When poet/artist Erin Costello and I set out to make Poemedia, we had a simple question in mind: What is the role of the printed poem in our contemporary, media-saturated environment? The piece did indeed address this question, but it also addressed a number of other aspects of contemporary poetry and digital art/literature. I’ll touch on a few of them here.
First of all, for those of you who haven’t seen it, Poemedia is an art and poetry installation first produced in the Atlas Black Box Theater on the University of Colorado campus in Boulder. Around 300 original poems printed on 8 ½ by 11, white cardstock are hung from the ceiling, 2 to 7 feet from the ground. Four video projectors project a live “VJ” performance – a live cutting of found and created video – onto the poems as the audience/readers walk through the installation, reading as they go. Sound is also being mixed live either in conjunction with or in opposition to the video. The sound palate is dominated by advertising, talk radio, pop music, serious music, sounds of urban life and sounds of nature.
Poemedia Final Compilation
Here are a few of my observations:
The contemporary reader is entirely comfortable consciously interacting with a text. I believe this is due in large part to the prevalence of web culture in each of our lives. We are getting ever more used to calling the shots when it comes to reading. We are used to surfing text.
In Poemedia, each reader reads the poems in the order he or she wants; each reader reads as many or as few poems as he or she wants. No one who has experienced it, to my knowledge, expressed any dissatisfaction with this process. A few did mention that they felt they were following some kind of narrative, making connections between the poems that weren’t necessarily intended by us, the authors. Each piece of text was unchanging and unchangeable, yet the reading experience was unique to each reader.
Interestingly, readers seemed entirely okay with reading these paratactic pieces in this environment. No one commented on the disjunctive nature of the proximity of one poem to another. If, however, these poems were in a traditional book, I believe many readers would fixate on that disjunction. For instance, the challenge a poet like Lyn Hejinian poses to her reader – the challenge to interact with the text, to make meaning, to recognize existing linguistic structures by seeing those structures break down, etc. – become less of a challenge when the piece is obviously and clearly interactive.
One of the most interesting aspects of Poemedia is the fact that when an audience member/reader enters the space (enters the text), he or she becomes a part of it – literally. The video is not only projected onto the poems, but onto the people. The audience members/readers read the projected text and image off of each others’ bodies. Their bodies also become part of the overall visual structure of the piece. Many have stated that they became aware of the fact that they were indeed a part of the text while they were a part of the text.
In fact, literature doesn’t exist if it is not read. And there is a sense of community around any given text which helps to contextualize it. This is taken for granted on line, there is an understanding that reading a text on a website, for instance, is communal – there are probably others out there reading it too, but reading a print book is also communal. If I read Susan Howe or Harriet Mullen, I enter into a community of people who have read Susan Howe or Harriet Mullen. Poemedia made this fact literal and readily apparent.
Poemedia is digital art, but it is digital art on paper. Each hanging piece of paper is a screen. It is both tangible and transient. Sound and video interact with text that the reader has chosen to read at a given time. The sound and video is not a distraction, rather it is a part of the literary experience.
I don’t think the book is going anywhere, but the way we, as readers, experience it has already changed.
Aaron Angello is a poet and multimedia artist who is dedicated to the exploration of the space between sentences, words, letters and marks of punctuation. He edits the University of Colorado's MFA literary journal Timber and teaches creative writing.
Aaron's collaborator, Erin Costello, is a writer and interdisciplinary digital artist. Her poetry manuscript, "The Sciences Of" won the 2010 Jovanovich Imaginative Writing Prize and her work has appeared most recently in Trickhouse, Umbrella Factory, Edge, Titmouse, Palimpsest and Crash. She is the co-founder and editor of SpringGun Press and lives in Denver, Colorado where she studies and teaches creative writing at the University of Colorado.
Both are working towards their MFA in creative writing at CU-Boulder.