Over the summer, Andy Fitch has interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Amaranth Borsuk’s and Brad Bouse’s book Between Page and Screen (Siglio Press). Recorded August 30th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: Since it probably requires a new form of physical effort from most readers, can you first describe our experience encountering this book?
Amaranth Borsuk: Sure. When you encounter the book, you find a square-shaped object with a patterned, red-white-and-black block printed at its center. When you open the book, you don’t find printed poems but more black-and-white symbols. The only text you can read provides author names, mine and Brad Bouse’s and instructions to go to betweenpageandscreen.com, where you can “hold the words in your hands.” When you arrive at the website and click on a link, you receive instructions to present one of these black-and-white markers to your webcam. When you do, a live image appears on the computer screen. You see your hands holding the open book, and once one of those printed markers becomes visible to the webcam, a poem pops vertically off the page. This part resembles a pop-up book but with text instead of shapes or images. This text stands vertically with respect to the plane of the page. As you turn the book’s pages, the projected digital text also turns, so that it seems to hover above a page like a hologram. As you flip the book’s pages, poems explode and their letters fly in all directions. And in between epistolary poems (consisting of love letters between P and S) you find concrete poems, anagrammatic or paragrammatic poems, each of which provides a different animation for how it disappears from view.
AF: This quick description could prompt the question, why make a book at all? Digital media already provide a substantial portion of innovative poetic projects. But did you want to make us just as conscious of the printed book as a technology—as a historically conditioned mode of textual interface? Is that part of why “P” sounds just as cagey as “S”? Do we encounter one techno-text talking to another? Does this project survey previous reading models as much as it anticipates future ones?
AB: Brad and I thought through those questions while conceptualizing the project. Our decision to produce a book came from wanting to meditate on the relationship between these two technologies, at a time when both play a huge role in our lives, as we read on both kinds of platforms and develop different capacities from each experience. By offering a physical book object, we meant to make readers conscious of the printed book as a technology. Even a traditional print book that you pull off your shelf has all these built-in cues (visual, lexical) that tell us the order in which to read things; how to hold the book relative to our body; the materials from which this book has been made and therefore, the social value placed on it. Likewise, digital media, which can seem highly ephemeral, embody us as readers—through our interaction with screen texts, whether the text is read on a touch screen or computer screen, as well as our use of a mouse or track pad. All of these physiological and technological determinants embody and transform us as readers and really dictate how we interact with texts. So Between Page and Screen reminds the reader of our relationships with both kinds of reading devices, here by putting an image of the reader on-screen the whole time. You never can escape this vision of yourself interacting with two types of texts. You see your hands, the book object, reflections of yourself (with words flying before your face), all further confirming the materiality of multiple kinds of reading.
AF: That helps to explain why Page and Screen could serve as partners in a love story, rather than Oedipal rivals in some conflict where one replaces the other. But I recall seeing my own reflection interposed between them, feeling like an interloper, a voyeur on the processes of meaning getting shaped. I never had a clear, fixed sense of my own identity in relation to the text.
AB: This aspect of the book did not occur to me until I first performed from it. The first time I gave a reading and found myself vocalizing both Page and Screen, reading their respective parts aloud, holding the book before me, encountering a projected image of my face—finally I realized the awkwardness of that situation. But yes, I feel that the reader’s position should stay somewhat voyeuristic. In any epistolary work, you peek in on people’s personal letters.
AF: I liked thinking about your title’s “Between” as suggesting both some sort of policed division and some illicit correspondence between Page and Screen. But I also appreciated that between the page and the screen appeared blank space, an absence in which the reader must come forward to help construct meaning. I sensed some mirror-stage pun amid these refractive, triangulating constructions.
AB: Yeah, a mirror stage in which the moment of discovery on the reader’s part requires not only recognizing the subject in the mirror, but recognizing, in fact, that one’s movements get reversed by this mirror one confronts.
AF: That took a while to get used to. Then I wished I’d never gotten used to it because it had been fun.
AB: It does take time. I tend to forget because I’ve performed this work so often and become somewhat choreographed in my behavior in the mirror. Though whenever I’ve watched somebody else interact for the first time with this book, there’s that great moment when they want to see a poem more clearly, but instead push the image off-screen. Then they’ll learn to play the role of intermediary. They learn to navigate that “between” space. This again demonstrates that our book, or all books, construct behavior and teach us ways of reading.
AF: As I got better at handling the book (placing it at an appropriate angle, manipulating projected letters, etc.), I considered this project’s fourth dimension—its projection into time. I realized extended concentration always had been my primary role in constructing literary meaning and wondered if you had assigned me this consistent manual labor in order to prompt reflection on reading’s temporal obligations.
AB: I like that. Would we call that a synecdoche—for the type of meaning-making labor in which readers constantly engage? Because certainly, as you say, this book’s meaning takes shape in the reader. On a very literal level, in order for the text even to appear requires a reader’s physical effort. So watching the time pass, watching these textual transformations, does alert you to your situated perspective.
