A conversation about new media, Irish poetry, and place

I sat down for lunch today with Anne Karhio to talk about Irish poetry and new media technologies. Anne holds an ELEVATE Irish Research Council International Career Development Fellowship, co-funded by Marie Curie Actions. Our conversation was punctuated at regular intervals by parades of schoolchildren, disgorged by giant white Bus Eireann schoolbuses into the sidewalk and spilling into the street.

Walt Hunter: Anne, I'm really interested in your project and I wonder if you could explain it a little. Jacket2 covers a lot of work in digital poetics. You work on that in a specifically Irish context, right?

Anne Karhio: It's on Irish poetry specifically, but what is or is not Irish poetry, especially in the digital age, is getting increasingly difficult to define. It's on the impact of new media technologies and representations of landscape in Irish poetry, both thematically and in poetry that's disseminated in new media formats. I talk about new media rather than digital technologies just because it's about this contemporary moment in poetry, and how poetry is responding to changes in technology. And how landscape in particular is represented differently—or not.

W: And can you say more about the general context here in which new media poetics is flourishing?

A: Flourishing?

W: Emerging?

A: I suppose that's the question, isn't it? A lot has been said about experimental or avant-garde waves that have passed Ireland by. Not entirely, of course. But a stronger culture of avant-garde never quite emerged in the same way it would have somewhere else. And so Irish writers went elsewhere in order to participate in that.

[Our lunch arrives—soup for me and fish fingers for Anne—timed perfectly to a chaotic cigarette and snack break at the middle school next door.]

W: When you say new technologies, what do you include?

A: Like I said, often in practice it does mean technologies online, social media...but then, for example, the work of Sinéad Morrissey is interesting, because she has a historical perspective on technology as well, if you look at her poems that deal with strange viewing devices that are now obsolete. I suppose it's a sense of how poetry responds to technological change. So when I say "new," I mean something that poetry hasn't been able to deal with previously. Even when poetry is not thematically, explicitly, engaging with technology, there's a lot going on there that is a response to developments that have a technological basis. There's no absolutely clear line that says "this is included" in the project and "this is not."

W: Has there been any theory that's been particularly useful? Have you found yourself turning to any new media theory to help you understand contemporary poetry?

A: Yes. Roberto Simanowski's Digital Art and Meaning. And Jessica Pressman has this very recent book called Digital Modernism. I think it came out last year. She looks at early twentieth century works together with very recent digital works and puts them in conversation with each other. She's talking about Pound and Joyce, and looking at contemporary works that either consciously rewrite these works or do something in a similar way, though in a different historical context, and while responding to technological developments. And I suppose that, since my work is on representations of landscape, part of the project is about reading cultural geography and place as a cultural construct. Trying to marry these ways of thinking together is part of the challenge, but not as much of a challenge as you might think, because nearly always, when you talk about new technologies, somewhere the idea of how these technologies have changed our sense of place and space crops up. There's common ground that tends to emerge in the works, whether I'm reading geography or media theory or poetry.

W: So does the term "Irish" really factor in here at all? Is there some relation to site-specific works in Ireland, for instance?

A: That decision has to be made on a case by case basis. There's one US writer of electronic literature, Judy Malloy, and she's produced works that have a very specific Irish context. From Ireland with Letters, for example. Then there are poets who might be Irish nationals writing in Ireland whose work has very little to do with Ireland, of course. It's a question I don't have a specific answer to, but instead one that I have to keep asking—and that makes the whole thing interesting. I think that, in so many ways, the very question has changed its nature, especially when you produce poetry which is published and disseminated in new forms.

[Any sound barriers between an increasingly aggressive school recess and this interview have now disappeared.]

W: Can you describe one or two of the forms you've encountered?

A: Some of the poets who are more conventional are ones I've already mentioned: Sinéad Morrissey, Allen Gillis, Vona Groarke are thematically engaged with new technologies. Paula Meehan, occasionally. And actually, once you start looking, thematic engagement with new technologies appears all the time. So the question is, what kind of engagement are we talking about? What might last? Those poets are more in the mainstream. Paul Muldoon has written some 60 instant messages, and expanded them I think to 90...the instant message, the brevity of that, the links to haiku, for example, those are things he'd be interested in. Then John Redmond has a poem called MUDe—I'm not entirely sure how to pronounce it—multi-user dimension, a kind of retro-technology. The long concluding poem of the collection is a transcribed online gaming session and woven into that is quite personal autobiographical material. It's set in Ireland, and some place names reveal the context. But these are all still print poems.

W: Any poems that are not print-based?

A: One of the poems I've been looking at is Graham Allen's Holes. New Binary Press was founded to publish that particular work. It's one ten-syllable line online per day since October 2006. It's still in production, and it's not supposed to end. And when I first started reading it I thought, there's no landscape connection here at all, and then I realized that once the entries accumulate there is a landscape element to it. The idea of holes, as in peepholes: it's not possible to have a complete view of the landscape from each point. There are photographs of rock formations and walls in close up as well. Those are ground photos but you cannot get an overview of the landscape. And a couple entries that have a landscape perspective are self-consciously touristy or painterly. There's very much an awareness of how each is a constructed image, a conditional, mediated image. The intimacy between speaker and landscape is denied. Because it's a growing poem, and it accumulates, it's like layers in terrain.

There's also Michael J. Maguire in Dublin who uses electronic poetry—"born-digital" works, works produced for that particular medium. And then there are works published as print poems that emerge online again in different form: The Poetry Project, which started during Ireland's EU presidency. The Poetry Project paired established poets's works and emerging poets's works with video works and created these music videos that were sent all over the world as "Irish" poems. These are not particularly Irish-place-bound poems, but they become so, once you embed them in that kind of framework of publishing and send them out. They were sent out every Monday to around 180 countries, I think. So what exactly is going to be included when you talk about non-print works is still a little bit out in the open.

W: Thanks, Anne.