Rebooting Electronic Literature, Volume 2: Documenting Pre-Web Born Digital Media

Stephanie Strickland's Prologue to Her Traversal of "True North"

The Prologue, below, is a print document written by Strickland for delivery at her Traversal of True North on Tuesday, March 26, 2019 at the Electronic Literature Lab at Washington State University Vancouver. It has been reproduced here with permission of the artist. In it readers will discover the thinking behind Strickland's epic poem and background on its development. It has been reproduced as closely to the original document as possible, given the limitations of this medium. Specifically, the artist's use of uppercase lettering, bold-facing, spacing, and punctuation have been preserved.

1. In 1997, there are three Forms of True North: print book, Storyspace hypertext, Web poem––
2. As Muriel Rukeyser, in US 1, used material not seen before in poetry (stock market quotes, doctor's reports, legal testimony), I assembled "voices" rarely heard in poems, those of science and math in conversation with history and myth, from the Ice Age to the present, re-staking Rukeyser's implicit claim, that the fullest range of texts is required to understand and combat injustice. The hypertext form allows not only for a full range, but for a constantly renewed structure of proximity, by which these voices can interrogate and answer each other. 
3. True North allows voices to speak "to" each other across vast gaps. The Old Woman, a famous folkloric figure, is a major focus––she has many incarnations throughout the work, Mother Goose, Witch of Endor, the Irish-Scottish Hag of Beare, and Ice Age timekeeper, among others. She speaks to Newton, to scientists who developed the atomic bomb, to abolitionists, genetic engineers, and the 19th century poetic and scientific giants, Emily Dickinson and Willard Gibbs 
4. True North explores the pressure language practice puts on women's bodies. The hand-drawn Storyspace map of "The Mother-Lost World" section of the hypertext suggests a breast, or cornucopial basket, or part of the DNA spiral, repeating the shape of the image given to the overall True North map one logical level up, and, in turn, repeated one logical level down as the profile or contour of many of the poems. True North interrogates the meaning of this ever-returning form which speaks before any words are spoken. 
5. True North rings the changes on two image/themes. The first of these is Embeddedness, or nestedness. In True North embeddedness appears on a continuum from the most embodied example, the pregnant bodies of women who are trying to speak, to the most abstract example, the numbers as we know them on the number line. In between: slaves in the hold of the Amistad, the flight crew of the Challenger, star map patterns on the walls of Ice Age caves, poems sewn up in Dickinson's hope chest, and fractal patterns. The second image/theme is an American heritage of formal structuring devices that are at once abstract and graphical, a heritage equally of American science and American poetry. True North focuses on two contemporaries from the CT Valley, Willard Gibbs, the country's first mathematical physicist, and the poet, Emily Dickinson, because they are both exemplary language makers and their language has given us new ways to think. 
     Gibbs, in the 19th century, devised visualizing methods which redefined the meaning of space. Instead of being a static Cartesian grid, his phase space represented every possible lifeline of any system, any number of coexisting systems. The very shapes of graphs and models yielded truths about energetics of the system. 

     Dickinson refused to title more than 1700 poems, and she evolved singular methods of both production and punctuation. One radical innovation was to place a superscript cross (as we would place a footnote marker) to indicate words, or places, where she wished the reader to consider a range of choices. The choices she wanted to present were inscribed across the bottom of her page. These cross––or crossroads––markers are not signs of preliminary indecision; they are, carefully copied on pages that are carefully sewn together, endorsements of multiple meaning. 
 6. Effects native to a hypertextual form are used as rhetorical strategies: 
Prospective consequence ("Time-Capsule Contents"); 
Retrospective reframing ("On First Looking into Diringer's The Alphabet: A Key to the History of Mankind"); 
Direct address across an unbridgeable discursive gap ("Who Counts, Counts"); 
Recovery of a disembodied distant voice ("A History of Bearing Greek Gifts")
In the 1980's, I began looking for a woman's language, which led eventually to a True North poem, "On First Looking into Diringer's The Alphabet: A Key to the History Of Mankind"; but the real beginning of that poem, that book, that quest, was an earlier book, The Red Virgin: A Poem of Simone Weil, focused on a woman who actively claimed and managed her own life––and language. True North grew out of The Red Virgin, because what was left unspoken in that book was Simone's ethical concern for science and mathematics. 
Weil was a French philosopher and mystic whose life is a compound of complications: a Jew who became a Catholic mystic without joining that church; a philosopher who was also a factory worker, an agricultural laborer, and a labor organizer; a pacifist who worked for the Resistance and for DeGaulle's Free French Government in London. Though a world class philosopher, the complete critical edition of her work in French is still not out, some 64 years after her death. Why? 
One reason is that running from Hitler, her papers and letters and notebooks were left all over Europe. A second reason, she was an activist and didn't spend the war writing in America as so many European intellectuals did. I think the deepest reason is that she defeats all the categories we have inherited. She defied the categories she belonged to: intellectual, religious, class, ethnic, and gender. She never signed a petition she didn't write herself. 
Facing a woman who was out of print, never fully in print, un-translated to a great extent, and largely knowable only through people who had very partisan positions to take about her, I became interested in how to structure this situation, not unique to her. 
I wanted to come to Simone by means of her life, by means of her thought, by means of the commentary about her, and by means of her historical situation. So I wrote a book of poems, with an index-like table of contents, where you can start at any poem. Your experience is very different if you start out with a poem in the voice of a critic, or in her voice, or an account of an incident in her life, or if you start with her mother's letters. 
The Red Virgin was chosen for a publication a prize by Lisel Mueller, who, I discovered later, is nearly blind. It seems her husband read to her all of the candidate manuscripts. I had not consciously designed this book as an oral text, but learning about that selection process made me think a lot about oral text. And about the role Mother Goose played in my life.

