'The succession of syndromes'

A review of erica kaufman's 'INSTANT CLASSIC'

Instant Classic

Instant Classic

erica kaufman

Roof Books 2013, 89 pages, $14.95, ISBN 9781931824552

In the beginning, I could not face INSTANT CLASSIC directly. Too bright, I could only handle it in bits, my gaze slightly averted. From this peripheral place, kaufman’s book followed me. I carried it with me on the subway, slept with it beside the bed. I gathered what felt like relevant books and films around me. Talismanic. I kept INSTANT CLASSIC, and kaufman, in mind. And then, I could not look away.

My experiences and questions of how to be in relation to INSTANT CLASSIC, and what this being in relation contains, seem to parallel those very experiences and questions that kaufman takes up in her text. Through grappling with John Milton and his revisions of Paradise Lost, kaufman invokes her identifications as a Jewish lesbian woman poet academic, attempting the psychic, linguistic, and creative work of struggling to locate her-self within the numerous and interrelated matrices within which she lives: her-self and others, culture, history, kinship and lineage, even objects. 


After a short poem, “PREFACE: to tell you” (9), kaufman begins INSTANT CLASSIC by sharing the story of Milton’s first edition of Paradise Lost, published in 1667. Alerted by poor sales that the book was decidedly not an instant classic, its publisher at the time, Samuel Simmons, persuaded Milton to make the epic poem more digestible for readers, which resulted in subsequent editions, offered as twelve volumes instead of the previous ten, with “short prose arguments that precede each book” (11). kaufman is troubled by what this move towards censorship and accessibility might mean, particularly for those who, like she, write “difficult books” (12).

If we think of editions of books as generations, we might then consider what does and does not get passed on. And thus, what material is rendered indigestible, in excess, waste. In this sense, these post-1667 editions of Paradise Lost remain haunted by their 1667 original. By shifting her gaze to encompass what has been lost, kaufman reimagines the Paradise Lost of 1667, “where the text was allowed the plain it wanted to occupy” (12) and Milton becomes mother, alter ego, fellow outcast, and twin.

Deep surface

INSTANT CLASSIC is all surface, with symptoms appearing and disappearing in varied, disturbing, chaotic, and arresting combinations. 

my history develops to fit the face the tumor steroid
chemo cancer goiter dis-ease genetic narrative strait
dance party petri dance horseshoe kidney fever sprite (69)

Contrary to the characterization of surface and depth as being opposed, kaufman demonstrates the ways in which “deep” material, which we might associate with the heavy, the unprocessed or unconscious, arises and becomes enacted on the “surface” level. 

equipment aligns us         thanato-tour bus
death march mulch money even at the base (73)

Each word, a thing in and of itself, modifies and engages the previous, so that meaning builds, accumulates, and erodes. Woven together by a sound and rhythm that’s nearly hypnotic, for kaufman, history is never past, but happening continuously in the present. 


subversive wallow   pick the translator
                                                      who sees thee (66)

I am terrified as I write this review. I cannot see the net from the holes. I am approaching the limits of my own coherence. Am I the translator who sees kaufman? And if so, to what affects of INSTANT CLASSIC does my profound disorientation speak?

The garden

While Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) provides INSTANT CLASSIC with one of its frames, the symbol of the garden, in multifarious iterations, populates the textual field. We start off, of course, via Paradise Lost, with the Garden of Eden, the Genesis version of which “there was never a place” (11) for either Milton or kaufman. kaufman is troubled “by the connotations of prelapsarian time” (11) and the impact that this perfect beginning, this ur-environment, might have on our psyches. 

without asking the chariot

 i walk towards the scene

 first interest leave.  be it eve

 in the garden voiceless

 or a moment of heterosexual

 panic that necessitates it

 necessary to dive plural drive (15)


As kaufman is troubled, I, too, become troubled. What does it mean to wish for a birth, a beginning, free from the traumas of history? Even in the womb, much is being transmitted to us.

let’s say i can visualize my own film
build a public garden out of body
language index the utterance devoid (39) 

Here, the garden becomes an archive, a collection, and the body itself. Structures of public and private, personal and collective are remade to reflect actual lived experience, “where a garden/makes sense” (56).

