Thursday, April 3, 2008

Stephanie Strickland Interview

What inspired you to create a work like this?
What gave you the idea to set a story in space?

My conception of poetry was already changing and straining against the limits of the standard print book, actually both in The Red Virgin: A Poem of Simone Weil, where the contents are arranged index-style, meaning to indicate one can read the poems in any order, and then again, in True North, where I wanted the 5 sections of the book to ‘revolve around’ the central axis of the 5-part “True North” poem. It is just frustrating to try to enact these conceptions in print unless you make a so-called artist’s book. I first got involved with hyperspace when I did a Storyspace version on disk of True North.

What was most challenging about creating Vniverse?

For the first time, I had a vision that I myself alone could not carry out. That’s not so common for a poet, unless they are playwrights or librettists. I had to learn a lot about software and work with my wonderful collaborator, Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo, to actually implement the vision.

What do you hope that the reader takes away from Vniverse?

Delight in the poem, and in its relation to the print parts of V.
Different senses of how things can be organized (not just with respect to the page). Different senses of how time works, how waves work—

Perhaps they will become interested in other work of this kind and want to do some themselves. Perhaps they will feel that poetry and the 21st century have a wonderful history upcoming together that includes computation.

What do you want the work as a whole to communicate to the reader?

A wonderful book from Granary Press, called The Book of the Book, will show you many different examples of the ways books have been made, over time and as contemporary book projects, that have nothing to do with the format of a standard print book. The binding of two parts of a book upside down to each other is well-precedented. In fact, Penguin had published two coordinate novels in this way not so long before V.

What I wanted Penguin to do was to make the two halves indistinguishable—which could have happened had they used shrinkwrap and put the barcode on the shrinkwrap. Since they didn’t do that, and I couldn’t get them to do it, in fact the two sides are ‘coded’ somewhat differently. But so far as I could, I tried to have the entries to the two ‘sides’ occur equivalently.

What is most important to me is that V is a poem in three parts that exists in a mixed space that does not privilege one orientation over another. You can approach the book through the door of Losing L’una or through the door of the WaveSon.nets or through the Vniverse. [Very few folks know this, but there is actually another (hidden) entrance, namely an online setting of the poem “Errand Upon Which We Came” from Losing L’una which I made with M.D. Coverley.]

In each case, your reading experience will be different so your choice matters a lot, as to how you begin it. You can’t go back and do it over—your first impressions will color everything that comes later. So whereas spatially, there is a great deal of freedom, with parts upside-down to each other, and able to come before or behind or between each other, temporally a reader has to take more responsibility than s/he is used to. Any beginning and any path-choice makes a difference.

An historic note: Emily Dickinson made some three-dimensional poems by folding and curling bits of envelope and pinning them together in different configurations. She also used + marks as superscripts on many words in her poems to refer to lists of words written at the bottom of the page (whether as alternates or supplements to the original word, or something else entirely, we’ll never know). Marta Werner [ ] and Susan Howe both write about this.

How did you decide to title each constellation?
How did you decide to define the constellations? Do the keywords of each constellation stem from one general idea or meaning?
Is there a pattern to the colors you chose to use for certain keywords?

Cynthia and I sat in front of a screen and drew them. I wanted to make ‘my own’ constellations, to emphasize the fact that we all can make our own ‘constellations’ and read our own ‘constellations’. Some of these constellations have more to do with a woman’s life—the embryo/fetus, or bull/oxhead=womb+Fallopian tubes, for instance. Goose was for Mother Goose. Only in the case of the Big and Little Dipper, here combined, is there an overlap with traditional constellations. The names were simply to keep track of them—“the Infinity Sign needs to be farther away from the Twins and Kokopelli”—in the course of our manipulations.

All the shapes are related to the meaning of the WaveSon.nets inside them (the Dragonfly is the emerald darner in 47), and the keywords in any given constellation are thematic ‘keywords’ for the motifs in that constellation.

The colors all relate to words in the texts that occur within that constellation, e.g. the Swimmer’s are red, and 2 brings red and ruby.

