This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
(Extract from: Muse of the Long Haul Thirty-One Isles of the Creative Imagination)
Copyright, Dr Ian Irvine, 2013 all rights reserved. All short extracts from the texts discussed are acknowledged and used under fair usage related to ‘review’ and theoretical ‘critique’ contained in international copyright law. Cover image: Cover image for first CD Rom edition of the Animist, 1998. Design copyright Ian Irvine 1998 (includes several images by Deanne Bail, copyright 1998.) All other images designed by Ian Irvine with assistance from Sue King-Smith. Publisher: Mercurius Press, Australia, 2013. NB: This piece is published at Scribd as part of a series drawn from the soon to be print published non-fiction book on experiential poetics entitled: Muse of the Long Haul: Thirty-One Isles of the Creative Imagination.
Island Twenty-Two – Isle of Poetry Machines and Virtual Writers
But the great World-tree bears a more painful burden than mortals can conceive. In the well of Hvergelmer, in the black realm of Nifel-heim, is the corpse-eating dragon Nidhog, ‘the lower one’, which chews constantly at the root; above four giant harts are ever eating its buds and its leaves; on its side, Age rots it; and many serpents gnaw its tender fibres. For there never was good to which evil came not.1
I first came across ‘The Nine Worlds’ and ‘The Dusk of the Gods’ (a rewrite of the later sections of the ‘Prophesy of the Seeress’—also known as the Voluspa) in MacKenzie’s highly accessible volume Teutonic Myths and Legends. Mackenzie’s version of ‘The Nine Worlds’ seems to have been pieced together from early cosmological sections in ‘The Prophesy of the Seeress’ (perhaps tacked on to other significant texts by a Dark Age poet drawing on earlier oral sources). MacKenzie’s translation displays something of the profound vision behind the mythological and literary traditions associated with Norse paganism and readers are given a rare insight into the vastness, and strangeness, of that tradition’s cosmology. In ‘The Nine Worlds’ we are invited to step outside mortal limitations in order to confront the vast geography of the Norse cosmos. As the narrative unfolds, past, present and future blur into one as a series of visions are conjured up before our eyes. In many respects the terse verbal descriptions of characters and places remind us of a camera slowly panning its way across an alien terrain populated by Gods, giants, elves, dwarfs, and other creatures. Dominating the scene is Ygdrasil, the ‘World-ash’ otherwise known as ‘The Tree of Existence’. To look squarely at this tree is, in a sense, to escape time as we understand it since: ‘It grows out of the past, it lives in the present, and it reaches towards the future.’2 The tree’s three roots go down into the three worlds of the dead: Hela’s glittering plains (for the happy dead), Mimer’s well (of Wisdom and Memory) and Nifel-heim (a gloomy place below which lie ‘the nine realms of torture’ [Nifel-hel] reserved for wicked souls). The dominating presence of Ygdrasil disposes us to a vertical vision of the Norse universe and after the close-ups (relatively speaking) of the early part of the narrative we find out imagination enlarged even further by the latter part which treats us to an extraordinary long-shot:
Now these are the divisions of the Universe. In the midst is the earth, Midgard, which is encircled by the ocean. On high, and above all else, is Asgard, and below it is the realm of white elves, who flit between the branches of the great World-tree. Then Vana-Heim, the home of the Vana-gods, is in the air and in the sea; and in the depths of the western sea is the Hall of Aeger, god of Ocean. Alf-Heim, the home of elves, is to the east. In the lower world, below Nifel-heim, are the Nifel-hel regions of torture, and under Midgard are the Hela realms of Mimer and of Urd. Far below the path of the Gods towards Hela’s fields of bliss are Surtur’s deep dales on the borders of Muspel-heim … Jotun-heim is to the north and the east, beyond the world’s edge.