INSTANT CLASSIC is a living text with its own inherent intelligence. Each poem, each stanza, each line: garden-esque.

i am the snake outside your history

 i am far from archaic from scaffold repositories

 i am vulgar in my fear of impact and inflation


success a woman in beta

launch jitter epic reputation

total comments allowed =

hear the territory                                        then reframe it (63)


These are spaces of numerous pleasures and surprises, as well as inconsistencies, lapses, and loss.


As it is in the garden, so it is in the body.

a loveseat of intertextuality a struggle
with water resolved in the non-site
non-space nonsense panel of ugly (19)

Drawing upon the language of the human body, the techno-body, the post-human, the cyborg, the social body, pop culture, the religious body, the textual body, the queer body, and the body of history (among numerous others), INSTANT CLASSIC considers the psychic amputations one must bear or adapt to in order to belong.

remove a part of my body    stitch me    switch my blood
type to anesthetic        pierce my nipples then wake to
reject the metal          expel          neuropathetic (69)

How are these belongings and not-belongings embodied, and what sorts of coherences and incoherences do they create within us?

skin emotionally liable   mood incongruent
i care what you make of dysregulation   my outbursts
come as specter   corrupt in pliant goggles (77)

Instead of an argument, kaufman’s language serves as a prosthesis, connecting and also separating, herself and others, writer and reader. 

Witnessing/The third

In the beginning, I could not face INSTANT CLASSIC directly. When I say that it was too bright, I mean that I was confronted with an overwhelming blindness. Which is not to say that I saw nothing. In fact, I saw too much. 

lung collapse some semblance of what

I used to be before I got all third
generation medi-can’t mobile in all

the right papers authenticate a constitution
age or meatloaf between tears

there is nothing wrong

with looking in the mirror a tendency
for the simulator to work badly (32)

Throughout INSTANT CLASSIC, kaufman grapples with lineage and its innumerable reverberations. Elaborating upon her own idiom, where “it’s always got to be about pattern” (32), kaufman endeavors to bear witness.

of course i turn to salt of course i turn

around rub mud on my face   pray

light don’t reflect back   do damage to

cheek bones   mark me   elegiac  i know

about the looting the plunder the silver

furniture future   if this is true   democracy

please invite me   to the meal that follows (72)


As reader, it is my responsibility to ride these waves of affect, to let myself be submerged. In order to reckon with kaufman’s ghosts/gaps, I must also reckon with my own. In order to locate kaufman, I must locate myself. Of course, this is always impossible.

Healer and hunter

A review of Pierre Joris's 'Barzakh'

Barzakh: Poems 2000–2012

Barzakh: Poems 2000–2012

Pierre Joris

Black Widow Press 2014, 306 pages, $19.95, ISBN 996007924

My father was a healer & a hunter. Is it any surprise I became a poet & translator? (“Nimrod,” 121)

“Nothing truer than fragment” — I’m quoting Robert Kelly — & I love the coupling of “truth” which in our Western culture is always associated with the simple, the whole, the complete with the notion of the fragment, which can only be incomplete, multiple, partial so that the notion of a “true fragment” is de facto oxymoronic” (“Maintenant #94 — Pierre Joris: An interview with Pierre Joris by S. J. Fowler

