What’s New is Old: technology, poetry, orality.

Curator's Note

For 15 years Born Magazine has showcased collaborations between multimedia and literature, most often with artists "interpreting" poems and short prose into literary art works.

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.




Thank you for this post, Anmarie.  It and the piece you present not only highlight the oral dimension of literature, going all the way back to poetry’s oral traditions, but also a more contemporary element of that dimension: the concept of “voice” as a means of identifying a poet or a sensibility.  Today, through multimedia, voice can be made explicit: with a click, we can hear recordings or watch clips of poets reading their work on sites such as PennSound.  Digital literature can overcome the supposed divide between page and person.  And yet, as “And the Ship Sails On” nicely shows, we also can have a voice (or voices) that animate the poem that don’t belong to the poet who wrote it.  In fact, we can have poems generated through code and voiced through a speech synthesizer, taking the traditional, flesh-and-blood poet out of the process altogether.  A collective voice, a posthuman voice, the chorus we’re hearing today, as you point out, pulls voices of the past into an exciting future. 

Eric, yes, the performance voice (versus the author's voice) is something that comes up a lot in dialog about Born collaborations. Many authors who've collaborated with us have shared that they wanted to work with an artist so as to get a glimpse into how another person experiences their poem. Writers don't often get that insight. Before I was editor, one of my poems appeared in Born and it was the first time I understood how the poem might be outside of my own head--that is, somebody else's emotional, visual, intellectual experience of it.

Another great Born collaboration, "Whether It Suffered ,or It Did", stuns me with all the levels of performance--spoken word, the shadow puppet theater--which makes me think of the ideas put forth by Wagner himself. (I'm thinking of that great anthology, From Wagner to Virtual Reality.)

But here's another interesting direction: The poet David Harris Ebenbach read for his own poem, "Tisha B'Av," and one word is different in his oral version as compared to the written version. This adds a dimension of interpretation that may point to ways digital literature may develop its own auditory (versus written) techniques and structures to convey meaning. (I hope I'm making sense--I'm thinking along the lines the way writing uses stanzas, line breaks, double meanings, etc.)

Thrilling post, Anmarie. You're getting at what is, for me, one of the essential problems of translating a text into a visual work. While watching "And the Ship Sails On" I can't help but wonder about the nature of that collaboration, specifically how free Rusu might have felt in making this adaptation. Another poet, Joe Wenderoth, published a poem, "Send New Beasts," over a decade ago, and just recently adapted that work to the screen. In the most recent edition of TriQuarterly, Wenderoth writes about the experience of making "Send New Beasts", the video essay: "I think that I approached this project, “Send New Beasts,” as a film. The poem, “Send New Beasts,” I decided, would be but an aspect of the film." One gets a sense of the vast range of possibilities when watching Wenderoth and Bower/Rusu side by side. 

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