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Home > Archive > Recipes & articles > On the Net: Poetry 2.0

by Joe Romano

1 October 2008

Joe Romano is poet. He currently teaches writing at Sacramento City College.

On the Net, For the Net: Poetry 2.0

Thanks to the Internet, poetry is enjoying a modern day Renaissance, providing a platform for artists to create and collaborate on work that cannot be replicated in book form. Shockwave, Flash animation, and mixed media projects offer innovative modes to serve up language and find new audiences. Venues like UBUWEB and LEA display exhilarating pieces, both in language and code. Yet many poetry e-journals simply display material that would otherwise be printed and bound. There’s some brilliant writing up on Jacket, Blackbird, and Poetry Daily, yet press CTRL+P for most of the work on these sites, and the poems will roll off your inkjet as a printed page.

Instead of viewing the Internet as simply another venue for disseminating words on a page, we should recognize and take advantage of new forms that have their genesis online. Words don’t have to be locked in print; instead, language can change and disappear depending on the impulses (and mouse clicks) of a reader. What if this medium reached beyond the book by making the poet and the reader equally responsible for forming the material of a single poem?

This realm of possibility became real when the folks at IDEA commissioned me to construct a poem using a beta version of their newest creation, SpicyNodes. SpicyNodes is a web-based application that enables poets and writers to develop material specific to the virtual world – even in the absence of technical expertise. Essentially, writers insert their lines into radial maps, creating pieces that ask the reader to navigate through the various strands. Scott Siders, a fellow participant in the SpicyNodes Poetry Project, claims the application leaves much of the poem up to the will and imagination of the reader. He says, “The reader has the opportunity to connect the ideas and images together in ways that would be impossible in a more traditional form.” So, if you think of linear print poems as a way to give guided tours through your lyric world, SpicyNodes can help you send readers on a self-guided journey. The nodes allow you to create “Choose Your Own Adventure” poems without the trite, trolls, and instructions.

Processing Nodes

I began experimenting with SpicyNodes by using a linear poem that I’d been stuck on for a couple of months. Unfortunately, the results in nodes were less than spectacular. First, the piece:

Postponed, or even in a state of grace:
How this lies with time in time and you
Carving windows epistles and pictures
On windows imagined centres of towns
Paused at elevation, paused from breath
You say, at a break in the moment until
What hasn’t turned to satellite is fated to
Idle as one moves among the subdivided
Singing ennui to twilit facades
As one sings oneself to sleep.

When I imported this into the interface page, the poem was much too linear to inspire a reader to click from line to line. After all, there’s little else to discover other than the next line, and this type of reading is no different than holding up flash cards in front of an audience:

(illo: Postponed, or even in a state of grace  How this lies with time in time and you)

In retrospect, I realize that I was trying to see how my work would look like up on SpicyNodes. In later drafts of the poem, I re-formulated my approach to see how SpicyNodes’ radial maps could promote language play. Here is how the final version begins:

(illo: “Postponed,” screenshot with four branches)

If you read the entire piece LINK, you’ll notice that the same material in the old, linear version of the poem can be found in the SpicyNodes creation. One notable difference is that I’ve quadrupled the line count and added a multitude of options and endings. I decided against forcing my audience through my initial set of lines. Instead, they can only discover that original opening if they choose to read in a certain direction. Otherwise, there are many other lines to journey through, and if they traipse across additional material to develop an entirely different poem that’s just as (or even more) interesting to them, then great. Essentially, SpicyNodes gives readers the feeling of moving through information so that pieces you import spread into places that a reader can discover on his or her own. Ultra-determinists will see the value of creating a SpicyNodes poem that doesn’t allow various avenues of exploration, but it is also worth recognizing how node poems provide a vastly different reading process than a typical paper piece. In some cases, the more options you create for your audience to explore, the more engaged they’ll become in the navigation through your poem.

Node Poems

As I experimented with SpicyNodes to develop “Postponed,” I found that the strength of node poems lay in the audience’s ability to physical manipulate the lines on the screen as they move through the radial map. Since the application only exposes the nodes that are directly connected to the center word or phrase, I could imbed new ideas and secret phrases throughout the piece. Depending on the content, this can give readers the excitement of discovering new parts of the poem and provoke the experience of finding every statement that contributes to their entire understanding of the piece.

Many poets do not have such a communal view of the reading process. Those who focus more on what they have to say to an audience may not be prepared to write with SpicyNodes, whereas those who are more concerned with how their mode of speech affects an audience will welcome the application. For those writers whose goal it is to present an entire narrative, SpicyNodes would produce a jilted representation that would be easier to comprehend if placed as a single unit on a printed page. For poets whose work experiments with fragmentation, SpicyNodes can provide an enriched medium for their art.

