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“A poet of fantastic inversions.” Poetry London

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

“Voraciously experimental, precociously accomplished.” Poetry International

Olzhas Suleimenov Translation Workshop

On Tuesday December 1st I’ll be facilitating a workshop for the Poetry Translation Centre where, with the help of translator Assiya Issemberdiyeva, we will be collaboratively creating a new translation of a poem by Kazakh poet Olzhas Suleimenov – a poet who rose to fame during the time of the space race, later becoming an anti-nuclear activist. This is a great opportunity to get a glimpse into Kazakh literary culture and become actively involved in the fascinating process of translating a linguistically rich poetic work.

The event is online, via Zoom, and free to take part in. You can book your place here.

Online Launch: Poetry Wales Vol 56 No. 1

No, the ink isn’t wet; I’d just spent the afternoon picking berries when I took this photo.

The online launch for the latest issue of Poetry Wales is today from 7pm, and you can register for it here. I will be reading one of two poems of mine that are published in the issue: ‘The Mess We’ve Gotten Ourselves Into, Represented as Items on a Ledger’. It’s a list poem and I imagine reading it will be a little like reading a charge sheet.

Stonecrop Review #3: Sky

I have a new poem published in issue 3 of Stonecrop Review, a journal of urban nature writing and visual art which is free to download in pdf form. The journal is very beautifully laid out, not only with art from contributors but rich-texture illustrations accompanying the poems by Holly McKelvey. Some of my favourite elements of the issue: photographs by Uraguayan photographer Felix Mataitis; an account of Nashville bats by naturalist Joanna Brichetto; pigeons in watercolour and pencil by German illustrator Rana Voss.

Poetry Birmingham #4

I have two poems in the new issue of Poetry Birmingham. One is from a sequence of remixes of Invisible Cities, blended with notes from my explorations of virtual worlds – in this case the City of Tears in Hollow Knight.

Another poem from this issue which I liked (I haven’t finished reading the whole thing) is ‘Intermission’ by Graham Clifford:

Where you are has not been captured
in an 18th Century grisaille, and your illness
is not distinct enough from what we’ve all got – it has
no attributable mandala composed
by scientists when scientists could see.

‘Grisaille’ is a new word on me, and I’m not sure yet whether the choice is arbitrary – that is, what it has specifically to do with the surrounding conceit. This stanza gestures quite accurately, to my mind, at the modern anxiety of clawing around for a condition which is your own, as a kind of map. The poem starts with the lines “We need to talk about how there is no manual / or film to watch of someone like you”, ie. narrative and instruction so dominate culture that we think of our self as a machine that needs operating or a character arc that needs completing.

Naush Sabah’s editorial, ‘Dis/rupt/ed Schemas’ is a ranging meditation on race, power and change, and this sentence particularly stood out to me:

I am looking at the ‘diversity’ of poetry publishing and seeing melanated variations of the same strata of society from different points of origin around the world.

This reminds me of Kenan Malik’s articles on identity politics, which have greatly informed my views on the subject. I could crudely summarise his position as: getting a representative number of women onto the boards of directors of elite companies does absolutely nothing to help the majority of women. Racism, sexism and other forms of prejudice are embedded in social structures, in the mechanisms of power, and gestures of atonement do not challenge or reform these mechanisms.

I would go further and say that we have a responsibility to resist deference to power in all forms. That means attending to the neglected and tuning out the demands of the already very well-established (the essence of conservatism is the opposite – to preserve the well-established).

The world of intellectual culture, despite its supposed enthusiasm for progressive politics, seems to have a hard time with with this. I think there is a lot tied up in the reverence of artistic and intellectual power, and in the tendency to instruct each other to react with awe. I think, at the heart of this culture, there is a serious problem with casting the artist or the intellectual as an authority, that it has a corrupting effect on people’s aspirations, and has played a significant role in locking people out.

