What is Electronic Literature?

There is an Electronic Literature Organization dedicated to literary projects that use online or digital media for some aspect of their presentation. You can browse their archives. A lot of what is done there is animation, and you will encounter a lot of Flash SWF files. I know, because I work in the industry, that no self-respecting developer this side of 2009 uses Flash. A lot of these projects also lack polish, in my opinion. In a medium where navigation is very, very important, avant garde is harder to pull off. To put it another way: there is a fine line between risque artistic strategy and bad UX. Anyway, I’m not really an animator. My focus is much more on what the syntax and logic of programming languages can and can’t bring to formalist poetry projects. I’m interested in the exciting recombinations randomization effects, and I love bumping up against the limits of programming languages when dealing with things like emotion and sensory experience.

Another interesting project, the code {poems} project by Ishac Bertran, invited real programmers to submit poetry written in programming languages. This project is where the rubber hits the road, in my mind. These writers aren’t using braces and brackets in an affected, meaningless, progressivist high-tech graphic design in a humanities conference bulletin way. These writers are trying to get these languages, which are compiled into binary and run on machines, to communicate human things. You can see a lot of the limits of programming languages by examining this project. Much of the poems become extended puns playing on programming language vocabulary. And complex decisions are submitted to reductive machine logic.

How does my work differ? I’m searching for ways to get the images, line breaks, and juxtapositions I find so meaningful in poetry-on-the-page to still be present in a poem restricted to the syntactical conventions of C-based programming languages. The first electronic poem that I published wasn’t published on the Web. It was published in the Winter/Spring 2015 print edition of Fence Magazine. That poem, “The Passionate Shepherd to Her Love,” uses JavaScript syntax as a formal poetic constraint. That is, the poem, written in ECMAScript 5, the commonly supported JavaScript standard at the time, had to compile and run in the browser when loaded to an HTML page. The text of the poem was printed to the Developer Console.

As you might have deduced, print publication doesn’t serve code poems/electronic poems all that well. I’m going to keep working on projects like this, and assemble an archive here. Releases will be announced on twitter and elsewhere. Stay tuned.