E-Poetry and (Non-)Human Nature

E-Poetry and (Non-)Human Nature: The Space and Place of Eco-Poetics in Digital Lit

Essay by Andrew Ruzkowski

…if no new poets should arise to create afresh the associations which have been thus disorganized, language will be dead to all nobler purposes of human intercourse.

                                                                                                         -Percy Bysshe Shelley

As Shelley posits in A Defence of Poetry, the poets’ task is to incessantly revitalize language, ensuring the longevity of creative discourse and artistic advancement. For Shelley, the “poetic function” is crucial to human civilization; poetry creates linguistic systems and continually reinvents them. Poetry is a tool of expressive action that necessarily functions as language architect and demolition crew. Shelley’s assertions still hold true in contemporary poetry; poets remain the stewards of language. In the digital age, however, traditional lines between author and page, reader and writer blur in a cloud of interconnected media. Contemporary digital poetry persistently dismantles, refigures, and recodes the relationship between creator and consumer, in a process of making and unmaking that extends to the space of artistic creation and the mode by which poetry is transmitted to its audience. As Loss Pequeño Glazier states in his article “Code as Language,” “Writing occurs in space and space is itself part of the process through which writing produces meaning… Meaning is made not just by what the text says but equally how space is used in the scene of writing.” In other words, the space of creation is as vital as the words themselves. No longer static text on the page, digital poetry operates in striated tiers of linguistic matrices.

Digital or electronic poetry, or e-poetry, engages the world polyvocally and inhabits fluid text-environments. It can manifest as a flash-driven video piece, a linked hyper-media poetic experience, or a fully interactive multimedia artistic exhibit. While such examples demonstrate the inherent computational complexity of e-poetry, and seemingly imply a subject matter limited to the virtual realm, the content actually encompasses the entirety of the lived world. What place, then, do contemporary eco-poetics hold in the digital empire? Here, I explore the intersection of eco-poetics with the electronic, text-image, cross-genre, and hybrid poetry of the digital age. I argue for electronic poetry as an all-encompassing medium for eco-poetics; through the creation of e-ecologies, languages, and digital worlds, e-poetry immerses the reader in the senses. In a culture inundated with new media, digital poetry encapsulates the complexities of 21stcentury eco-poetries.

Stephanie Strickland’s hybrid text collection of poems, Zone : Zero, presents a striking example of the conflation of electronic and eco-poetry. The book includes a CD-ROM containing several poems from the print edition that are transposed to digital versions, which are also available online. Writing on the threshold between poetry’s form and function, Strickland uses print and digital poetries to explore, dismantle, and redefine the duty of poetry. Zone : Zero forces readers into a new poetic geography, leading them to question the nature of poetry itself. The structure and composition of this book work toward the “connection” sought in eco-poetry and the action and constructive energy present in digital literature.

As a whole unit, the book manifests a new approach to eco- and e-poetry in both its language and its structure. The book is divided into five sections, containers, or zones. Each section is its own ecosystem and displays unique textual topographies, flora, and fauna. However, Strickland makes it apparent that each division is dependent upon the others. She creates language textures that populate each section, serve as organizing logics, and flow through each zone. Although the sections are disjointed in their individual scope, each enclosure occupies a parallel space to the book as a whole. There is a distinct lyrical voice speaking in each zone. The book itself is a complex digital and analog ecology.

Zone : Zero opens with the lines “constant quiet / intercostals / intercoastal green & silver / muscled gill flesh slipping into / opens out of / constant quiet.” Constant quiet becomes a refrain in the opening poem and serves as an invocation. Strickland conjures language, the body, earth, death, myth, and electricity. She reaches to the core of humanness. Constant quiet represents the poet’s workspace, the field of action, the space of synthesis, and the void from which creation flows. Images of “ocean storms,” “Egypt,” the “Mississippi / overflowing… the Great Wall of China,” and “steel muscled / constant quiet” set the stage for a book of poems inhabiting a space on the rise and fall of language and digital and biotic life. The entire first section, “ZONE armory War,” consists of poems that are fluid, water-like, rhythmic, and influenced by tides and circadian rhythms. The language of this section is steeped in disintegration and creation, cycles and systems, the very complications that form the generative force behind digital and eco-poetics.

Before continuing analysis of Strickland’s work—and the work of eco- and e-poetries—I would like to establish that I am approaching this crossroads as a practicing poet contemplating and experimenting with new media poetics. I also should clarify a few definitions. In her essay, “Born Digital,” Strickland establishes eleven “rules” outlining the definitive characteristics of e-poetry. She states: “E-poetry relies on code for its creation, preservation, and display: there is no way to experience a work of e-literature unless a computer is running it—reading it and perhaps also generating it.” Digital poetry is enmeshed in its environment; it is a cyclical process of composition and consumption. In reference to e-literatures, Strickland points out that “computation is required at every stage of life.” Secondly, “E-poetry does things rather than says things…it is built as much as it is written.”In other words, e-poetry is an interactive process. It functions as a tether between end user, creator, virtual environ, and machine, and readers engage with it as a new terrain, accessible through all senses. While most contemporary forms of human communication are computer mediated, e-literature moves beyond mere mediation. Rather, it embeds itself within code language. The virtual environment offers a space for creation and a field of action, weaving together language and place in a comprehensive sensorial experience.

