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Celebrating (and preserving) ten years of E-Poetry
2011 marks the 10-year anniversary of the E-Poetry Festival. The biennial “artist-oriented gathering” is returning to the place of its birth, SUNY Buffalo in May. On her blog, Lori Emerson, director of the Archaeological Media Lab at University of Colorado at Boulder, compares this year’s program to that of the first in 2001, looking at how much the electronic literature community has grown and diversified, and how many more writers and scholars “identify as digital workers.”
Emerson’s own presentation at E-Poetry will focus on her work with the Archaeological Media Lab, “a place for cross-disciplinary experimental research and teaching using the tools, the software and platforms, from the past.” She notes that even work presented at the first conference only ten years ago would fall under the category of “early electronic literature” and rapidly evolving technologies quickly render works of literature themselves obsolete. In many cases, authors conceptually work with planned obsolescence in mind, but many others had every intention of seeing their work remain accessible to readers. Emerson uses the example of bP Nichol’s 1983-84 First Screening, written in Apple’s BASIC programming language for the Apple II in making a case for the AML.
First Screening is a series of poems whose meaning is actually activated through the writer/programmer’s invitation to the reader/view to type in commands; for example, in line 110 of the code for First Screening, Nichol writes: “REM FOR THE CURIOUS VIEWER/READER THERE’S AN ‘OFF-SCREEN ROMANCE’ AT 1748. YOU JUST HAVE TO TUNE IN THE PROGRAMME.” Furthermore, even though First Screening has been preserved via emulator, hypercard and Quicktime movie on the Electronic Literature Directory, there is simply no substitute for the unique interface and physical structure of the Apple II computer; as Matthew Kirschenbaum points out in his groundbreaking 2008 book Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination, the Apple II computer has no hard drive; instead, “a program is loaded by inserting the disk in the external drive and booting the machine. In practical terms, this meant first retrieving the program by going to one’s collection of disks and rummaging through them…Consider the contrast in affordances to a file system mounted on a hard drive: here you located the program you wanted by reading a printed or handwritten label, browsing like you would record albums or manila file folders, not by clicking on an icon” (33). Everything about the Apple II system offers both writer and reader an utterly different set of experiences than when they read or write on, say, a MacBook or a PC or when they read/write a poem such as First Screening by way of Windows.