes advantage of the fact
that the JAWS screenreader pronounces the asterisk (*) as star
to create a new rhythm, a recurrence that punctuates the lines
of verse. (See the "Note on accessing the accessible versions,"
below, for information on how to obtain demo versions of screenreading
- Marjorie Coverley provides a more detailed
account of her efforts to find viable "equivalents"
for individual elements in her design--"Mirror"'s
elaborate navigational conceit, images that flicker and dissolve,
a musical air from the England of Henry the Eighth:
[T]he first job was to survey the
image, motion, and sound elements and determine how to replace
each of them with a representation in a different medium.
The sound was the easiest, so I began with that. But here,
immediately, the aesthetic considerations arose. The MIDI
sequence for Mirror is a 16th century air from the Court
of Henry the 8th. While it was a simple enough matter to
provide an explanation of the harpsichord-like sound and
the articulated, antique notes, it was less clear that the
"text" was in any way an "equivalent."
Unless the reader could, in fact, imagine a dark-light melody
from five hundred years ago, then the effect of the bright
mirror, the cameo of Marguerite of Porete, and the use of
manuscript markers such as "Recto" and "Verso"
became much less resonant. I began to see, in a way that
had not been evident to me previously, that multimedia writing
depends on a carefully constructed oscillation between the
visual, the aural, and the textual. . . That is, each of
the media elements provides a set of sensory suggestions
that act in a rhythmic interplay. It wasn't so critical
that a reader could actually hear the sound in and
of itself, yet the sound acted in concert with other sensory
signifiers. The problem I faced in making the sound accessible
to the hearing impaired was that the images and text relied
upon the sound for completion.
Technical problems arose, as well. Screen readers, for example,
are aural devices, and the reader needs to be able to hear
the text read aloud. The music, one media element that visually
impaired readers could access and enjoy, interfered with
the text reader - so these readers benefit from an easy
way to stop the sound. Currently, each of the browsers handles
the loading of MIDI files differently, and the creation
not work cross-browser. The solution was to turn the sound
down - and even that strategy tended to relegate the sound
more to the background, muting the sense of oscillation
between aural and visual signifiers. Since, finally, the
reader can adjust the sound in a number of ways outside
the piece itself (on the bottom Toolbar, or in the Control
Panel), a low level of sound was an awkward, but workable,
- It is extremely valuable to have these accounts
of serious efforts by artists who are skilled in and committed
to exploring the creative dimensions of the Web and related
technologies. As poets working in digital media, Larsen and
Coverley speak from a standpoint that is (to put it mildly)
underrepresented in forums like the World Wide Web Consortium.
Their statements highlight a fundamental conceptual problem
in the way the W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative has approached
the challenge of making the Web accessible to people with disabilities--a
tear in the complex skein of the Web.
The container model
- This flaw--which is also a crucial constituent
of the Web's success and power--is in the "Guidelines"'
unquestioning, tacit acceptance of what John Seely Brown and
Paul Duguid in The Social Life of Information (2000)
call the "container model" of the Web. This is the
idea that the Web document is a neutral "container"
or "delivery platform" for "content," which
may in turn consist of text, image, sound, video, animation--whatever!--which
in turn contains (or delivers) "information" as a
cardboard box contains, say, oatmeal, which can be put into
a different kind of container (a metal can, a plastic bag, a
burlap sack) without giving up its identity as oatmeal. The
container model is enshrined in the very title of the document--these
are the Web CONTENT Accessibility Guidelines, after all. HTML
is a markup language, not a programming or scripting
language: the tags' only function is to mark off (or mark
up) blocks of "content" so that the browser or
other "user agent" can "render" it appropriately.
- From the standpoint of accessibility, the problem
with the container model of the Web manifests itself in the
"granularity" of the "Web Content Accessibility
Guidelines." Checkpoint 1.1, quoted in full above, insists
on "equivalency" at the level of the individual HTML
element. There must be an equivalent alternative for
every image, every sound, every spacer
graphic, every bullet, every button, every
whatnot. There is no talk of an informing design, of pattern
emerging unpredictably from the interaction of those elements
and (re)shaping those interactions.
