March 2007

Nothing moves very quickly in the poetry world, but I was very happy to have Fashionable Noise, from 2003, reviewed in the online journal EconoCulture by a guy I knew (barely, he was two or so years younger than me, which in college means a decade) back at Bard named Mike McDonough. He’s got a sense of humor!

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Cyberpoetry

by Michael McDonough

Fashionable Noise: On Digital Poetics
by Brian Kim Stefans
Atelos, $12.95
ISBN 1-891190-14-8,
Supplements to the book can be found here.
    I hates cyberpoetry
    And I can’t hates no more
        — a poet

I had no idea what cyberpoetry was before I encountered Brian Kim Stefans’ book Fashionable Noise: On Digital Poetics, (Atelos 2003) and, subsequently, the work on his website  I already knew Stefans as a brilliant student of Modernism, from our undergrad years at Bard College (he was seriously into Zukofsky’s A when I had just figured out Lawrence Ferlinghetti), so I thought I would give it a try.  I figured anything with the prefix cyber- was going to be self-consciously cool and high-tech. 

A chat Stefans had with Darren Wershler-Henry is transcribed in the book, and it provides a breezy overview of the field, but abounds with high-tech jargon and avant garde movements: Neo-Fluxus and Brazilian Concrete are just the tip of the iceberg.  There seem to be as many sub-genres of cyberpoetry as death metal.  Soon, we’re down to genres with only one pure practitioner—maybe not the best start for a beginner.  But the chat makes clear that cyberpoetry exists in the zone where words meet readers: the interface, a word I am going to say a lot in this piece.  Some examples of artistic interfaces are animated texts, digital settings of printed texts, and cyberpoems created by running source texts through various computer algorithms. 

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Conference by poet, e-poet and Web artist Brian Kim Stefans

The NT2 Laboratory on Hypermedia Art and Literature at UQAM University ( invites you to a conference by poet, e-poet and Web artist Brian Kim Stefans:

“Reading Blocks: Constrained Text for Digital Environments”

Brian Kim Stefans has published several poetry books including Free Space Comix (Roof Books, 1998), Gulf (Object Editions, 1998, downloadable at and Angry Penguins (Harry Tankoos, 2000). His newest books are What Is Said to the Poet Concerning Flowers (Factory School, 2006), collecting over six years of poetry, and Before Starting Over: Selected Writings and Interviews 1994-2005 (Salt Publishing, 2006). Stefans is the editor of the /ubu (�slash ubu�) series of e-books at and the creator of, ( devoted to new media poetry and poetics.

This conference is presented by the NT2, The Laboratory on Hypermedia Art and Literature and Figura, the Research Center on Textuality and the Imaginary and will be held on:

6 pm – 8 pm
Universite du Quebec – Montreal,
Judith-Jasmin building,
Room J-4255
(Berri-UQAM metro)
Corner Saint-Denis-De Maisonneuve E.

The conference will be given in English
Free Entry

For information, contact:
Anick Bergeron at 514-987-0425

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1. What do you consider the most essential difference between “literature” in the age of print and “literature” in the age of programmable media? Is “literature” an obsolescent word?

I don’t think “literature” is any more obsolete a word than it has been. Cultural studies has permitted a lot more material to the realm of literature than new media has, in a way, because of the lowbrow/highbrow issues it dealt with. I think things like Young-Hae Chang’s work should be considered “literature” even if it is in a genre that is entirely new and unique to itself. I have a pet theory that all successful works of new media literature create their own genres – that seems part of the point. And the Oulipo suggested that the series of constraints that govern a work are the “literature” itself. John Cage’s work is “literature” though he is often discussed in terms of his techniques rather than through, say, “close reading.” I don’t think that novels or plays or print poems will go away, and only changes in consciousness – such as the switch from Enlightenment ideas of literature to Romantic – really make changes. So whatever changes that new media has brought about in that way are the important issues, not the technology or even the techniques used in writing (though they do involve changes in “consciousness” in terms of their aesthetic appreciation – those are important). I’m still wondering whether there will ever be a pretty solid “canon” of new media literary works that will have the same kind of mystical draw the “classics” of literature have had. But I’m an insider – I’m always interested when one of my students views one of these new media works with the same kind of awe I used to view the poems of, say, Ezra Pound or John Donne. History, the passing of time, adds a lot to a work.

2. What is the destiny of text in the emerging literary arts?

I don’t really know. That all hangs on how seriously the creators of digital textual works take learning how to write. Some of them are really terrible writers, or at least I don’t understand at all what they are getting at. But others are pretty good writers and also programmers, so they are in the double bind of having to teach themselves how to write for digital environments, which is akin (to me) of the first screenwriters trying to learn how to write words for films that weren’t novels or plays. It’s just a different way of writing – screenwriters don’t write long monologues for their films, for example, it just doesn’t work, and quite often they are compressing complex ideas into the form of fortune cookies, single sentences that have to say a lot. I’m not sure that all writers working with digital textuality are taking this idea of genre seriously enough – they are simply writing the way they thinking “writing” should be done regardless of how it will be presented, and in digital literature, “presentation” is a good deal of the game (like in movies). One doesn’t imagine that Virginia Woolf wrote thinking about the final typesetting of her novels, but then again (since her husband Leonard was doing it) she knew what the final product would look like. But it was still a “book” – digital writers do not have that assurance, they are creating their own “books” all the time. Digital writers are also often quite terrible designers, which doesn’t help. But several are getting there, I think. Nothing is inevitable, though – I don’t think there is a “destiny” in the sense that something is bound to happen, and if so, we are in no position to anticipate it as new technologies just change the rules all the time. Television as we know might be dead – just look at YouTube and Tivo and all that stuff – but book culture isn’t quite threatened in that way (it’s been threatened for so long by TV, movies and pop music that it’s already made its adjustments).

3. How would you describe (the process of) writing in programmable media?

Mostly involving the use of “constraints” – like the sonnet, such a popular form of quickly consumed poetry laced with subjectivity, in the way the better pop lyric is now, was a constraint. These constraints are partly socially determined, partly determined by the interface the writer has created for the presentation of the work, and also determined by the algorithms that govern the work. It can’t just be Romantic effusions, on the one hand, that don’t recognize bounds of form or length, and they can’t be simply fragmented, elliptical writing, since the avant-garde tradition is exhausted in this regard, and digital environments tend to break up text all the time already – good constraints can often gird a text against the sorts of tearing apart that algorithms inflict on it. I talk about this in Fashionable Noise, that the big difference between print text and digital text is that digital text is vulnerable to algorithms.

4. Where/when is (your) emerging literature produced, “read” or “performed”?

Sometimes in gallery exhibitions, sometimes at talks, often assigned for classes, but generally just online through links. Most of my digital work is not “read” often – I rarely have anyone come up to me quoting a line from “Dreamlife of Letters,” but it’s happened. My work has also been presented at the Remote Lounge in New York, a bar that had a television set at every seat, etc. I never managed to get a gig at a rave.

5. How do you envision the (any) future of “literature” as an art form?

Perhaps I’m conservative, but I don’t envision any huge changes quite soon. I think the fascination with the use of pure information in literary objects, especially poems, has been around for much longer than we have recognized, since Browning and Pound at least. That seems to be the main contribution of Google searches and the other aspects of freewheeling digital textuality on the web have made. In fact, the easy availability of huge piles of pure information have made the experiments of someone like David Foster Wallace a little less interesting – I think quieter, almost monastic literature will make a comeback of sorts (think Gide), like the way analog recording techniques and synth sounds made a comeback in the face of sampling and digital sequencing. If visual and animated poetry were to take over the world, it would have done so a long time ago, which isn’t to say that more and more people are going to do this type of work in the future. The fact that more poets are professional-quaility typesetters now than ever before is a sign of this.

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