Replaying Japan, Vol. 2: Frog Leaps In

I have an academic paper in vol. 2 of Replaying Japan journal, published by the Ritsumeikan Center for Game Studies, Kyoto. The title of the paper is ‘Frog Leaps In: Haiku and the Struggle For and Against the Natural World in Japanese RPGs’, and it compares the introduction of the character of Frog in the 1995 role-playing game Chrono Trigger to the structure of Matsuo Bashō’s famous ‘old pond’ haiku. The purpose of this comparison is to demonstrate that poetic concepts feature in (and can enhance our readings of) games as texts, and also to advance the suggestion that ‘characters’ or kyara (proto-characters, symbols) are a point of overlap between games and poems that can be used as the basis for intertextual play.

In other words, why shouldn’t we think of Bashō’s frog and Chrono Trigger‘s Frog as connected, as variations on the same intellectual plaything that can then be used again by other artists, a character who crosses space, time and genre?

The journal is not currently available to buy online, but will presumably become available through university libraries.

I’ll Show You Mine: Free PDF

The editors of I’ll Show You Mine, a sex writing journal, have made the PDF of the journal free to download for the foreseeable future. One of my poems, ‘Neighbours’ is included, as well as a formally diverse array of new writing: short fiction, nonfiction, erasure and footnote poems alongside lyrics that approach the subject tentatively or greedily, with curiosity or assurance, coolly or not so coolly.

A small number of physical copies are also still available for £6.

Salt Poets at the Boulevard Soho, March 1st

(Clockwise from top-left: Tony Williams, Kirsten Irving, Peter Daniels, Matt Haigh, Eleanor Rees, An Intruder)

I’m reading with five other poets on March 1st, at the Boulevard Soho in London, for a one-hour special from 4.30pm. This is a kind of comeback gig after a year off, so I’ll be testing some new material, including ‘Russian doll’ poems, where one poem fits inside another, and a ‘variable’ poem with lines chosen by the audience.

Tickets can be purchased here: https://boulevardtheatre.co.uk/whats-on/sunday-service-poetry/

Dual Wield: Chapter 1

This is the first chapter of my completed practice-led PhD thesis, Dual Wield: Adventures at the Interplay of Poetry and Computer Games. I recommend skipping the entirety of 1.2 if you wish to stick to the substance of the argument and avoid the dryer aspects of the chapter (my methodology, and where the project fits within existing scholarship).

Tremendous thanks to Patrick Crogan, Britta Martens and Abigail Parry for looking over this chapter and commenting on it in detail at various stages of its life.

1.1. A World of Made

                             A world of made
is not a world of born — pity poor flesh


and trees, poor stars and stones, but never this
fine specimen of hypermagical


ultraomnipotence.

(Cummings, ‘pity this busy monster, manunkind’ 9-13)

In July 2016, players discovered a secret code hidden in plain sight in Inside (Playdead, 2016), a puzzle-platforming computer game released across PC, Playstation and X-Box one month previously. Towards the end of the game, the player’s avatar passes in front and behind two glass panels bearing a sequence of numbers. When decoded using a Polybius Square, these numbers were revealed as referencing the title of a sonnet by E.E. Cummings, ‘pity this busy monster, manunkind’ (Cummings, 1944).[1]

Read in the light of this discovery, the poem complements and expands on the philosophical themes of Inside. Poem and game talk to one another. Cummings’ arch-scepticism toward techno-fetishism (Yaron, pp.116-117) is reflected in the desaturated, near-lifeless vistas that make up the game’s world, replete with killer machines. Both deploy formal ingenuity (the poem’s compound words and idiosyncratic diction, the game’s surreal physics puzzles) as funhouse mirrors to the “world of made”, turning gloom into playground. Cummings’ exhortation to “pity poor flesh” resonates with a recurring device in Inside whereby the player, via their avatar, takes partial control of human facsimiles – flesh without independent thought, sullenly slumped when at rest. These facsimiles grow more and more featureless until, in the final stages of the game, the player becomes the guiding will of a great, moving jellyish mass of body parts as it attempts to escape the grim facility in which it was born (or made). Both poem and game separate, at the level of their semiotic interface (so words in the one case, interactive digital objects in the other), the physical body from mankind’s collective techno-scientific knowledge, “poor flesh” from the “fine specimen of hypermagical / ultraomnipotence” represented by scientists in their laboratories. These are placed in opposition to one another, though both are, in their own way, “busy monsters”. Poem and game end by teasing the player/reader with the sense that freedom is both possible and impossible: the speaker in the poem interrupts himself to urge a visit to “a hell / of a good universe next door”, while the protagonist of Inside crashes through the outer wall of their prison, tumbling down onto a shoreline that is implied (via an earlier small-scale model of the scene) to be nothing more than a set, another room in a larger containment facility.

