Currents in Electronic Literacy

E-poets on the State of their Electronic Art:

Kurt Heintz


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Kurt Heintz is a writer and media artist who lives and works in Chicago. He is founder of the e-poets network ( and has been active in telepresent (videoconferencing) performance poetry since 1993. Since 1991, Heintz has been active in poetry video, both as a producing artist and as a curator. His "Incomplete History of Slam" has been online continuously since 1995 with successive revisions. He is published in the poetry anthologies Power Lines (Tia Chucha Press, Chicago) and Rude Trip (Edition 406, Hamburg).

  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?

    My work has many sides. I write and perform poetry, I create videos of others' poems, and I have produced new media elements for others' performance poetry work for stage. I produce and direct 2-way videoconferences featuring poets in Chicago linked to other cities such as Vancouver, Seattle, and London. I've produced link-ups in the past with cities, too, such as Boston, Los Angeles, and Cambridge, England.

    As a director for the e-poets network, I collect spoken word (often poetry) performed by its creators, build Web sites that frame their work in creative and (I hope) critical terms, and develop ways of sharing texts side-by-side with poetry video and audio poetry. I've also curated programs featuring poetry in film, video, and audio. (See for example.)

    With such scattershot activity, I'm not sure there is a comprehensive term for who I am or what I do. I call myself a new media poet, a term I coined locally that others have since picked up as their own, usually with their own spin.

  2. What are you doing in e-poetry that cannot be done in more traditional modes (such as linear paper)?

    I think that e-poetry (a term that itself remains a little vague to me, even as I work in it) exceeds paper in its ability to relate time.

    I take issue with the term "linear paper". Paper is itself non-linear, because nothing but culture obliges us to read the top of a page before the bottom, to read a book starting at page one. A recording, however, is quite linear and bound to a timebase by definition.

    Some people have said that I am attracted to new media poetry because I relish the ephemeral, but I read "ephemeral" more as something that can escape between our fingers, less sublime and more at risk of being lost. By putting text and speech side-by-side on the Web, I'm combatting spoken word's dismissal as ephemeral, versus print's durability and heretofore unchallenged critical supremacy, by putting spoken word into a medium where it can be indexed, quoted, and critiqued just as readily as text. I would like to see an understanding of spoken/performed poetry rise to a level on par with the critique of text.

    Further, e-poetry can synthesize language and phenomena on linguistic terms-present the thing itself instead of the word for the thing in many cases-and make a stronger case for a message in the process. It's not enough for me to lift the language of Oliver North to portray a villain, for example, but to actually use public domain recordings of his Iran-Contra testimony to demonstrate villainy. That is an object that new media poets may handle as easily as a word or a phrase. So I begin to appropriate life as language, gather the phenomena around me and invoke them as words, as needed, for a given e-poem.

  3. If you "collaborate" with others (for instance, outsource particular technological aspects of a "poem"), do you feel this affects the poem's "authorship?"

    Yes. Authorship matters much to me. The significance has evolved from my appreciation of new media poetry (or e-poetry, if you will).

    I have a working model for the construction of literature. It's not for everybody, and I expect it's a rather private model. But it's handy. It structures the text as the key informant of an aesthetic, but places the aesthetic at the top of the structure, such that other elements like sound and image draw their informance directly from the aesthetic. Individual elements may cross-inform each other, too. But, as the bible goes, "In the beginning, there was the word..."

    I've investigated a lot of other technologies besides text because I've realized that changing an image/sound/gesture impinges upon the words with which it's juxtaposed. So authoring an image is also authoring the context and connotation of a word. If that's not relevant to writing, what is?

    A number of other writers have entrusted their language to me, and I'm proud of that. It doesn't mean they haven't been nervous about collaborating with me, even though we've become good friends. I attribute most of their nerves to not having control in image and sound - that same authoritative control they have in text.

    I've yet to put my own language in the hands of other people beyond a mere stage setting. So I identify with author's jitters. No one else has cut a video of my poetry, or made a Web site of it, and next to no one has set it to music. It's not necessarily for lack of opportunities, as I feel that since I have those prerogatives over language I should try to exercise them. That would be my fullest expression of authorship.

  4. 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?

    My readers seem to be all over the place. The Web really has become my oyster, in that I can access people all over the world and not have to dumb down my language in the process. It's been really fulfilling to discover that, as a curator of much spoken word on, people have a natural interest in poetry from Chicago. It's a privilege to represent such poetry to the world. I interact largely through the Web, but I do get direct feedback from people about my videos, too. While most of the dialog is local, the most interesting bits seems to come from overseas, where cultural frontiers have more meaning.

    The Web makes my situation different from traditional poets' because I must be cosmopolitan if I'm not to be solipsistic. Yet I shouldn't really shed my regionalisms, either. Geography and local culture drive my identity, and so to admit the world wholesale into my personal critique is an ecological mistake. What I've had to do is to learn balance between the tensions of local v. global, to listen to the world on one hand, and to respond through my truer self.

    That said, I've seen traditional poets attempt to put the Web to use as I've done, and a few have made some horrible mistakes verging on crime (no exaggeration). Such experience has taught me about the practical, critical, and legal aspects of representation. My salvation has been in applying the Web with a full conscience. I've had to build better journalistic skills. I've had to learn about other people as an anthropologist would. I've had to take on lit' crit' more fully, instead of sitting back and simply writing what I will.

