Perspectives On Ergodic Literature Within The Field Of Writing

As I wrote in my prior reflection about the creation of Topaz Galaxies, generative poetry is a completely different form of composition and experience than that of traditional, print-based literature—even nonlinear, print-based literature at that. Ergodic literature is distinctive in both its composition process and the reading, or interaction with it. Espen Aarseth, author of Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature defines ‘cybertext’ as, “the wide range of (or perspective) of possible textualities seen as a typology of machines, as various kinds of literary communication systems where the functional differences among the mechanical parts play a defining role in determining the aesthetic process” (p. 13).

This said, when approaching eLit, or cybertext, or ergodic literature, we must first recognize our expectations and biases that are subconsciously carried over from prior experience with print-based literature. For example, one expectation could be that the narrative must “make sense” in terms of its use, placement, or arrangement of channels of language (i.e., words, phrases, numbers, punctuation, etc.) Typically, we  approach a piece of writing thinking we are supposed to ‘get something out of it’, and the ‘thing’ we are supposed to get out of it  has been (mostly) pre-determined and pre-designed for us. (Just think of novels, newspaper articles and poetry. Most, on some level, operate within the framework of information transmission; and in line with this structural dynamic, the human act of  ‘reading’ is simply the exchange we make to get the message that the text contains.

Now, the metaphor for ergodic literature is more like what occurs in a dream-state: we are constructing meaning as we interact within the dream and simultaneously we are also constructing the dream itself. Using generative poetry for example, the meaning is created by the complex process of interacting with the text on multiple levels. Aarseth writes, “There is a short circuit between the signifier and the signified, a suspension of difference that projects an objective level beyond the text, a primary metaphysical structure that generates both textual sign and our understanding of it, rather than the other way around” (p. 3).  Looking closer at the transmission/translation process, which occurs inside the mind of the user and stems from the combination of physical, sensory experience and the technical nature of the medium: “During the cybertextual process, the user will have effectuated a semiotic sequence, and this selective movement is a work of physical construction that the various concepts of “reading” do not account for. This phenomenon I call ergodic using a term appropriated from physics that derives from the Greek words ergon and hodos, meaning “work” and “path” (p. 2-3). And, it is from this perspective that Aarseth introduces the concept of “nontrivial effort” (p. 2) on the part of the reader, which is decidedly different than what a person engages in when they read a book or a magazine—and, I would argue, even literature that is consumed in a digital space but constructed in a structure lent from a static, print-based ideas.

Now, examining the production and consumption of texts, and thus of literature, within the context of digital spaces, we must ask the question: can ergodic compositions and other forms of cybertext truly be considered literature?

If we examine the outworkings of culture, we see the creation and evolution of phenomena like the genre, for example.  Just as art imitates life, genres are birthed as offspring of a particular era, and they reflect the experience and values of the people. My point being: we can’t simply dismiss forms of expression because they don’t neatly fit within the construct of canonized works. When we relegate forms of composition to a place illegitimacy, it is often because we have approached them with misplaced expectations that (usually unintentionally) carry over from previous interactions, whose mental paradigms are rooted in constructs that are alien to the work at hand. But alas, culture evolves. And so do ways of communicating and interacting.

Franco Moretti, in his book Graphs, Maps, Trees, (2005) discusses abstract models for literary history; he argues, (quoting Mentre), “The aesthetic sphere [and thus, I would argue, the arts] is perhaps the most appropriate to reflect overall changes of mental climate” (p. 21). Further, regarding cultural evolution, Moretti argues that a ”generation style” depends entirely on “the trigger action of the social and cultural process” (p. 21).  Nelson, in Computer lib/Dream machines argues that the computer is a “projective system” and writes, “The things people try to do with movies, TV, and the more glamorous uses of the computer, whereby it makes pictures on the screens—are strange foldovers of the rest of the mind and heart. That’s the peculiar origami of the self” (p. 305).  In our emergent culture, we can conclude that technology, and thus electronic literature (eLit), are manifestations of society. Therefore, when we examine digital works, it should be with the intent of discovering changes in our social topographic landscape. As Aarseth argues, “If these texts redefine literature by expanding our notion of it . . . then they must also redefine what is literary, and therefore they cannot be measured by an old, unmodified aesthetics” (p. 13).

