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

Essay on Stephanie Strickland's "True North"

Locating Stephanie Strickland’s True North
by Dene Grigar

Stephanie Strickland's True North came out in 1997 in two formats. First, it was published as a print book of poetry by the University of Notre Dame Press and won––that same year––the Poetry Society of America's Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award and the Ernest Sandeen Poetry Prize. It also appeared as a hypertext poem released on floppy disk for both PC and Macintosh computers by Eastgate Systems, Inc. As Strickland states in her “Prologue,” work on True North began in 1995 at N. Katherine Hayles's National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar but originally was conceived over a decade earlier when, influenced by the writings of Simone Weil, she developed an interest in finding a woman’s language.

The work stands out for the scope of its vision, which is cosmic in size and reaches to mythology, folk tale, mathematical principles, linguistics, mysticism, and women's issues. While Strickland cites Weil as an influence, the rich imagery of H.D.'s poetry––particularly her highly imaginative Hermetic Definition––reverberates throughout the 47 poems in the collection. [1] While True North the book is still available, True North the hypertext poem, which contains all of the same poems but is unique for its visual representation of ideas, is becoming inaccessible to the public as CD-ROM drives disappear from desktop computers and the public shifts reading practices toward tablets and mobile phones.

Many essays about the hypertext poem address Strickland's use of color and maps, such as Deena Larsen and Richard Higgason's "An Anatomy of Anchors" and its instantiation into two distinct media forms, such as Joseph Tabbi's "Stephanie Strickland's True North: A Migration between Media." Strickland herself has written essays about the work, most notably "Quantum Poetics: Six Thoughts," where she reminds readers that her work "investigate[s] oscillation between image, text, sounds, and animation, both within and between hypertextually linked units" (32). This essay, therefore, takes a different tack from these excellent examples. It offers a discussion of the work's history of production, which is necessary for establishing valid information about versions and dates, and its mechanics because experiencing the hypertext poem will soon no longer be possible for readers. 

Part 1: History of Production

1997 Floppy Disks
Because Strickland did not own a Macintosh computer, she produced the hypertext version of True North on a PC. It is believed that this hypertext poem is the one of the first that Eastgate Systems, Inc. released for that platform. It was after she had begun work on it that she was told that the company wanted a Macintosh version along with the PC version. Collaborating with Eastgate Systems, Inc.’s editor, Diane Greco, over the phone and at the company’s office in Cambridge, Strickland developed the Macintosh version. Because the functionality differed between Storyspace for PC and Mac, Strickland needed a number of workarounds to get roughly comparable functionality for True North in the Mac version. She also had to write the instruction manual for both platforms from scratch since what she produced involved unique features that were not standard to Storyspace. Strickland also recalls exploiting certain quirks of the software for True North, as Deena Larsen had done with them for Samplers, bugs that the company later eliminated. [2]

The 1997 Storyspace Hypertext/The 1999 Web Poem: "To Be Here as Stone Is" ("TBHASI")
“To Be Here as Stone Is,” was first published in 1997 as a 23-line poem appearing at the end of True North, following the section “True North 5." It was re-envisioned as a web poem with artist M. D. Coverley as collaborator and copyrighted in 1999. As Strickland states, the poem "describes a perfume bottle and is about identifying with stone (brilliant-cut glass, mediator of light), about being here just as a stone is." She believes she was influenced by Wallace Stevens’s poem, "Anecdote of the Jar" and thinking of her "grandmother’s bottle of Shalimar, whose shape it vaguely echoes" (Strickland, 30 Dec. 2019).

The Storyspace hypertext version of "TBHASI" features 16 of the poem’s words hyperlinked in red, blue, pink, green, blue-green, yellow-green, which as Strickland points out in her “Prologue,” are used as organizing elements in the work. [3] The fifth word of the poem, “stone,” for example, is colored green and, when double-clicked, takes readers to the section in the “Contents” called “The Mother-Lost World,” also colored in green. As in all of True North, “TBHASI” does not offer images. It is a text-based poem that employs hyperlinking for extending meaning.