In identifying archetypally with healer and hunter, Pierre Joris brings his poems of the twenty-first century into an ever more fervid and restless search mode. Healers and hunters operate under the most severe time constraints, with survival at stake. Which is why Robert Kelly’s sage half-truth “Nothing truer than fragment” needs to be fleshed out. What Joris does with fragments, with increasing acuity decade after decade in his poems, is search and sift among fragments with urgent speed and decisiveness — nomad on the run — to shape fragments so they coalesce into culturally vibrant patterns of meaning. Think of Pound’s image of iron filings magnetized, constellated into an image of a rose. Like Pound, Joris finds fragments that move through his field of attention at high-velocity. Often from source to target language(s), faithful to his Luxemborgian-cum-American self whose oscillations in youth between German and French gave rise to his unsettling-settling home language of American English. Heard in the play of his ear and intellect, a true world music mix from a hydrogen jukebox in “A Poem in Noon”:

where our r, French,

 rolls & roils

 into the dark of a round

 wonder, a drop in

 a bucket, to re-emerge

 hissing wet, somewhat

 sheepish, but not ain

 so difficult to pronounce

 for northern claritas. (130)


Roaming among romance languages — hunting in the terra incognita of romance — Joris finds fragments of extraordinary resonance among the exiled: Dante (“This afternoon Dante”), Jabes (“Reading Edmond Jabes”), and Celan (“Shakespeare sonnet #71, re-Englished after Paul Celan’s German version without consulting the original”). Hunting for fragments among them, carrying them with him on his US-Maghreb transits — he shares with his beloved exiles an acute moral vision, sparks crystallizing fragments into a poem as a patterned integrity, as dynamically whirling as a Calder mobile, intently defining exilic hideaways, latently healing/reweaving a ripped social fabric. Set to music in this book’s finale working through news fragments of yet another leaking oil tanker catastrophe at sea, “The Gulf: From Rigwreck to Disaster”:

what we know is oil & water do not mix

 what we know is fish & oil do not mix


 what we know is you & I have to mix

 what we know is you & I have to live (175)


Fragments add up and configure for Joris as he lives out the situation of poet as healer: diagnosing a pattern of systemic dehumanization under an anything-goes facade of technological progress. Yet the moral prophet stance that accelerated Pound’s madness is lightened in Joris through sensual destabilizing plays (riffs?) of intellect, or Beat-like goofy reveries on commonplace objects awash in new light, as in this jotting:

I like the imp

 in impossibility

 that makes it all

 possible (228)


And in “In Praise of Pinot Blanc,” an ode evoking Gregory Corso’s wildness:

Oh, you natural clone of a

 Red clone, you are a most

 Sympathetic Frankenstein (229)


Which underscores that the working of every fragment found under the poet’s gaze is not elevated to an epic occasion. But what engages consistently in these poems of a dozen years is an acute handling of everyday experiences of a poet-scholar whose nomadic intelligence with fluid musical grace moves among cultures and languages penetratingly yet lightly. Accelerating the faculty of search with a hunter’s and healer’s urgency carries the risk of overreaching, particularly when Joris dances among transcontinental language and culture systems. What impresses throughout Barzakh is how Joris finds nourishment intellectually at last in the plenum of a hunter’s chase and a healer’s equipoise, experiencing his multiple languages and cultures as codes of shamanic ancestral guides:

is it tiring to chase language?

 it is not

 it is more tiring


to be chased by language.

 there’s one on my left &

 one on my right

 I am comfortable in the middle

 I like those that are by my side

 to go through me.   (175)


These literary ancestors in their various tongues moving through Joris inevitably draw a resounding pattern, a continuity through time, however carnivalesque and Babel-like, of moral witness through poetic artistry. In Pound’s “It does not cohere” the Cantos do exactly that. As Celan speaking through the magnificence of the Joris translation has it:

A roar: it is

 truth itself

 stepped among


 right into the

 metaphor-flurry [1]


What makes the poetry of Pierre Joris most engrossingly nomadic may be the fact that the nomad’s sole home is constructed of his pressing propulsive hunting and healing songs. The Quran twice defines “barzakh” as a barrier separating salt water from fresh, suggesting a liminal zone where a soul after the body’s demise finds quiescence before its final infernal or blissful destination. Joris comprehends the tentative in-between nature of healing and hunting poetry. Senses a force-field between Orion and Chiron in the night sky constellating. And advances in his poems in spite of that precarious tragic focus. As the book’s final line paradoxically reminds: “DARK DISASTER CARRIES THE LIGHT” (297).