The traditional setting for the latter part of ‘The Prophesy of the Seeress’ (the Voluspa)—and as with everything else about this piece the scholars are not in full agreement here—seems to be Asgard, where Odin has summoned the seeress from her grave to appear before the Gods to give them counsel. She seems to float in the air as she sings/ prophesies on the end of the Universe
Mackenzie, Donald. A. [Editor] ‘The Nine Worlds’ p.14 in Teutonic Myths and Legends. Mackenzie, Donald. A. [Editor] ‘The Nine Worlds’ p.13 in Teutonic Myths and Legends.
(at least as run by the Asgard deities). As her performance warms up, moving from cosmological scene setting to predictions of future events, her tone changes: The Age of Evil hath come upon earth—the Knife Age, the Axe Age, and the Age of Cloven Shields.3 We are thus introduced to a fundamental anxiety latent in the entire Norse tradition. The world tree is ever under threat and the Gods, since they are not all-powerful, are quite capable of being defeated by superior powers from ‘other’ parts of the Universe. The end time will be known as ‘Ragnarok’— the ‘Dusk of the Gods’ (as MacKenzie translates the term). Monotheistic traditions have perhaps freed us from the kind of divine anxieties that permeated Norse paganism—the question is: at what cost? In a sense we humans are more likely to do our bit to preserve balance between the various complex realms of possible existence, the various worlds, if we feel that the Gods have weaknesses too, if they can sicken, be defeated, perhaps even die. If, also, the World-tree (as a symbol for the natural world generally) is also capable of being felled. The Gods and Ygdrasil are thus central to the well-being of all of the worlds—even the souls of the dead sporting on Hel’s beautiful plains are dependent upon the tree since it gives life and sustenance to the various realms that it penetrates (including Midgard). It is also crucial to the wellbeing of the Gods, and the mortal world and various otherworlds, in the Norse understanding, are dependent on it and thus each other. The relationship network is quite different to that of the world’s monotheistic religions where God handles everything in all realms from a perfect place of rest (being all powerful and all-knowing, etc.). Christians do not worry, for example, about the stability of the ‘afterlife’. The Norse view of the cosmos as a vast network of worlds is an appropriate metaphor for this section of the book. My first encounters with the world-wide-web progressed not unlike the ‘Nine Worlds’ piece discussed above—at first I treated it more or less like an electronic encyclopaedia whilst staying focused upon my PhD research topic. Gradually, however, the full vision of its global communicational possibilities became apparent to me and as with the last section of the ‘Prophesies of the Seeress’ discussed above it dawned on me sometime in 1998 that the whole world of writing (including the nature of publishing, research, libraries, etc.) was about to change in profound ways. The dead ‘seeress’ was singing of a new order but it takes time to absorb the full implications of such strange music. Of course, it is part of the position description of writers and artists to occasionally stumble upon ‘worlds within worlds’—hidden worlds, in a sense, there to be discovered at exactly the right moment. Such discoveries sometimes have a transpersonal feel about them. This is certainly the way I view the ‘realms’ of the internet that opened up to Sue, John Holton and I in 1998. In retrospect it was as though I was, in some strange way, pre-programmed to become a ‘writer’ and ‘editor’ in such a world. The traditional role of the ‘writer/poet’ does not, in truth, sit all that comfortably with me, and yet in many respects it sometimes seems that the new ‘transpersonal relational’ role I’ve been
Mackenzie, Donald. A. [Editor] ‘The Dusk of the Gods’ (also known as Voluspa or ‘The Prophesy of the Seeress’) p.177 in Teutonic Myths and Legends
looking for , has yet to be birthed—though for a time between 1998 and 2001 I felt it to be very close. Clearly, we editors of The Animist bypassed traditional literary gatekeepers to dwell, for a time, on the Isle of the Virtual Writers. It could be argued that many of the major avant garde movements of the twentieth century, including, among others, Imagism, Dada, Surrealism, Flux, the Situationists and Oulipo probably find their ultimate expression in the new web and digital technologies of the late 20th century—early 21st. It is also quite possible that this new environment will represent their ultimate neutralisation. These technologies have already altered traditional processes of literary and artistic production in significant ways—they’ve also revolutionised the reading experiences of audiences. Such technologies are, of course, related