Zone : Zero
Stephanie Strickland’s new book comes with an interactive CD containing two digital poems, “The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot” and “slippingglimpse.” Within the book, these poems appear as print sequences, one of which won the Boston Review prize.
“Strickland is one of contemporary poetry’s polymaths: her poetry displays an astonishing command of scientific knowledge (for instance Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem), technical know-how, especially in the realm of electronic poetics, and unusual verbal virtuosity. The pièce de résistance in Zone : Zero is the interactive generative Flash poem ‘slippingglimpse,’ in which text and video, made by using motion capture coding, combine so as to create a genuinely new and distinctive eco-poetry. Readers/viewers will find themselves totally mesmerized.”—Marjorie Perloff
“ ‘. . . mystic immersion / enabled / smite embedding / enabled,’ writes Stephanie Strickland as she launches us into the mysteries of her interior castle, her Zone : Zero. With her extraordinary ear, her crackerjack sense of timing, her genius for structure and her exquisitely dry wit (as in the delicious vaudeville routines of her ‘Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot’), Strickland can lead us down these high stone stairs, through these neurodigital pathways and never lose us, even into her castle keep. And when we find ourselves there, what fierce playfulness awaits us, and what startling pleasures, pleasures indivisible from the victories they embody: ‘And Colette took up this / bread, which was black, / and spat back at Lord Death / the red /pomegranate drops.’ ” —Rachel Loden
“Strickland is an elegant master of metrics and has an uncanny sense for contemporary metaphor coupled with an eye for concrete detail, and that this whole melange survives in digital realms—where the whims of user interaction and the blunt force of algorithm can wreak havoc on lyrical integrity —is all the more remarkable.” —Brian Kim Stefans
To forget what has happened is a sacrament, an access
of power: the furor of these bronze leaves helpless to surround
ball of birdsong
gathered underneath towering
cauldrons of gold.
For nothing do you grieve. They twitter, the sound
careening like curraghs on unnavigable water. Nothing.
Clamor. The wind dies down. Memory
visibly burning in the gold sea of the air,
cinders drifting on the black gold of the ground.
Copyright © 2008 by Stephanie Strickland
Erik Ekstrand interviews Stephanie Strickland at Gulf Coast.
Kate Greenstreet interviews Stephanie Strickland at Bookslut.
“The Wordsworthian free-verse lyric (whose rhetoric uses print-poem techniques which have been around for a long while) is going strong. But when a poem tries out some new technology, lays out new sets of terms and tools for its readers, actually producing new uses and meanings for the act of reading, is when poetry really feels like it’s doing its poetry thing. This is how poetry defines itself. And this is how poetry as a practice is renewed as relevant, applicable, accessible, and understandable: when it opens readers’ own mechanisms for reading language to a slightly unprecedented but shared capability.
“Stephanie Strickland’s Zone : Zero enacts and constitutes this shift. The language and structure of the book arches its ingenuous eye toward an interrogation into what poetry does . . . . The language bestows real tangibility to the experience of the poems. While the business of the poems and their sections progress, there’s also a palpable sense of levity from a lack of the neurotic dialogic double-backing that plagues some lyrical free-verse modes. In a way, Zone : Zero has the best of both poetic-tradition (the one it creates, and the one from which it is born) worlds.” —from the review by Rachel Daley in Jacket.
“For those who wince at the idea that scientific or technological language might be poetic or who otherwise presume poetry and science make for unnatural bedfellows, Stephanie Strickland’s Zone : Zero is sure to prove both challenging and edifying. . . . Strickland’s keen ear and her quirky wit make for a poetry that is both sonically and intellectually beguiling. Ultimately, she strikes a remarkable balance between play and work, between humor and seriousness, between accessibility and complication. . . .
“Reading [‘slippingglimpse’] on the page is quite gratifying, but it truly comes alive in this other form, which visually invokes the play of surfaces by presenting the text in conjunction with video images of ocean surfaces. . . . [W]hat’s fascinating about the resulting piece is less how it was made (as interesting as that may be) than what it is, which is simply beautiful and captivating. In the end, the same can be said of Zone : Zero. It’s the sort of book you want to keep handy, because its surfaces continue to tantalize, and because beneath them one discovers again and again these compelling complexities that refuse to be consumed.” —from the review by David Ray Vance in American Book Review.