This is one example of what I will be referring to as the interplay of poetry and computer games, ‘interplay’ being both the collaborative act itself and the space where it happens. In this case, the poem is not contained inside the game, was not originally composed for publication in a digital medium, was not even composed with the game in mind. Yet the game recruits the poem, pointing the player toward it, offering not the poem itself but its import as a reward for attentive play and deductive intelligence. The poem attains an additional frame of reference within the realm of its reader’s direct (and probably recent) experience playing the game, while the game gains an additional mode of voice. They are yoked together in a coherent expressive continuum.

1.2. Aims and Methodology

This project takes the form of a combination of conventional theoretical analysis and practice-based research, analysing the existing state of poem-game interplay and hybridity and testing ways that it might be advanced through attempts to create working prototypes. In Robin Nelson’s formulation for practice-led research, there ought to be “a resonance between complementary writing and the praxis itself” (2013, p.11), a multi-mode enquiry where the practice is “at the heart of the methodology of the project” (p.26), flanked by a documentation of process and the written component. In this case, I begin with an introductory chapter that outlines the immediate cultural and critical context for the enquiry, followed by a second chapter that explores, through a review of the literature, the theoretical underpinning to the project: an experiential and conceptual overlap between poetry and computer games, based on the core underlying concept of play.

This then forms the appropriate starting point for an initial series of practical experiments into hybrid poetry games, which are published and playable online, where they are accompanied by individual exegeses and documentation of process. Their purpose is to experiment with the forms poem-game interplay might take, and to point toward specific issues, tensions and limitations that arise in producing these forms.

That practical work feeds into a third chapter which analyses the tensions and limitations in detail. Put simply: is it possible to create something that can be read as a poem and played as a game at the same time? Are the differences between these media types too great, the modes of engagement they invite too distinct? In answering these questions, I devise three continuums that serve to help visualise the tensions between poetry and computer games, so that I and other practitioners can consider how to either minimise, mediate or exploit them in future experimental forms.

In the chapter following on from this, I develop a taxonomy of four major types of poem-game interplay, including but not limited to hybrid artefacts, and analyse a number of existing examples using the continuums devised in the preceding chapter. This taxonomy then informs a further series of practical experiments, where I attempt to expand the categories individually and then document my overall conclusions from carrying out these experiments. The practical component of the project, in conjunction with theory, allows me to develop insights into poem-game hybridity from two opposing perspectives – as a practitioner and as a reader and player. Each is valuable in informing the other. The taxonomy, for example, is useful for shaping and categorising the practical output, while the early experiments assist me in formulating Chapter 3’s continuums.

The project is intended as a contribution to both games studies – a recently developed area of academic study that has emerged in response to the increasing ubiquity of computer games – and literary criticism, and pursues a dialogue between these two disciplines. In this respect, it builds on the work of Astrid Ensslin in Literary Gaming (2014). Ensslin observes that we are entering a second wave of games scholarship, moving away from debates and discussions about the nature and boundaries of the discipline and increasingly turning to detailed analysis of specific areas. Situating her work within this second wave, Ensslin considers ludic-literary hybrids – artefacts that exist on a scale that runs from “ludic digital literature” to “literary computer games” (p.44) – and develops an analytical framework that combines elements of literary analysis and ludology. For Ensslin, literary here means “verbal art in the broadest sense”, but also works that have “an aesthetic concern with structural and thematic elements of their own form, genre, or medium” (p.2).