How do you feel the poems interact with the triplets of Vniverse? Should they be read simultaneously?

If you can! And also at the same time read the diagram visually and let your cursor stray, so even more text is brought into play. But if you try it, read say the and then the triplet version, you will see that something has changed. Some of you will feel it is a little change, but still it somehow affects the poem, perhaps the sound of the poem? Some of you will feel it is a big change, and in some of the poems it is a bigger change than in others. Whichever way, does it affect the meaning? As you know, it is easy online for spacing to get messed up. Does that matter? There are certain structures where the smallest changes matter.

Why did you pull out the triplets you did for each poem?

They are the triplets that arise when you don’t delete or disorder the lines; therefore, they represent the smallest possible increments of change. Of course the poem was written in triplets, so in a certain sense the is the form imposed on the triplets, and the bigger Wave that is the ongoing of the WaveSon.nets is a still higher level structure. Thus, “ emerging,” perhaps, rather than “triplet pulled out.”

Ideally, how would you like the reader to approach each piece? Should Vniverse be read numerically, or should the reader allow their cursor to guide them sporadically around the page?

Ideally, I would like the reader to think of Vniverse as an instrument, a textual instrument, to be played as they like on any given day. There would be no need or even wish to repeat a performance (though you could). I hope they would be patient and curious enough to discover what the instrument can do.

Is there a linear pattern when reading left to right?

The lines of the poems read traditionally left to right, of course, but what happens when you press a ‘next’ is that two poems interpenetrate each other and you have to choose what and how to read. If you allow your cursor to roam, while reading a sonnet, or group of triplets, you will be activating other colored keywords and triplets of text that then become part of the text onscreen. In these cases, you might read from right (the to left (your eye picking up some keyword or triplet that is unrolling in response to your moving cursor).

When you yourself look at Vniverse, do you prefer the Touch or Number reading approach?

Touch. Though I like the fact that the numbers let me move differently—abruptly elsewhere if I want; and also that, if I should wish, I could follow the whole thing in order by number. But if you want a linear unrolling, the print page is better.

How does Vniverse fit into V: WaveSon. Nets/Losing L'una? And can you tell us a bit about the collection as a whole?

It fits right in the middle. If you begin the book, from either end, you will arrive at the page with the url. You must then make some kind of physical move—stay sitting but turn the book over (and read through back to the same url, midway, from the other end); or, you must yourself ‘turn over’, arise and go to the screen, and see the part of the poem V, the Vniverse, that is situated there.

I talk about the collection as a whole in the next two questions.

What do you feel you as a writer gain from using hypertext that you do not gain from plain text? Likewise, what do you feel the reader gains from reading hypertext as opposed to plain text?

Hypertext refers only to the linking structure. Much more happens in digital literature than hypertext. The screen presents a different kind of frame, and, in this case, a different kind of space, based on the Director software (playing in the Shockwave player). It permits words to seem to emerge from deep space in a timed pattern. Oral poems arrive in a timed pattern, but words on a print page do not. The simultaneous presence of the diagrams (also emerging out of deep space) comments on the words, while not ‘illustrating’ them.

In the print book, as you know, very few of the WaveSon.nets are end-stopped with punctuation. It is entirely possible to read them straight through and feel that it is one long poem (whether it is exactly a narrative is another question). What you do, when you do that, is break the frame of the and instead privilege the Wave in, the ongoing way they feed into each other. The numbering of the WaveSon.nets makes that fairly easy to do.

Oral epic, by contrast, usually was told episodically and piecemeal. [See John Foley’s How to Read an Oral Poem.] The longer poems in Losing L’una are fragmented to the highest possible degree, punctuated by a double numbering system that moves along from 1 to 8, before the decimal point, and from 1 to 142 after it, numbering the tercets (triplets) sequentially no matter which of those 8 poems they occur in. These are interspersed with short poems with straightforwardly numbered tercets. And the final poem, “L’una Loses,” stays entirely within “0”: waxing from 0 to 12 and waning back to 0 all within itself. This lyric sequence is I think difficult to read as a single sequence, much less a narrative. In fact you can read it by saying the numbers before each section or by skipping over them, a choice you have to make—just as you have to choose whether to ‘read’ or skip over the quotes marks throughout Notley’s The Descent of Alette.