In sum, these new kinds of literature are already literature simply because they are external manifestations of a present cultural current; and that current is active and alive, evolving and growing—whether we want to acknowledge it as being legitimate or not in the canonized sense. If we can appreciate electronic literature by placing ourselves within its ecology, we can then perhaps begin to awaken our faculties to expressions that were already present within us, but were never given voice to because the external apparatus (conduit) wasn’t yet realized.  But now, we have a whole new playing field.

Sources

Aarseth, E. (1997). Introduction: Ergodic literature. In Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. Retrieved from http://cv.uoc.edu/~04_999_01_u07/aarseth1.html. [pdf]

Moretti, F. (2007). Graphs, Maps, Trees. London, New York: Verso.

Nelson (1974, 1981). Computer lib / Dream machines. In N. Wardrip-Fruin (Ed), The new media reader (pp. 303 – 338). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. [pdf]

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An Exploration in Generative Poetry: “Topaz Galaxies”

Creating a generative poem was both fascinating and challenging–fascinating to see the end result, and challenging because I had only a vague idea of how the text would appear on screen. Composing “Topaz Galaxies” was my first experience writing a code poem. So, to gain a frame of reference for understanding this mode of composition, I examined my experience upon viewing Chuck Ryback’s  “Tacoma Grunge“. What I observed was that, through his choice of words and phrases that have a particular connotation/cultural reference, Ryback was able to paint a picture of 1990’s urban culture in America.

A screenshot of Chuck Ryback's Tacoma Grunge

A screenshot of Chuck Ryback’s Tacoma Grunge

Since code poems lend to the experience that is created while viewing the digital narrative, I saw an opportunity to create something that “reads” the way a dream feels–since the narrative in code poetry is nonlinear and associative in nature. If you’d like to see my generative poem, check it out here: “Topaz Galaxies”  (I’ve also linked to it in a few other places throughout this post, so feel free to read on.)

When brainstorming and revisiting some of my own experiences, one particular memory that surfaced:

Waking up from a nap on the beach, still half drowsy, I’m wrapped a blanket of warmth. Slowly emerging from my lazy state, I am greeted by the rolling echo of ocean waves and golden afternoon light dancing and glinting on ocean waves.

There is something deliciously surreal about the experience. Maybe it’s the quality of the light, the rhythmic crash of waves, the gauzy glow of everything. I’m not sure. At any rate, there is something captivating that I want to explore. The experience of drawing from my own memory was a little like squinting and trying to make out the shape of a figure in a mirage. It wasn’t easy, but it was certainly fascinating and rewarding, especially once I saw the pieces come together in the browser.

A screenshot of my generative poem, "Topaz Galaxies"

A screenshot of my generative poem, “Topaz Galaxies”, initial color scheme.

A screenshot of my generative poem, "Topaz Galaxies" final version with revised color scheme.

A screenshot of my generative poem, “Topaz Galaxies” final version with revised color scheme.

Due to the subtle nuance of experience I was attempting to draw from, it was challenging coming up with a large word-bank. For example, some of the words that appear in the first lines in unindented stanzas are:  Sojourner, Sons of Thunder, lampstands, terrible army. Some of the words below these words are: sounds of the wings, sapphire expanse, resurrection balm, earthquake; verbs interacting with these two sets are: whispering, blazing blazing, glowing, dripping; textures are: airy, glinted, velvet, misty.

As the author of “Topaz Galaxies“, I have to say that composing in a digital medium using code has afforded me an experience that carries with it a sense of excitement that is perhaps akin to seeing the big ‘reveal’ of a painting or a sculpture for the first time; it’s exhilarating. The dynamic was not completely unexpected, because I had a bit of an idea how they might turn out, but wow–it was the difference between imaging  something in my mind and then seeing in real life. The fun of generative poetry is that every time you hit the “Refresh” button, a fresh narrative is generated–so try hitting “Refresh” a few times and watch what comes up!

Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy “Topaz Galaxies“.

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Informed Infographics: Using Theory to Support Visual Presentations

“Hurricane Sandy: The Financial Aftermath” infographic presents financial data, statistics, and a personal account in one space, and it examines the financial plight of storm victims in light of the financial assistance they have received through FEMA and insurance policies, compared to the financial loss suffered.

To set up a comparative framework, (as seen in the screenshot below) I contrasted the number of FEMA grant applications sent in from Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York, with the number of FEMA grants that were actually approved for those states respectively. For example, in the upper third of my infographic, I used icons to help convey different kinds of information:  the folder icon for bureaucratic process, the money bag icon for funds, and an icon that resembles our capitol building to represent state government.  Edward Tufte, (2006) contemporary author and expert on the visual display of qualitative and quantitative information, writes in Beautiful Evidence, to place labels directly on images when possible–which in turn helps to reinforce and concretize connections and causal relationships. “For showing evidence, the map metaphor suggests that labels belong on images, that external grids help scale images, and that data are more credible when contextualized” (p. 21). Likewise, I have placed the labels for “FEMA Grant Applications” and “FEMA Grants Approved” directly onto the orange and green folder icons. The names of the states and the numerical data are placed in very close proximity so that they appear as sets of information, easily distinguishable from one another.

Hurricane Sandy: The Financial Aftermath

Tufte instructs, “For explanatory presentations, important comparisons among images should usually be pointed out to viewers by means of annotations, arrows, highlighting, or other methods of directing attention” (p. 45). Therefore, to concretize connections on the page-space, I use different styles of arrows. For example, in the mid-section, the green arrow that flows off of the green line functions to connect the upper portion featuring the data about “FEMA Grants Approved” to the graph which states the exact dollar amount of the Maximum FEMA Grant ($31,000) and the percentage of people in Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York who received the Maximum FEMA Grant Award.

Hurricane Sandy: The Financial Aftermath

Moving over to the left-hand side of the mid-section, (see screenshot below) I use curved black arrows to connect the first statistic about Hurricane Sandy being the 2nd costliest hurricane in U.S. history to more specific financial data. First, I state that the estimated debt from the storm as being $30 – $50 billion and then just below that statistic I provide a breakdown, ($20 billion in property damages and an estimated $10 – $20 billion in lost business). The arrows are black because the icons are gray; so having a difference in color between the elements helps to break up the visual field and differentiates the arrows from the images.  Here, the arrows not only serve to visually connect the information, but they also create a sense of hierarchy by functioning as bullet points.

Hurricane Sandy: The Financial Aftermath

Now, when creating the pie chart to represent the financial aftermath of the storm on an individual level, I had the option to simply connect the financial data to the chart using thin lines in a minimalist style. However, Tufte would argue that, “The more generic the arrows and lines, the greater the ambiguity” (p. 68). So, in line with his ideas, I decided to create customized arrows to help ground the text and numbers to the exact place on the pie chart. Doing so helps to avoid confusion and assists the reader in being able to quickly scan the infographic and see what information is being communicated without having to closely study and dissect the graphic.

Hurricane Sandy: The Financial Aftermath

Ellen Lupton, (2010) author of Thinking With Type, writes, “A typographic hierarchy expresses the organization of content, emphasizing some elements and subordinating others” (p. 132). To create a sense of hierarchy for the bottom third of the infographic, I used the same font for the header, “The Battlefield of Individual Financial Recovery” that I used for the main title, “Hurricane Sandy, The Financial Aftermath”. I made this design choice in order to convey that the information presented is not a continuation of the mid-section, but instead a new set of information. Additionally, I added visual distinction by shading it in green. Just below the header, outlined in a blue speech bubble, is a direct quote from Nicholas Dorman, a Great Kills, Staten Island resident, which serves as a caption: “A disaster happened and they’re making money off of us.” I wanted to use a direct quote from a real person to allow the statistics and financial information a more human feel, which in turn helps the reader to better identify with the case presented.

