Poetic protocols

An interview with Craig Dworkin

Craig Dworkin (left) and James LaMarre (right).

Note: Craig Dworkin, author of Parse (Atelos, 2008), No Medium (MIT Press, 2013), and founding senior editor of Eclipse sat down with me on July 21, 2015 for a conversation in Salt Lake City as part of the one on one podcast series. Below, we discuss the origins of the Eclipse archive in terms of both its conception and how it was originally coded and put online. We discuss the given moniker “archive,” and Eclipse’s relation to databases, protocols, and algorithms. Through it all, we maintain an eye toward materiality — the relationship between those JPEGs of a scanned chapbook and its letterpressed, paper-and-ink sibling. one on one consists of conversations between myself and artists and writers working in, around, and through fields of digital technology. Listen to a recording of the interview here. — James La Marre

James La Marre: Hey, everyone, and welcome to another one on one. Today, I’m in Salt Lake City sitting with Craig Dworkin — poet, writer, and professor at the University of Utah. He’s also the founding senior editor at Eclipse, an online archive of poetry. How are you doing today, Craig?

Craig Dworkin: I’m doing great. Good to be talking.

La Marre: Really excited that you’re joining me today. The first thing I wanted to talk about was the Eclipse archive. Can you talk, maybe more generally, about its conception? How did it start? When did it start? What did it start with?

Dworkin: Eclipse started so long ago I don’t actually remember exactly when I began it, but I’d moved from the Bay Area [where I was] teaching at Berkeley with this fantastic library, with access to small-press, avant-garde, contemporary poetry, [and] fantastic bookstores in town where you could find things used, so teaching and researching about recent experimental writing was effortless and easy in terms of coming across material. And then I’d moved to Princeton [which had] a famed and fabulous library that had no contemporary avant-garde poetry in it whatsoever. I realized if, in this fantastically privileged position of teaching at this elite university, you couldn’t teach the history of twentieth-century poetry, no one, virtually, was going to be able to do it. And at the same time, there were scholarly articles starting to come out about the history of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, ’70s and ’80s avant-garde in America — and people were writing about it without having ever read the primary documents. In any other field in literary history [this] would be unthinkable; you’d never write a book about Renaissance poetry and say, “Well, yeah, I’ve never actually read John Donne, but let me tell you what I think about him.” And so I just wanted to make available to people who might be interested, who — it was very heated at the time — people who might be really opposed to that avant-garde — also people who were excited readers, poets who were looking for inspiration, and primarily people who might want to teach work. So [I] started this digital archive to make these works available.

La Marre: Was PennSound — PennSound being sort of the audio side of a poetry archive — were they established yet?

Dworkin: No, UbuWeb was the model, really directly. In fact, Eclipse came about over dinner with Kenny [Goldsmith]. He really gave me the encouragement to do it. I said I didn’t know anything about computers, I didn’t know anything about curating. Kenny convinced me that I could do it, that it was not that hard.

La Marre: Just put it online!

Dworkin: So I taught myself HTML. I got a book out of the library and went to it.

La Marre: Could you talk a bit about the process of getting works online? Is it all done basically by you? Or do you have regional pockets of people — you know, someone in New York does some chapbooks there that you can’t immediately get here.

Dworkin: No, most of Eclipse is me with my library after I’ve got my boy to bed, and I’m just staying up late and scanning a book off my shelf — often with really mixed feelings because I’m often destroying the binding of some rare and valuable book in order to make it more readily available. Some of the rest of the material, especially some of the runs of journals, of small-press journals, that we’ve put up, are done by my coeditor Danny Snelson. But it is essentially local in that sense that it’s just the two of us. Sometimes we have an intern who helps with things.

La Marre: In terms of permissions […], do you reach out to the authors before putting anything online?

Dworkin: Yeah, Eclipse, unlike some of the other online archives that I’ve worked with, is one hundred percent aboveboard, permissioned …

La Marre: I would wonder — since a lot of these pieces have such small runs — have you ever gotten denied putting something up online?

Dworkin: Interestingly enough, those are few and far between and mainly come from copyright holders who are not the authors themselves.

La Marre: Right, so you can’t get any Louis Zukofsky up online.

