Before I turned to poetry, I wrote hypertext. In the mid-‘90s, writing for the Web felt new and thrilling. There was no Facebook, no Twitter, no Google. Just me, my IBM, and the squeal of a modem hooking up with the world.
I plugged into a gig writing for The Mining Company, a startup that later became MiningCo and then morphed into About.com. Our slogan: “We mine the Web so you don’t have to.” My role centered around the all-important <a href command. That’s the launch code for hyperlinks—the abracadabra that lets words and images leap through time and space. One click and whoosh! My readers could be transported 10,000 miles to a page in Singapore.
Hypertext, by definition, is not linear. Foretelling a golden era of Literary Machines, philosopher-inventor Ted Nelson coined the term to describe an expansive mode of writing that offered multiple paths through the content. For Internet companies like mine, hypertext was a way to link data from many sources. For literary authors, hypertext suggested exciting possibilities. Michael Joyce pioneered the movement with afternoon (Eastgate Systems, 1990), an interactive novel sold on a floppy disk. Author Robert Coover predicted the end of books, taught hypertext workshops at Brown University, and launched a collaborative online writing space called Hypertext Hotel.
Maybe it was my ADD or a touch of dyslexia, or all the troubled romances and stormy breakups, or midlife career angst, or the uncertainty I felt about my future. My monkey mind wanted to be a zillion places at once. I fell in love with hypermedia.
Some cyberwriters incorporated bells and whistles: Words moved across the screen, transformed into new words, evolved into images, or exploded into sound. Other writers focused on narrative patterns and thematic development. Mind you, their novels were not without form. Many of the early cyberwriters used Storyspace, a software program developed by Eastgate Systems to help maintain coherent structure in non-linear writing. Instead of moving from A to Z, a narrative might follow a spiral, circling but never quite repeating. Or, a story might zig-zag or form a star or, well, a web of connected strands—each strand bringing dramatic tension and a satisfying resolution.
Smitten, I enrolled in an online class with Robert Kendall via the New School for Social Research. Kendall, who wrote the book-length hypertext poem, A Life Set for Two (Eastgate Systems, 1996), introduced me to hypertext writers like Edward Falco and Stuart Moulthrop. I found myself thinking in layers, savoring words that peeled away to reveal multiple meanings.
Where Have All the Hyper-Writers Gone?
Today, we read electronic books on our iPads and Kindles, play video games, write blogs, Snapchat, Tweet, and participate in MOOs. But serious literary hypertext never captured the public imagination—no one clicked on the great hypertext story, said Wired magazine. Still, hypertext literature isn’t dead. The truth is, most great writing is hypertextual, and always has been.
Eschewing linearity, novelists like Thomas Pynchon, Jorge Luis Borges, and James Joyce wrote traditionally published novels with complex, layered narratives. Almost all poetry, by nature, is hypertextual. After all, what’s a metaphor but a link—a psychic click—connecting images with ideas? “Hope” becomes “a thing with feathers.” Readers enter a dream-like world where such comparisons feel logical and fulfilling.
After several years of writing Web content and reading hypertext literature, I began writing poetry—first with Storyspace, and later with old fashioned pen and ink. I also began to think differently about the unfinished stories that smoldered in my desk drawers.
The Joy of Unmanageability
As straightforward narratives, my abandoned stories were flat as paper dolls. Now, I went at them with scissors, reducing the stories to thematic nodes. Spreading these fragments on the floor, I shuffled and reshuffled, seeking connections. Some of the lines turned into poems. Later, the project grew into Our Lives Became Unmanageable, a collection of interlinked flash fictions that won a fabulist fiction chapbook award from Omnidawn.
Our Lives Became Unmanageable is not cyber literature. It’s a traditionally published chapbook about ordinary people who face surreal dilemmas. One narrator loses her mirror reflection, one discovers that his gravity is broken, one is pursued by her evil shadow, and so on.
By fragmenting their stories, I hoped to capture the eerie sense of disorientation my narrators described. Moreover, I wanted to highlight unexpected juxtapositions and to capitalize on the associations readers would bring to the work. Visual words such as moon and silver became connective threads. In this way, the print chapbook is as hypertextual as anything I’ve published online.
Hypertext Taught Me:
- Life offers not one path, but many.
- Time is an illusion.
- There’s no such thing as a non-sequitur.
- All things are connected.
- Dare to take the wild and exhilarating leap.
Want to Sample Literary Hypertext? Try These:
Deep Surface by Stuart Moulthrop (2007. Requires Flash)
In the Garden of Recounting by Robert Kendall (2004. Requires Flash)
Luminous Airplanes by Peter La Farge (2008-2016)
Twelve Blue by Michael Joyce (1996 and 1997)
Do you have something say about poetry? An essay on being a poet, tips for poets, or poetry you love? TrishHopkinson.com is now accepting pitches for guest blog posts.
Jackie Craven is the author of Our Lives Became Unmanageable, winner of the Omnidawn Fabulist Fiction Chapbook Award. Her poetry has appeared in Asheville Poetry Review, Chautauqua, New Ohio Review, Nimrod, Salamander, Water~Stone Review, and other journals. Her Web writing includes columns for Realtor.org and seventeen years covering architecture for About.com. She earned her Doctor of Arts in Writing from the University at Albany, New York. Find her at JackieCraven.com.
Categories: Guest Blog Posts