Some readers are “primarily attracted to pictures and captions, while others prefer to follow a dominant written narrative…” (Lupton, 2010, p. 130). The caption assists in framing the range of financial facts and data in a more local scope and personal context, and it also lets the reader know at a glance specifically what the text is going to discuss. Regarding typographic design choices for pie chart label, I selected a vivid blue in a Helvetica typeface at a size 14 font, bold. These attributes allow the chart label to be easily read while appearing visually soft at the same time, so as not to be appear too heavy or overpowering.  As Lupton writes, “Scale is the size of the design elements in comparison to other elements in a layout as well as to the physical context of the work” (p. 42).

Hurricane Sandy: The Financial Aftermath

Sources

Lupton, E. (2010). Thinking with Type. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Tufte, E. (2006). Beautiful Evidence (3rd Edition). Cheshire: Graphics Press LLC.

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Hurricane Sandy, The Financial Aftermath: An Infographic

I have been researching Hurricane Sandy since it occurred in October of 2012 and have since created a multimodal project that presents the emotional and material aftermath of experience. However, in recent months (currently about 8 months after Sandy), storm victims are still facing extremely difficult financial realities—for many people trying to navigate the gauntlet of insurance policies and FEMA procedures has proven to be an overwhelming task, to such an extent that it has required bringing in legal help from out-of-state skilled in dealing with flood disasters. For example, many storm victims are grappling with the reality that, (unbeknownst to them) if they had insurance prior to the storm, they may be ineligible to receive money from FEMA—or very little at that. And in other cases, insurance companies are denying payment until borrowers can show proof of how the money will be spent. Recovering from the devastation of losing your home, your vehicle, nearly all of your material possessions is hard enough, let alone be denied compensation after having paid thousands in flood and homeowner’s insurance. After hearing about people having to take out loans well into the six-figure range just to float costs while trying to recover, I wanted to bring attention to the crushing circumstances Hurricane Sandy victims are still facing. My infographic highlights the hard-hitting financial reality of the storm on both a broad scale and an individual level.

My infographic, "Hurricane Sandy: The Financial Aftermath" using Piktochart technology

My infographic, “Hurricane Sandy: The Financial Aftermath” using Piktochart technology

For example, in the upper third of my infographic, to represent FEMA and grant money (grant applications and grants approved) I used an icon which resembles a government building. I placed this icon on the left and right sides. Additionally, through the affordance of color and the use of shapes to highlight and connect information, I selected green for “FEMA Grants Approved” and used green lines to further connect the folder icon in the upper third, (“Grants Approved”) to the statistics and chart in middle third, (right side) where I used a chart to highlight facts about the maximum amount of FEMA awards and the percentage of maximum ($31,000) award for New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. Doing so assists the reader in understanding a more specific reality pertaining to storm victims trying to get help from the government after the devastation–even though thousands did receive help, the amount of help the received is like a drop in the bucket compared to the funds that are actually needed to make a difference.

In conclusion, upon analyzing my process, I was somewhat pleased with the infographic results overall, in light of the fact that this was my first time using Piktochart. However, in retrospect, I think I would have liked to have more expertise in creating charts and visual displays of data. Specifically, I would like to have been able to present the reader with a type of chart that focuses on a comparative relationship. For example, I was able to plug in the figures for the Dorman’s financial facts, (e.g., average cost of home in Great Kills, amount of their small business loan to offset debt and setbacks from the storm, the amount their insurance paid versus the amount their insurance was supposed to cover, etc.,) but I would have liked to somehow compare the funds received as relative to what they were covered for, and the average price of a house in Great Kills, (as their home was destroyed in the storm). Being able to have more control over the visual representations of data in this way would better assist me in portraying the devastating amount of financial loss that many people are currently dealing with. However, I look forward to using Piktochart more in the future and employing this mode of representation which allows my reader to make visual connections with ease and quickly understand complex information.

