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An Interview on Poetics

Sandy Baldwin Interviewing Jim Rosenberg, February 2003

Sandy Baldwin: We were talking about your recent essay, "Questions About The Second Move" <>, which you describe as "about the necessity and difficulties of having an authoring environment where the poet can collect scraps: a notebook." You were saying…

Jim Rosenberg: It’s almost like an artist studio snapshot of what I am engaged in right now, and it’s really very exciting because I have given a lot of talks over the years about tools and the inadequacy of the tools that I had to work with, and at hypertext meetings the systems people were very eager to find out from us writers what our requirements were for tools. So they pushed us pretty hard to create requirements documents and I have done that. I had one published and stated explicitly what my requirements were. It was always this sort of pipedream to think that I could ever see it happen — to actually be able to make it happen myself is so exciting. It’s really very, very wonderful. But you know when I see so many works being done in tools like Flash. . . I’m not a very big fan of Flash. I’m certainly not trying to disparage any of the works done in Flash, but, if you think about it, Flash was really a tool created for advertising, and the niche for Flash was that it was actually created for animations to go in web ads. Now, why should poets have to deal with a tool that was made for advertisers! What would a poet’s tool look like? And what is the new media equivalent of the notebook? That’s the question I keep coming back to: how do I make scraps?

S: You need a printed notebook.

J: Right, a bound notebook. I don’t think I know a single poet, in one way or another, that doesn’t use a notebook or accumulate scraps in some fashion or another. That’s what is really hard to do in new media. I have been very concerned for a long time about the pieces that people have been doing — have done — in a medium where you really can’t gather scraps properly, and can’t really mold it fluidly in the same way that people are used to on paper. And what would a poet’s authoring system look like?

S: Would you say that what we end up seeing with Flash poetry is the scraps you get from elsewhere, things pre-made in the system already in Flash?

J: Well, Flash doesn’t lend itself to collecting scraps. I mean it lends itself to making pieces very laboriously, but the question is how do you collect fragments where you don’t know where it is going to go.

S: You say that the status of the fragment in a notebook is something like "don’t know." And that’s what you’re alluding to here.

J: Exactly. You don’t know where it’s going to go; you don’t know where it’s going to end up. I mean, for centuries poets have collected lines in various little ways without knowing what kind of poem they are going to end up in, and maybe they would go years before that fragment got used, but it’s in a notebook somewhere. It’s important to capture it because if you don’t capture it, it might be gone. Well, how do we do that with new media content? Now, Flash, I suppose, has libraries, and people would argue you could sort of do it this way, but it has got to be almost to the point where it’s subliminal if it is going to work for poets.

S: It’s a granularity problem too, right? ‘Cause the Flash —

J: Exactly.

S: Isn’t this a question about the fundamental nature of hypertext in writing, too? Wasn’t this what Vannevar Bush wanted to do with the Memex? <> Do you remember this? He wanted the same thing, he wanted a machine that would gather scraps.

J: I guess you could link that in. He was concerned with a sort of more limited range of behaviors on the part of the word than we are these days —

S: He certainly wasn’t thinking of poetry.

J: I tend to think of Bush more as the pioneer of explaining what the corpus would look like. Particularly the corpus of associating lots of people’s work together in a single body as opposed to the process of composition.

S: OK. Well, I guess the reason I was thinking that was because, when we talked about gathering scraps, I also thought about how we gather information as we use electronic media as we surf the web, for example, and how there’s really not adequate ways to footnote what we find, to save what we find…

J: Right, well, I’ve written about this. It’s called "gathering," and the state of our gathering interfaces is just awful.

S: I have a question. Do you think of Amazon as a gathering interface? Maybe this sounds facetious, but it strikes me that for many people, that’s the model for information gathering, with its information cookies, and its "eight other people bought this, you might want to take a buy it." Have you looked at this?

J: Well, I buy a lot from Amazon, and no, I don’t think of it that way.

S: Well, do you think that may be a kind of cheapened model of what we want?

