Natalia Fedorova - (NF): Nick, as a President of the Electronic Literature Organization, you seem to be the right person to ask the question: “electronic literature: what is it”?
Nick Montfort - (NM): Electronic literature is work made for the network computer that explores literary art in context of computing. It does not mean an existing book that is scanned in and made available, but work that is created to be read and received online, on the computer. Electronic literature is a term that does not adhere to a specific literary movement: there are people doing mainstream as well as avant-garde types of writing within electronic literature. It may use more or less multimedia, and it may use more or less computing power, it may use the network to some extent or to no extent at all – it may be a work for a stand alone computer. It can take the form of hypertext interactive fiction, kinetic and visual poetry, a chatterbot – many different sorts of forms. Electronic literature makes an argument for the presence of literary experience among all the other cinematic, and social networking, and communicative, and scientific, and industrial, and business sorts of experiences that are available on the computer.
NF: Where can one interested in electronic literature find it?
NM: You can go to a resource like The Electronic Literature Collection (ELC) volume 1 or volume 2 as a starting point. You can find people whose work you particularly appreciate in those collections and you can usually get free online access to more of that work. You can look for people working in certain traditions or anti-traditions and trying to do new types of literary projects online. Of course, a lot of this work is shown in conferences and festivals – there are institutions – where people gather to learn about it. It is not as easy to find out about it as new poetry or fiction because many of the institutions – bookstores, libraries, publishers – that function to distribute, to make people aware of literature that is published on paper, do not exist at all in the same way for electronic literature. That is one of the reasons why the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO) is working on this – and there are other groups like the Electronic Poetry Center at Buffalo, the E-Poetry festivals, and various groups such as ELMCIP in Europe that are working to bring people together and show what is available to those who are interested in reading that type of work.
NF: For this publication you chose three pieces: “Concrete Perl,” “The Two” and “Through the Park.” What is the general principle that unites all?
NM: This is from a thread of work which I am very interested in – very simple computational processes, writing very short programs that contain all of the data that is used in producing poems. And these are in contrast to systems like Gnoetry that use complex statistical methods and work on immense data sets, that work on – say, entire novels from Project Gutenberg – and produces output based on that or system, like Electronic Text Composition, Erica T. Carter, by Jim Carpenter – these are some of the largest scale systems. And there are systems that computer science researchers and computer scientists are working on to generate poetry that are very elaborate. I think that these systems can demonstrate certain things, but it is often hard to know, even from more scientific perspective, which of the fifty or sixty things that it is doing caused it to succeed, or if it does not work which of the fifty or sixty things that it is doing caused it to fail. It is very hard to know.
So, in these cases I have tried to limit in different ways the amount of code that I write, to use very very simple procedures which I could explain in a very offhand way and people would still understand how the system is functioning – and yet to produce interesting literary effect to show something that the reader can enjoy and the opportunity to engage with language in a new way. So these are pieces that work on the level of the letter and more of a word and phrase level and the sentence level.
NF: You mentioned computation and the ways you use computation to produce linguistic effects – that is one influential source of your writing. Obviously regarding the forms that you experiment with, the OULIPO’s influence is essential as well. What other traditions are important for you?
NM: Well, formalist traditions of various sorts from George Herbert to George Starbuck. And awareness of the traditional forms what they can do, and the willingness to invent new forms.
In “The Two” there is a three line stanza where each line develops a simple story, an almost minimal narrative, in different way. I have done another piece “Taroko Gorge” which is an infinite or boundless poem that is in a particular form where lines are generated in certain way. Taroko Gorge is a national park in Taiwan and the site where I wrote this particular poetry generator and it is the subject matter of the poem, the setting of the poem. So investigation of form and the way the poem is shaped are important.
Certainly the OULIPO is very significant as an influence, an inspiration, and a connection with what can be done with mathematics and writing. And I am also interested in various questions of narrative some arising from narrative theory and others arising from what authors can do to vary a particular telling of the story. So all of these are important: narratology, narrative theory, poetics of various sorts including the OULIPO and including work with formal poetry.
NF: What narratological principles are implemented in the way, a variation of the old “Red Riding Hood” story, “Through the Park,” is told ?
I would not point to any particular principles in narratology as really animating that piece, but one of the things that studying narrative does, is it heightens one’s awareness that, for instance, the representation of events is the core of narrative. That people are doing things, taking action or having actions happen to them is what distinguishes a narrative from just a description of the space, for instance. And so there are elements that are descriptive and there are elements of sentences in the particular system that represent action. But in “The Two” it is even clear that there is a single action that is at the center of the what would be possibly the simplest sort of story. We could have a story with one character instead of two, but we have two characters. One of them performs the action with the other as the object and then there is something to wrap up and conclude.
And so looking to what are some of the very simple narrative techniques that can be used and what are the simple and shortest stories that can be told – these are the things that I am trying to put together with the very simple use of computation. Specifically, in “Through the Park” the technique that the system uses is simply omitting sentences, not telling some of the story which is known about in the underlined list that has all of these sentences in the particular sequence. By experiment there what I am trying to understand is how I can do something extremely simple to vary the telling of the story. What is the simplest significant action I could take? There are various sorts of complex actions. For instance, I could have a narrator who has different types of emotional attachment to different characters and therefore narrates differently. But then I would have to have a model of emotion and a model of what emotional attachment means for narration, an idea of how I tell something when I like one character better, and it’s very elaborate, it’s very complex. And in this case, just the ability to omit certain things and not tell them – that already changes the telling of the story in a very significant and interesting way.