Dworkin: Gwendolyn Brooks’s estate … the widow of Joseph Ceravolo … I really wanted to have Fits of Dawn, a fantastically experimental, weird, unprecedented, unknown book that I was ready to destroy to put online, but she thought it was going to make her wealthy someday. We recently put on almost the full run of Lyn Hejinian’s Tuumba Press chapbook series. And because it was technically published as a journal, it has ISSN numbers, it means that the copyright, if you reproduce the entire thing, is only with the editor. So, legally, all we needed was Lyn’s permission, but because of the nature of poetic communities, and because Lyn is such a nice person, she actually asked all the authors — must be about forty-five authors — individually if they would be happy with putting things on. Only three people said no: Richard Kostelanetz declined, and Carla Harryman and Barrett Watten both declined. But these are — for every person like that, twenty-five people say yes with enthusiasm and gratitude.

La Marre: I wonder — since these runs of these types of objects are so small — if there’s an aspect of fetishization that can occur with the materiality of these things. But it’s good that you don’t run up [against] too much of that, but since you’re, as you say, destroying some of these things — this is a pretty general question, but I almost want to ask what that feels like, to destroy the material [or] meatspace version for the online version, and what kind of relationship you see between that object in your hands and that object online.

Dworkin: So part of the impulse behind Eclipse is to — and the reason that the works are up there as image files — is that as a literary critic, I’m really committed to the semantic force, to the signification and the meaning of all of the material elements of a text; how it’s bound, and the kind of paper, and the typography are part of the work for me. So on the one hand, that’s it exactly — I’m destroying part of what I’m trying to make available to a viewer. But part of the argument of the site, in a slightly larger way, is also that the online edition — in bibliographic terms it’s just an edition — the online edition is in fact just as material as the letterpressed, hand-sewn book. In some ways, I think we’re coming out of an initial moment of rhetoric around the Internet and the digital, which imagined it as being disembodied, which we’ll shake soon enough. But also, I think we don’t get that it took literary studies a long time to develop the vocabulary for talking about the material specifics for the bibliography of the book. I think we just don’t have quite the vocabulary for thinking about how it is that digital editions are very embodied. But everyone who has tendinitis from dealing with the computer keyboard knows it is not disembodied. [listen]

La Marre: Totally. There is that kinetic aspect of actually being on the computer. I’m really glad we’re getting outside the fallacy that these things aren’t material, because these things do exist somewhere on a server; they’re just as material. This material might be smaller —

Dworkin: They’re using up a lot of fossil fuels, they’re using up a lot of resources, they get hot, things melt down —

La Marre: There was that one case where Facebook’s servers got so hot and were in a certain type of room that they actually formed real clouds and started raining down on themselves — which I thought was just a perfect image of how these things [can occupy space].

Dworkin: There’s the cloud for you.

La Marre: And there’s an example — of an archive like Eclipse — when Ubu’s server got hacked and they went down. That was an example of how easily these things that have this sort of illusion of permanence can suddenly be wiped away.

Dworkin: That is the other irony of trying to preserve, in some sense, the dream of archives — trying to preserve these print books, which are pretty sturdy media likely to be around for hundreds of years, in formats and configurations in this digital world that are likely to be around for months. The early parts of Eclipse are on zip drives, if anyone remembers what those are. The early files were coded in a proprietary file format called SID files — MrSID by LizardTech — this is not that long ago and these are totally inaccessible, even to me. [listen] The first interface for Eclipse, which was donated by this grad student at MIT who did the first version of what today is very familiar, a Javascript 3D simulation of a word cloud, with the words coming closer, then receding — it was the first time it had ever been used — it’s a total black box, we can’t get into it now. So it is widely available and precariously impermanent.

La Marre: I mean that has such synchronicity with the ephemeral nature of these —

Dworkin: Fugitive publications.

La Marre: — these other objects. I almost said “original objects,” but I worry about saying that. But that ephemerality exists in both spaces I think. I mean, it’s interesting, I think, a fetishization or an ephemerality of works online, I think, is — importantly, an aesthetics of that — is emerging as the vocabularies, as you said, are being built up for those things. Hito Steyerl has that whole text, “In Defense of the Poor Image,” more largely about cinema but at least —

Dworkin: No I think it’s entirely applicable, including to the lossy, bluntly filtered JPEG images that we have for the first books we have on Eclipse. Directly relevant.