“Strickland’s work does not lead the reader toward a singular conclusion derived out of anecdotal experience; her work is about exploring the possibilities and limitations of perception itself . . . . Accompanying the book is a CD containing hypertext versions of two longer poems in the manuscript, ‘The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot’ and ‘slippingglimpse.’ Reading these poems in the context of book – with an implied progression (start on page one, continue linearly to end) – versus reading them on screen with accompanying images and links are wildly different experiences. . . . On the page, this poem’s pleasure is its prosodic adeptness—creating complicated sonic patterning and rhyming—and its intellectual span from a sexualized natural world to the religious garb of Krishna to stars seen in mathematical/geometric terms. In short, Strickland’s music orders her intellect.
“However, if the reader is inclined to upload the CD, a whole new experience unfolds. To call it reading is not accurate. This same poem is laid out against black background, multi-colored text is used, and an image of a large boulder inside an intricate sand garden is in the right upper screen. On the bottom of the page is a string of zeroes, each leading to a section of ‘The Ballad.’ Click on the zeroes from right to left, the reader gets the poem ordered as it is in the book, albeit with an accompanying image. However, if the viewer/reader clicks on the image, he is led to an entirely different section of the poem. Click on the word ‘Achtung,’ the viewer is led somewhere else. This has enormous implications. The poem is not solely a written or vocal act. Rather, it is one firmly entrenched in the contemporary world of digital media—a media that relies on the physical, active participation of the viewer. In this way, the author does not dictate meaning. Rather, meaning is negotiated between artist and audience.” —Joseph P. Wood in New Pages
“‘But never met this Fellow / Attended, or alone / Without a tighter breathing / And Zero at the Bone—’ Stephanie Strickland’s Zone is not just a area of restriction; it is one where number and its limits are revealed, where they play. It is one of zero. One and zero alternate in ‘Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot,’ the Web and print poem about how carbon and silicon, and life and computation, interrelate. This poem and ‘slippingglimpse’ are offered on CD and on the pages. It’s a delight to have them to hand as well as to screen. Strickland is master of the hybrid book of leaves and bits, and she shows her mastery here, one foot on earth, one lifted in air. The book offers poems on war and Gödel, a profound series purportedly about absinthe, and a poem made largely of parentheses. Zone : Zero is a strick land, a spare, encompassing, wonderful sector where nature and language twine.” —Nick Montfort on Grand Text Auto
“What a lot of fabulous word/brain play Stephanie Strickland gives readers in her new Zone : Zero, especially in the long ‘Ballad of Sand (‘silly con’) and Harry Soot’ (‘Harry Soot in a seersucker suit’) with its ‘scar arroyos, worry/furrows, wry sag’—Wow. This is the first of two poems (‘slippingglimpse’ also) that branches on the computer for varied and various readings. The book opens with ‘Constant Quiet,’ a seemingly-sprawled poem about control, and then ‘20/21 Vision’ as centered to the eyes as its topic might suggest. ‘War Day’ and ‘slippingglimpse’ are two ‘boxed’ poems, dazzling variations on the Anglo-Saxon double stanzas. If you're not conversant with contemporary techtalk or the Incompleteness Theorem, you might want to peruse the extensive and fascinating footnotes first as many poems celebrate the brain, artificial and otherwise: ‘A fact//is a failure of two things to be identical.’ (from ‘ The Interior Castle’). The only time the personal is invoked is in the mention of a daughter in ‘Sierra Madre,’ illuminating the entire ‘Absinthe’ series that comes before it. Strickland doesn't flinch from finger wagging at the greats: ‘they take suffering and make it/dangle’ in ‘At Auden's Museum.’ Nor does she neglect the elegy: read ‘Prisoner in the Cave’ and beat on your bars.” —Terese Svoboda at Amazon.com
“In her fifth collection, Strickland (V: WaveSon.nets) continues her investigatory hypertext antics, challenging readers with poem sequences refracted through conceptual use of the page and expansive reading of social and scientific histories. These poems swell with allusion and quotation, capturing the paradox of our contemporary moment’s clipped attention span and obsession with information. We find Lot’s wife and Patti Smith on facing pages; ‘the Half-Life and Quake game engines’ in close proximity to Desert Shield; and the 32-page ‘Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot,’ an enigmatic pairing of characters and their pun-filled adventures (‘Sand panned speed. Languid was she. Oh seeming fast, fine foil for/ de... lay’). Strickland’s poems have an impressive sonic range, from the quotidian and subdued (‘who can open/ who can/ hold it/ constant/ quiet’) to the unbridled (‘a disaster a pilaster and a jailmeister play/ pool.littlegreen willytadpoles//jasper’). Occasionally, Strickland’s copious notes are more intriguing than the poems’ elaborate structural elements; this is due in part, no doubt, to Strickland’s attempt to squeeze work originally designed to take advantage of the bells and whistles of the computer screen into the confines of the page, a problem the accompanying CD, with digital versions of two of the book’s sequences, attempts to solve.” —Publishers Weekly
I come from a family where my father was an electrical and mechanical engineer, a designer, a builder, a plumber, a sound engineer, a sailor. He made his own car—this was Detroit—and it was not so uncommon. People did their own stuff. His father was the same, but a hunter and outdoorsman as well. Consequently, it has never occurred to me that a thing could not be done, if sufficient respect were paid to ‘the laws of nature,’ as my father would have called them.