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Home-schooling infographic

home-schooling

Here is my final infographic on home-schooling. I hope you enjoy it!

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Infographic blog 2

Rather than strictly throw numbers in the reader’s face, I wanted to create visuals to demonstrate the information I wanted to convey because Edward Tufte writes, “The similar treatment of text, diagrams, and images suggests to readers that images are as relevant and credible as words and diagrams (109).”. So, for my demographics panel, I made a cluster of white students juxtaposed with a smaller number of minority students to represent the disparity in racial representation of home-schooled students. Rather than write out a sentence or chart, I used stick figure graphics to show the difference to make a point about privilege and home-schooling because Tufte writes that we should use the object itself in our evidence presentations, rather than just their names (Tufte 121).

Originally, along with my projection screen backgrounds for two of my slides, I also had boxes to contain my snippets of data. After consulting Beautiful Evidence, I realized what a horrible mistake this was. So, I removed the boxes and the occasional cartoony arrow because “Omitting boxes increases explanatory resolution (Tufte 79).” Rather than clutter the design of the infographic with unnecessary frames, I focused on my message because “If every name is highlighted, no name is (79).”

To add a bit of “pop” to my header, I included an enlarged capital (versal) in “home-schooling (Lupton 125).” The house forms the x-height of the the “h,” and the chimney forms the ascender. Writing the header in this way also uses Tufte’s “using the thing to demonstrate the thing” principle. I used a few different fonts to try to convey the sense of a learning environment: The background of my infographic is green, and it’s filled with opaque equations scrawled all over, like a chalkboard. The header is a typeface called “eraser,” and it looks like magic marker written on a whiteboard or chalk on a blackboard. The body of the text uses the “JennaSue” typeface, which resembles the handwritten cursive a student might use to jot down his or her notes in class. Plus, the JennaSue typeface is in white, so it creates a suitable visual metaphor of chalk on a chalkboard. Finally, there’s a bit-like computer font used on a projection screen about certification for home-schooling parents.

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Infographic blog 1

I sat at a red light one day on my way home from work. I noticed the bumper sticker on the car in front of me, which said, “Proud parent of a homeschooled student,” or something to that effect. I wondered what it must be like to homeschooled, for your parents to be your teachers. Did homeschooled students have better test scores than public school students? Are they socially inept bookworms, or are they just as sociable as any traditionally schooled student? What makes parents want to teach their children themselves? Dissatisfaction with public education? Out of curiosity, I decided to make homeschooling the topic of my infographic.

The results were eye-opening. Home-schooled students are more likely to graduate college than public or private schools students, and they transfer more than twice as many AP credits going into their freshman year of college than public and private school students. With my infographic, I wanted to not only create awareness for this small subset of the student population in the United States, but also to show that they are performing better than traditionally schooled students across the board (which I’m sure not many people realize). My second panel supports my point, showing that the number of home-schooled students in America doubled in just four years from 2003 to 2007. The shift is gaining traction since parents can see the benefits to their children. And, interestingly enough, even though home-schooled students generally perform better on standardized tests and in college than public and private school students, they are, in fact, just as, if not more so, involved in the community.

I would have liked to have made graphics that showed a greater amount of contrast between home-schooled students and traditionally schooled students. Also, I would have liked to emphasize the community involvement panel a bit more, but the icons and images in Piktochart are limited. How can one show that home-schooled students go on field trips just like other students, or that home-schoolers are more likely to volunteer than traditionally schooled students? Overall, I feel I made a visually appropriate and eye-pleasing infographic that gives a solid overview of the many facets of home-schooling and home-schooling culture.

