Mayapán : the Poetics of the Web

Documents for a Poetics of Electronic Writing

through and beyond the World-Wide Web

from the Perspective of the Electronic Poetry Center

(http://epc.buffalo.edu)

by Loss Pequeño Glazier









The language you are breathing becomes the language you think. Take for example in UNIX (and the whole World Wide Web is UNIX-based) to "grep" or "chmod"-things done daily, possibly hundreds of times a day. When you grep ("global/regular expression/print") a given target, you search across files for instances of a string of characters, a word. Chmod ("change mode") uses a numeric code to grant, in an augenblick, permission to read, write, and/or execute (run) a given file-to yourself, your community, and your world. How could it be simpler? Why don't we all think in UNIX? Thus, these ideas are a file, I am chmoding this file-giving you all read, write, and execute permission. For Heaven's sake, feel free to grep what you need from this!









Mayapán Contents










Introduction


LANGUAGE AS TRANSMISSION:

POETRY'S ELECTRONIC PRESENCE

Poetry's means of production and distribution has been a crucial consideration of writing in the Twentieth century. The rise of little magazines and the small press from hand presses of the Fifties through the mimeo, xerox, and offset production of the following decades has demonstrated not only poetry's engagement with its medium of production but its dependence upon its means of dissemination. It is important to note that, in this century, these previous engagements involve "discarded technologies." As such the production and consequent distribution of poetic texts has lagged behind publishing and distribution channels more current with production technologies. Distribution has also been effectively limited by national boundaries. (Postage costs alone can be enough to prohibit international exchange.) The Nineties have presented even greater challenges with the collapse of poetry distribution channels (Segue, Inland, and others) and the rise of bookstore chains. This problem has been increasingly compounded by the practically nonexistent means of distribution for poetry in other media including sound, performance, and the visual.

The continued importance of print poetry notwithstanding, poetry has now entered an engagement with electronic technology. The electronic medium offers unprecedented opportunities for the production, archiving, and distribution of poetic texts-all within the potentialities of present technology. Numerous computer poetry production efforts were made in the late Eighties yet poetry's victories in the electronic realm remained scattered and the texts themselves often proved elusive. (Divergent programs were required for operation and the various agencies involved were still arguing the proprietary status of their texts.) The Nineties also compounded the difficulty of access to specific electronic texts with the rise of the Internet and the Web. Though this might seem a contradiction in terms, the sudden proliferation of electronic texts of all varieties made access to specific types of writing even more challenging. What has become crucial in the vast terrain of the Web are gathering places or subject villages for texts with related concerns.

The key to the viability of electronic poetry texts lies in the notion of a "subject village," a site for the access, collection, and dissemination of poetry and related writing. It should be understood that such a subject village neither attempts to collect everything nor does it exert "control" in a traditional sense. Rather:

It collects materials according to an editorial policy. Its contribution to the Web lies in its provision of an edited collection of texts.

As a publishing medium, electronic technology offers, within the frame of unbounded chaos, new publishing opportunities. Much as with earlier technologies, the electronic medium is not only a publishing and distribution means, but as a technology, enters the material of writing. What writing is becomes altered by how it is physically written through its production technology. A parallel for such an engagement? With the material? Think, for example of film-not as an attempt to reproduce reality but as a medium involved with its own sequence of pans, camera angles, lens effects, and montage; i.e., there are certain limits and specific special effects tied to a given medium. As a writing medium, online electronic space depends on the fact that the Web is itself an instance of writing: it is presented through the medium of the home page and it is written in HTML (Hypertext Markup Language).