The web poem, published in Riding the Meridian, Issue 2, Volume 1 in 1999, was begun in 1997 after Strickland had completed the hypertext version of True North. Using Toolbook, Strickland and Luesebrink sought to produce “a more fully realized, graphic, electronic work” (Coverley). Due to limitations to Toolbook’s export feature for the web, Strickland and Luesebrink tried other authoring systems, HoTMetaL and Dreamweaver, but released the work using Microsoft Front Page 3.0 for Netscape 4.x browsers. The work contains 20 screens. As Strickland describes it:

"On all 20 pages of To Be Here as Stone Is a cairn of four stones for navigation appears in the upper left corner of the screen. A ribbon of text runs down the left third of the screen. It  contains the entire text of the poem, repeated over and over and runs from top to bottom over every screen, except for the six Java Applet pages. The linked portion of the poem appears in stanzas to the right of that ribbon, with selected words in the ribbon also highlighted. In the case of the six Java Applet screens, there is no ribbon but rather full-screen evocations of rain, snow, fire, sea-light, the permuting Game of Life, and the development and collapse of a galaxy which were enacted by Java Applets. These can be seen at minutes 6:41 to 9:19 of Part 4 of my Traversal. " (Strickland, 30 Dec. 2019)

Though parts of it are still accessible with some contemporary browsers––for example, Safari 11.0.1––the use of Java Applets limits easy access to all of the poem. Readers can locate all of the screens containing the words to the entire poem by looking at the code with their browser’s dev tools.

The 1999 CD-ROM
According to Strickland, she never saw the CD-ROM version of the work or was part of its production. While this version is listed in various scholarly book bibliographies and databases, like WorldCat, as having been published in 1997, this information is incorrect. [5] The CD-ROM version actually came out two years later in 1999. I know this to be true because in May 1999 I was asked to review True North, which had just been recently released on CD-ROM, for American Book Review by Managing Editor Rebecca Kaiser. Kaiser had received my name to review the CD-ROM from Alt-X founder Mark Amerika, with whom I was corresponding about keynoting the 2000 Computers & Writing Conference I was co-hosting the following summer with artist-scholar John Barber. I turned in the review before the June 14th deadline, and it ran in the Fall 1999 issue, Volume 12. Additionally, the CD-ROM version of the work is loaded with VISE, an installer program that was beta-tested for Mac System Software 8.5 in 1998 but released as a stable program for Mac System Software 9.0, which appeared on the market in 1999. Thus, it more likely that the CD-ROM was published some time between January and May 1999 than in 1997.

Identifying a precise date for hypertext literature is important because the World Wide Web impacted the production of CD-ROMs for interactive media and the publication of net art. In 1997, for example, 70 million people––or 1.7% of the world's population––were accessing the web for content, a number that had quadrupled since the mainstreaming of the browser in 1995; by 1999, the number jumped to 248 million ("Internet World Stats"). The growth of web use affected companies that had staked their claim to removable disks. A case in point: In 1997 the Voyager Company, which produced interactive versions of important literary works and unique media on CD-ROM, closed its doors. The mass migration of media to the web was well underway by the time Strickland's CD-ROM was released and helps to explain her interest in publishing a web version of one of the poems in her hypertext.

Part 2: Mechanics
While True North explores a topic as broad in scope as a “woman’s language” (Strickland, “Prologue”), it loads 79 nodes and 797 links, making it seem like one of the smaller works published by Eastgate Systems, Inc. [6] The title page reads: “True North, or THE LI-LaDi World, Level Interaction – Lattice Dislocation.” The dominant color used for the typeface is blue; green and red are also used, though sparingly, for some letters and words. Also found on the title page is a list of materials readers can access along with the poem: a document called “How to Read in Storyspace,” which provides directions for how to navigate the work and use the various features in the Toolbar; “Contents,” which functions as a navigational table of contents; “Maps,” which takes readers to the six maps associated with the main sections of the work; and an “Index,” a list of 70 hyperlinked terms.

Color is used extensively to highlight ideas and organize space. Headers of spaces, for example, each are given their own color, with the other elements found in that space displayed in black typeface. “The Mother-Lost World” is colored a lime green; “True North 1” ( as well as “2,” “3,” “4,” and “5”), blue; “Blue Planet Blues,” light blue; “Language Is a Cast of the Human Mind,” gray (perhaps, reflecting gray-matter); “Numbers Nesting in Numbers-Nesting-in-Numbers,” pink; and “There Was an Old Woman,” light blue.