1. Paul Celan, Breathturn Into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry, trans. Pierre Joris (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2003), 87.

Vagabond imagination

A review of Leonard Schwartz's 'If'



Leonard Schwartz

Talisman House 2012, 86 pages, $16, ISBN 1-58498-092-3

In the fifteenth century, François Villon claimed the subjunctive mood for his vagabond verse with Si j’etais roi. In his book-length poem If, Leonard Schwartz returns to this conditional world of the subjunctive with a series of wise, vivid, and vulnerable questions, which the poet poses and then leaves unanswered — at least, apparently. More so than most poems, If invites readers to participate actively in its seemingly hypothetical world, underscored by the poet’s frequent invocation of we, our collective selves. In this deeply philosophical work, ontology and epistemology are made as human as hope and fear, and as necessary as wheelbarrows.

The key to If is that the poet posits p, but not q; the ifs of this poem stand alone, without corollary, waiting for the reader’s response, although hints are generously given. Through a terrain populated with possibility, the poet “rambles,” as James Wood termed the stream of consciousness in Shakespeare. The reader joins the poet in a passage through an oneiric, yet familiar landscape, like Richard Wilbur’s Walking to Sleep, encountering language, objects, and their philosophy in the terrain. From section 5:

If a bulldozer lurks in every
And the alphabet remains unchanged
For thousands of years
If the warming flesh of rhetoric is
Cut away and the spiritual
Bone structure underneath
Is, surprise, neither warm nor fleshy

What do these unanswered ifs imply? Despite no then statements, the poem’s conditional statements have a sense of completeness to them, accentuated by Schwartz’s occasional use of periods to close a sequence. These if statements assert their integrity and independence, claiming no consequences and all possible sequellae at once. But often, as in a koan, the answer is the question.

If what is said
Is what is sad
If we are signs without interpretation
And what is contemporary in me
Is the sun, the moon, and the stars
Our existence at an inner distance

The poet marks his interlocutions by calling on a “community of persons / Born in the same instant.” If calls to the reader to participate in its collective unconsciousness, which it brings to consciousness through objectivist images of alphabets, stars, and bone. The conditional mood in If takes on the reality of the true self of the individual and her community, looking beyond words through words for their noumenon. The poet’s ding an sich of the concrete examines his own observations throughout the poem, and seems to need the collective’s input for answers.
In the poem, the reader encounters the quotidian as after samadhi, when one continues to chop wood and carry water as before, but now chopped and carried in enlightenment.

If there are windows in mirrors
And mirrors in windows
Sometimes it is an ecstatic response
The unconscious offers to what is observed

As in samadhi or the collective unconsciousness, there is a timelessness to Schwartz’s subjunctive. In the conditional mood of the poem, we are often startled to find ourselves in the past, the present, and a yet-to-be-created future, often simultaneously. Like time-space, the poem curves upon itself: each new thing carries its “bulldozer,” the seeds of its destruction and rebirth, and each if posited refers to previous and next ones.
Language and perception and their confluence are both barriers and gateways for the poet, who is preoccupied by signifiers and memes; there is a search throughout the poem for the ineffable essence that lies behind or just beyond them. If examines semiotics, returning often to the question of what we are beyond symbols and representation, and what symbols and representation make of us. Word play is abundant in the poem and is used to further these themes. As in Joseph Brodsky’s poem New Life, Schwartz’s alphabet assembles itself into objects, hymns, people, and the pursuit of meaning in the text.

