Posts Tagged ‘poetics’

Echolocations of the Self

Though humble in format, Christine Hume’s recently published chapbook Hum offers readers a deeply polyphonous enquiry into hums and humming that begins inside her own voice, body and childhood (including the breaking/wiring of her “jutting” jaw), and then roams through philosophical and poetic territories that include everything from high school bleachers (hummer central) to Zug Island, and then on the Erinyes and Winnie-the-Pooh.

Contrary to certain fashionable academic philosophies that carry a false ring for anyone who actually works with voices creatively, Hume understands how the voice begins in the ear. Finding one’s own frequency amidst the din of the mother radio and other similarly dense signals requires a secretive gathering of one’s own strange and severe harmonies, a process that may become riddled with noise and interference, all of which then becomes embodied, in both life and text, through the endless echolocation of the self.

Below, a sequence of excerpts from this beautiful and brave little book, in the counter-vibrational zones of adolescent resistance against family suppression, dislocation and trauma (images added):



Of Hums and Howls

The poet-philosopher Christine Hume is among the most radiophonic writers I know, though all her castaways have appeared on the page. She first struck my ear (and rattled every bone in my body) with her Shot, a fearless exploration of the night and all its related dark places, inside and out. Since then, I have also read, and read aloud, her explorations of wolf howls; decipherings of the winds that caress us and then spook us (Ventifacts); and then her most recent chapbook, the extraordinary Hum, that I will celebrate for Netarterians in a different post. For now, here is the transcript of an email dialogue that unfolded over the past two months:


GREGORY WHITEHEAD      It is not enough to say that you write for the ear — it is more that you write for the air. So many of the lines in Shot crackle and pop like short wave transmissions, creating an experience of reading that is more psycho- kinetic than acoustic, let alone literary: rocking me, riddling me. I’m reminded of the lines from Jack Spicer, the poet as a counterpunching radio, and the spirit of radio jabs through everywhere in these texts, as subject, yes, but even more in the sparking electrical aesthetic of the flow, in the pops and gaps between the pages. Where does your affinity for radio begin, and where (or how?) has it taken you?

CHRISTINE HUME       I love the sexiness of the radio, the desire it mines via distance, the intimacy of audition, especially in the dark or when alone. But I am a listener. Even when I’m writing (or reading), I am mostly listening to the words as if spoken. My sounds don’t channel the beyond or anything but a body.

Some part of my voice went underground very early and a fractured perversion of it sometimes steals through, holds within it the unsayable and uncontrollable. I don’t want to recapitulate ancient history—a woman physically possessed and spoken through by the divine or demonic other, in oracular and ecstatic speech— but to speak, actually aloud, was often forbidden when I was a child. While others were having polite conversation, I was digging a ditch for speech. My voice doesn’t come when you call or go where I send it. It’s haphazard, serrated, bunched, unruly. It is physically interior, like a mobile, leaky, contorted organ. I am thus a bad ventriloquist. I cannot impersonate myself—or a self—well. That’s probably why I sound like technology!

I’m writing a long essay on my voice as a kind of ticky blurt, a vital ornament (organment?), an excessive psychokinesis fused to literacy and physical trauma. At some point while I was writing Shot, I lost hearing in one of my ears. I couldn’t locate sounds; I was lost in their terrifying nowhereness. As Beckett says, “A voice come to one in the dark.” And it’s not always clear it it’s coming from inside or outside.

Some of Shot’s intensity of sonic play and echo might be a performance like trying to figure out what I was hearing, a guessing at and extending of sense. Various mishearings and mondegreens make a composite understanding. Coming back around to your question, I associate radio with night, which is where Shot takes place, and I wanted to be disembodied voice for a hynagogic state. I wanted to be a hynagogic jerk!


“Writing for the air” is mind-bogglingly rich. The abyss is full of air, and air is not nothing. Irigaray brings this to light: air’s ubiquity and all-pervasiveness makes us forget about it. And air carries so much that we can’t consciously detect—poison, electrical hums, radio signals. I’m curious about your writing—do you conceptualize it in relation to air? How do you hear the differences between text and script as you write, or do you?