NF: We have discussed the simplicity on a narratological level and other minimalist traditions like concrete poetry, that can be traced in the “Concrete Perl” series of poems. So could you, please, elaborate on the meanings that are produced on the letter level in the Concrete Perl?
NM: Well, elaborating on simplicity is always difficult to do in a useful way.
I don’t think that “Concrete Perl” produces meaning in any direct way. It produces pleasing visual patterns that involve letters, that involve the alphabet and give us a different perspective on language. It does not look like ASCII art production, it does not look like prose, it does not look like the standard concept of a poem, but it is doing what a very small amount of code can do to animate letters. So what these programs do is four different things: one of them is enumerating all the possible words of different length with every combination of letters; one of them is showing a slowly expanding alphabet with more and more space between the letters which goes in and out of phase of the width of the terminal and produces different sorts of visual effects that seem to be rotation; one of these is simply presenting all the printable characters in ASCII; and one of them is showing a randomized and perhaps faintly geographical type of pattern of different letters. I think the main thing they aim to do is not to communicate or to project a message, even though the last of these might represent terrain. The main idea is to produce visual pleasure involving letters and other characters.
NF: Being both a poet and a computer programmer is not a very common combination outside MIT. So how did you come to understanding of studying both the computation and the literary art and what benefits does this combination of the backgrounds give you?
NM: It wasn’t any sort of afterthought or sudden realization. I started to get interested in programming and computing and around the same time I that became a serious reader and began to consume novels – at that point, often science fiction novels – and to read eagerly, and to get interested in writing. So it seemed perfectly appropriate to be interested in both computing and literary art. This was particularly the case because I had early experience of interactive fiction where you are presented with a computer game that gives you a text to read, you type the text back in response to it, you explore a simulated world, there are literary sorts of experiences and investigations that you are undertaking. Some of what is going on relates to writing and language, whereas other aspects of playing of this game are sort of general to computer gaming, and virtual environments, and things like that.
So, my interests in both of these were not a realization from my studies, but a sort of basic assumption that I had, that I wanted to use computing to further the literary arts. As it happened, there was not a place that I could go as an undergraduate or for graduate study to learn about computing and the literary arts in a special program together, but I was able to go and study computing and liberal arts as an undergraduate, then go on to study media arts and sciences, and then do a poetry masters, and then do a computer science Ph.D. while doing work that was related to language and to a poetic and aesthetic questions also.
NF: The evolution that you seem to have undertaken starts from various sorts of constraint poetry, then hypertext, then you seem to be more interested in literary text generators, so what is the next step to take?
NM: My work includes interactive fiction, the three pieces Winchester’s Nightmare, Ad Verbum and then Book and Volume. I also created the interactive fiction system Curveship. So some of what I will be working on is continuing work on the Curveship project, doing creative work in that system myself and facilitating other people who are doing development of literary projects in Curveship. This is a system that is quite different from the very simple small scale programs I have talked about. It’s a large Python framework, a multi-year project that is able to do some interesting things in terms of its narrative capability.
There is a lot of virtue to sketching and creating smaller systems as well. So I plan to certainly continue that, and to work on collaborative projects and individual projects that model interesting literary processes. I’m hoping to continue working on different scales not only the large-scale Curveship system, but also some medium-scale, small-scale and even very small projects.
NF: Whatever you produce in terms of constrained poetry, hyper fiction, computational poetry or interactive fiction in all the work that you do there is a uniting ludic principle. You either play with language restrictions, or the with the variations of narrative, you seem to be still tricking the reader in a challenging way. Why is this play principle so omnipresent in your work?
NM: I don’t see that “Taroko Gorge” has that element, or “Through the Park,” particularly. These are non-interactive pieces. They play, but they play in the same way that YouTube video does, not in the way one plays a game. I do think that a lot of the interactions with language that I am interested in are trying to engage with language in ways that are computational or poetic. Those are ways that are difficult to classify. They are not scientific sorts of studies; they are different from the computational linguistics approach. This is not harvesting information for business purposes as Facebook and Google like to do. And so when we do not know how to classify some of these things, which are aesthetic and poetic activities, activities of making, I think people often fall back on terms like “game” or “play” to characterize what is going on.
I see that the best and most interesting direction for interactive fiction is not so much to allow people to play around or to present a mere framework, but to present a profound riddle that someone can figure out through the exploration of the world – that uncovering of the underlying nature of the world – and coming to realization in this way, quite a literary effect, is not something particularly associated with playing Monopoly. It’s a different, provocative direction. Although I certainly think that there is a lot of value and a lot of interest in games, in computer games generally and particularly things that artgame makers have been working on, but I do not think that “game” is the right term for even some of my more playful work. I also don’t think that electronic literature is always best understood as ludic, as playful, as game-like. It is something that is essentially turning computation onto language. It’s structuring text, adding media, making language accessible over the network, tying it to locations, and computing upon words in ways that we can’t easily name..
- interview: Natalia Fedorova
digitaletters / nick monfort