Accessibility starts at the level of design
- But accessibility has to start at the level
of design, whence it permeates the whole, informing the artist's
decisions at every choice-point, every turn in the quest for
beauty (or for that matter, a more utilitarian effectiveness).
The electronic poet's task
- The task of the electronic poet is to create
the conditions for the richest possible interactive experience--not
simply to create a text, however complex or beautiful. Roland
Barthes said it beautifully, in a passage I stumbled upon on
the Web site of my friend and colleague Samantha Henriette Krukowski's
course on the future of narrative (http://www.actlab.utexas.edu/narrativefall01.html):
Thus is revealed the total existence
of writing: a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from
many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue,
parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity
is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto
said, the author. The reader is the space on which all the
quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any
of them being lost; a text's unity lies not in its origin
but in its destination.
--Roland Barthes, Image / Music / Text
- This was not about Web accessibility for
people with disabilities when Barthes wrote it more than
20 years ago. But that makes it all the more powerful for me
now, in this context. The text's unity lies not in its origin
but in its destination, and the destination is the reader.
- Here, astonishingly, literary theory and Web
design and even federal legislation converge, if only for a
moment. For in 1998 Congress revised Section 508 of the Rehabilitation
Act of 1973 to create accessibility standards for the broad
range of electronic and information technologies from fax machines
and photocopiers to Web sites. This revised legislation (usually
referred to elliptically as "Section 508," as if everyone
knew just what that was) says, in effect, that a Web site may
be considered accessible when individuals who have disabilities
can use it as effectively as individuals who don't have disabilities.
In other words, accessibility is a quality of the user/reader's
experience, not a property of the Web document. Or, to paraphrase
Barthes, the text's accessibility lies not in its origin but
in its destination.
- This is not an easy thing, and both Marjorie
Coverley and Deena Larsen write of the urgent desire and need
to experiment, to explore, to push at the limits of the medium
and of their own abilities to integrate/cause the appropriate
oscillation among stasis and motion, image and text and sound.
And both write as if a concern for making their art accessible
to people with disabilities must be at odds with that desire
and need. Coverley concludes, for example, that
. . . we have a clear challenge to
include as many readers as possible in the future of electronic
literature. It may be the case, though, for the present, that
equivalency cannot be entirely satisfied by current W3C standards
when those are applied to electronic fiction and poetry.
- Larsen expresses her concern even more strongly,
and then pushes beyond the anxiety to a call for further exploration:
Electronic poetry is just beginning
to explore the vast possibilities in this new [medium]. If
we hobble the [medium] 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.
Re-re-framing the mirror
- So now perhaps we can re-re-frame the mirror
(an auditory mirror, an echo--and read Brenda Jo Brueggemann's
shocking metaphor of the shattered mirror in her ears, in her
with Aids," Currents Spring 2001). For it was
in the hope of launching just such explorations as Larsen mentions
here that we called upon poets to attempt the accessibility
- I'd now like to end with some words for the
e-poets out there . . .
Accessibility guidelines are not different in kind from other
formalisms in other genres
- Achieving accessibility absolutely requires
imaginative experiments with combinations and oscillations of
sound and image and text, video and animation, music and words,
spoken and written, in order to create the most beautiful and
rich and intense experience for everyone, using every
resource the medium affords.
- The constraints imposed by the accessibility
guidelines are not different in kind from the those imposed
by the formalisms artists have been accustomed to: sonnet, villanelle,
ode, aubade, syllabic verse, haiku . . . three-point perspective
. . . Gothic Revival, Bauhaus . . . But, like these artistic
constraints, the accessibility guidelines are also affordances.
Any genre, any medium affords its artists a vocabulary with
which to work. The Web is no different. Our poets have taken
to it with such delight because it extends the traditional repertoire,
and Flash, applets and scripts and plug-ins, rollovers and mouseovers
and animated GIFs, MIDI and WAV and AVI, to which we now add
ALT and LONGDESC, TABINDEX and ACCESSKEY and CSS, audio description
and closed captions, SMIL and XML and SVG, RealPlayer and QuickTime
and more . . .
