Currents in Electronic Literacy

E-poets on the State of their Electronic Art:

M. D. Coverley

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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 fiction.

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.

  1. How 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?
  2. 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" ( the navigation device was a repetitive refrain, giving the impression of a poetic form, even though the piece is essentially a story.

  3. What 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" ( 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.

  4. If 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,"; and "Errand Upon Which We Came,", 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."

  5. 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.

  6. What excites you about this new medium for poetry? And what particular drawbacks (if any) does working with electronic technology present?

    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."

  7. 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.

  8. What 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 e-literature.

  9. What 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 literary value.

Please cite this article as Currents in Electronic Literacy Fall 2001 (5),

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