AF: In terms of projecting oneself onto or between the interfaces: a deliberate alternation between Amaranth’s text-emphasizing pages and Brad’s design-emphasizing pages seemed to play out. But was this pure imaginary construct on my part? Did you both engage in unsuspected ways for every component of the compositional process?
AB: Yes, we did both engage throughout, but I find it intriguing that a reader might assume I wrote the parts that look like poems, while Brad designed the pages that seem more visual. In fact, his primary role was as programmer of the piece and mine was as writer of its words. However, in any collaboration (at least collaborations I’ve worked on) those lines blur. First we sat down and brainstormed how we wanted this book to operate. In some cases, Brad challenged me to come up with better uses of 3D space for the concrete poems, and in some cases I challenged him to make possible a particular visual conceit. Poems changed based on these conversations—about, let’s say, text that moves in a circular procession, around the head of a pin or something. A drawn latticework of words, like the fractal images in Christian Bok’s Crystallography, doesn’t necessarily get enhanced by 3D space. Gorgeous flat surfaces don’t necessarily produce dynamic digital texts.
AF: Did you also develop some project-specific design elements as you went along? For example, you’ve described the disappearance of individual poems as always deliberate and distinct. Did you appreciate this component of textual meaning before you began? Or did you two discover it along the way?
AB: We discovered that along the way. We wanted to highlight ephemerality, so we’d intended to provide a moment of textual destruction between each page turn. But the decision to have the epistles animate out differently than the concrete poems (and then to have the concrete poems offer distinct, text-specific animations) arose as we saw what each screen looked like.
AF: A variety of temporalities exist as we move from page to page. Sometimes the reader sees a square, stable text. For others, words and phrases appear in spinning, prismatic, Ed Ruscha-style simplicity: “pale pawl peel pole.” Sometimes letteristic, etymological clusters bounce around in patterns reminiscent of early Steve McCaffrey visual texts, or Brian Kim Stefans’ Dreamlife of Letters. I wondered if, through these varied temporal experiences, you sought to establish something like the diversity we find in a dynamic collection of poems.
AB: That was on my mind—to show the different ways screen space can be used. A rich body of digital poetics already exists. So in addition to paying homage to concrete poets whose print-based projects had inspired me, I wanted to reference certain digital poets whose work remains quite influential. Pieces like our stock-ticker poem, which scrolls text so that it constantly enters and leaves, create the sense that there is always more text, off-screen, that you don’t see, for which you must wait. People like Young-Hae Chang and his Heavy Industries, or Brian in Dreamlife, adopt this notion of restricting the reader’s view to the screen space, manipulating the speed at which we read, manipulating our access to this text so that it can’t arrive all at once.
AF: You’ve discussed the book’s place in relation to contemporary digital poetics and to concrete poetry. Can you provide a brief context for a book-arts tradition in which this project fits? And when I think of self-conscious book-arts traditions, I’ll picture deliberately archaic practices, like Russian Futurists embracing peasant woodcuts, or William Morris patterning his aesthetic on historically resonant designs. Even the use of photographs more recently in projects by W.G. Sebald or Claudia Rankine or Juliana Spahr seems to draw on the increasingly outmoded status of that medium. So what are other precedents for your particular combination of self-conscious book-arts craftsmanship and new technological possibilities?
AB: When Brad and I first conceptualized this book, we planned for it to be hand-bound and letterpress-printed. We didn’t select hand-set type, which would be even more archaic than having photopolymer plates made. But the process did require me and my dear friend Genevieve Kaplan standing at a Vandercook proof press for several days, inking, turning, making things happen. The printing felt very physical, and we spent quite a bit of money on paper for the first edition. We wanted it to connect to a history of fine press printing, to construct this dialogue between the old and the new, the material and the ephemeral, blurring boundaries between them. So it took a while to realize that my weddedness to those physical (or historical) trappings was not necessarily integral to this project. Still I do feel that this first edition . . . I love having a limited-edition book on high-quality paper, so that the more you turn its pages, the more gray and ashy their edges become because of oils from your fingers.
AF: It’s very delicate? Like a museum piece?
AB: Right. I even considered exhibiting it with a pair of white cotton gloves, which seems pretty standard when you visit archives, or even, in some cases, when you hold artists’ books. But Brad kind of stared at me and said, well, do you want it to be this rare object, or to be more about getting people to interact and touch the pages and feel what a fine press book feels like, at the same time that they experience what a futuristic digital book looks like? Of course he was totally right.
AF: I got spooked, actually, when you mentioned white gloves. That does sound like the ghost of a text.
AB: It privileges the book object in a way that this project attempts not to, right? The project wants you to enjoy and interact with both media and wants their conversation to provide a dialogue that you enter, rather than letting one form take precedence. When people asked us to autograph those limited-edition copies, we didn’t because we worried that would turn the object itself into the valued commodity. And now that this project’s available in a trade edition, I think it remains an object, a beautifully designed book, but takes us in a more democratic direction.
AF: That democratic transformation comes across in the trade edition, especially because the book’s font and design seem to offer some hybrid Bauhaus/De Stijl/Suprematist aesthetic—even in the squares that get scanned to activate digital text. Did you design those to this purpose? Or did the software require those blocky images?
