This Letterist sound poem brings an important and timely question to Apple’s popular touchscreen devices: what are the possibilities for this ancient writing technology (the alphabet) when inscribed in this new digital medium?
As researchers like Johanna Drucker and Jerome McGann, Concrete and Letterist poets, typeface designers and typographers have long known, letters have great expressive power and statuesque complexity. And in digital media, fonts aren’t just pretty shapes for letters: they are software with programmed behaviors, seen in the algorithms that determine kerning, for example. How a letter is spaced when placed next to another is part of the art and craft of typographers, and is encoded into digital fonts.
But that is not all they can do, as Piringer’s poem demonstrates. These letters are programmed with other behaviors, patterned after crickets, vehicles, birds, and react in different ways to coming into contact with each other as they move and leave traces on the virtual page-like surface they are placed into. The environment itself isn’t entirely page-like either, since its edges can be wraparound or imbued with gravity (or lack of) so the letters move towards or away from the bottom of the screen, which can be tilted to redirect the flow of letters. The letters can be touched, dragged, pointed in directions, and even destroyed in this poem, but they cannot be controlled, suggesting that they have minds of their own, as they follow their programmed behaviors and make their distinctive sounds. The aspect of sound is another of the great delights of this poem. Informed by a rich sound poetry tradition, each letter is assigned one or several recorded (and phonetically informed) vocalizations. This aural dimension of the letters also responds to collisions in diverse ways, depending upon the behavior chosen for the letters and their environment.
This very inexpensive app is a valuable poetic experience of the expressive possibilities of language in this digital environment.