‘Insert the poetic where we’d least expect it’: An Interview with artist and poet Mary Flanagan

By Eric Goddard-Scovel, Guest Contributor


Mary Flanagan is an innovative multimedia artist, poet, designer and scholar constantly pushing the boundaries of what art, literature, and games can do in our ever-evolving digital culture. She is the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor in Digital Humanities at Dartmouth College and author most recently ofCritical Play: Radical Game Design (2009). She is also the founding director of Tiltfactor, a lab focused on “game design for social change.”

The first work of Mary Flanagan’s I had the pleasure to encounter was her interactive poem [theHouse] (see Figure 1 below), which appeared alongside a range of other digital texts in the Electronic Literature Organization’s Electronic Literature Collection Vol. 1 (2006), one of the first major efforts to represent and document the emerging field of digital literature. [theHouse] was also featured in C. T. Funkhouser’s 2012 book New Directions in Digital Poetry, in which Funkhouser writes: “Throughout [theHouse], an inveterate emphasis on procedure, coincidence and participation dominates. These effects arouse intrigue and destabilize the viewer’s experience, which viewers may read as a reflection of what happens inside the (now) metaphorical houses depicted by Flanagan, within which two people in a relationship come apart” (155).

As someone eager to learn more about digital art and literature, I jumped at the Sycamore Review’s offer to have a dialogue with Dr. Flanagan. I soon discovered there is much more to Mary Flanagan’s work than her forays into digital poetry, as a survey of her website quickly reveals. This interview, conducted by e-mail in December of 2012, explores Dr. Flanagan’s background in the arts, the (blurring) boundaries of digital art and literature, “fixed” writing, the role of play in writing and art, the state of publication on the web, the need for online (and other) communities of writers/artists, what she is currently working on, and her advice to emerging writers.


Sycamore Review: When did you first start to work with digital poetry, and what kinds of works did you begin with? Did you think of it as digital poetry at the time, or did you think of it as something else?

Mary Flanagan: My background is in experimental filmmaking, and my very first film was an animated poem in 1987 or 1988. I believe that I began working with digital poetry about a decade later, though I didn’t call it ‘digital poetry’ at the time. I was writing hundreds of fragments and using movement in a 3D world to “navigate” them. I called these “navigable narratives,” but they were far more fragmentary than the term “narrative” would imply. I started working with three-dimensional digital worlds (in now rather archaic 3D modeling programs) and bringing these to the web. There was a markup language like HTML that allowed makers to mark up works and images and create three-dimensional worlds as webpages. This language, VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) is really dead now, but for a while it produced some pretty cool artworks.


| | Figure 2: A scene from the VRML work [recovery], by Mary Flanagan | |

When I worked in VRML I always used text and sometimes used images, animated images, and sound. These projects, for me, tended to offer a way to construct an encounter of place, language, and experience. One of these projects was entitled [recovery], and it was a way for me to create a phenomenological exploration of my recovery from fainting. Another, called [the perpetual bed], mixed points of view to create a set of impressions about my grandmother’s experiences when hospitalized. In the late 1990s, I was doing multi-user live text based performances on the web. Kind of difficult to imagine now—it actually seems we were doing way more cutting edge stuff. Possibly because it was so difficult to do? I guess I like a challenge.


| | Figure 3: A scene from the VRML work [The Perpetual Bed], by Mary Flanagan | |

SR: As I understand it, many digital poets do not come from a literary background (i.e. they did not seek a degree from a creative writing program or pursue writing in print). What path brought you to digital poetry, and how does this impact the way you think about and approach your work?

MF: Only some of the digital poets have formal training such as an MFA in poetry. Many others of us have come to digital poetry through an interest in computer code or in creating dynamic media. In 2006 I began publishing print poems. Print and digital in some ways are very different things, but they have more commonality than you might think. There are poets who write for print who want control of where the language is on the page, the type, and want final say on the exact language used in the poem. This camp is interested in the exact rendering of their vision, and might not be so interested in what readers do with that vision during the reading process. There are other poets who love what readers bring to the work over the meticulous care they’ve brought to the one rendering of that work on the page. These poets love the accidents that happen in the act of reading, the surprises, the potential of the work. In this, of course, Oulipo poets are an obvious group whose process is key to the work as its potential evolves. They are interested in the transformation of the poem in time and through the reader. Concrete poets are another group—they tap into the ancient desire to expand the expressiveness of language by combining literary and visual communication. I think the latter examples tend to be similar to the profile of the digital poet as well, but by no means is this a binary among writers—only tendencies. I can say that digital poets tend to have a lot in common with Oulipo and other experimental writers, but even more traditionally-identified poets—poets I like to call “fixed” poets rather than “print” poets, such as Christian Bök and Patricia Carlin—use these techniques and processes to create their final work.

SR: What are you working on now? Is it digital poetry, a gallery installation, something else?

MF: I’m working on two main projects right now, both related to poetry. One is a print manuscript that is a collection of poems written while playing video games. I’ve read some of these at readings without first revealing the process of making the work, and they work for non-gamers as well. When people find out they are related to games, the connection brings even more meaning and experience to the reader.

