Currents in Electronic Literacy

E-poets on the State of their Electronic Art:

Deena Larsen


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Deena Larsen has been a confirmed electronic literature addict for over a decade. In 1988, Larsen tried to go beyond linear text to show the connections between women in a Colorado mining town. She wrote poems and connected them on a model train railway bed, with differently colored embroidery thread to signify connections. This didn't work-one couldn't see the threads after a while. A friend suggested using a computer-which can show links through a click of a mouse. This first work, Marble Springs ( Eastgate, 1993), is now a collaborative hypertext where readers can add their own stories and connections.

Larsen's next works revealed her innate fascination for complex structures and furthered the addiction. Samplers: Nine Vicious Little Hypertexts (Eastgate, 1996) uses quilt patterns to show the geometrical structure and quilt stitching to show the inner connections in this bunch of short stories with everything from sentient traffic barriers to coyotes who can destroy the world. Ferris Wheels , the inaugural Iowa Review Web work, tells a story of a ferris wheel ride, as the heroine takes spaceships and subatomic particles into account before answering a marriage proposal. Stained Word Windows from Word Circuits is a geometric poem about rifts and views. The Pines at Walden Pond, at Cauldron & Net, lets the reader click on pine branches to explore branching thoughts on visiting Thoreau's pines.

To show the deeper connections between meaning and layout, Larsen turned to Japanese kanjis. She superimposed English words over the structure of the ideograms, eliciting resonances within the placement of the strokes. These little works, or kanji-kus, appear in many Web journals, including Sea Whispers published in this issue of Currents, Bubbles at Electronic Poetry Center, Ghost Moons at Akenatondocks, Power Moves at Cauldron & Net, Mountain Rumbles at New River, Spiritual Comfort at PIF, Dream Merging at Aileron, and The Language of the Void at Riding the Meridian.

Larsen took this idea one step further and created a multiple layer mystery novel using the kanji structure. Disappearing Rain is a mystery about Anna, a Japanese-American college freshman who has disappeared, leaving only an open Internet connection. The titles of each section form part of a kanji-ku. Thus, the poem forms a structure for navigating through a story. These haikus then bring new layers of meaning and resonances to both the series of poems and the story.

Now, Larsen is experimenting with structure as a direct metaphor. Her latest work, e:electron, in collaboration with Geoffrey Gatza, is forthcoming from the Blue Moon Review. The poem is a complex interweaving of three very different ways to use the periodic table of elements as an extended metaphor for a love affair. The periodic table itself becomes a double acrostic poem where love is the bond between elements. Clicking on each element adds a new electron, or word-memory, to the atomic structure. An underlying philosophical treatise, Poly-linear Valances, uses the seven valances, or energy levels of atoms, as the structure for showing relationships and connections between atomic theory and life.

  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. I define my work as a completely new genre - it is different from poetry, different from novels, different from any linear writing. Imagine having to explain that sculpture is different from painting - that it is a three dimensional art form. In the same way, electronic writing is multidimensional, using structure, links, sound, motion, etc.

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

    I show structure as metaphor. In "Samplers," I used geometric patterns to show a structure - for example, my story about incest follows two interlocking diamonds - one with the experience with the father and one with the experience with the lover. In my kanji-kus such as "Sea Whispers," the structure takes on a literal meaning - I use the Japanese kanji or ideogram as the starting point for the work. My new work, "e:electron" with Geoffrey Gatza, uses the structure of the periodic table of elements to discuss bonding and love in various stages or orbit shells of a relationship. Just as John Donne used a compass as an underlying metaphor for circling his love in "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning," we use the bonding structure of the atoms as an underlying metaphor for a love that lasts a lifetime. Each atomic structure shows one additional electron and in "e:electron," we show one additional word to indicate another memory, another event in the relationship. I am now also experimenting with Flash to determine structure inherent in images such as Michelangelo's David.

