Currents in Electronic Literacy

E-poets on the State of their Electronic Art:

Robert Kendall


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Robert Kendall ( 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.

  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. 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.

  3. What 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 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.

  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 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 librettist.

  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?

    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.

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

    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.

  7. 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 navigational scheme.

  8. What 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.

  9. What 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.

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