Neither mirror nor window
Neither Narcissus nor perception

The poem is built around pauses, and Schwartz’s majusculation chisels the elegant line breaks, allowing the if-without-then statements to be heard clearly in the reader’s mind. Stanza breaks further encourage contemplation of this philosophical work. There is also poetic unity to the poem’s sections and the work as a whole, bound together by this yearning, searching, and recognition of self and other as we. The reader walks to sleep with imagery as striking as in Wilbur’s poem, but from a voice less martial and detached:

If it is mostly in mist that
Losing the “I” yields up a “You”
If frail sleep barely withstands
Waking’s brawn
If rubbing words together does kindle a voice …
One knows one will never free oneself
From the web of daydream …

There is a kindness to If’sbroad worldview that appeals to the soul. Perhaps Psyche’s favorite word, the syllable she loves best, is this one of imagination, possibility, and quest, the syllable of If.


On Sally Silvers's 'Actual Size'

Photo by Paula Court.

Actual Size / Sally Silvers & Dancers / Roulette / Tuesday–Friday / November 4–7 / 2014


The dancing takes place in a squarish space on and above the floor.
            That space is defined by hanging black screens that allow the audience to see into and beyond it. Fabric makes light of time — when lit / variously / fabric makes light of time. 
            There’s no periphery — nothing takes place on or in a periphery — this means that dancers “in the wings” and sound and video and light people are all at the dance / with it / not in any way marginalized or separate from it.

The dancing implicates questions of boundaries — motions within / and motions without / the hanging screens — this instantiates one form of dialog.
            The motions erect the space(s) around them — they rectify it.

Against and through these screens (they function also as scrims) / black and white images (courtesy of Ursula Scherrer) appear and disappear. Sometimes entirely abstract / sometimes snippets of scene excerpted from cinema.

What is space — but an exploration of time? What is time — but an exploration of space?
            Is not the realization of this (its making real) one of the peculiarities of dance’s dancings?
            In space — time comes back. In time — space.

You can tell a lot about the choreographer’s point of view from where she seats the audience — the audience was seated on raised stages / looking down / while at / the dancers.

I do wonder what dance would be like if it wasn’t so frontal — would the audience then not be more everywhere & nowhere? — wouldn’t it be possible to make the audience vanish?


In some sense / the dance space is the size of the sounds. In some sense / the movements attend to that.

The various music sounds in no way accompany the dance — they with it are inseparable / such that no vice versa attends.

Bruce Andrews speaks his text with the two duets which Sally dances. The sounds have a kind of stocatto bop quality that punctuates the relatively understated movements. These segments are motion-and-sound duets / within which the two dancers contribute the motion. Sound is punctuated by motion — motion by sound.
            Michael Schumacher’s sound mixes create various but coherent textures with the rest of the dancings.
            The music is rousing — redolent of suspense / of mystery (and mysteries).

The music provides clues to snippets of narrative motion — not synchronized / so never heavy-handed.  The scraps of music / tease. The dance movements set the pace of the music — the music movements set the pace of the dance — but obliquely / intangibly.
            The sounds are their own kind of screen — fragments of the silver screen / which echo the hanging screens that document the space / that make it documental. These dancings remember times.

Dance can be atonal — but not illiterate.


In motion there is stillness. In stillness / motion. If it were not for this / dance would not exist.

Dance embodies the relationship(s) between — entropy / static energy / potential energy / kinetic energy.

Dance is a species of life.

The movements of this dancing are often cinematic — motions / sequences of motions. 
            The dance tells bits of stories / vignettes — as often as not — these are moving.
            Among those cinematic motions — someone helping a drunk walk / someone being made up for their starring role / lovers making out / vignettes from Hitchcock / from other of the classic films / reprises of dance movements from bygone eras (are we at Versailles?). There is an array of motions.

These movements are not only enhanced by the musical themes — they are infused with the sound.
            There are strains of — perhaps Porgy and Bess / of other light opera / strains of Ives and/or other composers for whom content / some kind of reference / some narrative / was important. These strains are in the movements — they are / decidedly / American.

