Being Born's editor since 2001, one of my earliest questions remains as interesting as ever: How does multimedia technology challenge the way we think of, or even define, what is "literature"--especially poetry?
Andi Rusu's interpretation of Joel Brower's poem "And the Ship Sails On" (2009) is one of many examples of how Born collaborations have got me thinking.
The artist's interpretation does away with written text, and demonstrates how multimedia might bring the voice back into publishing. It illustrates how a published work can evoke the oral tradition of storytelling--not just its reading, but as a performance.*
Multimedia thus challenges the etymology of literature since "literary" essentially means "writings" (from Latin litera: letter of the alphabet). Aside from the original written poem being accessible via an html link, the Born version uses no writing at all, that is, not in the visible sense of literature. Walter J. Ong notes, "without writing, words have no visual presence, even when the objects they represent are visual. They are sounds."
Multimedia is thus reintroducing word-as-sound to published literature in a way previously confined to recordings. And if written words themselves are sound turned into a visual, multimedia poetry asks us to consider how the use of images and other media may be extensions of a visual dimension already within the tradition of poetry. While some contemporary literary audiences find these inclusions distracting or foreign to literature, they challenge us to consider the roots of poetry itself.**
Ong reminds us that structure, narrative, and other architectures of storytelling were transformed by the technology of writing--for example, in poetry, the line break and the homonym are visual tools. Whereas adding the voice into a published poem is a familiar turn back to poetry's roots, incorporating visual and cinematic art elements may create possiblities for new literary art forms, which may in turn transform how we come to define "literary" as an idea.
* For thoughts on the role of the collaborative process, see our book preview.
** The use of images is a subject too large for this forum, but which we discuss in the anthology The New Work of Composing, by Utah University Press later this year.