to the so-called ‘information revolution’ of the mid-to-late twentieth century. The e-journal Sue, John and I edited in the late 1990s served as our initiation into the Brave New World of electronic literature. Like many of the most interesting things that have happened to me in my creative life the idea for The Animist simply arrived one day as a concept in late 1997. Sue and I were backpacking through central and South East Asia—specifically we were 3,000 meters up in the Annapurna mountains on the border between Nepal and Tibet. We’d had a gruelling three days of hiking and were just beginning to get fit. Our guide had headed back to town to collect other tourists and as we left the camp for our first day hiking on our own we felt an amazing sense of freedom as we strolled along in the cool mountain air. The views were breathtaking with deep treeclad valleys all around and the icy peaks of the Annupurnas (to 7,000 meters) on our right. As we walked the rocky mountain path through villages, farmland and occasional woodland we talked and it was then that we came up with the idea for The Animist. It struck us that it might be fun, upon returning to Australia, to start an e-journal (rather than a print journal such as we’d been contemplating publishing for a few years). The details were sketched in later sitting in a café in Kathmandu eating delicious apple pie with cream, reading Indian poetry and with me stressing about the next round of anti-rabies injections: I’d been bitten by a dog on an island in Thailand and had to go through a series of dodgy injections as we travelled. At its inception, and given what we were seeing on our travels, there was both a literary and a socio-political impetus behind The Animist. Put simply the Western world’s intellectual and creative traditions seemed a long way off. We also decided we’d like to get our own poetry, fiction and non-fiction writings (on psychology, sociology and mythology/spirituality) up online as well as the work of some of our friends. Perhaps the sheer freedom of the mountains helped us for a moment to escape the ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’ of conventional Western literary models, either way the experience was to be profoundly transformative. In a sense our distrust of the mainstream media also gave us the courage to have a go—The Animist was, after all, first envisaged as a form of ‘independent’ or ‘alternative’ media. Like all formal innovators we also held to a belief that originality of creative expression often goes hand in hand with technological innovation. A new medium represented the possibility of new forms of writing and art—perhaps writing was about to become more interactive, more non-linear. We intuitively felt that such formal innovations might be more expressive of the various dialectical forces evident in postmodern culture. The globalising and democratising possibilities of the new media also appealed to us early on—again we were thinking of the socio-political possibilities for new forms of ‘critique’ and ‘empowerment’ of otherwise suppressed minorities. When we returned to Australia—more specifically to our five acre block about twelve kilometres south-east of Bendigo—Sue’s father, Peter, provided us with a slick new high powered computer and in-between finishing my PhD and looking for work and Sue working we set about
becoming proficient in all the programs required to produce a state of the art online literary/cultural journal. Unwittingly we were taking on the roles of 21st century ‘cyber editors’—and there was no ‘manual’ in the ordinary sense, we were making things up as we went along. It still seems bizarre that we could connect with hundreds of established (and emerging) poets, theorists, musicians, fiction writers and artists from all over the world out of our small log-cabin in the Central Victorian bush. I remember designing web-pages late at night in our half-completed log-cabin—some nights I could hear the wind whistling through gaps in our upper-story ceilings! I wrote and edited two storeys up, overlooking a gentle slope down to our duck, fish, frog and tortoise populated dam. An especially beautiful time of the day was dusk when the sun sets among the tangle of grey-box gums at the back of the dam. This was around the same time we’d enrolled in short story classes at Bendigo TAFE with Justin D’Ath and as discussed elsewhere Justin emphasised both the importance of editing (of making one’s writing ‘bullet-proof’) and the importance of ‘seeking an audience’ by saying ‘yes’ to virtually every writing related opportunity that presents itself. Just as importantly Justin’s advice had me seeking to publish poems, stories and non-fiction pieces. Given the convergence of our own interest in the world wide web and Justin’s encouragement to seek an audience anywhere and everywhere it was