In the work as a whole there is humor / pathos / the elegiac and the sublime / the taxing and the (seemingly) effortless. This dancing provides explorations of grace / of humor / of longevity. Apart from a bit of fighting (there are no relationships without it) / the movements are everywhere polite / civilized — one might even say genteel. 
            There is no grappling or grasping for movements — the movements intuit the dancers. There is poise / and equipoise — but the unfailingly vigorous bodies remind us that this is animal poise — it communicates what animals communicate.

The larger ensembles divulge upon the duets – the duets arise from / next to / them. The solos are specific — precise / languorous and lovely / at once. The duets tend toward the sublime.
            The narrative vignettes are balanced by the more precisely abstract movements.
            Posture gets punctured — in movement(s). The dancers don’t just move together — they interact / interact — they are devoted to each other — everywhere varieties of together-action.
            There is synergy of sequences of motions / with sequences of sound — together they inform / as form.
            Here and there / the movements are even lighter than sound.
            The dancers are mostly mute — and mostly move. Mimicry — that pedestal of communication — abounds.

There may be a set of signs with which to record the movements of dance / but that is not the language of dance — the language of dance is being spoken / as dancing.
            We are always left with wonder — what are the dancers saying / to each other?

Throughout the totality/totalities of the dancings / actions rarely repeat — they multiply. We are continually being left with movements that we wish they would repeat. In that sense / the dancing never ends.


Performing — not performance.

The work feels to be formed of the unusual stuff of dance / the unused.
            The dancing is inhabited by a sort of triumphant sadness / one which it itself produces. This dance is the embodiment of feelings — more than merely the manifestation of longing / its instantiation.
            In this largely elegiac and fragmented formulation / there is at the same time tremendous lyrical continuity. The dancers are so manifestly together / regardless of the particular grouping. There is no grappling or grasping for movements — the movements intuit the dancers.

In these ways / and by these means / the unsaying of the dance becomes impossible. The dancing is an ecologically sound structure — it re-nourishes / re-establishes itself as it proceeds. There is nothing left over / nothing has been thrown away — our memories are our own responsibility.

In the end / if there were an end / isn’t it all about seduction? / about mating?

I wonder how much better the dancers know each other at the end of the performance than they did at its beginning.

Because this piece ends in vigor / with particular vigor / it doesn’t end. 

Make it reappear

A review of 'Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound'

Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound

Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound

Lori Emerson

University of Minnesota Press 2014, 232 pages, $25.00 , ISBN 978-0816691265

Reading Writing Interfaces by Lori Emerson undertakes the ambitious task to demystify the rhetoric of magic surrounding ubiquitous computing. When so-called invisibility, user-friendliness, and seamlessness are touted as integral features of a device, how can everyday users disrupt the imperceptibility of the interface to access its mechanisms? To what extent can digital literature and art critique by unveiling the closed architecture of the personal computer? And what exactly is at stake when the pervasive ideology of the invisible interface camouflages what information is available to the user? In her new book, Emerson defamiliarizes the illusion of this disappearing surface by revealing how interfaces open and foreclose “certain creative possibilities.”[1] With cogent analyses of both analogue and digital literature, Emerson renders legible the historical and contemporary instantiations of the interface that have been masked from the user by the sleek celebratory language of marketing. Reading Writing Interfaces, in other words,makes the interface reappear by demonstrating how the so-called naturalness of our devices is in fact a fantasy perpetuated by the computing industry.

