Digital Literature. It’s out there, I swear. The question is where? The answer is everywhere. Over the past twenty years or so, a diverse international community comprising a combination of independent and institutionally affiliated authors, academics, researchers, critics, curators, editors and non-profit organizations, has produced a wide range of print books, print and online journals, online and gallery exhibitions, conferences, festivals, live performance events, online and DVD collections, databases, directories and other such listings of creative and critical works in the field.
Collecting is key to the promotion and preservation of any genre. Collecting digital literature is a complex undertaking. Authors are dispersed, works are disparate, and platforms are unstable. The task of bringing together works as divergent as Donna Leishman’s ultra-graphic audio-visual Flash re-“writing” of the RedRidinghood fairy tale and Netwurker MEZ’s entirely textual code-work _cross.ova.ing ][4rm.blog.2.log][_ written in MEZ’s own digital-creole "mezangelle", to cite two examples from the Electronic Literature Collections Volume One and Volume Two respectively, is made all the more unwieldy by the as yet amorphous definitions of what it electronic literature is and what it is not. And there remains, the pesky problem of the name. How what and why do we call this thing we do?
I’m back, with apologies for the long absence. The bad news is that I had to take a month break from these Commentaries due to a minor but temporarily disabling health issue, that pretty much knocked me out of commission, for anything but the day job. The good news is that I’m healed, my “tenure”here has been extended, and I'll be posting these Commentaries through November.
Last fall, on my trip across the country (mostly by rail) to visit the park spaces designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, I worked in a visit to one of the poets most readily associated with American space (though not urban space), Gary Snyder, at his residence high above the Yuba River, Kitkitdizze. I have yet to document that conversation (we spoke, amongst other things, of Gary’s experience bivouacking in Central Park in the late ’forties, while awaiting his seaman’s papers), which will happen, when I get around to it, on the Olmsted blog. After I left Gary, I stopped just on the other side of the Yuba River, to check out something called the Independence Trail. It turns out that the trail — occupying the site of old, abandoned hydraulic miner’s ditch — was built in answer to a request to, “Please find me a level wilderness trail where I can reach out and touch the wildflowers from my wheel chair.” It is a mostly level trail, shaded by oak and pine, that contours the slope of the undeniably wild Yuba River valley, with views to the river below. At the time, I did not know that this trail, the “First Wheelchair Accessible Wilderness Trail in America,” had been created by one John Olmsted, a distant relative of Frederick Law. J. Olmsted worked to save hundreds of acres in what is now the South Yuba River State Park, as well as what is now Jug Handle State Nature Reserve on the Pacific Coast in Mendocino County, Goat Mountain in the Coastal Range, and the Yuba Powerhouse Ranch. He wanted to create a “Cross California Ecological Trail.” Walking his Independence Trail helped me realize, yet again, how limited my conception of wilderness can be.
Every eccentricity of belief, and every variety of bias in mankind allies itself with a printing-machine, and gets its singularities bruited about in type, but where is the printing ink champion of mankind's better half? There has hitherto been no trumpet through which the concentrated voices of womankind could publish their grievances and their opinions. Men legislate on divorce, on hours of labour, and many another question intimately affecting women, but neither ask nor know the wishes of those whose lives and happiness are most concerned. (Louisa Lawson, The Dawn, May 1888)
ASSOCIATED LABOUR seems to be in its own small way just as selfish and dictatorial as associated capital. The strength which comes of union has made labour strong enough, not only to demand its rights but strong enough also to bully what seems weak enough to quietly suffer under petty tyranny. We have a notable example of this in the boycott which the Typographical Society has proclaimed against The Dawn. The compositors have abandoned the old just grounds on which their union is established, viz: the linking together of workers for the protection of labour, they have confessed themselves by this act an association merely for the protection of the interests of its own members. The Dawn office gives whole or partial employment to about ten women, working either on this journal or in the printing business, and the fact that women are earning an honest living in a business hitherto monopolised by men, is the reason why the Typographical Association, and all the affiliated societies it can influence, have resolved to boycott The Dawn. They have not said to the women "we object to your working because women usually accept low wages and so injure the cause of labour everywhere", they simply object on selfish grounds to the competition of women at all. (Louisa Lawson, The Dawn, October 1889)
In my last post, I shared Aaron Shurin’s recollections of translating Homer, beginning around 1980, with fellow students in the Poetics Program at New College of California. According to Shurin, the group met weekly for over six years. I admire both the dedication and obsessiveness of this process. I also asked Shurin to describe how the epic form informed his own writing.
Of the work of translating the Iliad, Shurin writes:
The loping, cantering, leaping and lengthening hexameters (released from their words) kept me awake at night, and my ear was forever newly attuned to the rise and fall of poetic measure. In hindsight, the tensions of sweeping dramatic arcs crosscut by microcosmic intensities — long shot and close-up, crowd scenes and popping eyeballs — emboldened my interest in narrativity, in collective voice, in panorama and descriptive detail and in the agency ofperson.
Of the effects of the epic on his own poetic methods, Shurin states, “it was guaranteed that mythopoetics would abide in my work, shamelessly shadowing collage operations, fragmentation, ellipsis, and dancing syntax: no problem!” He nows sees evidence of the epic in his long poems of the 1980s and ’90s:
with their constructed histories and legends, their dynamic landscapes and clairvoyant sorrows, and their interplay of character and silhouette. And at the root, ever-informing, always forming, the sense inside my body — having chanted proudly, having deep-nosed dictionaries, having fallen asleep in alien syntax, and risen to transcriptions, transliterations, and trances — the sense of a poet’s commitment to horizon constructed of single steps: from the engraved shield of bronze to the bright shield of reeling stars, syllable by syllable gathering the work of the tribe, gathering history, gathering the poem.