inevitable that the internet—which had morphed by this stage into a gigantic global brain—would be part of our publications plan. We were keen to build our profiles as writers and knew that getting into the big print journals would be hard work initially—so why not seek publication online. After publishing the first two editions of The Animist things moved rapidly and within a year it became clear that we were part of an international avant garde movement determined to revolutionise all knowledge transmission networks—including that associated with conventional notions of ‘literature’. Due to the reduced costs associated with online publishing a revolution in the relationship of writers/creators and cultural gate-keepers (as well as to ‘readers’) was well and truly underway. We found ourselves taking on responsibilities as editors that we were only barely prepared for. After the first two editions we began receiving submissions from major writers, poets and thinkers from all over Australia and internationally. Likewise many of our friends appeared in the journal—Justin D’Ath, Sara Douglass, Harry Oldmeadow, Dianne Dempsey, etc. Obviously there were lots of people out there in the writing community who approved of what we were doing and wanted to be a part of it. I still appreciate and feel connected to many of the people who submitted work to us or kindly agreed to be interviewed—people like Anne Skea, Carmel Bird, Peter Robinson, Coral Hull, David Prater, Beth Spenser, Sherry Anne Jacobs, Sally Odgers and many others. We crossed some threshold of ‘literary responsibility’ around edition two or three that also transformed our perception of what it meant to be writers —something to do with being on the other side of the writer-publisher divide. The experience freed us from a lot of the bullshit in the literary world, at the same time as it proved to us that being a writer is also about giving to the community of writers. During those years it also became clear to me that the days of traditional print journals and publishing houses were numbered. I observed with quiet awe the emergence in the US of independent, Print on Demand and e-Book publishers with global online distribution systems (e.g. Booksurge and I-universe). I also observed the growth of online booksellers like Amazon.com with their revolutionary web-based sales technologies. Even the idea of the ‘book’ was changing as the new interactive and multimedia technologies altered older literary forms or birthed completely new ones. I’ll never forget the day an e-book arrived on CD from an Australian e-book publisher, nor the day I first downloaded a complete e-
novel in PDF format complete with cover images on page one. It was the day I realised that a range of literary ‘middle men and women’ dependent, to some extent, on their ability to mediate risk for publishers in the old print world were about to see their job descriptions altered significantly. For good or ill, publishing had become cheaper and global (distribution costs fell significantly in the digital environment). It was clear that as data transfer speeds accelerated and reading devices became more friendly and cheap the traditional media (including publishers of books, music, film, radio, magazines and newspapers) would have to adapt or go-under. The bottom line seemed to me to be ‘democratisation’—anyone could get published in this new environment. Information overload, secure income streams for digital writers and feelings of insignificant in the face of global were the new issues faced by writers in a digital universe. We sensed early on that the gate-keeping role would shift from corporate publishers (and owners of other established media) to online reviewers/promoters. This power-shift has accelerated recently with the advent of a range of audience dominated online gatekeepers. Epiphanies concerning the true role of writing and communication systems generally in a society came thick and fast in those years, often triggered by the innovative content we were receiving by email. I remember staring at a short piece of video art—an animated gif sent by email— for hours watching its colours pulse and flare onscreen. Some of the world’s first audio files ever to appear in a literary ezine are to be found in The Animist—they were low quality Real Audio files recorded by musicians and performance poets. This occurred some years before the general advent of Podcasts and the like. I remember thinking at the time that ‘performance poets’, so long excluded from paper-based literary journals, had returned to the literary fold. In each edition we also tried to feature online ‘art galleries’ (sometimes with animated gifs), text-art hybrids, music-text hybrids, as well as background midi music files and more etc.