In an interview I described this numbering: “There are numbers that rotate like bicycle-lock dials in V: Losing L’una. What happens to the left of the decimal doesn’t affect what happens to the right. Two simultaneous orders of counting are happening—within one number. V: WaveSon.nets appears to show simple numbering, but these ordering numbers don’t serve to “discipline” the text which only rarely begins or ends in line with the number. It is as if a calibration tool were slipping over the surface of the text with a certain amount of play in it. In V: Vniverse the numbers name the stars, accompanied by keywords. One can reach any constellation by entering a number, like a code, in the upper circle.”

As you know V is dedicated to Simone Weil. In Losing L’una, the broken up part, Simone the philosopher is more prominent. In WaveSon.nets, Simone the religious mystic is more prominent, and a coordinate mythic realm, a realm in which “to recognize your mother,” is built. This ‘mother’ is a vulnerable fragile figure, but her realm is amenable to ‘epic’ style reading.

In the Vniverse, more frame-breaking occurs. Not only is the frame of the page broken, but the digital permits both a more synoptic view and a closer-in view, while at the same time forbidding that ease of reading straight through all of the WaveSon.nets. The digital version excels in an overview of the entire poem—several sweeps of the hand across the opening screen will produce a hundred words that will serve to orient you to the concerns of the poem.

The digital also allows a closer-in view: the oscillation of the triplet and forms, the relation of those forms to the diagrams and to other text from the poem one can introduce randomly by simply moving the cursor onscreen to bring forth new triplets overlying/underneath/nearby the stable ones. The ‘next’ command activates many implicit time-scales: the time of break-up, the time of emergence, and the time of cross-layer existence between dissolving and emerging poems co-exist with the time of reading forward in the same constellation. If you care about learning new ways to read and about new senses of time, the digital version is best for that.

Is this idea of the Universe central to humankind, women in particular, or one person you had in mind when writing?

Well the Vniverse is exactly not the Universe, yes? V has replaced U. So those *shapes* can easily be changed one into the other, U to V; but the meanings of them differ wildly. U by being part of uni- means just one, ‘the’ one. V is a mark of opening out, the book opens in a V and flies away to the screen.

The poem V is focused on certain kinds of bodily knowing, especially touch and hearing. And especially the knowing that occurs in a female body—and the history of such knowing, in the person of the witch as well as Weil. The poem does quarrel with the views of the witch put forth in Malleus Maleficarum, the Inquisition’s book on how to torture witches, i.e. women with presumed knowledge.

Simone Weil talked a lot about the soul, but for her the soul is always embodied. She said, “Earthly things are the criterion of spiritual things.”

And here are some perhaps relevant quotations from an interview with Jaishree Odin:

Odin: In V, you create a woman’s language where patriarchal formulations of material as well as mystic experience for women are recast and retold from various perspectives. Your recasting is at several levels, invoking real women as well as mythological figures and stellar constellations. This results in imagery and metaphors that are very feminist in orientation and impact, yet what I find remarkable about your work is that you resist getting locked into that experience—it is just a jumping ground to more profound themes of human relationship to the world and to broader cosmos. Would you like to elaborate on that?

I said: “Simone Weil was the first woman I read whose style convinced me she knew her own mind, her mind inseparable from her clumsy, sensitive, empathic body. A wonderful value of her philosophy is how body-based it is. She had utmost respect for “the work entering the body” in the lives of laborers, fishermen, and farmers. Her concerns could not have been broader, the whole good of humankind, the way to use and value knowledge.

“She said, ‘Earthly things are the criterion of spiritual things.’”

Odin: It seems to me that your use of numbers in V presents the pulsating movement, the rise and fall of events—the rhythm of life itself. Would you agree with that interpretation?

I said: “The rhythms of life, in and out of phase with each other, and the felt sense that seeming abstractions have profound physical effects, the weight of the wave.”