GW     Writing radio has always been an act of listening to the wind, writing with my ears, though this process is never anything but a guess or an intuition, since there is nothing to be pinned down. The word ventriloquism descends from ventus, which may sound like wind yet means something closer to the belly. The swirls and rips between belly and electromagnetic winds create our human consciousness at the same time they open up into that terrifying gape, and when we enter into that space, as you do so fearlessly in Shot, the experience can be harrowing, even life-threatening; no wonder you lost hearing in one ear.

I, too, associate radio with night in so many vibratory ways, including the mining of desire that you mention, mining alterity and the self into a strange psychic union, out of the dark. There is that lovely quote from Bachelard, “if our psychic radio engineers are poets concerned for the welfare of humankind, tenderness of heart, the joy of loving, and love’s voluptuous trust, then they will lay on splendid nights for their listeners.” Yet such nights are never without risk, on either side of the temporary psychosis of radiophonic pleasure.

So writing-radio nights, yes, and also language pressed underground; my radio life began as an adolescent exploring the town’s sewage/storm tunnels in the hours after midnight, an experience that provided an early sniff of being in the flow of a metaphor. My neighborhood friends and I would sing “spells” down there in the muck, incantations that echoed through the tunnels. We imagined they would bubble up to surprise the town folk during their most private moments, and this remains among my aspirations for radio art.

CH     I celebrate the “improved etymology” of vent as air/belly, connecting ventifacts and ventriloquy. Jean-Pierre Brisset believed that homophony between different words indicated that they were holding hands underneath the table. To G.M. Hopkins, words that rhyme seek to find one another and live together on the page and in the air. A riff can ring so right.

That’s an incredibly mythic story, in the tunnels, and also a terrifically bawdy one — an underground wind percolating up from the bowels of the city to haunt and hector. Did you pass a waterfall of nightmares and condemned wanderers down there? I’m reminded of the dozens of dwarfs coming up from trapdoors in the floor to entertain the guests. They apparently or apocryphally lived in 21 subterranean chambers of Duke Ferdinando Gonzaga’s palace in Mantua, Italy.

Or in my own neck of the woods, Mike Kelley’s Mobile Homestead at the MOCAD is a faithful replica of his childhood home in Westland, Michigan, except for a basement of bunker-like rooms that can only be reached by a series of metal ladders and uncomfortable tunnels. This is private, destabilizing space—it does not meet any kind of safety code and it does not feel like human space—that Kelley intended for “rites and rituals of an aesthetic nature.” As it was being built, a construction worker reportedly got lost, and with no cell phone connection, spent unnerving hours looking for a way out. Underground structures draw us into a space-time cyclone, a perfect condition for spells, memory, and simulated memory. Remember the stories from the McMartin Preschool, where some believed childcare workers engaged in strange, often violent rituals involving witches and all manner of flying as well as sexual abuse in tunnels below the school? That was in the 1980s, it took a hold of Kelly’s imagination.


GW     Can you say more about your own language, as it went underground? I remember when I first encountered your poems, I had such a strong visceral sense of physical wildness, the far north, wolf howls in the wind; territory that captivates, thrills and sometimes devours.

CH     As a child I listened out for a voice that I could inhabit. The hallucination of sound/voice emitting from text allowed many voices inside, some of them bubble up and then form a kind of feedback loop. As Steven Connor says, the “voice makes itself solid by its self-relation.” I feel that relation most intensely when I’m writing (rather than, say, public speaking), and once I tune in, that voice fully seduces me. How do you—as a psychic radio engineer—get through the static? In the midst of a drunk circumpolar whirl, I am verging on hibernation. I’m writing myself into an untidy hole here.

And speaking of the underground, that’s the place archeologists look for resonant objects. When I was 12, I developed a hum, barely audible and non-volitional but persistent. Maybe I was secreting a fantasy body, or trying to rewire my voice, blocking out my family, or simply haunted. It was an underground sound in any case: a volley from the vibratory nether-reaches with the side-effect of alienating any human nearby. No one heard it as embodied intelligence or as extra-semantic expression, as I prefer to think of it now. Before this hum developed, I was raised in the manner of don’t-speak-unless- spoken-to. I was accustomed to hearing myself talk silently. Internally language pinballed and simmered, but to answer your question, my body mostly contained my language.