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

    In this world, you need to collaborate with others, as the work demands many different skills, from computer programming to graphic designs to text writing. It is hard to be a jack-of-all-trades . . . Further, each aspect carries its own symbolic connotations or symbiociations. So we have to be very clear about what the work will do and how it will be created. Authorship becomes a product of the collaboration - with each aspect throwing in new nuances and flavors.

    Further, each work collaborates with the reader as the reader chooses which parts to read and in what order. The reader becomes an active participant, and the authorship then changes with each reader.

  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 try to write for a range of audiences. I arrange my works so that people unfamiliar with hypertexts can get something interesting - I always include a default path so that you can simply press <return> or easily get to the "next" screen. But my work goes beyond this simple interface to offer intriguing insights to people who are more experienced with hypertext and electronic literature. For example, in "Samplers," I have hidden commentaries in the names of the links (this is a Storyspace document and Storyspace lets you name your links). "E:electron" on one level is a simple love story and on another is an evolved philosophical treatise.

    The audience that reads electronic literature is different from one reading a poem either in a book or even in a poetry slam. If I could, I would put out a sign saying, wanted:

    Readers who are not afraid to click.
    Readers who want to explore.
    Readers who want to have some serious fun.

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

    We live in the most exciting time imaginable - we are present at the birth of an entirely new genre. Everything is new; everything is possible. Nothing has been discarded or disproven. There are no right ways to write this, no conventions that cannot be shattered. Anything you create will be one of a kind.

    I love finding a new way to say something. I get a thrill when two pieces connect in ways I hadn't planned on but that still work well. The writer's high of creation is so much more complex and satisfying in electronic poetry because of all of the connections, of all of the potential "aha's."

    Further, now we have many more toys to play with than we did even a couple of years ago. Flash has come into its own as a programming language so we can create causal links, motion links, new structures, time sequences, etc. It is still a lot of work to learn these tools, but practically anything we can imagine we can make real.

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

    My interest has always been more in the way the words are put together and the way the story is told than in sound and animation, so I have been very slow to integrate these aspects. I am beginning to integrate a great deal more imagery and a few sounds in my work now, but I am mostly leaving this promising exploration to others.

    I am still fascinated by navigation and navigation as structure. For me, the way the piece is put together, where each node or word is in a work is the most important part. I want to show the spatial relationships between my concepts. For example, "Ferris Wheels" is structured as a Ferris Wheel, and each stage in the journey corresponds to a stage in the character's thought process. In "Pine Whispers," each branch is in a precise relationship to the other pine branches of thoughts. The best print analogue would be the conventions of a sonnet, where each line has a prescribed place in the overall argument. I use links, image maps, and other navigational tools to reinforce this structure.

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

    Determining the emerging aesthetic is like trying to taste a tornado while you are in the middle of it. The great thing is that there are so many aesthetics from in-your-face slam Flash to quiet reflections, from arcane theory to simple storytelling, from elaborate to simplistic. The one thing that e-poets have in common is their attempt to find out what this media can do and how it can work. We are all a bunch of Ernie Kovacs playing with our new tv toys and finding out what is and is not effective in this new media.

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

    This media is not tv, it is not radio, it is not even a computer program. It is a many-to-many worldwide communication network - the first one the human race has ever had. I hope the future for this communication is bright and that it will remain in the hands of the many rather than in the hands of a controlling interest. I hope that we can keep the internet freeer than tv became. I hope we can continue to play and to determine what works in this new media. I wish I were sure of this - but I am deeply cynical about what business and government interests can do. The Internet freedom is worth hanging onto and fighting for.

    If we have a many-to-many communication network in the future, then I think the future is incredibly bright for e-poets and e-poetry. There won't be a way to categorize e-poetry because each piece will continue to be a unique work. We will never run out of new forms of expression, of new ways to combine words, sound, image, navigation, links, structure. We will find new links and new civilizations and boldly go where no text has gone before

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