    So I regard publishing poetry on the Web as a higher-stakes game than with a xerox'd zine. For a photocopied broadside, libel is a "who cares?" proposition. Online, though, anybody can read it, including lawyers. From the start, my interaction with the audience has been on much more professional terms. I feel this is an all-or-nothing proposition. Either publish it competently and ethically, or relegate yourself to vanity publishing or the Web's yellow press.

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

    I don't want to be too blase' about it, as I consider myself natively digital. But I am becoming weary of the hype around the new media. Yes, I've used it to appeal to the public's medicine show jones, how people want a world's fair effect to permeate the work. Guilty as charged . . . but you do these things to attempt to format what you're doing to fit their innate understanding of it.

    But I'm wary of people who are always just a bit polemical about new media poetry. OK . . . It exists. Let's work with it. It's not such a revolution.

    Let me spell this directly: In high school, my curriculum included two years of Spanish, some creative writing, advanced English composition, one year of COBOL, and two years of Fortran IV. Not shown on the transcript would be a lot of basement hacking with TTL and CMOS circuits, to build my own ALU and sundry waveform synthesizers. I had written my own random poetry generator by 1973, and graduated in 1976.

    Novelty about the confluence of digital media and language is at this point getting a bit tired. There are drawbacks to using new media. I'm poor most of the time, because the new media are capital intensive. I've worked two jobs sometimes, and just to make a show go. And not again . . . My health began to sink when I did that in the early 90s, when I should have been at my physical prime.

    I'm a little distracted, too, as a writer. I've seen younger writers than me rise to recognition it's taken me much longer to reach, but then they've never necessarily had to entertain media literacy or the backing technology as deeply as I have. If I had three lives to live in parallel-one each as technologist, philosopher, and artist -- I like to think I'd have been just as far along.

  6. How are you integrating/embracing other media such as sound, animation, and navigation?

    It's all native. See above. Poetry video. Telepresent performance. Web-published poetry. Poetry webcasts.

  7. What kind of aesthetic is emerging in the field?

    Having crossed paths with the Unknown (Rettberg, Gillespie, et al.), I see much promise in hybridizing performance with hypertext, such that the audience has a much fuller interaction with the text. Though they are a little naive as readers, the Unknown perform from a really professional text. It's entirely effective, and I enjoy it a lot. But I'd like to bring fuller theatrical craft to bear upon such hypertext, and see what fruits the medium will bear . . . add sound, images, stagecraft. What would that be? Hypertheater?

    But overall, there is no aesthetic, per se. I see threads, but nothing comprehensive. Most of the new threads I'm aware of are developments from direct technological innovations, and so bear a somewhat McLuhanistic personality. That doesn't interest me. What excites me more are the works by those whose exercises aren't merely technological demos. When native speakers use the language, things get much more interesting. I'm just consoling myself that this may take much more time than any of us had imagined.

    Let me draw an analogy: Last night I saw Laurie Anderson in performance. She did "O Superman (for Massenet)," and of course it drew hearty applause. The piece is a poem, a song, a performance artwork, and a few other kinds of art at one stroke. Last night, it was particularly a song.

    The digital speech processing unit that Anderson used was particularly new when she premiered "O Superman . . ." So the piece had a fresh feel . . . back then. Now? It's not so new. But we still hear the piece with the same ears from back then, and so a 20-year-old song is still fresh. The novelty of the past evokes nostalgia today.

    Others since, however, have tried vocoders [a vocoder is a device which electronically combines the human voice with an electronic sound source to render the voice as an electronic/human hybrid] and whatnot to alter their voices, and they've tended to sound like crap or, at the very least, sound derivative. So there's a narrow time boundary after the advent of a technique or technology when the use makes us more aware of the art. After that, it dulls us. Everyone adapts. It's all about the considered application of novelty. But even before Anderson, somebody had to take the idea that a signal-processed voice would be interesting at all, engineer the tools to render it, and try out such a voice so that it would have aesthetic relevance. Vocoders don't just happen on their own.

    Right now, we're surrounded by several "vocoder" categories in new media poetry. I'd say the most prominent are Flash/DHTML, the more purist (essentialist?) kinds of hypertext, and poetry webradio. Floppy-disk based literature is dead, though. And while CD- or DVD-based works are emerging, like Geniwate's "Nepabunna," hard media don't figure into the trend overall. Networked media seem to be the destination of choice, both for the audience and the artist. Even Geniwate has a Web-friendly edition of her title. People are finding their way through these phenomena to see what helps them and what doesn't.

    I take a long view of it all. I see myself and my peers as the vocoder engineers, the first people out there making the mistakes so that others can follow in our wake and become the stars. We wish them well! (And hope to live long enough to see something come of our own excursions into e-literature.)

  8. What do you think the future holds for e-poets and e-poetry?

    The future holds an awful lot of promise, but I keep a guarded sense of promise. As I said, I'm wary of polemics of any kind. I've seen the public become rapt and then burn out on slam poetry, so I'm not about to squander the second chance life has afforded me, as a contributor to the growing e-literature wave. I want this wave to last, to feed the audience, and not feed upon the audience.

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

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