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Generative Poem reflections

1. The making of Tomahawk Girl

I began work on my generative poem by considering the restraints of the title: a “t” word followed by a “g” word. To maintain the integrity of the original poem structure, I sought to craft a title with a three-syllable “t” word and a single-syllable “g” word. I wrote down a couple of each under two columns and matched the ones I thought would work together best. “Tomahawk” was more evocative and interesting than “telephone” or “tapestry,” and, when coupled with “girl,” I knew I’d inadvertently created a superheroine.

I don’t normally compose poetry, but I enjoyed this level of experimentation. Accounting for the changes in the syntax of my words required me to think about what story I wanted to tell and how. Tomahawk Girl is the heroine, and the Hatchet Guys are the villains … or are they? When I entered those words into the code to appear at the beginning or the end of the lines, the idea seemed ambiguous. I originally envisioned a battle between the two in a good vs. evil sense, but the code proved the story could be so much more.

The random text generation proved for some truly satisfying lines. “Shed the red” and “embrace the dark cold veins” sound like they came right out of a comic book superhero story. Tomahawks clashing with shields, blades spilling sinew and spikes cutting bone — all good stuff. The poem retained the gory, epic nature I had originally intended, but by leaving myself to the mercy of the code, the words acquired a whole new dimension of meaning. Being willing to relinquish some of the authorship to the code allowed for the poem to turn out the way it did; I never would have created something I could be so happy with if I had tried to micromanage the text.

2. On Ergodic literature

Though seemingly disparate forms of literature, print poems and ergodic poems share common central elements. Both forms of literature ask the reader to construct meaning from words, interpreting the author’s message or crafting a message of his or her own. Though print text is static, its meaning can change over time for a reader. Just like how a text’s meaning can change for a reader over the course of his or her life, ergodic literature’s meaning can change at a much faster rate, thanks to text generation programs. Both can also place restrictions on the author in terms of form. For example, sonnet writers must work within the space of 14 lines allotted to them, and haiku writers must meet a strict syllable length. Ergodic poetry, too, can demand the writer frame his or her work inside a set of rules. The defining difference between traditional and ergodic literature, according to Espen J. Aarseth, is that ergodic literature requires a higher degree of participation from the reader than traditional text does.

With generative poems like Tomahawk Girl, the story unfolds in a nonlinear fashion, throwing new meanings and perspectives at the reader with each new line. One might be inclined to think that the sentences formed by the code are jumbled, empty phrases slapped together, without the attention to detail seen in poetry composed by a human mind. One must adopt an attitude of giving “nontrivial effort” to consuming the information in the text, as Aarseth puts it, which we as readers tend to struggle with. We have been framing electronic literature and ergodic literature in the same context of print literature, quick to point to the former as “wrong” because it breaks tradition. We need to communicate with ergodic literature on its own terms, as John Slatin writes, because it a new medium, a separate beast from print media. Elit demands that we think associatively, a more natural way of thinking, Slatin writes, rather than sequentially, which print books have conditioned us to do. So, criticizing Tomahawk Girl for changing the story from one reading to the next because “that’s not what literature is supposed to do” does not carry any weight. The heroine or the villain may emerge victorious, based on which words the code generates, but the differing storylines lend to the crux of the plot I want to deliver: Who, really, is the villain?

 

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Generative Poem Reflection 2

There are two threads that are repeated in our readings of digital composition: the belief that producers must offer over some control over the creation of meaning of a text to their audience, and we should be arranging ideas/information differently-focusing on associative rather than linear connections.

So, how do these ideas fit in with poetry and electronic literature? Word choice is one way. As I mentioned in my other reflection, given the generative poem’s code structures-think poetry formatting rules like iambic pentameter or haiku and you’ve got it-writers aren’t really sure when and where any given word will appear. They can estimate where in the poem a word will appear by looking at where they add it into the code, but beyond that, it’s random. What does this mean? That word choice cannot be as “random” as it appears. The thought that electronic literature is simply a lot of randomly generated text is a fairly disparaging idea that is bandied about too much. The words in generative poems are not randomly selected, rather like traditional print poems they are governed by form.

