The New Work of Composing

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A Surfeit of Meaning?

One reason for examining how Born relates to a historical literary tradition of the avant-garde is that it helps us understand what might be the broader audience appeal of Born's work. The majority of Born's audience, which typically averaged 20,000 to 30,000 readers a month, are those who would not typically pick up a literary magazine. We know this from a decade of interest shown at diverse conferences and feedback from readers. Born is in many ways mainstream, so when one thinks "avant-garde," likely Born isn't the first venue that comes to mind (if ever).

Somewhat to our surprise, the most resistance to Born's work usually comes from circles that otherwise embrace (at least academically) the avant-garde, as they raise core questions about the role of image and sound in Born's literary art works. In presentations of our contributors' work in literary and writing-focused venues, we often hear concerns that the pieces privilege or make literal the image or the use of sound manipulates the viewer's experience/reading of the poem—in other words, a key establishment of poetry (and often writers themselves), while enthusiastic about the potential of multimedia, also expresses profound unease with this melding (muddling?) of genres. We are not here to argue whether or not such concerns are true or good (isn't poetry a manipulation of sounds in the form of language, for emotional effect?), but we do posit that these blended works are in part an expression of the designer's experience of the works in discourse with the writer. If one thinks, for example, of the exquisite corpse game, there is an inherent belief that disparate things naturally connect and produce something revelatory that is beyond our intention. To some extent, this is a way to justify Born's collaborations—that they produce a surfeit of meaning that is pleasurable and provocative, and as with the French literary avant-garde, points to a (Romantic) belief that the irrational and subconscious suggest underground connections between the rational or the obvious and things related. This experience is brought to its greatest expression in the Born project You and We, with the readers being both composers and readers of intentionality.

Another aspect to examine when considering the literary audience's unease toward Born's work may be found in our notions of the word "literary" itself, which is rooted in printed text, and in turn causes us to wonder how or if multimedia will define literary arts to the degree the invention of writing changed poetry in ways distinct from its oral origins.

For example, Born's struggle with its business card tagline—"art and literature. together."—maintains the traditional view of separateness between the two art forms, with "together" evoking a kind of cohabitation. We sometimes use "literary/arts" to describe our collaborations, to allow for both blending and an appreciation for the distinct qualities of literary arts. However, "literary" essentially means "writings" (from the Latin litera: letter of the alphabet), so then how to regard Born's conception of And the Ship Sails On? While the original written poem can be accessed via an html link, in the interpreted Born version, there is no "writing" at all, that is, not in the visible sense of literature. Thus when it comes to Born's work, "text" may be a more accurate term, as Walter J. Ong notes that text "is from a root meaning 'to weave'" (13). Our works weave together the visual and literary arts. But, unlike text, the word "literary" evokes a quality, an art form, while "text" lacks a sense of something to be experienced.

There is something about considering the relation to multimedia and the written word that reveals the excitement and resistances that congregate about multimedia compositions in the literary world. Ong notes, "without writing, words have no visual presence, even when the objects they represent are visual. They are sounds" (31). Multimedia is both reintroducing sound to poems and stories: now we can hear the author's spoken, not just written, voice in a publication (and in the case of Tisha B'Av, the poet's revision between the written and spoken, creating a new composition from the written). To apply Ong's point that writing cannot truly capture sound, multimedia can actually capture the spoken word within its text.

Further, multimedia can also create a different sense of presence by incorporating new ways of visualizing which, to some current literary audiences, feels distracting or foreign. In the face of protest or confusion about what we do at Born, Ong and others remind us that structure, narrative, and other architectures of storytelling were changed by the technology of writing, moving from a sole reliance upon sound/mnemonic devices to incorporate visual cues. That multimedia creates new possibilities (and confines) in its incorporation of new forms helps explain resistance to the visual that we experience when we present our work ("it privileges the image") while at the same time we don't receive complaints that the visual word "dominates" the sound or vice versa. (An aside—these expressions of discomfort are perhaps inevitable when we consider the ancient complaints that the invention of writing was charged with ruining everything from the arts to memory.)

Again returning to Ong, he discusses the relationship of oral forms and written forms to memory, stating "in an oral culture, restriction of words to sound determines not only modes of expression, but also thought processes" (33). There are a number of studies showing how forms of new media are shaping the minds of our youth, so it is logical to presume it will shape the way we think of literary arts, and in turn what we think of, think is, poetry. Multimedia challenges our written literary culture to restructure words into other kinds of "texts"—what does the word and the poem become when they move? When we put a visual image in motion, we call it film or animation. When we make a word cinematic, we are left with a cliché of "poetry in motion." And it is still recognized as a written poem. Stretching Ong's point that early print still preserved sound dominance (versus our current sight dominance) can help explain: our era of early multimedia literary arts is still very much sight/word dominated. (The aptly named project poemsthatgo wonderfully underscored how multimedia is exposing the difficulties of applying current literary language to multimedia.)

In its final years, Born considered publishing works that we deemed literary, yet did not incorporate any visual text; this shift was a direct response to our discussions with audiences about our blended works and on the distinctions between a poem, a short story, and film. Previous to multimedia publications, the difference between a film and a poem needed little scholarly intervention to the mainstream viewer: You watched films, and you read a poem. Earlier cinematic pieces in Born, such as My Neighbor's Wife, maintain the presence of written language and thus maintain this easy distinction. However, as contributors submitted more filmic interpretations, such as And the Ship Sails On, it became increasingly difficult for us to determine the applied distinctions between genres.

In The Visible Word, Johanna Drucker meticulously explicates the historical traditions(s) that left a legacy of the visual being defined in exclusion of the linguistic or literary (4), and the responses to Born's work and the definitional struggles we face as editors seem in part rooted in this historical separateness. Drucker's examination is helpful in that it also suggests we lack a grammar for understanding the bringing together of these forms. Drucker writes, "unlike language, in which words, letters, phonemes, and morphemes have clearly defined identities and where rules of grammar and syntax are at least identifiable, the visual domain has no set rules defining what elements within an image are 'signs' and which are not and what the grammar of their relations might be" (45). When we present Born's work, the main discussion rarely turns to the process of collaboration (our mission) and composition (except for queries on how to submit one's work), but rather focuses on how to read these pieces. These are writers and teachers struggling with this, and thus we find it helpful to turn to historical examples to argue and illuminate, perhaps to legitimatize, Born's use of "non-literary" forms in multimedia literary arts.

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