The approach to poem-game interplay I adopt in this project is rather different to Ensslin’s. It is narrower in the sense that I am not interested in literary fiction or drama, or any literary form where narrativity is the dominant. It is wider in the sense that Ensslin emphasises the self-reflexivity of verbal art, which she regards as necessarily engendering “subversive play” or “playing with rather than by the rules” (p.19), while also confining herself to digital-born artefacts that foreground spoken or written language. I will instead be discussing poem-game interplay as an area that includes texts that are not digital-born but which refer to, address or otherwise involve themselves with computer games, as well as computer games that adopt the strategies of poetry without necessarily foregrounding the spoken or written word. I will not be taking it as self-evident that verbal art is self-reflexive or subversive, or that it deconstructs its own rules.

Ensslin conceives of a specific category of poetry games in the eighth chapter of her book, “The Paradox of Poetic Gaming”, where she contends that the differences between poems and games ensure that there is a “receptive and interactive clash” (p.142) when the two are brought together. She considers this a deliberate design decision by the developers of hybrid poetry games, intended to critique gameplay habits of players, as well as the conventions of mainstream gaming culture. I will go into this in more detail in Chapter 3, but my contention throughout this project will be that poem-game hybridity extends beyond this act of cultural critiquing, and that the paradox as Ensslin envisages it is, in fact, negotiable. To the extent there is a receptive and interactive clash, it can be either mitigated or pointed toward different artistic ends, as I will aim to demonstrate through both the practical component and analysis of existing examples.

Ensslin’s study of poetry games is somewhat isolated in the existing scholarship; while games studies is regarded in the academy as being closely allied with film and media studies, it enjoys little crossover with English departments, and where literary theorists have embraced computer games more generally, they have tended to fixate on narrativity to the exclusion or side-lining of poetry. Writing on digital and new media poetics, meanwhile, has revolved largely around the platform of the internet browser and artefacts that are interactive without aspiring to game-like qualities. In the field of literary criticism itself, there are myriad overlapping theoretical approaches which may be drawn on, from freshly dusted-off historicism to “surface reading” (Best and Marcus, 2009), but for the purposes of this project, the most appropriate point of departure is Marjorie Perloff’s Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media (1991). Perloff begins with the premise that contemporary poetry is unavoidably in conversation with digital media, and that studying it without regard to that context is limiting. The nature of the relationship between what she calls “the most remote of the various literary genres” (p.xiv) and media discourse in the information age is enormously complex, giving rise to poetries that reject mimetic naturality (of speech and thought) in favour of radical artifice – that is, embracing their very made-ness and materiality. These poetries absorb and remix the form and language of advertising, television, film, the internet and more besides, in advanced acts of defamiliarisation, emphasising the text as image, procedure, assemblage and object, something to be toyed with, tested and explored rather than merely read.

Perloff’s concluding example is John Cage’s “unreadable book”, I-VI, which she describes as soliciting a kind of reader engagement that “involves making rather than taking” (p.216), a phrase that is inadvertently echoed by games scholar Brendan Keogh when he says that computer games “call for the player to actively make belief” (2018, p.83). The reader of I-VI is tasked with being alive to their own agency in picking a path through the text, in making meaning from it, in a manner similar to the way the player of a computer game makes the effort to navigate and complete the game world. “That path,” says Perloff, “may be aural (tracing the phonemic repetitions and variations) or visual (tracing mesostic capitals versus the ‘wing’ word groups) or dialectic (reading the A text [mesostic] against B [commentary] and both against C [source]) or semantic (inspecting the recurrent ‘news’ items and relating them to the abstract speculations that surround them), or, for that matter, literary” (p.216).

Removing the specificity to Cage’s text, this is a critical perspective on poetry that describes it in nonlinear terms and emphasises the existence of poetic units beyond the literary: visual, spatial, aural and so on. Perloff’s subject is avant-garde techniques developed in the late 20th century, but these have only proliferated in the years since Radical Artifice was published, even crossing into mainstream poetry. My own background as a practitioner in poetry and poetry publishing has seen me collaborate with a variety of British poets whose work ranges from traditional lyrics to experiments in concrete and calligraphic poetries, digital interactive poetry, film poetry, hypertext poetry, code poetry, collage and procedural poetry. Any or all of these may overlap with the kind of poetry that interplays with computer games, so I will adopt a wide-angle viewpoint, one that approaches the poem as a restlessly pliable and playable contrivance.