In Mayapán : the Poetics of the Web, we look at such writing. Picture yourself with two windows open: in one you are editing pure ASCII text using the Model T Ford of EMACS and churning through the colorful fields of Indiana. In the other window you have Netscape open, that graphical but heinously sloppy browser that seems out to get you with its delays, bull-headed error messages, and proclamations that it just found you 750,000 items that match your search exactly. In this book we will write, read, and breathe within the UNIX C-shell environment. A C-shell so efficient you swear you can hear the ocean if you put your ear to the monitor. This is a new, expansive writing space. It is a field for which permission (permission to enter the fields Robert Duncan opened) is an actual fact of the UNIX environment; the web is a representational discourse cast from natural language cradled in the matted barbs of mark-up. If a field has it prose and versus, these are its verses, nested within a frame of webbed electronic poesis. Our task is to explore the texture of the clods the plow left behind; to celebrate its nitrogen, iron, and mulch.

Mayapán attempts to take on a task different than its various peers. First, this is a book about web-based hypertextual poetries. It is not another book about "la vie en prose". Second, rather than idealize, hyperbolize, speak in the abstract, propose egolessness, waltz around idealized possibilities, deny intention, postulate, berate, or generally irritate, the goal here is to discuss electronic space as a space of writing; to employ the tropes, hypertextualities, linkages, and static of the medium, and to speak from the perspective of one up to the elbows in the ink of this writing machine. (Though in this metaphor, the ink in question would be less like that of the printing press and more like the obfuscating fluid of the squid.) Given the general lack of understanding of the web as a physical, visual, and verbal writing material (think of it as a Pollack-painted ballroom floor of dizzying links, splotches of errors, and black holes of hang time) this book presents not a theory of the hypertextual circuit board but a lab manual for writing in a laboratory where the lights are left on around the clock. Vamos a bailar.

INTRODUCTION TO THE EPC

THE ELECTRONIC POETRY CENTER (EPC) was established in June, 1994, to provide a central site for the international distribution of electronic poetry and poetics works including sound, graphics, and mixed media. Although the Internet was still unexploited at the time, numerous problems had arisen with attempts to archive various electronic poetry magazines, RIF/T and TapRoot Electronic Edition (TREE), among them. There did not exist at the time, for example, a single complete archive of TREE. Similarly, it was impossible to find RIF/T classified anywhere in a way that matched the journal's primary focus. Many other texts were going uncollected. Nor were postings to the Poetics discussion list, edited by Charles Bernstein, were not archived. (This period was before the Web had emerged as the dominant means of access. Envision this activity taking place among ASCII screens of gopher space!) The situation on the Internet at the time was extremely volatile; it was clear that relevant institutions were hesitant to take responsibility for electronic texts in general and poetry, of course, was at the bottom of the heap when it came to preservation and dissemination.

As Internet texts proliferated, it seemed that even more online poetry texts were being neglected. The solution to this increasingly difficult situation seemed simple: the creation of a site to serve as a repository for electronic texts in the innovative poetries. There would be a large amount of technical information to learn - and the maintenance and daily operations of the site would take a high level of commitment on the part of its volunteers. (This was not necessarily understood at the time!) There would be institutional issues to negotiate, financial support to garner, and computer equipment to acquire and maintain. The earliest vision of the EPC was that it would be like a community poetry center, the Poetry Project in New York or New College in San Francisco, and would have, like a physical poetry center, a small press library, author libraries, tape archives reading spaces, exhibit areas, and bulletin boards. The difference, I thought at the time, was that there would be no physical facility to contend with. That is, no rent payments (and hence no worries about income), no utilities, no physical cleaning up. A virtual poetry/community center seemed ideal. How wrong a vision can be! As it turned out, and though University assistance helps with server space and Internet connections, this site may take even more effort than a physical space: the maintenance of files, the cost of computer equipment, the development of design principles, and the need to operate within a coherent, articulatable and continually evolving vision (the "mission"), provide constant challenges. In addition, there is the task of maintaining files, correcting system errors, keeping informed about upgrades, and fighting off hackers. All of this while suffering the ignominy of being referred to as "one of the UNIX guys". Running a electronic poetry center proved as daunting as running a physical center except that unlike a physical center, this had not yet been done for poetry.