J: The cheap model of gathering is bookmarks, and it’s just not a good model. Now, I must confess that I personally don’t use bookmarks. I mean, I keep an HTML page in which I create links for something I want to bookmark. I have it as an HTML page which I can load, and that way I can organize it using standard HTML authoring tools. But I used to use something called WebSquirrel, which was wonderful, and then I got off the Macintosh. I guess I could use Web Squirrel again, but I got used to using just an HTML page which is easy if you’re in various types of other platforms. But book marking is very crude. How do you bookmark a sentence from a web page? Supposedly, the XML revolution is supposed to fix this, but I actually haven’t seen much that advances the state of the art gathering interfaces outside of the research community.

S: You mean research community as in Aquanet, and things like that. I was being facetious when I was talking about Amazon, but don’t you think this has a lot to do with our freedom and when we use these technologies? If we don’t come up with gathering interfaces, then someone else is going to dictate how we use —

J: Oh, I see what you’re getting at. Yeah, that’s a very good point, that’s an excellent point.

S: Amazon sort of purports to think for us. Or I’m thinking of Microsoft's Paladium, right?

J: Let’s not get started on that, you’ll run out of tape.

S: But, I mean, the stakes are high…

J: Yes, and, though you mentioned Paladium, a more direct cross reference there is SmartTags.

S: Right.

J: I think Smart Tags will come back, unfortunately. Now, Smart Tags was very insidious. That was the effort to pre-gather and to just to say, well, Microsoft will do all of the gathering for you, thank you.

S: Yeah, I guess that’s what I was thinking. And I thought about this in terms of where you talk about, where you talk about Flash, when I took you to be saying that you need to be able to have an artistic construction kit that will let us be able to name and code the behaviors we have at that level.

J: That’s right. One of the things that I find about Flash that I find the least acceptable is that there is this very strict segregation between two vastly different models. I mean, when you really talk about the technology of Flash, you’re not really talking about a technology, you’re talking about two technologies, and there is this almost schizoid division between the two in which they’re totally separate beasts. So there is on the one hand Flash the authoring environment —

S: Right.

J: — and then there’s the runtime environment.

S: Yeah.

J: And, they’re totally different. I find this unacceptable. Just as I’ve been interested for years and years and years in reducing the granularity of hypertext so that it’s inside the sentence — morphemic is the word Cathy Marshall used for my work, which I like a whole lot. It seems to me — and I’ve had some direct experience with this, just in the last few weeks where I finally got my Squeak stuff working as an authoring environment — the question of authoring behavior versus runtime behavior should be completely granular at the level of the object. It’s hard to talk about objects in the technical computer science sense, and really explain this to people who have not been through it. It’s a radically different paradigm. Languages like Smalltalk give you a totally different perspective on the world than other kinds of programming systems. One of the aspects of this is that it’s a sort of seamless environment in which there aren’t these kinds of boundaries. So for instance, people have accepted to an appalling degree the point of view of companies like Microsoft on what is the division between system level software and the kind of software you can write for yourself. In a Smalltalk environment there is no division. You get something called an image and it comes with full source code and you can change anything about the system, and you don’t just write a program, you subclass something and your code gets integrated into this system in a way that really — there’s no boundary between your code and the rest of the system.

S: I see.

J: And everything is an object and… everything is some behavior that can be modified, it’s all exposed. It’s a radically different concept than this idea that… um… if you make a new media piece in Flash, you have objects that you’ve assembled yourself. You have certain types of scripting that only you can do at runtime, but meanwhile you are doing that within an authoring system that was written by Macromedia where you can’t modify anything and that runs on top of an operating system that you get from Microsoft and whatever it does you can’t change at all except in these very constrained ways that they give you. Um, this is a very different framework from a Smalltalk environment in which the entire source code is available and it runs fine on open source operating systems where you can run it on a box where you’ve got a hundred percent of all the code.

S: So… So what you’re writing, you know I’m not going to be able to say this right, it integrates itself right into the system it’s a part of right?

J: That’s right, that’s right.

S: And, and you know, this was one of the things I found fascinating in the.. the essay "Questions on the Second Move," because it seemed to me ultimately the second move and first move part kind of fell together, right? Because…. And there ends up…

J: Right, It’s almost like… It’s almost like the idea is to abolish the second move.