Further dispelling the myth of random selection-as in all poetry, the words that appear in a generative poem are selected because they are deemed effective and connected to the topic by the writer. So it goes with generative poems. However, this must be taken a step further. Words in generative poetry must be especially effective, since as stated above we remain unsure when and where they will appear. That means the poet must carefully select words that will impact and further the idea/topic of the poem. The poet cannot have any weak words, each must be able to be associated to the poem. Takei, George provides a fine example. Lines about warp factors, rapiers,  internment camps, action figures, and homosexuality seem odd, to say the least. Until you as a reader begin to think in an associative way, looking for connections. Then we can see that the lines are telling us about Mr. Takei’s life-from a childhood in an internment camp during WW2, to popularity as Star Trek’s rapier-wielding Mr. Sulu to becoming a leading figure in the gay community.

Associative thinking also encourages the handing over of the control and creation of meaning. We as writers must recognize that meaning is ultimately decided by the reader, what they put into a piece, what they attach to words. Generative poetry naturally extends this. Go back to Takei, George. It does not start with the same line it did when you first went there. This is a conscious decision made by the producer of the poem/poem’s code. It is designed to remove the idea that there is only ONE spot to start reading, and only ONE spot to end, which means that you can be reading a poem the wrong way. Random line generation, as well appearance and disappearance of lines, removes the idea that there is only one way to read the poem. This hopefully focuses the reader on absorbing the words, rather than focusing on the style-since they generate fairly rapidly, the reader must pay them all of the attention. The style also forces the poet into favoring short phrases and individual words, so they can never be quite sure how a line will end up looking. for readers, this means the poet cannot lead the reader to a conclusion, as is the case in print.

It is strange that generative poetry not be considered as serious a literary style as print genre. Such poems certainly fit the definition of poetry. Even if readers (wrongly) approach generative poetry with opinions based off of traditional literature, it cannot be denied that generative poetry is as evocative as its print counterpart, and that the two share more stylistic heritages than might be suspected. If creators and consumers can begin to approach generative poetry and elit on their own terms, than there is no reason that the body of literature cannot make room for these genres.

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Transform, Girl: A generative poem and reflections

Transform,Girl, my generative poem, was a fun and unique writing experience! Check it out, and then read my reflections below!!

1.

My generative poem was largely about the idea of naming and the way that names we use to identify people change during different phases of our lives. Specifically, my poem focuses on “nice” names and “mean” names. The names I chose were all names I have been called throughout my life, both good and bad. In some cases, not all the “mean” names are really mean, but in the context of the poem, and in the context they were used, they were intended to hurt. For example, names like “nerd, geek, and lesbian,” are all in the mean names section, even though there is no real problem self-identifying as though names. I wanted my poem to show the impact that naming can have on people throughout their lifetimes, so I chose names that were related to childhood as well as adulthood, like “Sweet pea” and “Lover,” respectively. Some of the names are more like titles, but they still function as an identifier. I picked verbs that would create a sense of tension between the two names, so that the above (nice) names would be split by either a happy or sad verb. The effect was interesting. The nice names would be split by a sad verb and the transformation would be completed by the mean name. For example, “Dearest becomes choke it back you PSYCHO.,” shows the transformation from “Dearest” to “Psycho.” The verb that splits the nouns is forceful and aggressive. The lines that break the transformative sentences often come out sounding hopeful, for example “My Love escape”,and when sandwiched between two transformative sentences the effect is jarring. Alternatively, when a mean name is next to a nice verb, like “LOSER rejoice,” the effect is more harsh. I like the way it came out, alternating between pain and happiness constantly. I wrote the mean names in all caps to make it feel as though someone was yelling while you were reading, and I like the way it separates the mean words from the rest of the poem and makes them jump out from the page. The indented lines show hope and longing, and are combined with varying adjectives that either sound happy or sad. These breaks are intended to show that no matter how much others may try to break you down, there will still be some shred of hope, even if it is convoluted (by odd adjectives.) I also picked very bright, obnoxious colors to make the poem hard to ignore.