1.3. Rationale for the Project

The possibilities of poem-game interplay are intimately connected to the question of poetry’s expansion into digital space. In his essay ‘Poetry and Hypertext: The Sense of a Limit’, Fernando Cabo Aseguinolaza quotes the Nobel-winning poet Octavio Paz, writing in 1991 on the significance of screen technology to the medium:

The two great poetic traditions, written and oral, converge on television screens … The page becomes an animated surface, which breathes, moves and changes from one colour to another. At the same time, the human voice – or rather, voices – can be enjoined in combination with the lyrics. Finally, visual and sonic elements, instead of being mere adornments, may be transformed into organic parts of the body of the poem. (1991, p.597)

Aseguinolaza extrapolates to the computer screen:

It is not easy to find a description that suits better the enticement of the electronic medium for a poet. A screen that breathes, moves, and changes restlessly in contrast with the steadiness of the printed page. The screen as page, but a page of a completely different kind. We may wonder what Octavio Paz could have said in case he had noticed the possibilities of modern computers to enhance the animated power of the screen and to lend new dimensions and a sense of autonomy to the written word. (2000, para 11 of 26)

Similarly, Loss Pequeño Glazier has composed a manifesto for digital poetry in the shape of his 2002 book Digital Poetics: The Making of E-Poetries, in which he argues that “an electronic poetics alters the ‘eye’ (‘I’) and also extends the physicality of reading. With the keyboard, literal manipulation is engaged with fingers determining different referentialities of the text – a sight more active than repetitious page-turning” (2002, p.37).

It is curious, then, that in the intervening years there has not been more advancement by poets and poetry into the territory of computer games, arguably the medium most synonymous with the digital age. What games offer poetry is not just the technology of screen, keyboard, controller, but a significant experiential augmentation. As Keogh argues in A Play of Bodies, his recent phenomenological reading of computer games, players “become incorporated into an assemblage that is the player-and-videogame” (2018, p.22). Games bridge the actual and the virtual via multisensory feedback, pulling us bodily into their worlds while imprinting themselves on ours. This could function as an intensifier of the powers of suggestion already evident in poetry in a variety of forms. Poems are, after all, also envisaged as possessing a world. Frank O. Copley, writing on Catullus, for example, says that “a poem is itself. It presents its own world to its readers and demands that they accept it as true for the purposes of the poem” (1958, p.9). We can conceive of the physicality of reading being extended by the reader’s cybernetic incorporation into the world of the poem, a world that they can touch and interact with via computer control interfaces.

Additionally, computer games present an opportunity to expand the linguistic armoury – and thus the expressive range – available to poets. Multiple 20th and 21st century movements have been based around broadening the accepted range of suitable poetic material, from the Scottish Informationists’ concern with digesting and transmitting “underprivileged” data (Price, 1994, para 1 of 18) to Flarf poetry’s assimilation and amalgamation of internet detritus. Computer game culture, itself underprivileged in arts discourse, represents another frontier of emergent assimilable dialect. Computer games are extremely diverse in form and content, rich in visual, audial, textual and symbolic matter. They also generate a great deal of paratextual material, in the form of lore, strategy guides, player dialogue, user modifications, hacks and rewrites, companion fiction, fan fiction and fan art. As with Perloff’s account of poetry’s ability to absorb and remix the language of televisual media, all this material has potential to be reformatted and deployed within poetry, not just verbally but ideogrammically, imagistically or calligrammically. This is, in short, an abundant new playground for poets, which this project aims to begin mapping.

But of what interest is poetry to the creators and players of computer games? As it stands, games already engage to some degree in the absorption and “remediation” (Boulter and Grusin, 2000) of poetry, employing it largely as filigree and incidental detail within vast virtual worlds. This reflects a wider cultural perspective on poetry as occasional oddity, or, at best, marker buoy for textual depth. The claim I will substantiate in this project is that a more fundamental engagement is both necessary and inevitable. Chapter 2 will explore the underlying conceptual overlap in detail, but by way of an introductory overview, computer games and poetry share the dominant organising principle of segmentivity, a term coined by the poet Rachel Blau DuPlessis in 1999 (and later expanded on by literary theorist Brian McHale) to describe an alternative to narrativity as a basis for textual organisation and meaning. Where segmentivity is the dominant of a text, meaning is generated by the paratactic arrangement of units – we see them working together side by side, rather than (or as well as) reading them start to end in linear fashion. We find significance in patterns and parallels, in coincidence and contrivance, in rhyme and repetition, rather than (or as well as) in chains of logic and causation.