When I reviewed the work upon the CD-ROM’s release, I was curious about its relationship with the book because like a lot of scholars, I was interested in the affordances Storyspace (and other hypertext platforms) provided for changing human expression, as argued by hypertext theorists Jay David Bolter and others. I found the two iterations, in some respects, very similar. The “Contents,” which appears in both, lists the same poems in the same order in hypertext version as they appear in the print edition. What is different, though, is the way Strickland uses hyperlinking and maps for navigation and the organization of the work around ideas, a functionality not possible to represent easily in print. The “Index,” which does not appear in the print edition, allows readers to navigate to individual poems facilely. “Alphabet,” for example, goes to the poem, “On First Looking Into Diringer’s The Alphabet: A Key to the History of Mankind.” True North’s maps also connects words to visual representations of ideas, ultimately linking them to specific poems. The maps include:

Storyspace Map: True North
The Mother-Lost World Map
Blue Planet Blues Map
Language Is a Cast of the Human Mind Map
Numbers Nesting in Numbers-Nesting-In Numbers Map
There Was an Old Woman Map

It is important to note that the poem explores "navigation and above all direction-finding, how to find true north (that earthly direction that involves star-gazing) when all you have to work with is stick and string and sunlight and time." (Strickland, 30 Dec. 2019). This method stands in stark contrast to the way humans find themselves in the world today with their mobile phones enhanced by GPS technology. In effect, Strickland makes clear that:

"[t]echnology is not valued as a direction-finder, but it is probed; for instance, in TechnI.con (technical con worshipped as icon), in Narrowness of Narrow Path Endured or Time-Capsule Contents (nuclear threat), in many Numbers poems (mapping numbers to debt and control) and numerous others. I think we still have the True North problem; we need technology to (inadequately) “show” the problem (e.g., climate) but technology is not imbued (as yet?) with the values to guide problem-solution and is in need of constant grounding by human assessment and criticism." (Strickland, 30 Dec. 2019)

Cyberspace, such as it is, requires pathfinding, and in this regard the maps in True North are an important method for locating one's self in the space. “Storyspace Map: True North” contains links to all 11 major sections of the poem as well as the additional information accompanying it (e.g. “Contents,” “Index,” “Acknowledgements”). Shaped like a woman’s breast, as Strickland suggests, "The Mother-Lost World Map" reflects the life-giving properties of womanhood. The nipple is aligned with “True North 1,” a poem consisting of seven stanzas of three lines each that reminds readers that the power of humanity lies in language (“anyone / coming forward to speak / is using force––“) (13-15), and harkens back to Strickland's pursuit of a "Guneaform" ("Alphabet"), a woman's language.

Each of the maps that follows pertains to the section of the poem by the same name. “The Mother-Lost World Map,” like the “Storyspace Map,” is shaped like a breast. Outlining it are eight words: “Alphabet,” “Numbers,” “Agamemon,” “Rape,” “Order,” “Techni.con,” “Embryos,” and “Figures of Speech.” Below is the word along with the lexia the word leads to:

Alphabet: “On First Looking Into Diringer’s The Alphabet: A Key to the History of Mankind”
Numbers: “Who Counts, Counts”
Agamemnon: “Agamemnon”
Rape: “A History of Bearing Greek Gifts”
Order: “Preservation of Order”
Figures of Speech: “Figures of Speech”
Pregnancy: “Pregnancy”
TechnI.con: “Lodged in a Nursery Glass”

Some anomalies arise between the hypertext version and print edition and within the hypertext itself. There is no individual poem called “Agamemnon” in the book; rather, it is a quote from Iliad 1.184-187 that appears as a footnote in the next poem, “A History of Bearing Greek Gifts.” The order of these also differ slightly from that listed in the “Contents” in the hypertext. “Figures of Speech” appears last in the “Contents” though it shows up before “Pregnancy” and “Techni.con” on the map.

The other four maps also use shape to denote ideas. For example, “Blue Planet Blues Map” is rounded and resembles the contours of a planet, and “Numbers Nesting in Numbers-Nesting In-Numbers Map,” is a series of poems referencing the ideas of famous mathematician Josiah Willard Gibbs, with what may be a graphical representation of his notion of thermodynamics. While Strickland states that True North is about “how basic bodily metaphors get translated into different kinds of language,” readers can recognize she does not limit her use of metaphor to the body. Rather, she constructs meaning through the relationship of visual representation of text and image.