A critical study that brings together interface theory with both print and digital literature has been long overdue. In the context of the last fifty years, the works of great computer pioneers — Doug Engelbart, Ivan E. Sutherland, or Theodor H. Nelson, for example — are integral for understanding the development of HCI, or Human-Computer Interaction.[2] Yet to focus on the interface as primarily a digital phenomenon — a fixed entity moderating human interactions in iPads or iPhones — would be misguided. Over the last twenty years, a small body of literature has begun to reassess the interface as a mediated environment of cultural activity and pleasure.[3] As Johanna Drucker suggests, interface theory must attend to the user “as a situated and embodied subject” as well as “the affordances of a graphical environment that mediates intellectual and cognitive activities.”[4] While reimagining the interface brings its own challenges, it also puts a new lens onto our interactions with offline objects and environments — including those of codices and manuscripts — that likewise structure social behaviors. To this end, Reading Writing Interfaces adopts Alexander Galloway’s description of the interface as a “point of transition between different mediatic layers within any nested system” (x). But Emersonputs further pressure on the constraints and affordances of graphical environments by comparing and antagonizing diverse materials from digital writers (such as Mary Flanagan, Deena Larsen, and Judd Morrissey) to the paper based (like Emily Dickinson’s fascicles) in a move that identifies the continuities and discontinuities between old and new media. In the process, Emerson presents how a comparative analysis of media can be successfully accomplished when the interface, and not the particularities of the work, becomes the target of inquiry.

This comparative approach underscores a broader thesis at work in Reading Writing Interfaces. What can a dialogue between different media and technologies reveal about the relation of the literary to the environments of human-computer interaction? Emerson begins by interrogating Apple’s commercial philosophy of the iPad, whereby marketing rhetoric is shrouded in the language of showmanship, the magical, and the marvelous. Although the company encouraged consumers to tinker with the hardware in its early years, Apple’s business model today stresses tight control over the acceptable use of its products. The company limits, for instance, the extent that users can create and manage content for apps. Nonetheless, digital writers like Jörg Pringer, Jason Lewis, and Erik Loyer have created and marketed poetry apps that play with the tactile capabilities of the iPhone and iPad in ways that “help us think through and experience the multitouch device as both interface and medium” (30). Loyer’s beautiful app Strange Rain, for example, offers “different modes of falling rain” that respond varyingly to a user’s touch (27–28). Yet the creativity of these writers must dovetail into the hidden mechanics of the device and the propriety restrictions imposed by Apple. Emerson turns to digital writers like Deena Larsen, who have been able to “subvert or exploit” defects or “glitches” in early hypertext authoring systems without the “permission of the publisher” (34). Glitches, even if deliberately engineered by the writer, defamiliarize “the slick surface of the hardware/software of the computer” by self-reflexively enunciating its enabling mechanisms (36). Accordingly, the creative opportunities afforded by older hypertext software like Storyspace can be viewed as a contrast to Apple’s propriety philosophy, which restages the artist and writer within the company’s model of permissible creativity.

Emerson’s comparative approach is then an “attempt to produce a friction” by reading with and against the grain of the old media and older forms of digital writing (129). Emerson draws on the emerging field of media archeology to elucidate the heterogeneity of our contemporary media condition. Media archeology can be best described as a set of novel trajectories of inquiry into media cultures, as Jussi Parikka suggests, “through insights from past new media, often with an emphasis on the forgotten, the quirky, the non-obvious apparatuses, practices and inventions.”[5] Further, “it is also a way to analyze the regimes of memory and creative practices in media culture — both theoretical and artistic.”[6] Lest these descriptions seem rooted in technological determinism, Parikka stresses a history of digital artifacts that “tackle[s] past and present media cultures in parallel lines,” a methodological gesture that counters the more technological determinist model of media history enunciated by Frederick Kittler.[7] Emerson’s methodology in Reading Writing Interfaces deploys a nonlinear model of this media history to articulate the present, as she argues, “as one possibility generated out of a heterogeneous past” (xiii). Put another way, media need not determine our situation — or, it seems, our writing interfaces.[8]