Computer games already rely on repetition as a device for training players to successfully master their systems, as well as extending the playtime offered. They rely, possibly to an even greater extent, on players’ facility with reading patterns and rhythms as the basis for many of the challenges they set. But it is rare that a game implies there is any meaning to its patterning and repetition beyond enabling player embodiment and progression. Quite the opposite: usually, narrative is superimposed over the gameplay experience, and the player is asked to ignore or forget the repetitiousness of their actions and the segmentation of the game environment in order to make sense of the game as a narrative work. In a typical action game, for instance, it is possible for the player to watch their avatar die and relive the same moments dozens of times, rewinding time until they make exactly the right decisions, only for the story to proceed as if the avatar possessed no such ability.[2] Jesper Juul characterises this tension as a dichotomy between real rules and fictional worlds, rendering games “half-real”[3] (Juul, 2005).  Parataxis – side-by-side placement – adequately describes the way a computer game arranges its components in order to facilitate gameplay, but the tendency of games is to chafe against this arrangement as part of the effort to build meaningful context around that gameplay. Viktor Shklovsky, in 1917, defined art as a defamiliarising technique, to “impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known” (1917, para 11 of 40), a counterforce to habitualisation, which Shklovsky memorably describes as devouring all wonder. In presenting themselves as stories, mainstream computer games work in the opposite direction: they are naturally unnatural, necessarily contrived, but labour to habituate the player to their alienness, to be perceived as life-like. By adopting the signification strategies of poetry, computer games have the opportunity to embrace their own strangeness rather than seeking to neutralise it. Poetic devices such as the refrain, anaphora, epistrophe and homeoteleuton, for example, are forms of repetition that can be enacted through the recycled surface textures, objects and player actions within the world of the game, just as they are with words.

To put it simply: the computer game has historically evinced a predominant interest in becoming an advanced kind of story. It has yet to convincingly explore the possibility of becoming an advanced kind of poem, and one basis for this project is that such exploration is a route to expanding the versatility and impact of the computer game as an artform. Additionally, the experiential augmentation that computer games offer poetry runs the other way as well. Words by themselves retain a unique, near-limitless expressive power, and may be used much more concertedly to give shape and meaning to those bodily sensations experienced by the player as they interface and coalesce with the game-world.

I advance this research project at a point when poets and game developers alike are starting to experiment with the possibilities described above, when it is not unknown for an independently produced computer game to proudly pronounce itself “poetic” (Morgondag, 2015), for a poem published in a leading British journal to take its central metaphor from Super Mario Brothers (Ravinthiran, 2018), or for a young artist to identify as both poet and game developer (Douglas, 2015). The tools required to make and publish computer games are more widely and cheaply available than at any time before, while the visibility and centrality of contemporary poetry has been immeasurably enhanced by the proliferation of social media and easy-to-maintain web hosting platforms. Enough examples of poem-game interplay and hybridity now exist for the associated challenges to be interrogated and a tentative taxonomy to be developed. This project is intended to fill that gap.

1.4. Issues and Wider Context

There are a number of surface-level similarities between poetry and computer games that, on initial inspection, are useful in analysing and developing poem-game interplay. Both are conspicuously segmented in ways that are aesthetically foregrounded. Poems divide into stanzas, lines, phrases, words and metrical feet, games into stages, maps, zones, rooms, biomes, difficulty levels, menus and submenus. Both habitually deal in the fantastic – their worlds are dreamlike or highly imaginative. Both are associated with challenge; that is, there is a popular idea that to be able to play computer games proficiently or to be able to understand poems takes practice and patience in a way understanding stories or watching films does not. As such, both attract debate as to the role of accessibility, with defenders of difficulty rejecting what they regard as condescending to their respective audiences, while reformers point to their niche status, their struggle to be taken seriously by both mainstream news media and the wider public.