S: Right, and as you say… it’s a question of granularity to some degree and that’s why I thought of your earlier poetics essay "Openings: The Connection Direct" <>, because that starts with that wonderful paragraph on what you called "energy transactions," which is hard to pin down but it has something to do with… I thought of this word in information theory "phatic communication," p-h-a-t-i-c but it’s not quite that, but its something that is not purely related to the idea of transmission or possession, and I may be condensing things together here, but I thought one of the interesting things about that essay, you were saying, you know, poets are concerned with this, the question of the energy transaction layer and in a way there’s the same question in the "Second Move" essay of abolishing the second move, and saying we need to hold on to the first move, and I agree these are different essays and they are from fifteen years apart or something, but for me I guess I saw certain continuities in them.

J: That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of it that way. I still believe very passionately in this kind of energy transaction and I still believe very strongly in the viability of composing directly to the energy transaction layer, as opposed to the more stereotypical attitude people have about communication transmitting a thing, or an entity, or an idea, and it’s like getting moved from one brain to another as a sort of infusion and both pieces are really strongly about objects and this objecthood is really something very very essential. I remember being at some event — I’m trying to remember what it was, I think it was a question and answer period that John Cage gave after, I believe it was the New York premier of Harpsichord. It’s been a number of years now and it might have been a different event, but there was a question and answer period and Lucas Foss I believe organized it. He started it out by repeating to John a comment that he had heard from some disgruntled woman who was there, who said about the piece, "It doesn’t care" and he handed that to John Cage, just like that for his comment, and in his completely inimitable fashion without batting and eye or missing a beat Cage got his usual Cage child-like smile on his face, and he said "I would think the same thing could be said of a sunset." Now, my paltry scratchings have put it much less powerfully than John did on that particular occasion, and I don’t want to try to become an interpreter for John Cage, obviously he speaks well enough for himself, but what I took that comment to mean was that in effect, the sunset is an object of the world, it has no author, unless you want to start preaching in religious terms and personifying a deity that way. It has no human author, it has no author in the usual artistic or aesthetic sense. It’s an object, and the viewer relates to that object and there is an energy transaction there even though there’s no expression, no author, there’s no transmission, and it’s between the viewer and the sunset. In this case it’s between a person and the sunset, or it could just be a collection of stones you find that are incredibly appealing or a seashell that you find on the shore that’s striking, and it’s that particular object and it’s your relationship the "receiver" to that object. Now, we need that kind of intimate relationship in the authoring system. It needs to be a very seamless relationship between the authoring system and playing it; it should play immediately. I mean, what does it mean that we have got ourselves roped into the kind of composition where it’s only after weeks of work that you can read it. I mean, you know, it’s been part of the act of composing poetry for millennia that the minute you compose a line, it’s there for you to read, or hear, or play back in your head and say "Gee, does this work here or not?"

S: And if I may, about what you were saying about objects, and this strikes me as why you... I guess here I’m thinking about an interview that was done once with you by Judy Malloy, where there’s an exchange where she says how she had always thought that in your work the user brings the poem into being by mousing over it, and you said that wasn’t quite right, because you felt in a fundamental way, at some level, the objects in a poem already exist. I may be jumping too far in thinking of hypertext as something that is produced by the reader and am I going down the wrong track to say that the question of the object is something that one could hold against the reader for producing the text, that the text doesn’t have a real existence.

J: Well, I’d have to go back and remember what I said in that earlier interview, but I don’t want to speak against the concept that the reader constructs something, and that’s really what’s behind the whole concern for gathering. It’s that the reader needs explicit tools to construct something.

S: Can I say this — I guess I’m hung up on this idea of the energy transaction level — as a reader, what I construct... if I think I’m just getting some information from you, that’s not really the point, right, I’m supposed to perceive these objects at some level.

