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Curator's Note

The blue lights that pulse and flicker from otherwise dark houses are often the only ones I see when I walk home at night.  These lights, thrown from computer and television screens, strike me at times as the modern equivalents of hearth fires.  I return to this comparison, however strained, not only because screens gather us around them or because we stare into them, but also because of the nature of the light itself: the glow that comes from most of our screens is, like fire, emitted light, and emitted light captures us, transfixes us.  We stare into the embers of a fire.  We gaze at the screensaver.  In such cases, emitted light encourages us toward reverie.  We drift before it in a dream-like mood.

This effect opens up exciting possibilities for digital literature.  Backlit, the glowing screen becomes a vehicle for meditative, even mesmerizing experiences.  Take, for example, Ah (a shower song) by K Michel and Dirk Vis, in which an endless loop of text unspools around a single syllable.  Michel and Vis describe it:

Words glide in and out of each other in a way that reminds us of respiration, or of the ‘stream of consciousness’ of somebody standing in the shower whose thinking and poems (singing) about the unfolding of time flow almost iconically into each other. 

In its repetition and simplicity, its ceaseless forward motion, Ah feels nearly hypnotic.  I give up to it, over to it, watch it go by.  “It's almost as if the reader is allowed passivity,” observe Michel and Vis, “but the reader's role changes.”

Of course, I might just as easily have ended it, maybe checked out what’s on Hulu instead.  Works like Ah, despite sharing the same light as television, ask for a very different sort of attention.  And that’s one of their challenges: to create a literary experience from a medium that usually invites us to check/veg/zone/space/tune out.  Fortunately, with Ah—and with Claudia Rankine’s and John Lucas’s Zidane or Eliot Khalil Wilson’s and Rick Mullark’s “Designing a Bird from Memory in Jack’s Skin Kitchen,” to squeeze in a few more examples—we see that’s not only possible, but powerful.  Here’s work that’s luminous.  That’s lit, in the best sense. 


Many thanks, Eric, for putting together this line-up on digital lit, and for this final thoughtful post. The problem of attention, this temptation of ours to abandon difficult works online in favor of, say, this supremely satisfying creation by Israeli composer Kutiman, or some other document less noble but no less spectacular, is unprecedented in our lifetime. Digital has granted the consumer—of art, of everything—with something like low-level omniscience. We have so many choices, now, in what we look at, read, watch, buy, create, believe. But has this expanded range of choices made our lives better? It’s gotten hard for me to dismiss the old crank who sizes us up today’s Digital Man and determines that he has the attention span of a child. That’s the kind of lit I fear. And I sometimes feel implicated by that line from Greg Brown: “It's a drifting time, people are fascinated by screens… No idea what's on the other side.” This dispersal of our attention, of our consciousness, is beginning to feel like the story of our time. But I’m off topic. As is right.


John, thanks for finishing off our week with music and fireworks.  I, for one, also entertain that old crank, who tends to get most cranky after I've wasted an hour going down the YouTube spirial.  I think that's one of the reasons I'm interested in the psycho-physio effects of the digital medium on its users.  I'd like to see it used to cultivate attention, even absorption: an experience less like an endless Vegas buffet, with too many choices and too little substance, and more like a blue drift through the city at night.

Eric, I'd not thought of the backlit experience, but now that you point it out, it's such an obvious symbol of the issue of attention. Though I often have readers (students or others) comment that  cinematic and interactive treatments of poetry often help them keep attention and "do the work" to read a poem, so I suppose there's two edgest to that blade.

And so glad you mention "Designing a Bird..."~ still one of my favorite Born pieces ever.

Thanks again for organizing the series.


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