American E-Poetry

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What is American e-poetry?

The first step towards a response is to delimit what is meant by “American.” For the purposes of this categorization, I will define it as e-literature created or co-created by authors born and/or raised in the United States of America. The focus on birth and/or national identity helps find common ground for American writers who live around the world. In a globalized world, full of digital media that encourage collaboration, national boundaries become blurred and the focus shifts towards convergent characteristics, practices, themes, and poetics.

A consideration is that most of the technologies and platforms used for the creation of e-literature were created and/or developed in the US– including the Internet. This means that any creative act using hardware, software, platforms, programming languages, or authoring software is build upon a foundation of countless hours of collaborative programming and design. If we were to consider this a kind of collaboration, then we could say that almost all e-literature is partly or wholly American. Admittedly, it would be problematic to attribute authorship or national identity to foundational technologies developed by a culture, such as language, instruments, tools and so on, but it is worth considering the worldviews that may be encoded in digital technologies developed in the US and around the world.

One way is to explore e-poetry and e-literary movements that emerged in the United States. Chatterbots and computer-generated literature developed in MIT, Stanford, and other computer science research institutions in the U.S. The recent diversification and exponential growth of the Bot genre, while international from the outset, has strong communities of practice in Boston, New York, Seattle, and Portland. Interactive Fiction and Hypertext fiction and poetry developed as literary (and gaming) scenes in the 1980s and 90s thanks to companies in the greater Boston Area (Infocom, Eastgate Systems), and in Silicon Valley (Apple Computer with its product HyperCard, and in early online communities). Brown University is famous for developing a hypertext fiction scene, as well as for its virtual authoring environment, the CAVE, and developing cave writing in courses and workshops since 2002.

Not surprisingly, American e-poetry and e-literature communities seem to develop initially around two hubs of innovation in digital technologies: the Northeastern region and the West Coast. This is where the earliest adopters of new technologies express themselves creatively and start developing curricula and literary scenes. These are also national hubs for education, employment, and innovation, so people educated and trained in these regions incorporate e-literature into their creative and curricular development in other parts of the country and internationally. And while American technologies are released internationally and online communities tend to blur national boundaries, a case can be made for American e-poetic scenes developing among generations of early adopters in the U.S.

Another way to trace American e-poetry is to align it with poetic movements that originated in or had an impact in American letters, such as Concrete poetry, Language poetry, Conceptual poetry, and Flarf poetry, among others. While most of these movements seem to fit Postmodern aesthetics, the drive to innovate poetry with digital media is aligned with the ethos of Modernism, as Jessica Pressman proposes in Digital Modernism: Making it New in New Media. American E-Poetry can also be aligned with American artistic practices, such as the use of kinetic typography in film titles (see The Art of the Title for an excellent study of this tradition), the cut-up technique popularized by William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, and Conceptual Art, to name a few. The problem with this approach is that these movements have had widespread influence beyond the US, further eroding notions of national boundaries in literary and artistic practices.

I have categorized all I ♥ E-Poetry entries written or co-written by Americans. (Because establishing provenance can be challenging, we ask that you contact us to correct any errors or omissions.)  This category currently identifies 147 works, which is about 25% of the entries on individual works currently published in I ♥ E-Poetry.

To conclude, aside from identifying some forces that have led to the formation of American communities of e-poetic practice, this entry leaves two big questions the categorized entries can help us begin to address:

  • What distinguishes the e-poetry written by Americans from that written by people with other national identities?
  • Do common technologies and online communities offer a stronger creative connection than national poetic sensibilities?

Perhaps I’ll have an answer ready for the 2016 National Poetry Month.