Tell me about the narrative construction of Potato-God-Scarecrow; I’m interested in how you contained it via animal architecture.

GW     The beaver lodge, as a space of flow, and also as a space of impedance, and sanctuary. I have spent many pleasurable hours observing activity around lodges, hoping if I hung around long enough, mama beaver might wave me inside. And then there is the beaver herself, figure of dispersed intelligence, reminding us that we must think with our tails as well as our brains; and this conception of neurobiology appears to have guts, according to the Damasios and others. In any event, this sort of ambiguous narrative in a flow with widely dispersed impulses and signs, strange hybrid thought- feelings or feeling-thoughts, all moving ahead with an “engineering” whose purpose may remain unfathomable — that’s the only sort of narrative structure that makes sense to me anymore.

CH     Yes, entering into Potato-God-Scarecrow stimulates a fully embodied intelligence, if we think of intelligence as it should be thought of in the widest possible sense, to include more somatic processes of knowing and responding, often engined by, as you put it, unfathomable purpose. The work slips in subliminally, with direct access to the unconscious, and awakens our syntactic/sinew understanding.

Your sonic translation of the beaver lodge is both watery and woven. The architectural hollow of the lodge is what keeps us interested; like you, we yearn to be invited inside of the (narrative) structure. This entrance is damned, unavailable to us, but the space must be maintained imaginatively or our desire ends. We weave connections around a mysterious and deliberate vacancy. Each voice launches an impression; each voice modifies, misapprehends, and remotivates a connection, where connection is a verb. The associative power you call out in your listeners can be startling— I’ve often taught this piece to students who have never encountered this specialized (but not localized) kind of intelligence. I can’t help think of Dead Letters, of which, if I may quote what I have written elsewhere, suggests that how we know things is less rational and more instinctual, in the mode of the auditory unconscious, despite our best efforts. Potato-God-Scarecrow though pushes beyond centralizing metaphors and lets synapses rhizomatically roam freely.


This narrative structure mirrors the medium, the void between transmission and audition of radio itself. Here Emily Dickinson pipes up:

To fill a Gap
Insert the Thing that caused it—
Block it up
With Other—and ’twill yawn the more— You cannot solder an Abyss
With Air.

At least one of the formats for dissemination of Potato-God-Scarecrow is cassette tape. Archaic and technically inefficient, the cassette tape seems ripe with nostalgic reenactment. The OED removed “cassette tape” from its concise version in 2011. Is the difficulty of the format part—can’t go viral on the internet—of its appeal for you?

GW     Oh yes, the same reason I love vinyl, commercially obsolete and thus more fully available for art, though nowadays both vinyl and cassettes are back in favor, so the OED may have to reconsider its deletion. And yes, for my ears, the sorts of linear, seamless ABC structures you hear in abundance on NPR do not ring true to the dispersed and ambiguous spirit of the medium – way too much solder. I can well imagine Emily D. as a late night freestyle radiophonista, playing the gaps to perfection – she would fully understand the sexiness of radio, and everything else.

Extraordinary, your childhood hum – embodied intelligence of the most subversive sort, vibrational resistance, along the frequency range of what you mentioned earlier, “psychokinesis fused to literacy and physical trauma,” the hum that allowed you to survive the Hume? It would seem your sort of hum may share a border with animal howls, as you have such a finely tuned ear for howling; recently you wrote about the “Beau Geste Effect”, where the one simulates the many, a “perceptual magic” also present in your writing. Throughout so much of your writing I sense winds of vigilance, hunger, survival. When you write about wolf howls, it seems so beautifully personal, as if you know that vibrational space very well. The hum creates one sort of fantasy body, and the howl a second, and those two do love to tango, no?

CH      I hadn’t thought of it until later, but yes, howl and hum taxonomize together, akin also to my daughter’s colicky hours upon hours of inconsolable crying, which morphed into years of song, scat, and whistling. These sounds are as originless as Aristotle’s she-goats of Cephallania, who “do not drink, as it appears, like other quadrupeds; but daily turning their faces towards the sea, open their mouths, and take in the breezes.” When you drink the wind’s whipped up urgencies, your lungs are empty. You can’t breathe, you can hardly talk. To make a sentence all you get is the air in your lungs, which isn’t there. A sentence could be “Stop.” Or it could be “Breathe.” There is no air. You rummage through the jumble in your head. Let others toss out whatever comes to mind, let them throw out the garbage, throw caution to the wind. When a she-goat of Cephallania howls, it comes from nothing, and it means everything.