—see the February 1999 and January 2000 editions (held at the Pandora Archives) to get some sense of the bizarre modifications we were making to print-based literary journals via The Animist. All this on top of traditional text based poems, stories, critical essays, book reviews, etc. I also recall an email exchange with the National Library of Australia in Canberra—after only two editions they were seeking permission to save the e-pages of The Animist for permanent cultural preservation under what they called the Pandora project. The seven editions of the journal are still available online as a consequence. The permanence of the Pandora archiving project also frightened us into taking the whole Animist project much more seriously—we didn’t want to be remembered for substandard editing! We must have done a reasonable job because in 2001 we were ranked among the top ten literary e-zines in the world by Encyclopaedia Britannica—the only other Australian lit-zine in the rankings was Jacket Magazine, edited by well known innovative poet John Tranter. I recall the excitement I felt after receiving by email a remarkable interactive ‘chance operations’ poem by US multimedia artist and poet Jennifer Ley—it arrived complete with instructions for getting the attached randomiser program to work correctly on-line. Once set-up, a simple click on an icon triggered the randomiser program, making it select a line of poetry from the dozen or so that constituted the raw content of the poem. Clearly, in this environment a poem was no longer frozen text but could be made to come to life through the interactive choices of online readers—almost like an organic, living, flexible entity that could be approached from various
directions. The possibility of an infinite poem embedded in life itself—as per Oulipean imaginings— became a reality. In a sense ‘chance operations’ (as theorised by John Cage and others) ,as well as Oulipean constraints based techniques, were beginning to merger in the multimedia, web-based environment. Jennifer Ley’s ‘poem’ was eventually archived in the US due to its formal innovations—a historic moment for both the poet and the editors of The Animist. The possibilities for avant gardist experimentation in a new media environment seemed (and still seem) limitless. I also got involved at one stage with a group of international ezine editors intent on protecting would be writers from e-journals that were being set-up as covers for advertising. Given the global aspect to the scene many writers were feeling ripped off by unscrupulous web operators. The idea of ILEF (Internet Literary Editors Fellowship) was to hook up writers seeking publication with an international group of literary ezines prepared to maintain ethical standards related to the treatment of submissions, copyright protection, submission response times, publications presentations standards, etc. (we signed up 30 of the world’s leading lit-zine editors almost overnight). The experience was interesting since one of the issues we were dealing with was the low level of economic return that marked e-journal publishing on the web at that time. It ended up being the issue that forced us to stop publishing the journal since we could not see a way to make a living out of being literary ‘cyber editors’. Apart from our participating in the web/digital revolution as an e-journal editor I was also participating as a ‘cyber-poet/writer’. Again the experience was both exciting and strangely disorienting. Expectations concerning what it meant to be ‘published’ revolved around the ‘print’ model I’d grown up with. Although I was getting poems, stories and non-fiction pieces published in various online journals—both overseas and in Australia—there was a sense abroad that e-publication somehow counted for less than print publication. The ephemeral nature of the new medium—e.g. having to quickly save html pages to hard-drive before they disappeared forever—seemed to suggest for a time that print publishing might win out after all. Over a decade on, however, one would be hard-pressed to find an old-style publisher prepared to put money on the survival of the book (as print object) into the next century. In my case the web allowed me to get published internationally in both e-journals and print journals, since many print journal editors were willing to accept email submissions of essays, poems etc. Within two years I’d been published in high quality e and print journals in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the UK and the US. My coming out as a writer in late 1998 just so happened to coincide with the biggest revolution in writing since the invention of the Guttenberg Press. The kind of writer I’d dreamed of becoming as a youngster received a serious make-over during these years—I had to come to terms with the fact that the cultural archetype of ‘the writer’ is increasingly formulated as that of a ‘cyber writer’ (especially among under forties). Indeed in 2006 US poet Kenneth Goldsmith famously said, ‘If you aren’t on the internet [as a writer/poet] you don’t exist!’ In my experience the roles associated with the terms ‘writer’, ‘publisher’, ‘editor’, ‘reader’, ‘reviewer’ etc. are fundamentally different in the new environment. People also think differently in a new media environment and the writing experience is consequently different—as is the reading experience. The textual exchange between reader and author has altered significantly due to interactivity, non-linearity (of the reading experience), hypertext linking, poetry/text generation machines and experiments in communal writing. It is highly likely that by 2020 or so online literary journals will review both new poetry collections by conventional poets (second order creators) and new ‘poetry machines/programs’ created by ‘poets’ who have teamed up with programmers to create programs others can use to
create poetry (first order creators). The idea of a poet will need to expand from someone who simply writes a ‘poem’ to someone who facilitates poetic interactivity for others by providing a poetry environment (e.g. ‘a poetry machine’) for second order poets to make creative use of. This could develop to some extent the historic relationship between poets who simply create poems in a given style (i.e. without formal innovation) and poets who help birth new forms in poetry, i.e. who develop a radical new ‘poetic’ (e.g. expressionism/surrealism/imagism, etc.) capable of influencing the composition choices of others. At present the poetry machines on the web are mostly uninspiring, simplistic and grammatically dodgy, this will change however, as more poets committed to a relational poetic (i.e. poets who are less ‘individualistic’ and tied to old paradigm models of the ‘poet’) team up with programmers. As with ‘gaming’ software, it is possible for poets and even fiction writers to harness the new technologies to produce either inspiring or uninspiring, literary or populist works. It is worth noting at this juncture that portable electronic ‘readers’ that feel like books in the readers’ hands are now flooding the market globally—these ‘e-book readers’ can usually do many other things as well e.g. play music, access the web, display pictures/movies etc.. More and more multimedia add-ons to ‘books’ are appearing as we see a convergence of media forms. Similarly, we are well on the way to a global e-book database through which customers can purchase individual books from all nations and all eras for instant download to hand-held reading/viewing devices. We predicted this eventuality early on in articles written for The Animist. No doubt a degree of confusion will reign for some years yet before the new model stabilises—though my guess is that more innovation is on the way. Like an encounter with the ‘many worlds’ of the Norse seeress that we encountered earlier I suspect that the internet still has many wonders to reveal to us. After the digital revolutions of the 1990s ‘we are no longer in Kansas’ and print books, newspapers, magazines, etc. are, in all probability, doomed. Not soon enough for the forests of the earth! I hear the progressives among you mutter.
Words from a 22nd Century Poetry Machine to a Second Order Poet We have built you a poetry machine it took us a lifetime and we’re yours for the sampling— you can access our words and moods the remorse of failed relationships, the many happy hours and the long in-between days. Do not expect to possess us completely these words mere intercourse— your impulse, our logarithmic fertility— an appetizer only: let’s not clone the encounter. Begin instead with an exchange of creative acids, of aqua vitae, for the alchemists had many recipes, they’re integral to our program. Think of us as an infinite blue-print to your specified imaginings. Think of our machine as a God and remember: Gods are flexible and easily bribed. That said feel free to smithy the sentence.
Author Bio (as at June 2013)
Dr. Ian Irvine (Hobson) is an Australian-based poet/lyricist, writer and non-fiction writer. His work has featured in publications as diverse as Humanitas (USA), The Antigonish Review (Canada), Tears in the Fence (UK), Linq (Australia) and Takahe (NZ), as well as in a number of Australian national poetry anthologies: Best Australian Poems 2005 (Black Ink Books) and Agenda: ‘Australian Edition’, 2005. He is the author of three books and co-editor of three journals and currently teaches in the Professional Writing and Editing program at BRIT (Bendigo, Australia) as well as the same program at Victoria University, St. Albans, Melbourne. He has also taught history and social theory at La Trobe University (Bendigo, Australia) and holds a PhD for his work on creative, normative and dysfunctional forms of alienation and morbid ennui.