La Marre: What do you use now to scan? Are you using your iPhone to scan or do you have a real scanner?

Dworkin: I have a not-very-fancy real scanner that is probably a ten-year-old, off-the-shelf Canon scanner. For large format things, we have a very fancy large-bed scanner that is a pain in the ass to use. I’m always grateful when poets publish things in small format trims.

La Marre: You mentioned Danny Snelson earlier. I remember speaking with him a bit about databases, and coming at things through a lens of that vocabulary involved in databases. Do you think of Eclipse through the term database?

Dworkin: Yeah, “database” is a much better term than “archive,” which I think is not really quite accurate for what Eclipse does, though it is the term that I use. Danny, in fact, just defended an absolutely brilliant dissertation, which has a chapter on Eclipse, as well as other big/small databases like PennSound, which you mentioned, and like UbuWeb. So a lot of how I’ve learned how to think about Eclipse comes from learning from Danny’s own work. And his practice also speaks to the materiality that we were talking about. He has a project forthcoming on Eclipse that is going to start from born-digital publications — works from platforms like Troll Thread and Gauss PDF. He’s essentially going to print out, then rescan, and put [them] back in as newly digital files on Eclipse. So I think that speaks better than anything to the materiality that is involved even with accessing born-digital documents.

La Marre: As an editor of Eclipse, is there any sort of curating that you do […], anything you try [to] bring to the archive? Or is it just, you put on what you’re able to come across?

Dworkin: One of the things that I’m always looking for are works that I think make a difference if they’re part of the consciousness of the historic record. Many of them are things that are in some ways unprecedented in their moment, but they maybe speak to contemporary practices, or are works that I think change our general sense of the map of what was done or what could be done. I tend to like all the stuff that’s on it. Since most of these books are just coming from my shelves, they’re things that I have because I like them and I read them. It’s not meant to be so much an archive of valuation — it’s not just stuff that I think is good. There’s some really bad stuff on there.

La Marre: You don’t have to say which you think are bad.

Dworkin: I’m not going to name any names, but just because I think something’s not a great book doesn’t mean that it’s not an important book because it showed someone doing something that hadn’t been done. In some ways, my imaginary audience is someone who’s maybe not an expert in small-press avant-garde of the ’70s, but someone who’s interested in contemporary poetry — maybe who’s teaching a class on contemporary poetry, and if they think, “Oh, James Merrill is really as experimental as it gets,” they can take a look at this and say, “Oh okay. I still want to be reading James Merrill, but it is not as crazy as it gets.” So, changing the sense of the landscape.

La Marre: Yeah, that was actually maybe the word I would use, too, getting as much of a textured kind of landscape as you can for these kinds of things. Do you do anything as an — you used the word “edition” before — would you say, have there been any releases on Eclipse as new editions of works?

Dworkin: Yeah. Not the main focus of the project, but a growing aspect of Eclipse, are new, born-digital works that I think of as the kinds of works that would be published by the presses that Eclipse features if they were still in production today. So if Sun and Moon, or if The Figures, were still as active as [they were] in 1980, what is the exciting work that would be coming from them? Kenneth Goldsmith’s Traffic, for instance. Most recently, an absolutely brilliant reimagining of Clark Coolidge’s book Space, by a poet named Amanda Hurtado, who tracked down the specific model of typewriter that must have been used to set the pages for Coolidge’s book ­­— it’s this work of media archaeology, abstracted language, and beautiful critical intervention that understands the body of the typist in relation to machine, in relation to the poem, and suggests all kinds of things about the myths and realities of Coolidge’s own prosodic, spontaneous work, shows that some of his poems are essentially left-handed poems, some are composed for the right hand. So works like this that are immensely exciting, and in some ways don’t have the range of small presses available today that they would have [had] fifteen years ago.

La Marre: That sounds awesome. We can sort of end — we can touch on No Medium for a bit, if you want to talk about how materiality, and your research on and interest in materiality through Eclipse, maybe influenced some pieces of No Medium.