These are vibrational spaces of no-origin or clear purpose. They are rhythmic reservoirs that open up meaning way beyond the puny capacities of semantics. They exist outside our economic and exchange systems, and they open up utopian liberatory dimensions. They shock us into an amplified, expanded sense that ricochets around the anarchic and the sublime. A plurality blows through, and the edges rattle.


First Remainder Series by Joseph F. Keppler

Apologies for the long absence. In the interim, I got married to the lovely Natalie Funk. And bought a condo in Metrotown in Vancouver. And have been teaching mobile app development. And will soon be teaching mobile web development and motion graphics at the Emily Carr U of Art and Design. It’s been a time of a lot of change and, additionally, a lot of retooling. I’ve been learning mobile development this and mobile development that. Lots of new tricks for this old dog.

I put a couple of things together last week that I’d like to show you. I published seven visual poems by Joe Keppler back in 2008. I always liked them and thought them special, but since I published them, I’ve given them deeper thought–and wrote something that gets at what, to me, is so remarkable about these poems.

I also recoded Joe’s visual poems into HTML that displays well on mobile devices. I’ve been reading about “responsive web design” recently in preparation for teaching a course on mobile web development. Basically, “responsive web design” is about making web pages that work well on really a very wide range of display devices from big TVs down to smartphones. Joe’s poems were excellent practice in responsive design because they are varying degrees of simple but take up the whole page. Recoding these pages into contemporary HTML has helped me a great deal with my understanding of contemporary web design.

Color music

Thomas Wilfred and his art of light

Just a brief note to say something about color music. Cuz I’ve spoken of Aleph Null, a project of mine, as one of color music.

My friend Jeremy Turner in Vancouver recently pointed out the work of Thomas Wilfred (1889-1968) to me. It wasn’t a surprise to me that somebody was doing color music back in 1917–because that sort of thing was going on, what with Theosophy and the work of people such as Kandinsky. “Synesthesia was [a] topic of intensive scientific investigation in the late 19th century and early 20th century” (Wikipedia). The idea of ‘color music’ is not a new one, certainly.

But I bring up Thomas Wilfred’s work because his understanding of ‘color music’ is especially interesting. His work was visual. It wasn’t organically linked to audio. So why did he call it color music, then, if it didn’t involve music or sound? Well, because the machines he created were like musical instruments. One played them like one played musical instruments. Musical instruments, when played, create patterned sound and we enjoy the patterned sounds of music. Wilfred’s machines, when played, produced patterned, colored light shows that were meant to be enjoyed in the same sort of way that music is enjoyed. Music is quite abstract, when there are no lyrics. It is just sound without any obvious ‘meaning’. Wilfred’s machines produced patterned light waves and color without any obvious meaning.

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New Project: I ♥ E-Poetry

I ♥ E-Poetry

I would like to announce the launching of my new blog: I ♥ E-Poetry.

Here’s a little background about me. I’ve created over 25 websites, blogs, groups, and other online spaces since 1999. For the past 5 years, I’ve maintained a blog which documents my professional work, including most of my course blogs. I use Facebook to keep in touch with friends and family, sharing choice morsels of my personal life.

Aside from my dissertation, articles, and presentations, I’ve been searching for my voice as a scholar of digital literature. I use Twitter to connect with my peers in the digital humanities and e-literature communities. I read, favorite, retweet, share, and occasionally reply, but I don’t feel like I’m making a contribution.

My dad used to say one shouldn’t speak unless one had something to contribute to the conversation. So I’ve been mostly quiet: reading, listening, learning.

Yesterday it struck me: I know what to contribute. I’m going to read an e-poem every day, and I will respond to it in writing: in about 100 words. Every day.

My plan is to start with the Electronic Literature Collections, then take on the Electronic Poetry Center, or the Electronic Literature Directory, or the ELMCIP Knowledge Base, or poetry e-zines, or individual websites. The point is: there is enough e-poetry out there for me to read and respond to for a long while.