The nonlinearity of Reading Writing Interfaces is evident in its structure, which fluidly weaves between present and past media cultures. The book is divided into five chapters, including a self-sustained postscript. Each chapter yokes together sets of historical and contemporary media interfaces to rupture the distinctions between present and past conditions of writing. Chapter 1, “Indistinguishable from Magic,”tackles the drive for the invisible interface, the smooth salesmanship of iPads that have fostered a contemporary culture of magic around Apple products, and interrogates the disruptions in the works of digital literature that bring those hidden surfaces back into full purview of the user. Chapter 2, “From the Philosophy of the Open to the Ideology of the User-Friendly,” traces the shift from the DIY and active-learning culture of early computing in the 1960s to the development of enclosed, invisible, and user-friendly GUI systems of the Apple Macintosh in the mid-1980s. The command-line interfaces of Apple II and Apple IIe, suggests Emerson, allowed experimental writers like bpNichol, Geof Huth, and Paul Zelevanksy to tinker with the formal possibilities of the medium (64–76). Chapter 3, “Typewriter Concrete Poetry as Activist Media Poetics,” examines the concrete poetry of bpNichol, Steve McCaffery, bill bissett, and Dom Sylvester Houédard, who — under the influence of Marshall McLuhan — exploited the typewriter as an interface, “media system,” and literary device “to create new modes of communication” (105). Chapter 4, “Fascicle as Process and Product,” applies the interface more broadly to pen, pencil, and paper. This chapter is undoubtedly the more daring section of the book, reading digital works by Mary Flanagan, Aya Karpinska and Daniel C. Howe, and Judd Morrissey in and around Emily Dickinson’s fascicles in a move that defamiliarizes the paradigms of the page. Finally, the postscript, “The Googlization of Literature,” turns to the search engine as an interface. Twenty-first-century media poetics, suggests Emerson, entails a novel “readingwriting” that involves a digital and paper-based praxis of writing “through the network” (xiv, 163). This chapter brings media poetics into the contemporary moment by interrogating the literary and artistic responses to the search algorithms that shape and feed information back to the consumer.

If Reading Writing Interfaces betrays a weakness, it is that the literary richness of the examples is occasionally conflated under the rubric of the interface. Her reading of Jason Nelson’s Game, Game, Game and Again Game (2007), for example, identifies its destabilizing gestures toward “video game conventions” (40). This work is especially notable for its remediation of multiple interfaces, materialities, and genres — home video, children’s drawings, messy handwriting, autobiography — which Nelson restages online and on the screen for the computer user.[9] Yet Nelson’s work begs the question how the materiality of language remodulates to this collusion of multiple remediating layers. If we settle our focus on “point[s] of transition,” are we reductively locating interfaces in every work of art, machine, or appliance produced? In the age of digital information, will the interface replace genre? These questions do not reveal the pitfalls of Emerson’s book, but rather that the interface will challenge long-held beliefs about the nature of our literary objects. And the immense scope of media cultures in Reading Writing Interfaces demonstrates that while much work is still to be done in the field of media archeology, its intersections with literary studies will generate fruitful interpretations about our present media cultures.



1. Lori Emerson, Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound (University of Minnesota Press, 2014), ix.

2. Ivan E. Sutherland, for example, created Sketchpad, which enabled a user “to converse rapidly” with a computer “through the medium of line drawings.” See: Noah Wardrip-Fuin and Nick Montfort, eds., “Sketchpad: A Man-Machine Graphical Communication System,” The New Media Reader (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), 111.

3. See, for example, Johanna Drucker, “Humanities Approaches to Interface Theory,” Culture Machine 12 (2011): 1–20, or Alexander Galloway, The Interface Effect (Malden, MA: Polity, 2012). For a discussion on cultural interfaces and media see Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), 69–73.

4. Johanna Drucker, “Humanities Approaches to Interface Theory,” 12.

5. Jussi Parikka, What is Media Archaeology? (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2012), 2–3.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid, 14.

8. See Frederick Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999).

9. Jason Nelson, “Game, Game, Game And Again Game,” Electronic Literature Collection, vol. 2 (2007).