The EPC has also seen more visitors than most physical sites. At its inception, the EPC facilitated about 500 connections a month. Use of the Center subsequently skyrocketed. During February, 1995 alone, for example, there were 8,000 transactions at the Center and this number has approached 20,000 towards later months in 1995. By 1997, the EPC would regularly witness months consisting of 65,000 transactions. In collaboration with the electronic poetry journal, RIF/T (over 1,000 subscribers) and Charles Bernstein's Poetics Listserv (over 350 participants), the EPC was at the forefront in recognizing the possibilities of the now technology. Subsequently it has been recognized by Publishers Weekly, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and other publications for the amount of activity in contemporary poetry it has facilitated. Such developments inform how poetry is written, how it circulates, and how it might be taught.

The possibilities for such a center in the new millennium are immense. The Internet allows for rapid, wide and immediate dissemination of texts. The electronic medium provides a charged approach to writing itself, already witnessed by the University at Buffalo Poetics discussion list and the "publications" associated with RIF/T. The structural dynamics of the EPC, grounded in the language of HTML, address textual issues about the presentation and structure of writing, investigating menus, hypertextual links, and graphic design. A consciousness of these issues by writers and readers of poetry is consistent with the fact that publishing and writing have been interwoven since the invention of the printing press.

What about the texts themselves? This may be a key area where a bibliographer's instincts prevail. If one were going to go to the effort of selecting texts according to specific criteria and collecting them, then the pitfall of so many other Internet sites, poor versions of texts, was to be avoided at all costs! This site would operate on the principle that texts housed at the EPC are "definitive" texts inasmuch as, prior to "publication", they would be approved by their producers. (As it turns out, texts at the EPC are literally "definitive" electronic texts since through OCLC's U.S. Department of Education-funded project Cataloging Internet Resources Group and the initiative of the State University of Buffalo at New York University Libraries Central Technical Services Group, these texts have been evaluated, catalogued, and made available internationally through major bibliographic databases.) What an online writing is, also has immense ramifications. When reading a paper-based book of poems, none of us would expect to find, for example, an audio track as part of its pages. (Though poems are indeed meant to Sound [1].) Paper writing consists mainly of printed material because it operates within the bounds of its technology. The fact that the Web introduces a new writing and reading technology is often overlooked. The design of the EPC therefore accommodates not only print-based texts, but graphical files, audio files [2], and moving files. One of the contributions of the EPC has been not only to define these other media as writings but to recognize that the creation of these forms is an act of writing.









NOTES TO THE READER

In one sense (that of being a repository for electronic writings), it is clear what the EPC is - and does. However in many senses it is not clear how electronic poetries function in relation to the written world and to the cymbal-crashes of the street carnival outside known as the World-Wide Web. Since the Web is a hypertextual environment - a fact that few among those calling themselves a well-rounded webmaster (see section by this name) seem to appreciate - it was decided that the best approach to looking at the levels and ramifications of the EPC would not be the linear text.

Each section in Mayapán should be considered a "page". Such pages are specific units of writing - bigger than a paragraph but by no means equivalent to a printed page, which is a container of written words that bears no relation to its content. (A printed page contains structurally unrelated ideas the way countries contain unrelated cultures - take "Mexico" or "India" for examples of similarly imprecise groupings). Keep an eye out for phrases that are titles of other "pages", as a "well-rounded webmaster" is the preceding paragraph; these are references to the page with the indicated title. You should consider turning (or "jumping") to the relevant named page at that point. (If not, be agitated that you chose not make such a jump!) In a modest attempt to provide varied textual voicing, several metatextual devices are employed including footnotes, parenthetical remarks, and section endnotes, appearing under the heading "Comments". (Section Endnotes are referenced by square brackets in the text.) Thus, in an attempt to express multi-linear relations and conjunctions more clearly and to remain true to the spirit of the hypertextual environment, Mayapán : the Poetics of the Web is composed of a series of documents weaving in and out of a traditional "definition" of online writing. Consider it a sort of archaeological site where the layers fit together not as an ordered progression (the pages in a book) but as interleaved frames without any clear hierarchical order. Many of the artifacts have been carried off by thieves and another good percentage can be bought from shifty vendors on the dirt road leading to the site. But these may not be authentic! Do not overlook climbing the ruins for some idea of what is there. We don't know who the Toltecs were but we can still sit in their living rooms and wonder how they might have had the furniture arranged.