Perhaps most pertinently, both are known to absorb, incorporate and amalgamate other forms and genres. Poetry does this most noticeably with types of speech and writing – we can think of Robert Browning’s development of the dramatic monologue poem, for example, the long tradition of the epistolary poem or the more recently invented prose poem. Dick Higgins’ Pattern Poetry: Guide to an Unknown Literature (1987) reviews examples of puzzle and pictorial poems across a variety of languages and cultures over several centuries, while Perloff documents avant-garde poems that imitate or inhabit the form of signboards, maps, inventories and sculpture. The popularisation of the computer has resulted in a period of continuous experimentation with advanced methods of assimilation and rearrangement, beginning in 1959 with Théo Lutz’s Stochastische Texte, a poetic text generator that reordered lines from Kafka. In 1971, while Galaxy Game, the world’s first commercial arcade machine was installed at Stanford University (Pitts, 1997), Alan Sondheim created 4320, a film-poem made using a hypercube projection program, and in 1976, the year of Breakout (Atari, 1976) and the founding of Apple, Angel Carmona published Poemas V2: Poesia compuesta por una computadora, the world’s first book of computer-generated poetry, printed so as to replicate the appearance of an IBM computer readout. Code poetry incorporates the aesthetics and some of the functionality of computer code, while the procedural poetry produced by Twitter bots may be constructed algorithmically from fragments of social media or include images pulled from online databases.

On the other side of the equation, computer games habitually simulate, synthesise or approximate almost every other kind of media, from film and music to card games and handwritten letters. They are an integral part of the trend that media scholar Henry Jenkins has dubbed “convergence culture” (Jenkins, 2006), where media franchises extend across and between old and new media, developing audiences that migrate across genres and technologies in order to immerse themselves as fully as possible in fictional realities. Computer game developers, encouraged by rapid technological progress and the explosive growth of their industry, have increasingly aspired to reproduce the effects of narrative media as part of the suite of experiences that games offer, promising their users something close to the starring role in action films and mystery novels.

Beneath the surface similarities, however, there are significant phenomenological and cultural differences between poetry and computer games. In the popular imagination, they lie at opposite ends of a scale that runs from the aloof to the frivolous, from high art to low. Poetry is regarded as serious, cerebral, cryptic and hermitic, computer games as flashy, trivial and senseless amusements. Poetry is technologically simple and semantically complex; computer games are semantically simple and technologically complex. One of the barriers to emergent hybridity and interplay is the accompanying perception of any such cross-pollination as detrimental in both directions: poetry being trivialised by association, and computer games being made duller, less playful.

There are practical problems related to this distinction. Keogh describes certain types of game as inculcating and requiring “embodied literacy” (p.14); that is, familiarity with the controls and the routines that need to be enacted by the player. As a result, non-gamers may find games difficult to read visually, let alone play. Poetry, meanwhile, requires its own form of specialised literacy, and the number of people who are fluent in understanding and inhabiting both computer games and poems is likely to be extremely small.

This is true to an even greater extent of the practices of making games and poetry. The technological tools may be available, but poets and game developers alike spend years honing their expertise, with game development requiring (more often than not) the coordination of teams of people working on different aspects of the game. The pressures on practitioners to succeed within the parameters of their chosen medium is already intense, the competition fierce, and as Don Paterson warns in ‘The Dark Art of Poetry’, the process of making poetry alone is “messy, insane” (2004, para 3 of 13) and liable to drive the poet mad – or, as T.S. Eliot puts it:

… each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling.
[4] (Eliot, ‘East Coker’ V. 7-10)

The title of this project, ‘Dual Wield’, in part reflects the difficulties presented by this wider cultural context. It is taken from the name of a special ability in role-playing computer games, which typically allow a player avatar or ally character to arm themselves with a weapon in each hand at the cost of both weapons’ strength. In the Japanese role-playing game Bravely Default (Square Enix Holdings, 2012), for example, fitting a weapon into both the ‘l.hand’ and the ‘r.hand’ slot will result in the attack power of each weapon being reduced by 50%. Only a character with the ‘dual wield’ ability can bring the attacking power of both weapons to bear.