The idea that every section of a poem might not be discovered or understood is nothing new to poetry. This is one of the reasons why we read and re-read poems. We change over time, and while a poem’s ink might stay the same, we garner a new understanding of these previously read poems based on our developing knowledge base and experience. Fragmentation is nothing new for poetry, either. Readers of poetry books are not necessarily expected to peruse every line, and poets hope that people are able to glean something from their work. Perhaps this gleaning will haunt them, thus motivating them to return for more. Or perhaps they will just turn the page.

SpicyNodes condenses this process of learning and discovering, as readers are asked to access node poems differently than they would a traditionally printed poem. As the reader self-selects lines, he or she moves further into the piece, opening up more options along the way. Once they construct their own poem-within-a-poem, they might be inspired to move backwards and discover different avenues. Then again, they might feel satisfied with where they have already gone. Either way, node writers should be prepared to place primary consideration on the reading process as primary, and if a poem’s intent is actually realized, consider that a bonus. This is a given in poetry, but is even more significant in a form where lines may remain secret or ignored.

Thinking in Nodes

There are a few tricks you can employ in order to develop a node poem that offers an indeterminate reading experience. For my own piece, I formed many of the nodes to rely on alliterative progressions and reconfigurations. For instance, if you look back at the previous screenshot, you’ll see that the material’s sound structure and the syllable count bounces from line to line (heavy on e, a, and t, and from 8 to 6 to 7 to 5, depending on your reading order). I wanted these lines to seem like remixes or close alternatives, as if the speaker is constantly starting to speak but then pulling back in order to get the words right. These breaks in sound might also offer a slight downside to the sound and syllable structures in node poems. Following a sentence that spreads through nodes at several depths can be difficult, especially if the parts don’t end on natural breaks in breath. Imagine a (click) poem that moves from (click) node to node and (click) you have to navi (click) gate through. Then again, if you’re looking to disrupt the reading process of long, flowing lines, nodes can do that, too.

The application also allows you to perform interesting maneuvers with grammar and punctuation. Since the readers select which branch they want to follow as they move through the poem, a sentence that is broken into several nodes can take on different grammatical functions. Therefore, a sentence can simultaneously read as declarative and interrogative, depending on the path that’s taken. I took a shot at this with parenthetical statements:

++++++++Yours a water tower
++++++++you tried to climb first
++++++++But had to wait in line
++++++++like every other pause in this place.
+++++++and reservoirs made out of sight.

This allows, for example, multiple speakers to have simultaneous thoughts that end in several different ways. And if readers explore every nook of the piece, they will understand how these various endings juxtapose and relate. With radial maps, your audience can read around the surface of the poem before going deeper into a particular branch. Tina Gagliardi, another participant in the SpicyNodes Poetry Project, begins her poem, “As Dawn Rises”:

+As dawn rises
++through the city
++voices spill out
++over a suburban night

While we are fully able to circumnavi-read this pairing of disembodied voice and light sources, we are also given many options to proceed further into the piece:

(illo: examples of one line that branches from each part of the piece)

Given all this play with language and mechanics, SpicyNodes offers up interesting possibilities for various traditional forms. An OuNodian version of Queneau’s One Hundred Million Million Poems or a translation of a villanelle into a complex set of nodes that provide various options and replacements for typical, linear form could produce interesting results in SpicyNodes. Ditto for free forms. “Drying Season” is a list poem written by Bob Yehling, another poet working on the project. His catalogue of autumnal events and sensations displayed as single identifiers opens up some surprising connections:

(illo: opening display of Yehling’s “Drying Season)

Is there any way to avoid pressing “secrets” first? These are just some ideas to keep in mind as you experiment with your own work. According to Tina Gagliardi, “SpicyNodes is an extremely exciting new tool – as a poet who often tries to experiment with my work to create new forms of poetry…it broke through the barriers of what is available on a standard page.” Even if you focus on creating print-based poems, SpicyNodes offers interesting options for working through your draft process, letting you select a final order and set of lines based on the various options you plug into the interface. Given the application’s ability to link with other sites, integrate into other media, and provide lengthier paragraphs as a subtext to each node, there are plenty of ways to make your work radiate.

Note: For more details on how to go about using the importing functions of SpicyNodes, check out the syntax page. After spending two minutes of hands-on time with the import features, I found working with the application a breeze. I might not be the most tech-ready, but it seemed easier than learning how to use my word processor. Oh, muse, why won’t you inspire me with hints on quick keys?


Joe Romano has lived in Massachusetts, California, and Rheinland-Pfalz. His poems have appeared in West Branch, the Bellevue Literary Review, and Barnstorm, among other places. He currently teaches writing at Sacramento City College. He holds an M.A. in English from U.C. Davis, where he won an Academy of American Poets Prize.

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