Odin: A number of feminists have commented on women’s relationship to mysticism in the West. For example, Luce Irigaray describes the mystic experience as an essentially feminine experience, represented best through the metaphor of touch as in this experience both the individual “soul” and the unknown or the “nothingness” touch one another without one becoming lost in the other. In V, you use the term Godde to point to a reality that is attributeless and you use the words “opening the channel” to come in touch with the waves or vibrations of this reality. I see here a shift from seeing to touching. But some poems also refer to hearing or “hallucinated hearing.” Do you use touching and hearing to represent two different experiences or one and the same experience?

I said: “Both touching and hearing are privileged in V. Both are disprized in our world compared with the visual. Children whose preferred learning mode is kinesthetic or aural have a very hard time with our sight-based education. Both touching and hearing are close to waves—vibrational touch and acoustic waves. V: Vniverse is visual, but in a diagrammatic way, not big images.”

Odin: The title V is very revealing. As you point out, it is an iconographic image, but it also stands for many other things, for example, virginity, abstraction, bird’s flight among others. Most of all it refers to the conical hat of witches who were persecuted for daring to seek knowledge. How did you stumble upon this multivalence of V in both written alphabet and the shape that symbolizes an idea?

I said: “V is at first the waveshape. Hold a stylus to stone and move your stone-holding hand back and forth. With perceptible physical effort, you inscribe the stone with V, with V’s, VVV, a waveform, zigzag, ricrac.

“V is next the shape of an open book, here opened far enough to let the text jump up to a vertical screen. V is the shape of an entire assembly of geese in flight. Flying in V formation the whole flock adds 71% greater flying range than if the bird flew alone.

“V is lifted wings and a witch’s hat, if you turn it over. It is critical that you do turn the book V over to read it. From this gesture in 3-space you move to vertical reading on a screen. The dimensionality onscreen is given by reader-action, by decays and overlays that reader choice brings about. It is also given by images such as the Dipper constellation. The Little Dipper portion is indeed a dipper shape, but it is paired with the Big Dipper which is a bear’s head, referencing its Latin name Ursa Major. This “condensation” of levels, of image and name, is very characteristic of electronic media, though usually the levels are text and code. But in receiving that image you are receiving some hybrid, a cognitive image operating on several levels.

“If L’una is the moon (luna), it is also a solitary female one (l’una). If the moon is the mother, then a shift in what “mother” is takes place. It is the solitary woman who comes forward. L’una, “the one,” is also the daughter Persephone disappearing, this time under the sea. The lost daughter is also Weil, lost to her mother at age 34. The mother-daughter and the solitary-wise-woman-witch figures become fluid, turn into one another. In V: WaveSon.nets/Losing L’una, waves of sound on a network carry L’una away, but she resurfaces in V: Vniverse. At the end of the WaveSon.nets Weil stands swaying at prayer in the stance of a rabbi she could not have been, a dragonfly above her head. She doesn’t stand outside time or make a system. She works from this transgressive body, transgressive for a Jewish prophet.”

There is certainly an emphasis on women and their difficult historical experience in V: WaveSon.nets/Losing L’una, in all of its parts. If there is one figure that comes through more than others, it is certainly Simone Weil.

Do you consider yourself to be an Avant Garde writer? Why or why not?

Sometimes I do, because using software to make poems, and thinking of poems as structures moving in suggested 3-dimensional space (or actual 3-dimensional space, as in an installation) is not a traditional practice. Poems with the constraints of galaxies or proteins—that has not been the traditional view. On the other hand, such poems are extremely firmly structured, which might be thought to be a traditional trait.

I sometimes feel like an archaic poet, because I am very immersed in and seduced by the music of poetry. I am interested in communal and collaborative structures which are, also, in a certain sense, archaic—though technology is certainly refiguring communality and collaboration. Poems were early forms of knowing. I think today, faced with the incredible complexity of worldwide interconnectedness (including multiple languages) and with the pressure of cascades of data, poems may again become a form of knowing—knowing ourselves, our world, and knowing more about the systems we are relying on—through means that only software allows us to discover.

No comments: