This interview by H.L. Hix is one of a series, many of which will be collected in Alter Nation: America in Recent Poetry, Recent Poetry in America, from Ugly Duckling Presse (fall 2012). Hix loves the interview form as a way of thinking together (itself a condition of democracy, justice, philosophy, and other ideals and practices he values), and as one element in a community poetics. The subject of this interview is Stephanie Strickland’s Zone : Zero (Ahsahta Press, 2008).
H.L. Hix: I get a lot of signals about the book’s interest in digital media before it begins, in the jacket copy, in the fact of its having an accompanying CD, etc. If I were to start with the creaky false distinction between what is “inside” and “outside” the text, I would note the double entendre of “beam” on p. 5 — beam of steel or wood, beam of light — as the point at which I begin to understand from “within” the text that these poems will worry over our placement historically/culturally in the industrial age or the information age. From your position as the writer “outside” the text, how do you experience the process of inviting slower readers such as myself, who came to poetry strictly through books, into the contemporary aesthetic/political issues raised for and about poetry by digital media?
Stephanie Strickland: I came to poetry orally, through nursery rhymes, lullabies, jump rope, and hopscotch; but I grew up with books in the industrial age, my father an engineer and my grandmothers both great, idiosyncratic readers. Even then, however, in the fifties of the last century, there were oscilloscopes in my basement.
I was introduced to digital literature (then, e-fiction) in the mid-nineties, attending the first NEH summer seminar on digital lit, taught by N. Katherine Hayles, to which I applied as an “independent scholar,” poet, and representative from a public arts center.
Almost everyone I know today has more digital equipment than I do (since I don’t own even a cell phone), and most also have a firmer (more aggressive, or more ideological) idea about what poetry is. Though the most salient characteristic of urban life in the wealthier parts of the globe is the complex inter-penetration of virtual and gravitational, and though many can’t remember a pre-digital world, they’re still not sure what e-poetry is—an art in its infancy swiftly evolving.
I find the best way to invite people toward e-poetry is to show it to them, read it to them, and talk with them about it. Often one needs to learn how to “work” or “play” e-poetry, as it is an application, a poetic “instrument” which creates a poetry of movement and behavior. To invite writers, specifically, toward e-poetry, I teach workshops which greatly extend the kinds of poems they write and appreciate. We read e-poetry but don’t directly write it unless, as often happens, the students’ own written experiments lead them on. I do refer to examples, like Emily Dickinson’s folded envelope poems made with pins, the 3-d appreciation of which requires a digitally implemented presentation.
Processes of play, discovery, and reflection generally bring people to digital literature unless they have a fixed commitment to the fixity of print. The fixity of print, however, is a 500-year-old anomaly in the many-thousand-year-old history of world poetry, evolving and adaptive in both oral and written forms.
HH: Maybe this is a similar question. If I read, say, Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Sadie and Maud,” I feel as though I know the backstory, as though it falls readily into narrative conventions (competing sisters, good child/bad child, etc.) that familiarize the characters. Re “Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot,” I wonder if you see it primarily as employing narrative conventions and familiarizing the characters, or as contesting narrative conventions and defamiliarizing the characters. (I know that, like inside/outside the text, this is a false dilemma, but I invite your altering the terms of the question to help give it sense!)
SS: “The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot” appears twice in Zone : Zero, once as the printed poem and once on the CD. You have asked about Sand and Soot as characters. The answers might be different for the different implementations of the poem.
As a print poem, “The Ballad” won the Boston Review prize, chosen by Heather McHugh. In her judge’s statement she said:
A very odd love song, constructed around the figures of Sand and Soot, manages in ten inventive yet coherent pages to spin some astonishing variations on its theme. Sand and Soot are considered as elements, as temperaments, as linguistic fields, as harmonic fields, as shimmers and shades. One would think the possibilities exhaustible in a few pages, but this poet keeps deepening the premises of an inspired polarity. Everywhere the ranges of reference are generous—-through binary numbers, physics, history, economics, medicine, magic, music. At times the poem seems to be made of brushstrokes, at times of whole notes—-or maybe hemi-demi-semiquavers. When “Tell’s weapon” appears just two words away from the word “inscription,” we are sufficiently wised-up not to miss the meta-poetics of this love tale.
Not least important are the licks of wicked humor at work in this peculiar courtship of Sandwoman and Sootman. And when, her in dotted-Swiss shift, “Sand could be retro,” the reader is ready to supply the senses of the “spect”: for these are pointillistic figures—-figures of perception and imagination, figures of time and its escapees; one transparent, one opaque; one originating, one completing. It would be all too tempting to make a simple binary opposition out of them, but the poet is far too canny for such reductions. One of the poem’s great virtues is its capacity to send off from its original premises more and more shooting stars of wild association, while never belaboring the host of fundamental—yet sometimes just delicately implicit—relations: relations that arise in the mind, over the course of a sympathetic reading, as spectres of near and distant fires, glasses (mirrors, microscopes, telescopes), sandmen, time-keepers, dreamers, and dreaders. All the while the masquerade manages to keep two living lovers at heart: in a world of Metro cards and movies, aircraft carriers and chemical peels, they’re nothing if they’re not contemporary, too.
Time and timelessness are equally the premises of poetry, and virus has an etymological kinship with life itself. The thinker makes much of numbers, and the lyricist of love, but the mind is also a dreamer and the heart a ticker: dot dot dot, dash dash dash, dot dot dot. The point of this poem is many points, moved by fondness, funniness, fatality: a wheel of words, a wind that darts us, whirl of real stardust.
One could not more fluently, nor flatteringly, characterize the print. An aspect that might particularly relate to the digital is that from the beginning I had in mind that all flesh (human, animal or plant) and most paper and ink are made from carbon—or soot. Harry Soot is their avatar. And Sand is the silica used to make the microchips that computers are based on physically. I saw them as two kinds of life, and “The Ballad” as the song of their love/hate/ambivalence as they reached toward each other, organic life and computational life.
In addition, the images and image statements that can be reached through the Coda section of the digital poem expand our sense of the many components that feed digital life.
HH: The “small dusts” and “shadow of a human” in “Absinthe 5” (61) call to mind for me the last line of a Sor Juana poem, “es cadáver, es polvo, es sombra, es nada” (it is a corpse, it is dust, it is a shadow, it is nothing). I then begin to see those elements throughout the book (e.g. “cadáver” on p. 91, “polvo” in both Sand and Harry Soot, “sombra” at 82, “nada” on 12). I assume that this is a coincidental association, rather than an intentional series of allusions, but it raises for me the question of how the book’s (o god, here comes another false opposition) synchronic concerns, e.g. with contemporary science and technology, alter its diachronic character, i.e., its use of and stance toward “tradition” in the way T. S. Eliot, for example, used that term.
SS: I think, for me, diachronic is synchronic—by which I mean that in some frames, and at some scales, chronology is a superstition. One outcome of trying to think general relativity–quantum theory as a ‘true’ account of the world is to have a sense that parallel worlds are simultaneously accessible. The concerns of the different sections of the book, the different Zones within it and on the CD, do return—under different filters one might say. So, indeed, the shadow, dust, sand elements of life in the desert, the rich spiritual desert of tradition and the desert of the Absinthe poems, echo the concerns of digital artists who speak in slippingglimpse (where they speak next to Hildegarde of Bingen and to a folk account, The Passion of the Flax), and they also chime with the concerns of those avatars, Sand and Soot.
What we see as virtual or relatively immaterial was certainly spoken of in the past by those referring to shadows and reflections, dreams and ghosts, airy nothing, and of course these were never “nothing,” most especially when being exorcised as such. I think especially of Spain (Machado, Cervantes) and the Indian subcontinent as being sophisticated sources of such poems and stories. Thinking about dreams and shadows and avatars has come to be mediated by technologic concerns, but these in turn are connected to a long history of writings on shape-change, mind-alteration, and parallel worlds.
Stephanie Strickland has published 6 books of print poetry, most recently Zone : Zero (book + CD), and 7 electronic poems, most recently Sea and Spar Between, a poetry generator written with Nick Montfort. Award-winning books include V: WaveSon.nets / Losing L’una, True North, and The Red Virgin: A Poem of Simone Weil. A member of the Board of Directors of the Electronic Literature Organization, she co-edited the first volume of the Electronic Literature Collection/1 (2006). Two of her collaborative digital pieces, V: Vniverse and slippingglimpse, appear online in the Electronic Literature Collection/2 (2011). Her next volume of print poetry, Dragons Green & Blue, is forthcoming from Ahsahta Press.