Dworkin: Early on, from the very beginning, when I started first scanning books for Eclipse, I insisted that we scan every blank verso page — that we scan every blank flyleaf, and end paper — not because I could imagine what anyone would do with it, but I wanted all that material available to some future reader, some future scholar. It reveals things about printing method, and bleed-through, and binding — who knows what else. Part of the ideology behind Eclipse is that I don’t want to try and predict or imagine or limit what people will do with the materials. I want to make as much available as possible. This is why there’s no metadata; I’m not tagging. When I first set it up and worked with a consultant at the Princeton Library, they wanted me to have metadata tags for every metaphor in a poem. They said, “Well, you could tag every [piece of] water imagery.” [That] first showed that they did not understand Bruce Andrews’s poetry, but also that —

La Marre: Every leaf of grass —

Dworkin: I don’t want to imagine what people want to do. I want to make it as available as possible. But it also used to drive these initial consultants crazy that I was doubling our file size by scanning every blank page in this full beautiful 600-dpi, full-color scan of a blank piece of paper. That, in some ways, is also where No Medium originated — there, as a sort of challenge to myself as a potential scholar and critic, to kind of put my money where my mouth was and say, all right, if I really believe, if we really believe that all the material aspects of the book are significant, both in the sense that they’re important and also that they signify, that they’re meaningful — I wanted to write full-on, full-length scholarly, serious literary critical readings, art-historical readings of blank media, with the challenge being that I wasn’t allowed to say the same thing chapter to chapter and that I wasn’t allowed to fall back too quickly on the kind of lurid rhetoric of high theory. I was not allowed to get too soon to something about absence or aporia or the void or anything like that, but really to read it.

La Marre: I’m reminded of a way of writing through protocols — another thing I’m generally interested in, too, but that’s sort of where my fascination with these blank objects exists, is through the protocols of their creation, the protocols of the ream, the blank ream of paper. I wonder if you have any thoughts on protocols as they might relate to ways of writing. For example, you have Parse, your book of poetry that is very strictly — one of the most strictly written-by-protocol pieces of writing that I’ve ever come across. If you have any thoughts on how that kind of mode of writing relates to algorithms and the way that software, or projects that are pieces of writing that are built on those [coding] types of protocols, relate, and if you see — if the relationship [between protocols and algorithms] there is one-to-one for you.

Dworkin: Tell me more what you’re thinking because you’ve got a start on this, and I will follow.

La Marre: Kenny [Goldsmith] writes in Uncreative Writing, “The writing of the future will be done by robots”[1] — that there’s all this writing going on right now by machines for machines, not for people, and that this way of writing could be just as interesting to read or look at through a lens of literary theory, and should be given that sort of rigor. Do you see an aesthetic relationship between that kind of writing — what I’ve called “dark writing,” writing that exists somewhere out there in the universe that humans do not ever see or can’t actually really read in a lot of cases?

Dworkin: As readers, and as the professional readers that literary critics are, we’ve not even begun to wrap our heads around the implications of the fact that the vast majority of writing today, by orders of magnitude, is by machines for machines. [listen] As you say, we’re not meant to read, we’re never going to read — if one takes a step back and is actually interested in writing today, most of that writing is machinic. I don’t know quite what to say about this except it strikes me as being a profound change in the state of affairs.

La Marre: Right, and especially in terms of “what can writing do,” it can make a billion dollars disappear because of a bug —

Dworkin: In less than a second. One way to get at this, then, is to come back to that creative writing classroom. One of the ways that writers tend to talk is about how to write more. That one of the problems of creative writing is the writer’s block. How can you generate text when we are drowning in texts that no one person could ever read? Even if you narrow it down to something like contemporary small-press avant-garde poetry, no one person can read all of it. No one can read what’s published this week. So the problem for creative writing is how to reduce what you’re writing. How to keep yourself from writing, how to know when to stop, and especially as we have an expanded sense of the tools available — which is to say both avant-garde techniques and also Perl scripting, the sort of things that can generate material for you — the trick I think is to figure out how to end a project, how to constrain it, and that comes back to algorithm in a certain way. They’re useful because they show you where to stop.


1. La Marre paraphrases here.