J: Well, we’re getting into another place, which I feel very passionately about, which is very dangerous, I need to be very emphatic about this. I don’t want to say anything that implies in any way whatsoever that the reader has any obligation at all! I don’t know what it’s like for kids in school these days. We don’t have kids — I don’t know what textbooks are like at the elementary and high school levels, but I know what they were like when I was a kid and I know how poetry was presented, and poetry was always presented being surrounded by this sticky gooey mess of obligations. There were all these things that you were supposed to do —

S: And supposed to get out

J: — of a poem. If the result of postmodernist theory of the reader constructing the meaning is to add another layer to this level of obligation on the part of the reader, I’m gonna say "No!". The reader is under no obligation whatsoever. What I want kids to know about poetry is that a poem is something you pick up for the sheer hell of it and nothing else. So, one of the things I think is important to understand about the energy transaction is that is isn’t necessarily something conscious. In fact, it could be something anti-conscious.

S: mmhmm…

J: You could have a conscious impression while looking at a work that is completely awful, that you are getting nothing from it, that it is just horrible in every way, that you just don’t relate to it, and yet there are ways in which underneath the surface, subconsciously, you could still be receiving some sort of energy from it that could have a positive impact.

S: So in this way we can’t really, well it’s beside the point to talk about whether it was a good energy transaction or not. Now that’s not what we’re talking about

J: Oh well, I don’t know. I don’t know about that either, I mean think about food. We all know that we have food that is delicious, the type of food you brought, and food that we can’t stand… and we also all know that the nutritional value of food is not necessarily related to our pleasure in eating it, and you can have a meal you thought was delicious and then you know, you just… particularly if it’s a meal you ate in the beginning or the middle of the day, and it takes you all day to realize that it wasn’t good food as fuel. And that is really the issue to me as far as the energy transaction… Was it fuel? And I wouldn’t go as far as to say we can’t talk about that. That seems going a little far… Of course you might never be able to put into words what it is that makes something good fuel or not.

S: I know this is not a direction you look in your writings, but I… It makes me think of the phenomenological philosophy, you know whether it’s a question of Husserl or Merleau-Ponty.
J: Yeah, well, I’ve never really read those people, unfortunately.
S: Can I ask then… I don’t want to leave this, because this is quite interesting… I was curious about the role of the visual image or the visual in your poetry, because there were a couple of questions I had in that direction. Maybe the first one is just a simple one: What do you think of the relationship between your poetry and concrete poetry? And, maybe more generally, people think of themselves as more visual poets because they are concerned maybe with some of these issues…

J: Well this gets tricky, I really want to be careful because I don’t want to speak against the type of work I don’t see myself as doing. Umm… I should say…. and I feel strongly about this… If you would ask me "What adjective do you want in front of the word poet, in reference to yourself?" Um, I would not disown terms like "new media poet," or "digital poet," or "hypertext poet," or what have you… but the adjective that I would really prefer is none at all. I see the work that I do as simply poetry. Now I do use visual means, and the way that the work looks matters. I do spend time on it… I certainly don’t think of myself as a visual artist, I don’t do other kinds of visual work. I started using visual means because it was the only way I knew how to achieve the result of putting words on top of one another and having something readable, and putting words on top of one another and having something that could then be put into a larger unit the same way that a word can. So there are these visual means being employed that are not just words. There’s a visual notation and so forth. But I’m not doing this to supplant the level of things like syntax, semantics and so forth. Some visual poets have been very ideological about this and so it’s got to be instantly accessible to someone who speaks any type of language, and so forth… Um, It hasn’t been the way I’ve wanted to work at all… so the visuality is simply there as an added channel… The media allows for this possibility so I’m using it.

S: But isn’t it, isn’t it…a grammatic quality of the visual as old as your poetry to the degree that the new media poems automate the diagram, right?

J: Right…

S: You’ve been doing almost the same visual task but also working on some of the same visual problems for 34 years. Not just the poetry has a visual aspect but also a visualizing aspect because the visual aspect the diagram is something that viewer has to interact with, the reader. It’s not just a picture to be looked at is what I’m saying…

J: Right, right…

S: I don’t know if I understand exactly what the reader is doing, but this goes against the idea that a picture is something over there that I gaze upon…

J: Right, right

S: Do you think, is there, are there sentences that can’t be diagrammed?