Readers' capabilities are poets' resources
- But we aren't concerned simply with the medium's
technical affordances. If we take the reader actively
into account (as both Barthes and the accessibility standards
suggest we must), we come to understand that the reader's capabilities
are also poets' resources, whether those capabilities are "native"
to the reader or extended by prostheses such as screenreaders,
voice input, gesture, joystick, and/or mouse. The robot voice
of the screenreader (the voices have names--Paul, Reed, Betty,
Second Male Voice, Jennifer . . .); its ability (indeed its
need) to vocalize text both seen and unseen (ALT text, TITLE
attributes attached to IMGs and other elements in the source
code but not visible on the screen, for example); the voices
of readers/interactors who control their machines by speaking
to them; the ability of an eye-tracking system to respond to
and in the wink of an eye--these are resources, so far almost
completely untapped by artists, for the construction of richly
interactive experiences. The goal is not--there is no requirement--to
ensure that every reader/user/participant has the same
experience as every other reader/user/participant. The goal
is to create works that engage each reader/participant in the
richest experience of which she or he is capable, using all
the resources at the artist's disposal.
- Those resources are considerable. Flawed as
they are, the "Web Content Accessibility Guidelines"
are among those resources: guidelines rather than
rules, they support Web-authors, point to issues we might
not have thought of (flicker-rate, for example, or the order
in which screenreaders treat text in columns, or the difference
between server-side image maps and client-side image maps).
I'll cite just a few more examples--tools that may allow you
to tap into the assistive technologies I've mentioned above
while also producing the rich visual and multimedia effects
you're eager to exploit and explore.
- Flash isn't the only multimedia game in town--consider
SMIL, the W3C's Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language.
Like Flash, SMIL supports a rich interplay of image and sound
and text and animation, including audio descriptions and closed
captions for video sequences. In short, SMIL includes built-in
support for accessibility, whereas it's difficult if not impossible
to make Flash movies accessible (Clark, 2001). Flash isn't the
only game in town where vector graphics are concerned, either.
You might experiment with Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG), another
emerging W3C technology that allows complex graphic images to
scale up or down on different display devices with far less
degradation of image-quality than is commonly the case now.
And SVG can do things that Flash hasn't even dreamt of yet.
For example, SVG has the added benefit, for accessibility's
sake, that the alternative (ALT) text and extended descriptions
may be included as part of the image itself--and included as
text that screenreaders like JAWS can read!--which opens
up some very interesting new possibilities for the interplay
of word and image . . . As for rollover buttons, you don't have
to give them up, either--just add a couple of new event handlers
to your repertoire: to on mouseOver and on mouseOut,
you can add onFocus and onBlur and onSelect,
handlers that make it possible for people who don't use a mouse
or other pointing device to enjoy the same effects that others
get when the mouse passes over a button on the screen, or when
a mouseclick initiates some more intricate action.
Call for invention
- A final note: The Web is what it is--a rich,
complex, often infuriating, sometimes wonderful environment--because
so many thousands of people, acting sometimes alone and sometimes
in deliberate collaboration with others, have put their creative
intelligence and their talent to work to make it so. The Web
is a continuously self-inventing, self-organizing phenomenon.
To make the Web accessible requires the same degree of individual
and collective inventiveness, the creative intelligence of many,
many people. The creativity and inventiveness of our poets are
vital to this effort to expand the Web's potential. We can't
do it without you!
A note about accessing the accessible versions of "Sea
Whispers" and "Mirror"
- If you're interested in hearing what the accessible versions
of Larsen's and Coverley's works sound like on a screenreader
or talking browser--or if you'd like to experiment with listening
to your own compositions--you can download and install the free
demo versions of two widely used screenreaders and a talking
browser. You can obtain the JAWS screenreader demo from the
Freedom Scientific Web site at http://www.freedomscientific.com/fs_downloads/jaws.asp.
(This is a 19MB download, so don't try it over a modem line
unless you've got all night!) Alternatively, you can try a free
demo of IBM's talking Web browser, Home Page Reader, at http://www-3.ibm.com/able/hpr.html,
or GW-Micro's Window-Eyes, available at http://www.gwmicro.com/demo/.