The Red Virgin isn't hypertext––it is print reaching toward hypertext. True North reaches even further toward hypertext, far enough that it seemed to "want to be" a hypertext––even when it was still in manuscript, which is what it was when I attended Kate Hayles's NEH Electronic Literature seminar in 1995. 
I heard about this seminar because I regularly attended the Society for Literature and Science which Kate had a huge role in founding. Though the NEH seminars are generally for academics, I applied as an "independent scholar" and wound up being the only poet and the only representative from a public arts center in the seminar. When I entered this seminar I had a grasp of some of the issues involved in automating a library, but, I had worked as a writer exclusively on a PC within Word 5. In that seminar I was introduced to the nascent Web, to Muds, to Moos, to Apple, to Storyspace Beta, and a range of other software for the first time. It was overwhelming! 
Storyspace for Windows Beta as it turned out was the most overwhelming of all. I was reminded of this reading Bill Bly's account, in a recent issue of ebr, of how in 1997 preparing We Descend for Eastgate, he discovered he had lost 500 links! There was a flaw in the software that lost all links every 11th save, but I thought it was my fault, and my response to losing all my links was to save continuously which of course exacerbated the problem. The result was a need to write and rewrite the hypertext without error and as a result I began a long career with repetitive stress injuries in my hands and arms. 
I visualized the independent parts of the "True North" poem, used to divide the book sections, as spinning tops, energetic bridges between the various language sorts. I wanted all the parts of the book and of the "True North" poem set spinning, so one could position oneself anywhere amongst them and cross 'energetic' bridges. The poem parts both belonged together and needed to be separate. The various sections were situations that bore on each other, seen best when they came into juxtaposition––not forever, for a time. Storyspace certainly got me a few steps further toward this goal. 
As Deena Larsen and others have found, the full flexibility of Storyspace wasn't necessarily intended or supported as time went on, so 'features' could disappear with each software release. Storyspace is not oriented to the visual. While I liked the fact that links are not immediately seen via underlines––you have to invoke the control key to see them, thus allowing a smooth read-through of the poem surface––I invested a lot of time into drawing and coloring maps. Deena Larsen helped me to do that––at Margie Luesebrink's house, where we had gathered to talk about what kind of hypertext tools writers really need (Margie was working with ToolBook at the time). Diane Greco, my editor at Eastgate, also helped a lot. 
One of the great difficulties when it came to publishing the hypertext is that, only then was I told I needed a Mac and PC version, yet the two versions of Storyspace had completely different capabilities––and I had no ready access to a Mac. Nonetheless, with Diane's help it got made, and as a result there are two True North hypertexts. I had to rewrite the manual for each of them, as the basic instruction set wasn't correct with regard to my poem. In the end, I preferred some aspects of the Mac version and some of the PC. 
In my essay in Kac's Media Poetry book, I sum the situation up as follows: 
In 1995, I "translated" my book-length poem True North, featuring language-revolutionaries Emily Dickinson and Willard Gibbs, to a digital poem created with Storyspace software. The True North themes of navigation and embeddedness moved from being print concepts, refracted in language, to being the steering mechanism and constitutive structure of a hypertext. For this textually-driven work about navigation, I designed the two most important orienting elements to be visual. The first of these is a set of mouse-drawn Storyspace maps, emblematic shapes with their legends of node names. As sitemaps and as pattern poems, they give a very fair idea or sampling of True North. They provide a mode of understanding that may supplement, or substitute for, following links and reading text. Such a displacement of text by image, that also functions recursively as a guide to text, is itself a distinct mode of oscillation––one which co-exists with the familiar reference oscillation between a map and what it maps. The second orienting device was the coloring of a few words on each page. Since Storyspace does not use color to signify text-links, instead permitting the reader to press a key to reveal boxes around link words, each color operates visually to suggest a connection between similarly colored words: each color is an embedded link, but one traceable only by human memory, not by software. 
This is what I said about True North at an MLA session in 2019:

Print True North takes place across 5 sections. I always envisioned these as streamers swirling around a maypole, or axis, made of 5 direction-finder poems that explain how to find true north, using only your body and sticks and string––and time. In print, all I could do was insert these poems between the major sections, and so I was eager to take up the promise of Storyspace in 1995. However, even today, I couldn't make that vision work. It calls for augmented or virtual reality as well as fonts designed for 3-d reading, such as Eduardo Kac's hologram fonts or Scott Kim's calligraphic inversions. Each word would need to be separately designed. And then one has to learn to read in 3-d! 
  SO, BACK TO 1997


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