J: Well that’s a provocative question, that’s the type of question I would have to think about and then two years later I would probably have the right answer. But, umm… The the concept of sentence as we know it is inherently bound up in the idea that the words have structure, that they are combined in a structural way. And the diagram is only one of way of illustrating that structure. And what intrigues me about the diagram is that it is a way of opening up the structure to words that are combined with no structure. I’ve said this before in some of my other writings, that Cage has once criticized the twelve tone system as not having a zero. And I am not up enough on twelve tone music theory to know whether he was right about that or not, but um… syntax typically assumes that every element has a structural role, and the thing that syntax won’t do is allow elements together that don’t have a structural relationship. So I guess I would turn your question backward, and say that the interesting thing to me is not whether every sentence can be diagramed but whether it is possible to include something which cannot be diagramed into a sentence which can.

S: Then what would we have? Do you feel like you approach that? Does that happen?

J: Sure, sure… The word clusters are just, words are sort of just there together, like two sounds that are played together, or two visual images that are superimposed on a canvas. Um, but yet with the diagrams, I can include those things into a sentence as if they were words.

S: It strikes me that that comes close to some kind of traditional connotation of poetry as the new. This is something new, some new innovation, right?

J: Well, it’s hard to talk about this without making it sound like you are creating some advertisement, and I will readily confess that I fail at self promotion, that is one of my great failures. Umm, I guess this comes back to our earlier discussion of energy transaction. I have never felt comfortable with this sort of blind allegiance among certain people to a banner of "making it new". I’m uncomfortable with that. It sounds too much to me like our stereotype of manufacturers who make, build, products with planned obsolescence.

S: Yeah…

J: I mean, It’s just problematic every which way, I mean the, the issue to me is not whether it’s new, it’s whether it really has crystallized that energy which has been available. Is it energetic? That to me is the more important question than is it new?

S: Umm, It strikes me that the really interesting point that you made a few minutes ago about, the possibility, if I get this right, of diagramming or bringing into a diagram something that doesn’t have a structural relationship has a certain similarity to some of the questions you’ve considered in types of hypertext, for instance the possibility of a null choice.

J: Right…

S: You know, and I have two different questions here, and we can go with either one. One: Whether you’d want to talk about the null choice in hypertext… or the other, more general question about the relation between what we’ve been talking about here…which is your poetics (on the one hand) and then this other mode you write in, the more academic/scientific mode, which is maybe separate and maybe the same, where you consider genres of hypertext and hypertext systems. So one question could be what could you say about the null choice and hypertext and the other, are there different flavors of Jim Rosenberg’s writing here or not?

J: Oh dear, I don’t know where to go with this, umm… I don’t remember if I ever exactly used the word "null choice" but maybe I did… umm, "Navigating Nowhere" is an essay that’s about…

S: Yeah, that’s what I was thinking of…

J: Yeah, okay that’s what you were referring to... Maybe I did use the term null choice in there, I know I used the term "no structure." Umm, this gets into some very tricky stuff that is absolutely related to discussions of the craft of poetry that have gone on for centuries. Lots and lots and lots and lots of people have written lots and lots and lots and lots of words about what constitutes a good line, and what is the role of the poetic line and if you extract the line from a poem and just look at it by itself, sort of, what is this creature that’s pulled out from its environment. And we really don’t have, I don’t think, a good body of theory for this in new media poetry. We’ve sort of evaded these types of questions… so if we were using the traditional, what I like to say, disjunctive, type of hypertext theory, node-link hypertext… the question would be, "What is a good lexia?" What actually is the role of the lexia? What is the role of the screen that you just get when you uh, go nowhere… Now there is some kind of new media poetry where that question doesn’t occur because you have animations that play and you don’t have the choice to do nothing, and you can’t stop it. You could stop it by hitting escape and quitting out of the piece completely. But you can’t freeze it.

