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“A poet of fantastic inversions.” Poetry London

“Multifaceted, mega-fabricated, louche architecture.” Magma

“Voraciously experimental, precociously accomplished.” Poetry International

Modding the Waste Land: Intertextual Mutation Between Games and Poems

I’m presenting an extended abstract at the DiGRA 2019 conference in Kyoto this coming week, based on my practical PhD research. This is the final introduction/summary text:

In Ludic Mutation: The Player’s Power to Change the Game (2012), Anne-Marie Schleiner describes how artists and players alike resist the mechanically and culturally imposed rules of digital games by finding unconventional, expressive ways to interact with game content. In doing so, they reclaim play environments from commercial games publishers, treating games as sources of “play material” that can be endlessly appropriated, hacked, remolded and recontextualised. Fan art, fan fiction and other kinds of creative adaptation inevitably exert a transformative effect upon the material they adapt. Thinking of this activity in the light of Julia Kristeva’s concept of intertextuality – the understanding that all texts absorb, transform, and are in dialogue with other texts – we arrive at the idea of intertextual mutation: conscious alteration of a text or texts by creative reconfigurement through another text. This can be thought of as an extension of play, akin to the work performed by modding communities when they change the code or otherwise tamper with a piece of software directly.

Intertextual mutation taking place between games and poems is one dimension of a broader, emergent field of ludic-poetic interplay that includes games behaving like poems (poetic games), poems behaving like games (ludokinetic poems) and poem-game hybrids. In this sense, intertextual mutation might mean the reconfigurement of poems by their inclusion, partial or total, in a game, or it might mean using poetry as a means to play with and alter the content of an existing game. Since authors have always engaged in the activity of reworking other texts, and poetry in particular works on the basis of finding symbolism and meaning in artefacts both textual and non-textual, as well as in creative iteration of established patterns, it is not surprising that a number of volumes of poetry have already been published that use material from computer games and computer game franchises. These include The Mario Kart 64 Poems by August Smith (Cool Skull Press, 2015), But Our Princess is in Another Castle by B.J. Best (Rose Metal Press, 2013) and Level End by Brian Oliu (Origami Zoo Press, 2012). Myself and Kirsten Irving co-edited an anthology of computer game poems by UK poets in 2013, at a time when we sensed that a generation of younger poets were beginning to look to games for fresh poetic material. A number of the poets we published in this volume have gone on to win major awards, and among the books shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection in the UK this year is Stephen Sexton’s If All the World and Love Were Young (Penguin, 2019), which borrows its structure and much of its imagery from Super Mario World.

The position of the poet engaging with the content of games is unique. Since there is little crossover between the audience for commercial games and the audience for poetry, they cannot easily rely on reader familiarity with the text they are reconfiguring. On the other hand, they do not face the same legal restrictions that fan artists, fan fiction writers and modders do with regard to copyright law. This is because fair use and fair dealing exemptions generally permit the use of copyrighted material both where there is a substantial “transformative” effect, and where it is being selectively quoted for the purposes of comment or criticism. Poets are very much in the business of metaphor, and metaphor is a process that is fundamentally both transformative and selective. As phrased by Philip Wheelwright, metaphor is marked by “the double imaginative act of outreaching and combining” (1968, p.72), an act that changes what it uses. The poet who works with the play material of digital games wields it as the semantic vehicle for something “more obscurely known” (Wheelwright, p.73), and in so doing articulates and expands on the symbolic properties of that material. 

A typical strategy in the volumes of poetry I have mentioned above, therefore, is to redeploy characters, items and specific ludic situations from games as elements of a poetic conceit directed at broader themes of identity, intimacy and modernity. Oliu’s poems in Level End, for example, are staged as “boss battles” or “save points”, but each frames an account of events occurring outside the world of the computer game, mixing details we recognise as being derived from real-life experience with other elements imported from the unreality of games. The latter are invariably put to work as metaphor, enhancing both the immediacy and the polysemantic essence of the poetry.

As a poetry practitioner myself, I have found that characters from games can be used as personae, as imaginary interlocutors and as rich sources of imagery in exploring personal, interpersonal and sociopolitical issues, as well as simply inventing new unrealities. I consider this exploration to be both a form of play, connected to and extending out of the play engendered by the games themselves, and a kind of critical intervention. Furthermore, I would argue that the flexibility of metaphor allows the resulting poems to lead a double-life, both independently of the texts on which they draw, and as paratextual add-ons or modifications to them. In the full talk, I will develop these claims with examples from my own practice, giving particular attention to intertextual mutation as a creative-critical act related to both play and theory.

Best, B.J. 2013. But Our Princess is in Another Castle. Brookline, MA: Rose Metal Press.

Kristeva, J. 1980. ‘Word, Dialogue and Novel’. In L. S. Roudiez (ed.), Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art (pp. 64-91). New York, NY: Colombia University Press.

Nintendo Entertainment. 1990. Super Mario World. Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Nintendo.

Oliu, B. 2012. Level End. Origami Zoo Press.

Schleiner, A-M. 2012. Ludic Mutation: The Player’s Power to Change the Game.  Accessed 19 January 2019. http://hdl.handle.net/11245/1.378401 (published in print in 2017 as as The Player’s Power to Change the Game: Ludic Mutation. Amsterdam University Press).

Sexton, S. 2019. If All the World and Love Were Young. London, England: Penguin.

Smith, A. 2015. The Mario Kart 64 Poems. Somervilla, M.A, USA: Cool Skull Press.

Stone, J. and Irving, K. Coin Opera 2: Fulminare’s Revenge. London, England: Sidekick Books.

Wheelwright, P. 1968. Metaphor and Reality. Bloomington, USA; London, England: Indiana University Press.

