The New Work of Composing

Original Essay 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | download pdf (111kb)
"Every mechanism has as a material its own particular effect upon our impulses. Thus our feelings toward clay and iron, towards the organ and piano, towards colloquial and ceremonial speech, are entirely different." — I.A. Richards, C.K. Ogden and J. Wood "The Medium" Foundations of Aesthetics, 1925 (qtd. Johanna Drucker 68)
"Lofty reflections on the cultural significance of information technology are commonplace now." — Jerome McGann, Radiant Textuality: Literature after the World Wide Web (53)

No Theory but for Practice: Born, Multimedia, & the Avant-Garde

Born is an experimental online magazine that has brought together writers and "new media" designers and artists, who have collaborated to create multimedia interpretations of poetry (and more rarely, short prose). As editors of one of the oldest and longest-running literary publications on the Web, we often receive invitations to share our "vision" of Web poetics, literary multimedia, et cetera. This presents a problem—Born evolved without consciously intending to even focus on poetry (only our most recent incarnation), but rather with an intent to be a creative, collaborative community. As such our work and vision are shaped as much by the interests of our contributors as our volunteer editors and curators.

Furthermore, most of our published works were crafted in print and then interpreted into multimedia, thus we are not creating multimedia poetry in the tradition of those such as of Loss Pequeno Glazier who have considered the impact of multimedia technology on the composition and craft of poetry itself, and the resulting poetics. However, we do continually find our work raises questions directly relevant to the rising field of "multimedia poetics" (for lack of a better term). How does the medium affect the experience of poetry? In the case of Born, does the transference or interpretation into this medium change the poem—structurally, its language, or otherwise? What does the process of collaboration do to a poem's reading? Actually, while we do on occasion get some of those questions, the most persistent can be distilled to one: "Isn't this just all a bunch of prettified bells and whistles tacked on to the poem?"

We regard this as a question of composing, but not the traditional sense of authorial composing, but rather the effect of blending old and new media, resulting in new kinds of compositions. In thinking about Born and the "new work of composing," we find the above bells-and-whistles question reveals a tension between old and new, and that such uses of technology suggests an anxiety that poetry is insufficient in itself—that media are being employed to create palatable packaging for less serious readers. It is our belief that this is not the case, and that it is illustrative to look at how Born is engaged in a historical praxis of composing and cross-pollinating between media.

To begin, we operate under the assumption that a poem, just like a book, is a perfectly self-sufficient "technology" or creation. As multimedia also becomes a self-sufficient literary technology, Born-style interpretation makes us consider how technology has always shaped conceptions of poetry, especially its conception as something specifically "literary."

And as with any conversation, however, some introductions are in order, beginning with a brief history of Born, and how Born's continually evolving blend of technology and collaboration resonates within larger debates of "non-literariness" in poetry, specifically the literary avant-garde. In brief, what we are suggesting is that Born's contribution to this discussion of the New Work of Composing is to wonder how conceptions of poetry (or even "literary") are challenged by the addition of multimedia technology into poetry, which in turn echoes earlier work of the specifically French literary avant-garde. Born is thus a case study of such theories into practice.

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