If this blog helps people discover the poetic potential of digital media or sparks some ideas, great. If you’re interested, feel free to follow, subscribe, like, share, retweet, bookmark, whatever. Or not: it’s all good.

It will serve me as an annotated bibliography of what I find interesting in e-poetry. And that alone will make it worth my time and effort.

I’m looking forward to the challenge.


Computer Art and the Theory of Computation: Chapter 1: The Blooming

Alan Turing inaugurated the theory of computation in 1936 with the most humble but powerful manifesto of all time

What I’d like to do in a series of posts is explore the relevance of the theory of computation to computer art. Both of those terms, however, need a little unpacking/explanation before talking about their relations.

Let’s start with computer art. Dominic Lopes, in A Philosophy of Computer Art, makes a useful distinction between digital art and computer art. Digital art, according to Lopes, can refer to just about any art that is or was digitized. Such as scanned paintings, online fiction, digital art videos, or digital audio recordings. Digital art is not a single form of art, just as fiction and painting are different forms of art. To call something digital art is merely to say that the art’s representation is or was, at some point, digital. It doesn’t imply that computers are necessary or even desirable to view and appreciate the work.

Whereas the term computer art is much better to describe art in which the computer is crucial as medium. What does he mean by “medium”? He says “a technology is an artistic medium for a work just in case it’s use in the display or making of the work is relevant to its appreciation” (p. 15). We don’t need to see most paintings, texts, videos or audio recordings on computers to display or appreciate them. The art’s being digital is irrelevant to most digital art. Whereas, in computer art, the art’s being digital is crucial to its production, display and appreciation.

Lopes also argues that whereas digital art is simply not a single form of art, computer art should be thought of as a new form of art. He thinks of a form of art as being a kind of art with shared properties such that those properties are important to the art’s appreciation. He defines interactivity as being such that the user’s actions change the display of the work itself. So far so good. But he identifies the crucial property that works of computer art share as being interactivity.

I think all but one of the above ideas by Lopes are quite useful. The problem is that there are non-interactive works of computer art. For instance, generative computer art is often not interactive. It often is different each time you view it, because it’s generated at the time of viewing, but sometimes it requires no interaction at all. Such work should be classified as computer art. The computer is crucial to its production, display, and appreciation.

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Radio Poetics, Interference and Muck

I love my new digital radio!

With the proliferation of audio webstreams and all sorts of digital smart boxes calling themselves radios, we need to ask, well, if these streams are becoming ever more fluent, then what space is being drained? When someone asks me, as they do, often, if I love Pandora, well, what sort of bugs are they asking me to love?

Radio poesis flows from the edges, some of them very fragile and sensitive, and occasionally they may even swell or bleed. Edges between signal and noise. Edges of frequency and range, both of which implicate edges of power and politics. Edges between attraction and repulsion; between Eros and Thanatos, or utopia and oblivion; the double edged ambiguities of sender and receiver caught in their limbic limbo dance. How low can we go?

As any biologist will confirm, edges are very often the key to the vitality of an ecosphere. Without edges, exchanges of energies (be they hoots, howls or body fluids) are rapidly and perhaps terminally diminished.

My kind of radio

When I bemoan the lack of poetic or aesthetic diversity on public radio (whether CBC, NPR, BBC or wherever), I am bemoaning the lack of edges. Instead of program streams that celebrate lively & liminal qualities such as fluid ambiguity and slippery murk, qualities that give heart and truth to the medium, we hear nothing but tight and tidy pitter patter, which in an infinitely messy cosmos (well expressed within the human species) serves up the ultimate deceit.

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Typing the Dancing Signifier: Jim Andrews’ (Vis)Poetics

Greetings Netartery,

When Jim invited me to join the group back in May, I had just successfully defended my dissertation. I decided that I didn’t want to jump into the conversation until it was available online, so I could share my research freely. In the meantime, I’ve enjoyed the postings and am thrilled and honored to be a part of this group blog.

My dissertation is titled “Typing the Dancing Signifier: Jim Andrews’ (Vis)Poetics” and is now available for free download at the Digital Repository at the University of Maryland: If you’d like to know more about me and my work, here’s a link to my blog:

What is my dissertation about? The title should be enough of a hint, but here’s the abstract.

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