His knowledge was primarily perceptual, sensing the depth of water by the color, navigating by feel. I was mystified by what he saw ‘in the air’—these laws of nature—for indeed he just ‘saw’ how things worked, the way I might ‘see’ a marigold. And he was frustrated, and I was frustrated, that I could not do the same. Later, of course, he acquired the book knowledge that supported his intuition, but he never trusted books, nor any ‘pencil-pushers’, lawyers, ad men, other nefarious workers in language.
This is a complicated heritage for a child who felt drawn to write.
We moved to Chicago where he was a great appreciator of the marvelous architecture of that city. He bought me books with pictures of buildings, and by fifth grade I wanted to be an architect. I loved math! In some respects, I have become an ‘architect’, an envisioner of digital poem structures. These I do ‘see’ in the air, somehow, and work to make them become real.
My grandmothers had a great influence on me as well. I lived near both of them in Detroit. One, even as an old woman, believed in fairies. These could almost be spied in the thick lilies of the valley growing beside her driveway, or skirting the Queen Anne’s lace that we would stop the car to go see in the field. She had married a German doctor during World War I and was harassed by the local authorities—was she hoarding food in her attic they wanted to know. My grandfather Voigt had been exiled by his mine-owning family in Silesia for helping to organize the mine workers there. [The poem “slippingglimpse” in Zone : Zero uses some language from a Silesian folk tale, “The Passion of the Flax.”] In this country he went from mining to medicine, and died, of blood poisoning contracted during a surgery he was performing, when my mother was 18 months old. Before antibiotics. A great unspoken emptiness at the center of their lives—my mother’s and my grandmother’s.
My grandmother Strickland had an attic that was a third floor of a house! So it was full of rooms and trunks and old books, old journals from the 19th century that were bound as books. She wanted to capture me, perhaps from my mother, certainly from my other grandmother. She was strict and formal and taught me games. She made superb cherry pies, using cherries from the tree in her garden, and hummingbirds came to her window.
My active, archivist grandmothers! The one who believed in fairies had been a suffragist (suffragette, she would have said) and a musician. The other grandmother, the archivist of journals, the Christian Scientist, a woman who had gone to teach on Indian reservations, a woman who had studied to be an opera singer, stayed home too. Imperially, but not happily.
And my mother? The center—so quiet. Not thinking she should speak. Not believing she had something worthy to say. She could serve. She could make others feel better. She could listen to them—and she did. To neighbors, to strangers. She was sought out. She did not seek. She did not speak.