Off the Page: Chapter Two

I’m doing a short talk this Saturday at the British Library, alongside Kirsten Irving, discussing our various experiments with interactive and gaming poetry and also touching on my own research into this area over the last three years.

We’re on at 13.45, but as part of a packed schedule of speakers, including interactive fiction writer Emily Short and another of my long-term collaborators, Abigail Parry.

Full details of the event are here.

Strike A Light

Set myself a challenge over the weekend: write and build a ludokinetic poem for Bonfire Night. Problems with the Game Maker export module meant I couldn’t get a fully interactive version out until this morning, and it still doesn’t work on Safari or Silk browsers, but for everyone else, here’s a link to Strike a Light.

Free Verse Book Fair 2018

I’ll be at the annual Free Verse Book Fair in central London this Saturday, manning the Sidekick Books table with long-term collaborator Kirsten Irving. We’re expecting to have copies of the latest two books in the Headbooks series – No, Robot, No! and Battalion – available for sale alongside all the books currently available on the Sidekick site. See them in the flesh! Meet us in the flesh!

The Fair is moving to a new location this year at Senate House, in the William Beveridge Hall. More information can be maintained from the official website.

Some Cannot Be Caught / Fox Interview

I have a new poem published in Some Cannot Be Caught: The Emma Press Book of Beasts, edited by Anja Konig and Liane Strauss. It’s a semi-concrete poem called ‘Documentary on the Pangolin’ and – with apologies to those who don’t like hints as to how a poem should be read – I’m afraid I wrote most of this with the voice of David Attenborough in my head.

As a follow-up, the Emma Press conducted a super-quick interview with me and other contributing poets about our animal alter-egos. Extract from the article:


Jon Stone, author of the poem ‘Documentary of the Pangolin’, replied instantly with “a fox”, explaining that he too is “scrawny, crepuscular, an occasional nuisance, and an inveterate rummager.” He added, “I like travelling between the gaps in the figurative hedges, and I often find myself sniffing around on other people’s lawns. Humans make me uneasy, but I hang around in close proximity to them anyway.” 


They did ask me another question, which was left out of the version published on the blog: Do you think humans have anything to learn from this animal/animals in general?

After some thought, I typed back:  From the fox specifically? We could learn how to live alongside our enemies.

Soho Poetry Nights #6

I’m reading at Soho Poetry Nights this Friday, 29th June, in a double-act with Abigail Parry (we’re reading from each other’s books) and alongside Sarah Fletcher and Ana Hassan. The event kicks off at 7.30 at Library Club, 121 St Martin’s Lane, and there are open mic slots!

Very short point on language

Graham Linehan (Father Ted, Black Books) has been pinning his colours to the mast for some time when it comes to trans rights, ie. he is not entirely on board. A major plank of his argument seems to be that the logic of “a woman is someone who identifies as a woman” is circular.

But language has always evolved in part through circular reasoning. We call something ‘X’ because it seems very similar to another thing we call ‘X’. The definition applied afterwards is never absolute, never perfect, and the more a word encompasses, the less likely it is that its meaning is fixed to one particular feature, let alone a concrete feature. The word ‘woman’ has a sprawl of associations, and it’s not surprising that during a period of societal change, we should have to have a serious think about what it means to all of us going forward. Nor is it surprising that for different people it is strongly associated with different sets of experiences, or aspects of their identity.

Obviously, there’s a lot more to this subject, but for now I think the point about language is self-contained, and in itself defeats the complaint that as a matter of logic women cannot self-identify.

A-Z of Villainy / Aquanauts Live at Hay

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Two upcoming events: I’m co-hosting an A-Z of Villainy this Friday, from 7pm at the Betsey Trotwood in Farringdon. It’s a simple premise: writers reading pieces inspired by villains. 26 writers, 26 villains. Some of the writers may or may not be undercover villains themselves, and liable to hatch a scheme in the midst of proceedings. If no one else does, I will. If I can think of something dastardly enough.

I’m co-hosting this event with Kate Potts and Holly Hopkins, and contributing writers include Will Harris, Astra Papachristodoulou, Theophilus Kwek, Nisha Ramayya and Rishi Dastidar.

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Then on Friday I’ll be in Hay-on-Wye with my Sidekick co-editor Kirsten Irving and two Sidekick poets, Abigail Parry and Clive Birnie. The fabulous Poetry Bookshop have invited us to host an interactive poetry performance linked to our interactive handbook, Aquanauts. We’re bringing party bags.

Aquanauts / Saboteur Awards 2018

Public voting in The Saboteur Awards ends midnight tomorrow night (9th May).

Sidekick Books, the small press publisher I co-run with Kirsten Irving, has been shortlisted in the Most Innovative Publisher category. We publish exclusively collaborative books – sometimes team-ups between writers and artists, sometimes multi-author anthologies that might mix poetry with visual art, essays or comics. But our major claim to innovation of late is publishing the Headbooks series: interactive handbooks that fuse scrapbooking, game and activity pages with visual poetry, factual content, collages and calligrams.

The first book in the series, Aquanauts, is also shortlisted this year for Best Anthology. I spent a large-ish chunk of 2017 soliciting work for this book from some of the finest poets and experimental writers I know, editing it, designing it, creating the cover artwork (see above), choosing the right printer, organising a semi-immersive/immersible launch party and gently sliding the finished book under the noses of bookshop owners, so I’m immensely pleased that it’s made the shortlist.

If you own or have seen a copy and think it does the trick, please consider heading over to the Saboteur Awards website to vote for it, and for Sidekick. Equally, if you have any familiarity with and interest in the half-underground world of British poetry, head on over and vote for the best in any of the fields. Make the process as democratic as possible.