For example:

The poem “Between Us” features a conversation between two people:

Things seemed simple, when we

Knew what to do: receive and then give

And later in the poem, it is clear that a conversation is still happening, as well as a reflection on language, communication, and introspection:

A ball is coming over. Push it back.

A word is coming over. Say it softly, to yourself.

But this poem changes when readers learn that it is written regarding the 1972 videogame Pong. Once you know that the poem may reflect elements of a particular game, or reflect the experience of playing that game, the poem’s internal semiotic system, its symbolic work (such as the reference to the ball) becomes even more dimensional. I like working with digital culture material, and bridging two worlds with this project. Sometimes, one runs into folks in the print poetry space who dismiss the work without looking at it, because involving video games in ‘high art’ somehow taints the work. I think this is also in part a generational issue.

The second project I’m working on is an app, a gallery installation, and a print work all in one. It is called “The Mirror Book.” The Mirror Book is an interactive media artwork that presents dynamically generated poems on large LED monitors for public display. I start with the work of historical women poets, and gradually replace their language with mine. The text is computationally created through the mix of my own language (gathered from my own computer’s hard drive), and the work of historic American poets, whose poems form the structural constraints of the work.

Here’s an example of my process: Take every word and find a related antonym. The resource is *weighted by my own vocabulary use* culled from my hard drive, to gradually integrate my voice in the work.

For example:

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;

(from “First Fig” (1920) By Edna St. Vincent Millay)

Might become:

Your water stays in nether starts;
You will best the day;

The application will slowly replace the original words of Emily Dickinson in a poem, starting with verbs, then nouns, then adjectives, until the poem is transformed.


Then the poem pieces begin arriving in their opposite form, but the lines of the text are reordered from State One bottom to top. In this version, verbs change tense and adjectives turn into adverbs, while adverbs turn into related nouns:

You take a bitter dark;
And yes, my friendly and oh, my foes –
You will best the day;
Your water stays in nether starts;

(from “First Fig” (1920) By Edna St. Vincent Millay)

The Mirror Book can run infinitely by cycling through poetic corpuses and using different variations of replacement language. The poem evolves dynamically throughout the day, continuously at play in the space between the past and the present. In ideal conditions, there is one poem showing and evolving per monitor.

It is almost as though I get to collaborate with my favorite (albeit dead) writers this way! Two print books will be produced from this work midway thought the morphing process.

SR: Do you think that something is gained for both writers and readers by writing with new media outside of the dominant print culture? To someone who still sees poetry as only being lines of words on paper, what would you say is poetic about writing in programmed environments or virtual spaces, or about combining generated visuals and shuffling text? How should a reader go about understanding voice, tone, or metaphor (for example) in such a work?

MF: I think readers have to come to a digital work with an open mind. It might not be working at the pace you are used to in poetry. It might not look quite like poems you have seen. But such poems are operating on imposed rules from the writer/programmer, much like a writer of a sonnet would be following or tweaking rhyme, meter, and line number. Forms may not be recognizable as traditional poetic forms, but the forms might be borrowing from other structures for media in the last 100 years, such as tickertape-style scrolling, or an email format, structures borrowed from games, or even the forms of computer code. If the reader is interested in the way contemporary language-based works change, challenge, and invent new language from the old, they will likely appreciate the way in which digital poems work if they give them a chance. So yes, I see an interesting opportunity for such work to inform ‘fixed’ poets in borrowing new media forms for their work.


| | Figure 4: A shot of the poem [Z] in the installation/poem series [XYZ], by Mary Flanagan, which uses the constraints of video game conventions to construct the logic of the work. [XYZ] is a group of three interactive poems written for each spatial axis in a 3D game engine. Readers navigate the poem as though they were playing a platform video game, and choose words from the poem to send to an “über poem” created by readers in the gallery. This poem series is created in Unity software. | |

It is only natural for creative works to evolve with their media. As poetry goes online in dynamic, linked, interconnected ways, it will change in ways we cannot yet predict. Note that before the invention of the printing press, it was difficult to have a standardized version of a poem or a consistent copy of a translation… The same goes too for an era of networked culture where participation can happen around the world. The evolution, the “becoming” of poetry is natural and exciting to me.

SR: It is not difficult to find musical artists now who have achieved success while having never learned to play a musical instrument like a piano, cello or saxophone, but instead use digital music software to remix or create new music. As a poet who started his writing career with works written in collaboration with interactive text-generating software, I can’t help but feel a connection to these digital musicians whose music is built out of samples from other people’s original works. Do you also see broader connections between the work you do and the work of artists in other media?

MF: I like that you use the word “collaboration.” I think of most digital poetry as a collaboration – first with the computer and code constraints, or the program you are using; it might be a collaborative process using various source material, or a process where the reader/viewer/participant needs to interact in order to create the work; the network or visitors might be linked in the formation of the work, and these too might be collaborators, or facilitate collaboration… There are many ways to go about making creative work… Some people become interested in the history and theory of something because they are making it and this making helps them be passionate about discovering more. I believe that this is the case for the musician you note. Likely, someone who goes the ‘untrained’ route will take up more formal music practices as he or she wishes to grow in creativity and compositions. Successful folks tend to become more curious about traditions in their areas when they realize they are not the first to do something. Time is cyclical.

