Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Reading around in the new EOAGH, a special issue subtitled "Queering Language," dedicated to the late Kari Edwards—and realizing something head-slappingly basic: the modern computer screen is wider than it is tall (like a movie screen, like a #10 envelope, like the lenses of my glasses). A simply profound re-orientation from that of the 8 1/2 x 11 page or the 6 x 9 book, which is taller than it is wide. Is this not a fundamental re-orientation of writing's consciousness?

Cases in point: Jen Hofer's stunning tightrope of a war/culture-of-war poem, "no fiction no belief" ("air grinding in sixes" is a remarkable synthesis of the brute conceptual apparatus that makes "armchair war" possible while also evoking the physical image of a helicopter); Chris Nealon's campy, defiant "(I know prose... )"; David Cameron's witty post-Charlie Chan "The Lemonade Man", which only unfurls horizontally in its last stanzas (I love the title of the manuscript it comes from: Flowers of Bad); and Joe Elliot's long prose poem "An Instruction Manual for Kim Lyons". That last is particularly interesting: the widescreen presentation blurs the boundary between prose and verse. Narrower margins would produce a more ordinary looking prose poems, but the super-wide margins it actually has means that a block of long lines don't really register as paragraphs.

Most of the poems are vertical, as most verse tends to be: isn't that what verse is, the visible tension of the vertical against the horizontal where usually (prose) the vertical is almost totally sublimated? On a computer monitor that means a vast margin of white space on the right side of the screen. The wide screen changes the temporality of reading: it takes longer to read across a wide screen than it does to absorb the relative narrowness of the page. (Actual books wider than they are tall are also slow to read, and I halt and staggers when I encounter poems in books and journals that require you to turn the book on its side. The seeming happy medium, the square page, is unsurprisingly inert.) The almost ideogrammic effect of a short line that can be taken in at a glance is short-circuited by the long strokes from left-to-right required of screen reading. Q: The relation between the change of axis and the queering of language? Thinking of D.A. Powell's poems which tend to emphasize the horizontal, most spectacularly in the case of the gorgeous (yet undeniably awkward to shelve, read, and handle) physical object that is his first book, Tea. The wide page, a derivation of the widescreen experience that in our culture connotes totally immersive virtuality.

Wondering about the availability/desirability of "widescreen" pen-and-paper notebooks. And the end of the screened word as merely transitional toward the printed word. If we can no longer fetishize the book as object, what will we fetishize? Eyeballs and hit counters, probably. In that respect the book as nostalgic object has some dialectical critique value: it is actually less of a commodity, less reducible to pure exchange, than a web link.

Screened experience is first-world experience and is certainly, as Anne Boyer grimly notes a historical and temporary phenomenon (though the fugee landscape poetry she imagines marks no return to the vertical). As she suggests, representations of futurity are invariably nostalgic (Q: is representation itself invariably nostalgic?) and presume the endless extension of what already is. She derails that with the dystopian, but a utopian interface with the new is also desirable and necessary. We are passing through the screened toward the we-know-not-what. To interface representation with the thinkable. To pass through representation into the not-yet-thinkable.

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