S: So we are near to the question of…

J: But the reason that these things are tricky is that one does not want to be prescriptive I don’t think. I feel really strongly when people ask me, "what is your definition of hypertext," I feel obligated to say, my favorite answer is, "we’re working on that." I mean this stuff is so new that I think it is a little soon to be prescribing "Oh you have to write a lexia this way…" and this is "how you do a web page for usability" and "you should do this," or "you must do that"… it just gives me a headache. But nevertheless, I wonder sometimes whether we’ve evaded our responsibility as hypertext writers at really dealing with some of these same types of questions of craft and poetics that earlier generations have dealt with. The phrase that I like to use is that the various pieces of a hypertext have to hold their aesthetic weight, pull their aesthetic weight… they have to hold the load. Now what that is could be subject to differences of opinion, and people will have different aesthetic points of view on this… so the lexia even if you assume that, let's take a hypertext piece where the emphasis is on the links, or maybe the emphasis is on the links to the degree that they have these timeouts that will force the link to be taken if they’ve been sitting there for a certain period of time. And the author has put all this effort into the links but the lexia is there, and it plays some role. Even if the author is saying to me: "look, I’m not interested in what the lexia does, I’m interested in what the links do," we can still say okay, that is a valid point of view, but if you have an unhappy lexia, it could get in the way of that… It can get in the way of what you want to do… so that question is there. And this gets back into the whole issue of tools. Somebody composed that lexia… Were links being followed when that lexia was composed? Now at some level there is something there in the hands of somebody where it’s not moving, or it’s contained in some sense. And it is a legitimate question to ask at some point, "what is that aesthetic?" "How does it work?" "What is the relationship between the parts that are fixed and the parts that move or the parts that ask the reader to move to some other place?"

S: So is part of it that there is a confusion of substance…where people think, for example you’re are looking at "Is my lexia alright If my links are bad" and vice-versa. Whereas you really don’t have one without the other. I mean I take a certain amount of what some of your essays do to have almost a rhetorical function when you ask these questions, I think this is a question that you’ve repeated… "What’s in a link?" "What is it?" Sometimes I get a sense that you are trying to force the reader to, I guess I’m going to say, change granularity, change the level that they’re looking at these terms.

J: Umm… Well it just all goes back to this idea that you’ve made something and you’ve made it and you are aesthetically responsible for the result. There are some painters who make canvases with some very unusual shapes. In this type of painting the stretcher itself is something that the painter wants you to pay attention to. Now there are lots of other types of paintings where the stretcher is just there as part of the framework and it doesn’t show… It’s inherently behind… it’s part of the infrastructure but you don’t really see it and the painter may not want you to pay attention to the stretcher. But if you have a badly done stretcher or you have a stretcher that’s fine and then warps, then you’ve got this funny thing sticking out of the corner and you do see it and that’s a misadventure, so we can’t walk away from these aspects. If you make a new media piece, if you chose this and you chose that, and it’s all part of a piece…I’m not sure where we’re going with this…

S: Well, do you think the answer is self-consciousness on the part of the new media author, or self awareness of choices made? Or do you think we need…If on the one hand, we’re not served by the flash, the flash of the pen, and we’re not served by prescription either, is an answer, kind of, pragmatism, where people perceive thoughtfully?

J: I guess all I’m trying to say is, and I don’t want to labor this point too much, …when I get together with other new media poets and writers, it seems like we spend almost all of our time talking about "techie" things. You know the aesthetic questions in this type of writing as in any other type of writing. The relationship between the technical means and the elements themselves, the words of the piece, be they words or visual elements — whatever they might be. This is where the whole "making it new" thing, and the word "new" in the "new media" is in some ways really an obstacle. We seem to be so caught up on this, I’m not sure how to say this in English, techne…we’re so focused on that…I sometimes get the feeling that we’re too eager to let those issues be something we can hide behind, but it’s just all poetry really. I mean the dot com phenomenon turned out not, after all, to be a new economy. The laws of economic gravity were, lo and behold, not repealed, and just as there wasn’t really any new economy, ever, at all — just this great speculation, you could make the case that there really are no new media. What we have are some interesting things in the tool kit that we didn’t have before, but, it’s poetry.

S: Right. Thank you!

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