I was not trained as a poet before I started writing poetry (do most people wait for their first class?) and like many, I’m far better now that my passion and interest in language has driven me to learn more about poets and poetry. This is how I found HD for example.

Right now, I feel a resemblance to Imagist poets. I think I have a strong affinity for the 29th century avant garde.

SR: In the introduction to your book Critical Play, a study of artist and activist created games, you open with this question: “What if some games, and the more general concept of ‘play,’ not only provide outlets for entertainment but also function as means for creative expression, as instruments for conceptual thinking, or as tools to help examine or work through social issues?” I feel like play is a major part of what I do while writing with text-generating programs, as the interface makes it seem like a game with no serious consequences, although writing through texts with it requires me to think in radically different ways than I would while writing “normally.” I’d like to hear more about your ideas of play as something that can be serious, and about how it might connect fields as disparate seeming as poetry and video games.

MF: The creative act is very playful and it is very serious. We are there to produce something. As makers, we set up constraints and rules for the work: I will draw figures; I will weld; I will write a sonnet; I will work in watercolor; I will write a haiku. The best works tend to be those that expand from their constraints to become something … else. Makers often break their own rules, at least a little, to achieve the incredible. Writers and artists have used some form of play to discover new things for eons, but we only have good documentation on this from the 20th century. Dada artists and writers such as Djuna Barnes followed stream of consciousness, or “automatic,” techniques in her poetry and drawing work. André Breton and Paul Soupault locked themselves in a room for 10 hours at a time and over the span of several months to create the jointly written automatic novel The Magnetic Fields in 1919. Surrealists played parlor games like Cadavre Exquis to tap the unconscious in the 1930s. Fluxus artists offer some good examples, as well–Yoko Ono’s Painting to See the Skies is one. It should be taught in 20th Century poetry classes.


| | Figure 5: Painting to See the Skies by Yoko Ono. | |

Funny you should mention text generators. Christopher Strachey used the built-in random number generator of the Ferranti Mark 1 to generate texts intended to express and provoke emotions. He wrote a program called Loveletters in 1952 to, well, craft a series of algorithmic love letters. They are playful, funny, and really profound. I want to get a loveletter like that! This work uses language to help us see and feel the world in a new way. To me, that’s poetry.


| | Figure 6: Excerpt from Loveletters by Christopher Strachey (1952). Now Online. | |

SR: Your digital poem [theHouse] was created with the open-source software Processing, and it is freely available to view on your website and in the Electronic Literature Collection (Vol. 1). Do you have any strong opinions or thoughts on self-publication and making your work freely available for download?

MF: I think for emerging fields it is fine to give the work away. That’s not the hardest part. Its getting the work to the right people that is the challenge. Finding really great venues, or a network of people who like this kind of work, is a challenge. The best things about publication are that writers find a community of readers and a community of other writers in which to grow. In the many new online journals and groups, there are more opportunities, but also more fragmentation between communities. I keep thinking that the larger journals will take the lead, or larger organizations at least, to help gather what seems to be a dispersed community. The variety of journals going completely online is incredible and rich, but the venues are decentralized and browsing will have to be rethought. Now that many journals are moving to online publication, I worry about people being able to find the writing! We need to get better at building community and inserting poetry into everyday digital life. The web is a very full place.

Triple Canopy and Drunken Boat are two online journals that celebrate dynamic media, as does the net.art portalTurbulence.org. Fence has just gone online. It would be a logical next step that the journals would be linked through various poetry portals. We’ll see how it evolves.

SR: What other options for publication are there for digital works at the moment, since print publication for such work is for the most part unfeasible or impossible? Also, do you worry that these works might become inaccessible as the technologies that sustain them eventually become unsupported and obsolete?

MF: I like public poetry, so figuring out where that happens is something that should be on our agenda as poets. In NYC, for example, the transit project Poetry in Motion came back due to popular demand. There’s contemporary poetry on the wall of the Reykjavik airport. I want poetry in my face! For it to interrupt my day.

Archiving is an issue. My old VRML works are hell to run. Even some of my old screenshots are corrupt and just show a grey box. Printing out one’s code is one awkward way to do it… That said, I’m more interested in making than in preserving. We do need both, though.

SR: What advice would you give to young poets, programmers, web designers, artists, etc., who are interested in becoming digital poets?

MF: Bring poetry to weird places. Code your heart out. Be obsessive. Don’t be afraid to follow your voice. Make things in spite of other’s advice to do something more commercially viable. Insert the poetic where we’d least expect it. Get people to notice.

Let poetry be poetry, digital or not. Let creative things surprise us. We may well find that categories for poetry are changing. That’s ok. Some might say that it is the job of science and technology to be concerned with the future, and that humanists and writers are happier looking to the past. This isn’t quite fair to the creative disciplines in which we are engaged. Poetry has always been a forward-thinking discipline. Don’t forget to look forward.