Eco-poetics demands such active engagement from the writer and reader alike. Eco-poetics are better envisioned as a complex of questions rather than a set ideology or school of thought. As an art form and movement, eco-poetry is concerned with poiesis: the making, the creative process, the connection of human and place through language. Eco-poetry investigates the relationship between language as a product of the human body and the activities of animate and inanimate systems. It engages with the intersections of poetry, science, culture, nature, and ecological ethics, concerns itself with the making and unmaking of environments through language, and is an art form utilizing poetry as a rejuvenating, complicating, and discursive power within global and local ecological structures. Contemporary eco-poetics dismantles the fetishization and commoditization of environments through deep interrogations of human systems, thus acting on Shelley’s “poetic function.”In his manifesto The Language Habitat, James Engelhardt brilliantly asserts that: “Ecopoetry is connection. It’s a way to engage the world by and through language.”

Despite the complexity of both eco- and e-poetry, the two work on similar basic levels: both utilize language(s) to explore human and non-human systems. Both invoke the mechanisms of language and unabashedly manipulate them. More specifically, language becomes a tool and force through which the poet explores and acts upon digital and analog spaces and places. The examination, creation of, and existence within virtual and non-virtual environments vibrates at the core of e- and eco-poetry. Poiesis is at the heart of both forms. While the eco-poet seeks to understand and investigate the world through the body, language, and environment, the digital poet does rather than says, creating worlds and complicating them through text, hypermedia, text-image, and video language(s). Thus, e-lit acts as a vibrant creative mode and artistic vessel for eco-poetry. A work of digital lit affords the eco-poet unprecedented visceral engagement.

As I addressed earlier, Strickland’s Zone : Zero explores the combination of elements of e- and eco-poetry. Such textual hybridities emerge in particular from the poems “Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot” and “slippingglimpse.”The tandem reading permitted by both print and digital forms creates an experience of the space and place of poem-making; the print poems function as creative notes on the construction of the electronic poems. The digital form of “Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot” is an interactive hypertext poem open to myriad readings. Strickland offers the readers choice of experience, in much the same way as humans experientially engage the world. Subsequently, the reader is an agent in the making of the poem, a role that allows the reader to experience the poem beyond the page. The coding behind the poem becomes an environment and its language an ecology. Morphing into and out of the logical and illogical, “Ballad” is setup as a meandering tale of pursuer (Soot) and pursued (Sand). Exchanges between lovers, human and machine readers, and digital and analog systems create the tensions keeping this poem alive. “Ballad” speaks the dialogue of organic and inorganic, moving fluidly through digital, biological, chemical, and cosmological vocabularies.

“slippingglimpse” functions in a similarly motile fashion. Strickland describes the digital version as “a 10-part interactive regenerative Flash poem combining text with videos of ocean patterns seen along the Atlantic coast (chreods).” From the outset, “slippingglimpse”pulls and combines material from the digital and analog worlds in a way that allows the reader a full-ranging e-/eco-poetic experience. The reader sees images of water in concert with the language of the artistic process through a digital medium. The poem itself collaborates between its own text and images. Strickland states that “the water ‘reads’ the poem text…the poem text ‘reads’ image/capture technologies…and the image-capture video ‘reads’ the water.” Ultimately, “slippingglimpse” is a poem about and an example of cycles of making and unmaking, systematic generation and degeneration. It acts in a pattern that embodies the constant construction and deconstruction present in e-lit and in the lived environment even as it accomplishes the connection to and engagement of the world sought by eco-poetics.

My aim is not to issue a call to arms. I do not believe that every digital poet should start writing eco-poetry or that eco-poets need, exclusively, write digitally. Electronic poetry is by no means replacing print poetry, it is simply another facet of the art form. However, it is strikingly obvious that the field is shifting. Contemporary poetics is extending its virtual reach. A junction is forming. Perhaps the computational skills necessary to the craft of digital poetry seem irrelevant to poets writing ecologically. Even so, it is necessary that we explore the webbing of language connecting body to lived and virtual environment. The spaces and places we as modern Americans inhabit digitally are inextricable from our own human physicality. In the wake of this cyborgian existence, e- and eco-poetry seek to navigate an uncertain, and rapidly changing, text and physical environment. The eco-poet must consider the power of virtual poiesis to effect change, complicate, and interrogate our position in a wired world.

Andrew Ruzkowski lives and writes in Chicago. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Columbia Poetry Review, Willows Wept Review, Black Tongue Review, The Camel Saloon, Emerge Literary Journal, [PANK], Midwestern Gothic, and The Bakery, among others. He loves Sriracha sauce.