As I stated in my review of the 1999 version:

Stars and their wandering cousins, the planets, emerge as a dominant trope in the poem, both as the model of poetic structure (five points of a star / five parts of the poem / five paths leading to true north) and a reconsideration of their meaning (order and consistency before the Age of Enlightenment / disorder and chaos in the midst of postmodernism). Navigating by stars, and in particular, the North star, becomes the method by which the poet finds true north, her particular truth. Articulating this navigation through space and time as physical and temporal motion, Strickland moves from the particular, the oikos of the personal, with images of the star-shaped “embryo” “lodged in a nursery glass” and the child “riveted at night by the stars,” to the universal––starlight “sealed in glaze” and "brilliant-cut” “adrift in the empty / aisles of the cosmos." (Grigar, "Lost in Translation")

Despite the breadth of her vision and lushness of her words, Strickland was frustrated by the limitations of the medium for expressing her work and has stated most recently in the “Prologue” that she originally visualized the poem in 3D, a feature not possible on the net or web at the time. At the time I first read the poem, I agreed with her, for I too was critical of the limitations of the platform for expressing her universe of ideas more fully. However, looking back now after these (almost) 20 years that have passed since the CD-ROM's release, I locate the work amid the constellation of hypertext stars as one that pioneered the form in anticipation of her net art that followed, such as "The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot" and "slippingglimpse," and the art practice of other artists. [7]


[1] Others, such as Amaranth Borsuk, have noticed the influence of H.D. upon Strickland's poetry. She makes the connection between H.D.'s Trilogy and Strickland's Dragon Logic.

[2] Deena Larsen called one particular quirk that she exploited to her advantage the “Green Bug.” The lab documented Larsen’s work with it in the essay included in this volume on Deena Larsen’s Samplers. See "note 4" of that essay.

[3] Belinda Barnet mentions the “very limited palette of colors” available to Storyspace users in her article for Digital Humanities Quarterly, which was a section from her book, Memory Machines. Those of us working with Storyspace in the mid to late 1990s before the mainstreaming of the web saw the addition of colors to the Storyspace palette as exciting since so much of what we had to work with before that was black and white or green and green, depending on the computer one used.

[4] Astrid Ensslin’s Canonizing Hypertext and list the CD-ROM version as having been published in 1997.

[5] Microsoft Front Page 3.0 was released in 1997.

[6] With 79 nodes and 797 Strickland's poem can be considered to be small in size, much like Mary-Kim Arnold’s hypertext poem "Lust," which contains 38 nodes and 141 links, and J. Yellowlees Douglas' "I Have Said Nothing," which has 96 nodes and 205 links. An example of a larger work would be Richard Holeton’s Figurski at Findhorn on Acid, which has 354 nodes and 2001 links. 

[7] I would like to thank Stephanie Strickland for carefully reading through the essay and providing additional information about True North; I also thank Margie Luesebrink and Strickland for their help with the sections relating to "To Be Here as Stone Is."

Works Cited

Coverley M. D. "Romancing StoneIs: An account of Dragon Bytes in the Deep." Riding the Meridian Volume 2 Issue 1. 1999.

Coverley, M. D. and Stephanie Strickland. "To Be Here as Stone Is." Riding the Meridian Volume 2, Issue 1. 1999.

Grigar, Dene. "Lost in Translation." Review of True North, by Stephanie Strickland. American Book Review. Fall 1999, 12,

"Internet World Stats." 11 Nov. 2019.

Kaiser, Rebecca. Letter to Dene Grigar. 10 May 1999. 

Larsen, Deena and Richard Higgason. "An Anatomy of Anchors." Hypertext '04. January 2004.

Strickland, Stephanie. "Essay is drafted and ready for your input." Personal email. 30 Dec. 2019.

---. "Quantum Poetics: Six Thoughts." Media Poetry: An International Anthology. Ed. Eduardo Kac. Bristol, UK: Intellect Press, 2007. 

---. True North. Notre Dame, IN: The University of Notre Dame Press, 1997.

---. True North. 3.5-inch floppy disk. Watertown, MA: Eastgate Systems Inc., 1997.

---. True North. CD-ROM. Watertown, MA: Eastgate Systems Inc., 1999.

Tabbi, Joseph. "Stephanie Strickland's True North: A Migration between Media." Close Reading New Media. Ed. Jan Van Looy and Jan Baetens. Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 2003, 29-38.

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