I employ this here as a metaphor: experiments in poem-game interplay and hybridity carry the risk of reducing the effectiveness of both, of creating artefacts that are abrasively difficult to read or play and which have diminished appeal to both readers of poetry and players of computer games. In the context of this project, I am restricted by a lack of experience in game development and a lack of personnel, and as such I will not be able to comprehensively address the problems I raise here. The practical and theoretical components alike are, however, aimed at exploring, itemising and examining the resulting incongruities with a view to developing ways of mitigating and overcoming them, and therefore ‘dual-wielding’ poetry and computer games effectively in future compositions.

One of the functions this serves is to challenge the view of computer games as empty of expressive purpose or meaning. As Mary Flanagan puts it in Critical Play: Radical Game Design, her survey of (and manifesto toward) expressive and critical game design:

As a cultural medium, games carry embedded beliefs within their systems of representation and their structures, whether game designers intend these ideologies or not … Many scholars, game makers, and consumers observe that computer games can embody antagonistic and antisocial themes including theft, violence and gore, cruelty, problematic representations of the body in terms of gender and race, and even viciously competitive approaches to winning as a primary game goal. (2009, p.223)

I enjoin with Flanagan in aiming to map out ways in which the expressive power of computer games can be turned toward more socially responsible themes, as well as ways in which existing elements of computer games can be recontextualised through their incorporation in poetry, by, for example, moving literal depictions of violence into the realm of the mythic and metaphoric.

In working to overcome some of the practical obstacles to poem-game hybridity, the project also agitates against the more general perception of a divide between serious and trivial media types. The separation of these different types into one of high or low art is, in any case, a formulation that undergoes constant revision, such that the hierarchies of genre that prevailed in previous eras look antiquated today. In ‘Genre and the Literary Canon’, Alistair Fowler records that throughout the late sixteenth, seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the epic poem was regarded as “the chief effort of human sense” (John Sheffield, Earl of Mulgrave, in his ‘An Essay Upon Poetry’, quoted in Fowler, 1979, p.100) while love poems, sonnets and epigrams were seen as altogether more frivolous, with Dryden criticising Tasso for being “too lyrical” and including “conceptions, points of epigram and witticisms; all of which are not only below the dignity of Heroic verse, but contrary to its nature” (1760, p.167). Just as these genres of poetry have been reorganised, separated and conflated over the ages, coalescing into the image of poetry that prevails in the present day, so is it conceivable that at some point in the future, digital-ludic poetry and poetic computer games will be regarded under the same broad category, and thereby resist negative preconceptions based on the supposed shallowness of games or antiquity of poetry.

Ensslin’s rationalisation for ludic-literary hybrid artefacts and the accompanying scholarly analysis is that both are “urgently needed to grant creative writing a more contemporary, media-savvy outlook, as well as to expand and advance the artistic and critical significance of games” (p.1). I would add that these artefacts represent an opportunity to introduce both poetry and computer games to audiences not otherwise inclined to engage with them. Players of games will find that poetry may be engaged with as another kind of imaginative play, while readers of poetry will find that there is meaning and depth to be found in digital toys. The interplay of poetry and computer games is a space that, if properly established, promotes dialogue between two different groups of people. An important step toward that point is arming practitioners with tools, analysis and example texts that begin to map out the multiple forms that poem-game interplay and hybridity can take.


[1] For a visual guide to how the code was cracked, see http://imgur.com/a/USImD [accessed 20th August 2019]

[2] The most infamous case of this in gaming culture is the death of Aerith Gainsborough in Square’s Final Fantasy VII, released in 1997. Throughout this game and others like it, members of the player’s party may be revived from near-death by the use of a commonly available item called Phoenix Down. When the story calls for Aerith to suffer a fatal injury, none of the other characters even consider the chance that she may be revived.

[3] All phrases present in the title of Juul’s Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds (MIT Press, 2005).

[4] I owe this observation to an article by John Hartley Williams published online at http://www.pennilesspress.co.uk/poetry/john_hartley_williams.htm, [accessed 20 August 2019].

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.