COMMENTS

[1] Another phrase for "rhyme-maker" is "jingle maker" or "hacedor de cascabeles". This brings forth the whole idea of "making bells". The Aztec tlatoani thus will not bless an additional section with a railroad pen. Pembroke as a penumbral occlusion. Keeping in mind that "ukelele" is Hawaiian for "jumping flea", the 1879 nickname of Edward Purvis, a popular performer in the court of King Kalakaua, whose collaborative effort with Elvis Presley won the Gold Hexameter Prize awarded during the occupation of Easter Island. (Overconsumption everywhere.) The award consisted of a garland of merry bells, i.e. the bellywort.

[2] See "Five Pieces for Sound File" for an exploration as some of these themes, the Ruben Dario home page (http://www.catalog.com/rc-540/Dario/index.htm) for a sense of mission, and the extraordinary accomplishments of LINEbreak (at the EPC) for the possibilities of building an extensive online catalog of innovative audio programming.








Prefatory Note (Terminology)

These notes are meant to provide some scope for the usage of the following terms. Provided is the URL (uniform resource locator or Internet address), a description, and a brief narrative of the most common form of access for each resource. Both RIF/T and the Poetics List are archived at the Electronic Poetry Center. Because of this, the term EPC, when used generally for electronic writing on the Net, sometimes includes their activities. When these terms are used independently, their most common form of access is emphasized. All of the following resources are produced in conjunction with the Poetics Program, Department of English, State University of New York at Buffalo.

The ELECTRONIC POETRY CENTER (EPC) is an Internet site that archives poetics and poetry materials and related information. In addition to distributing several electronic poetry journals, it provides access to numerous resources including RIF/T, the Poetics Archive, LINEbreak (radio interviews and performances by poets), an author library and sound room, as well as listings and bibliographic information about related print material.

http://epc.buffalo.edu

Access: The EPC is World-Wide Web based. The use of a graphical browser such as Netscape is recommended to fully benefit from the Center.

RIF/T: An Electronic Space for Poetry, Prose, and Poetics (ISSN 1070-0072) is an electronic journal edited by Kenneth Sherwood and Loss Pequeño Glazier. RIF/T "circulates" in a double fashion on the Web. First, an ASCII version of each issue is e-mailed to subscribers through an automated list. RIF/T is also archived at the EPC and use of RIF/T issues on an archival basis is heavy. The EPC versions of RIF/T are different, however, since they make heavy use of hypertextual links. (These provide a number of creatively-designed links through RIF/T works that are not available in ASCII.) Access: Connect through the EPC. To subscribe to RIF/T send a "subscribe e-poetry" message to rift@acsu.buffalo.edu.

The "POETICS LIST" is an electronic discussion group (listserv) moderated by Charles Bernstein. Poetics messages are also archived at the EPC. Use of the Poetics archive is notable. The online archives are housed through the Poetics home page. This page contains other information relevant to Poetics at Buffalo as well as related Poetics materials, including directory, biographical, and obituary information about poets, as well as valuable pedagogical resources including course syllabi. Access: To join the Poetics list send a "subscribe poetics" e-mail message to listserv@ubvm.cc.buffalo.edu. The online Poetics archive (and related poetics materials) is available at http://epc.buffalo.edu/poetics.

LINEbreak is a series of digitally-produced audio interview of poets and writers. LINEbreak is hosted by Charles Bernstein and produced by Martin Spinelli.