AB: The software does require that particular blocky image. However, augmented reality can work with other kinds of images, too. We specifically chose to work with FLARToolKit, which relies on those square-shaped markers. I really liked those shapes because of their Bauhaus minimalism and cleanness. I like placing a square within a square, so that the book’s shape mirrors the design’s shape, with everything centered and concentric. Also each page’s text has the same size, the same width, as those square markers, as though a virtual square held the words together. But your primary question had asked about historic precedents. I hope I don’t sound like a broken record when I say that Dieter Roth’s artist’s books have been a big influence. He worked a lot with cutouts and layering grids on top of one another to create different visual effects. His books construct a kind of temporal experience because of how things change as you turn the pages, as grids line up, as they overlap, as holes appear in different spots. For one project he bound together comic books then drilled holes through the pages. No, I think he drilled the holes before he’d bound them together, so that these holes sort of punctuate his book like Swiss cheese. It’s very cool and very strange to read a book that isn’t about the text at all but rather, about the visual shape of what text could be.
AF: With Dieter Roth, I always remember an installation of perhaps 100 televisions playing at MoMA, presenting him going about his daily business. Staggered loops simultaneously cycle through the different screens, creating an endless sense of delay. You could see this as a humanist monument to 20th century technological advance (or surveillance), though what remains for me, from that show, is the static smell of all the old plugged-in televisions—as if I’d sniffed both the birth and death of a post-industrial revolution. Now, as you discuss your book, many projects seem both archaic and futuristic at the same time. Mimeograph work from the ’60s seems both an homage to the typewriter and a precursor to the Xerox.
AB: Another issue this brings up, in the case of, say, Russian Futurists creating their own artists’ books (and certainly they take part in the tradition of a democratic distribution of the artist’s book), revolves around the particular technologies at one’s disposal. They had a letterpress, and they could create their own rubber stamps, and had access to all this discarded wallpaper, so they said let’s make books using these techniques we have. When such technologies come into poets’ hands, they’re already, typically, somewhat behind the times in terms of what’s available to the industry. Still something about technology coming into writers’ hands facilitates and motivates creating books as objects—taking control over this visual aspect of the work. You see that in mid-century poets’ and novelists’ use of the typewriter. You even see, in Apollinaire’s calligrammes, that having access to a typewriter changes how he sees the page. The conclusion to this thought was something like: now that augmented reality provides a technology available outside the realms of large institutions (where you had to wear a helmet and enter an immersive location to experience a holographic interaction with language), now that we can access such interfaces through our mobile devices or laptops, this accessibility enables writers to create work for different technological platforms, and to draw on the idioms of those platforms.
AF: Well in terms of idiom: your sonic constructions remain striking throughout, with heavy emphasis on alliteration and assonance. Lines such as “a screen is a shield, but also a veil—it’s sheer and can be shorn” seem to ask to be read aloud. So I’m curious: was silence the selected soundscape for any particular reason, or did the software you used not allow for audio?
AB: Sound definitely would have been possible. But we thought that the reader should play this role of textual performer. The language does call to be read aloud, and we hope some readers read it aloud. You’ll find all these resonances—all the abundant alliteration, assonance, which I just can’t keep myself from doing. Hearing also emphasizes a distinct voice for each of the characters. So this text definitely has an oral aspect, whether or not it gets vocalized. Even if the text is aural, it remains ready, at any moment, to become spoken language.
AF: “Charcuterie” provides the most elaborate verbal text—a source of great pleasure as I sampled from its smorgasbord of language cuts. But the Apollinaire-esque page design, of course, adds to that satisfaction. You’ve basically already answered this, but does the book say something here about the corporality of text: print, digital, audio, relational?
AB: Definitely. We all know that the word “text” comes from a root related to the body. It surprised me, however, to learn that “screen” comes from an Indo-European word that also gives you “charcuterie,” because their root means “to shine.” “Charcuterie” relates to the cutting of meat using a shiny instrument. “Text” comes from a root that means “to weave” and also, as secondary meaning, “to shape with an axe.” So “text,” by definition, describes both creation and destruction. I loved how this carnality of “text” points to creation, generation, the slicing and dicing of language.
AF: One final, potentially dumb question that arose as we talked: what’s it like to write a love story with your partner? I mean afterwards.
AB: Well, I can’t say that my relationship with my partner influenced the writing of these poems, but I can say it did make for a wonderful collaborative experience, a process that felt generative and positive and rewarding. Brad’s work inspires me. And though our relationship doesn’t necessarily get reflected in this book’s content, I guess the form marries our two fields, mine being language and his digital media. I like how the marriage of two minds gets mirrored in this book’s creation.
Amaranth Borsuk is the author of Handiwork (Slope, 2012), and, together with programmer Brad Bouse, of Between Page and Screen (Siglio, 2012), a book of augmented-reality poems. Her writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Chicago Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, The Offending Adam, and Harp and Altar, among other journals. Her collaboration with Kate Durbin, Abra, recently received an Expanded Artists’ Books grant from the Center for Book and Paper Arts in Chicago and will be issued as an artist’s book and iOS app in fall of 2013. She teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics at the University of Washington, Bothell