This is a complicated heritage for a child who wants to write. Especially . . . because she wanted me to write. For her, it seemed, to my young confused self. And that made it hardest of all. Hard to know whether I wanted to write. But I did—I wanted to build, I wanted to write, I tasted words, I loved poems. My ‘fairy’ grandmother had taught me songs and nursery rhymes. That is, she taught me formal structures. So on all sides, formal structures—musical or architectural or engineering—all mesmerizing, immersive, enchanting: structures that encode the laws of their making and their meaning. In my poems, I speak in the vicinity of science, one might say, which I believe to be one of the juggernauts of the 21st century. I speak in forms—not only inherited literary forms, but forms the world is rich in. As well, I focus on what women know and their historical experience, in how they might come to say. I have been interested in the body, the sensing intuiting body of the engineer, the body of the nursing caretaking mother, the body of the woman who knows—and knows that she knows, even though the world does not affirm her knowledge. I have not ever wanted to claim one knowledge at the expense of another. In my own life, I have raised children, cared for family members with long-term illnesses, held ‘day’ jobs, to pay for my MFA, my kids’ college, to subsidize my writing time. Only quite late in my life have I taught writing and digital literature. My mother died when I was 40. Simone Weil is the mentor of my adult life. I found her writings serendipitously and immersed myself in them in my thirties and after my mother’s death. Weil is a philosopher and a mystic, initiated in many forms of knowing and ‘unknowing’, interested in ethics, but interested most in a kind of spiritual knowing that is not possible in language alone. She was also awkward and difficult and exasperating and trying to do things in a world not at all ready to hear what, or how, she had to say. All of my books, after the first, have been affected by Weil and my relationship to her.
Q: What are poems?
Poems are words that take you through three kinds of doors: closed doors, secret doors, and doors you don’t know are there.
Q: What are digital, or born-digital, poems?
Poems made with software that cannot be read without software running (or executing) in real-time on a computer.
Any printed poem in 2008 has been digitized, either in word-processing-software or software used to set the book or to post the work online. Such poems stay still, whether viewed on a page or onscreen; whether consisting of text alone, or text made of calligraphic letters, or text associated with an image. They are not born-digital; they are not what the Electronic Literature Organization would call electronic literature.
Born-digital poems may appear on a screen or as part of a gallery installation or in a CAVE (acronym for Cave automated virtual environment). They may operate like movies or games or incorporate interactivity for purposes of navigation within the poem, or for much more complex purposes of involvement. They are often networked and change in real time with differing input. They sometimes use generative or genetic algorithms, based on behaviors in the biochemical world.
Q: What are poems, again?
Poems are words, or code, that take you through three kinds of doors: closed doors, secret doors, and doors you don’t know are there.
Q: Can the same poem be electronic and not?
The same poetic material can be treated as electronic literature and as print literature.
I have made six such poems, either alone or with collaborators. Two of these are included in Zone : Zero, both in their print form and as electronic poems on the CD. The resulting poems are very different, and just how they are different is a matter of great interest to me.
Q: What is of interest to you?
Tensions arise among the meaning-mobilizing acts of seeing an image, watching a movement, and reading a word; and insofar as works also employ cursor-activated elements, between touching and reading.
In the digital “slippingglimpse,” for instance, my collaborator and I are especially interested in what it means not only to do image-watching while text-reading, but to do simultaneous, or oscillating, image-reading while text-watching. We also explore what it is to read in concert with a non-human reader, the water. Patterns-of-movement (chreods) in the Atlantic off Maine were captured by our videographer, who has spent years in the environmental movement, observing. He then processed the files to further bring out the chreodic patterns. A kind of meta-reading that opens up is reading—or reading yourself reading—the water reading [this is roughly the position of the scientist]. As well, for each person there will be reader-specific multiple perceptions of moving vs. static text (in scroll-text mode), a new space for poetic experience.
Q: What has the electronic work let you discover that you didn’t know you would?
In “slippingglimpse,” the print poem allows me both to write and to gather a great number of texts that reflect each other across the boxes that contain them, and across the midline that divides each box. It is easy to flip back and forth between pages. Given the print notes to the poem available in Zone : Zero, one could even pursue the sources of this poem in a manner akin to research.
By contrast, in electronic “slippingglimpse,” we are able to explore a notion of what listening to the water, and the water forms (chreods), would be like: how they might “read”; how text behaves when it is submerged in water the same way grasses and flies and other living things are; how it is read by these larger modes of movement as opposed to being specifically delivered to us as the only readers, us with our presuppositions and ignorance of what we don’t know is there.
The computer becomes another reader in electronic works, one that must be respected with great strictness. Working collaboratively also always means there is another primary reader of any work done. What then becomes appropriate is a round-robin of listening, and a chance to discover how the experience of moving between modes leads to differing understandings.
Q: Can a poem be made of chemicals?
Definitely something to explore.