I really enjoyed crafting a poem this way. I think it made me have to think of things from new perspectives, because the poem would always generate differently and be seen by different people at different times with different experiences and perspectives. Because of the nature of the generative poem, I had to write it so that it would be accessible to everyone and make sense (for the most part) no matter how it generated. I also had to pay attention to the way the code looked and the structure of how it was written, for example, all of the above words are nice names, all the below words are mean names, etc. I knew some people would be looking at the code to see how it was structured, so I needed to keep it uniform for appropriate poem-telling and meaningful structure. Overall I loved having to think about poetry in a completely new way. I think it will make my future poetry more nuanced because I will be paying attention to more details!

 

2.

Cybertext may seem like it does not fall under the category of “literature” because it is not the first thing that comes to mind when we think of literature. Although cybertext may not be traditional literature, cybertext is not as different than we think. One of the many complaints about cybertext is its level of nonlinearity. Cybertext tends to be different in each reading, but so is any novel! We all bring different perspectives to literature every time we read. According to Epsen Aarseth’s experiences in his chapter on “Ergodic Literature,” many literary theorists say that “all literature is indeterminate, nonlinear, and different for every reading.” (2). Therefore, even traditional literature is indeterminate! Our interpretations may change for each reading, whether we are reading cybertext or a novel. Likewise, readers of cybertext are often more “in control” of their reading experiences. They are able to make choices and understand text differently because of their individual choices. Different readers may take away different meanings. But Aarseth again cites literary theorists who argue that readers of all literature, cyber or traditional, must make decisions to understand the text (2). This is perhaps why, in a classroom setting, students have more than one interpretation of the same novel. Both of these arguments Aarseth rebuts in his chapter, because he says many literary theorists who make these arguments are not well-versed in cybertext, but I think the theorists may be, in some ways, correct. Cybertext is ergodic literature, in the sense that Aarseth defines ergodic as “requiring work,” because it requires the reader, or user, to become a more active participant. But cybertext is still literature. Cybertext falls into another separate facet of the literature umbrella.

So what does the idea of cybertext as literature say about traditional literature? Well, it means that we need to think more critically about how we structure literature and how we view literature as whole. If literature is written in response to our society and what our society finds interesting/important/pertinent, then cybertext is an outpouring of our ever-changing society. Traditional literature is often a reflection of societal shifts (think Dickens and any of his novels written in response to the industrial revolution!), and, if cybertext is ergodic literature, and thus literature, what is cybertext written in response to? According to Lev Manovich in his piece “Cultural Software” software, or what allows us to create things like cybertext, permeates all areas of contemporary society (7). Therefore, the software that helps shape cybertext is necessitated by society. Think about it, our current society is based on fast-paced technologies, so we can’t expect things like literature to remain entirely stagnant and unchanging. In a society where we can build almost anything our minds can create, why wouldn’t we rethink ways to present literature? The software of cybertext directly influences its presentation and structure, so we build cybertext around the software created by society. HTML and JAVA code exists to run webpages, so authors have adapted this code structure to re-imagine poetry and storytelling. Similarly, our society demands customization and individuality, and cybertext offers Aarseth’s ergodic component of reader-driven experiences, making it work seamlessly with the desires of contemporary readers. In a way, cybertext has sprung up before many of us realized we wanted or needed it, much the way any new form of expression begins. Traditional literature may always remain popular, but cybertext meets many of the new desires of our rapidly changing society.

Cybertext may be met with skepticism at first, like any revolutionary invention, but soon I believe it will be considered functional and beautiful literature. Cybertext forces readers to stretch their minds and work for understanding. It keeps readers on their toes and allows for unique experiences. Cybertext can be revisited and may never become stale and expected. It seems cybertext is the quirky new friend, while traditional literature is the old, steady companion. Neither one if better than the other, and they are still friends–they just bring different things to the party!

Categories: ergodic literature, generative poem, information architecture | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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