You are reading these words because your machine is reading code. The code instructs the machine how to respond to the clicks and keyboard strokes that you make in response to reading text. This interplay between words and machine code makes up Harriet’s (inter)face.
If you wanted to create art by playing with Harriet’s make up—not just the words and images, but also the processes generating them—you would be joining the clan of electronic literature artists who create works that “are not content to let code remain below the surface but rather show it erupting through the surface of the screen to challenge the hegemony of alphabetic language.” (N. Katherine Hayles-- leading theorist on electronic literature. Click here to read her primer “Electronic Literature: What Is It?”)


These artists are not challenging old fashioned print literature for the sake of a good dust up, but to understand “how interfaces and the machines that process them construct subjectivity.” Sound familiar? Electronic literature “interrogates” print literature, machine code, and digital arts in the same way that post-modern poetry interrogates language and literary forms. So electronic poems are to xBox and film what Susan Howe’s poems are to Emily Dickinson. (Except electronic poets also claim that they’re interrogating Dickinson; whereas print poets cannot, at least not digitally, interrogate digital media.)
Within electronic literature, the genres and subgenres are almost more varied than within traditional literature (and are often intended to challenge traditional ideas of genre). They include:
• Ambient work that plays by itself
• Animated or kinetic works, which are composed with moving images and/or text
• Appropriated Texts, which are based on a source text that is not composed by the authors, but is collected or mined from online or print sources
The ELO has issued its first collection of electronic literature with more planned.
Understanding what it means to write literature in digital media was one focus of the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO) Conference, held in May at that organization’s new institutional home—the University of Maryland’s Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH). As often happens in the print poetry world, the talk at the conference turned to institutional issues: How the heck do you teach the making of it and how is it different than other digital media art? These questions become especially important when the dean is divvying up head counts or figuring out whether electronic literature should live in the English or Digital Media Department.
I sometimes found the explanations offered at the conference for how and why electronic literature works more interesting than the works themselves. Nonetheless, many works of electronic literature succeed aesthetically and theoretically. Two of my favorites are "Birds Singing Other Birds' Songs”by Maria Mencia, which uses transcribed bird songs to explore kinetic typography, and "Slipping Glimpses"" by Stephanie Strickland, which uses the turbulent, constantly changing flow of ocean water to explore how both humans and machines read patterns.

Originally Published: June 28th, 2007

Emily Warn was born in San Francisco and grew up in California and Detroit. She earned degrees from Kalamazoo College and the University of Washington. Her full-length collections of poetry include The Leaf Path (1982), The Novice Insomniac (1996), and Shadow Architect (2008). She has published two chapbooks: The Book...