Interview with Jason Nelson

Originally published here on the 20th September 2015

ELR: Jason Nelson you have been creating works of digital poetry since the early 2000s and since 2005 you have been teaching Net Art and Electronic Literature at Griffith University in Australia. Could you tell us how you got started with Electronic Literature and where your inspiration came from?

Jason Nelson: Curiously, I began adventuring into this world very much by accident. Prior to 2000 I was a City Planner type, working with GPS, GIS and other mapping playthings. And while I adore the idea of planning, good, creative, freethinking planning of cities and places, the reality of paperwork and politics and mindless development sapped by interest, away, away, so far away.

And as the anxiety of my un/sad/dis-satisfying career built, I revisited my creative brain, attempted to find ways to combine my interest in the textual and my technical prowess.

Holy cats…I can see this just might be a very long story. A tale filled with grand gesturing cliff falls and long swims to the shore led by apologetic dolphins. So I’ll reduce it back a bit.

So after deciding to leap into creative waters, I finished an MFA in Poetry at Bowling Green State University. And honestly, the program was rather conservative, rather bland, so I was forced to find fuel for my experimental synapses elsewhere. And as I already had considerable experience with tech/code/software, and could think/build spatially from my Cultural Geography/Planning Days, I explored ways of combining screen wonders with my abstract writing.

At BGSU there was a graduate computer lab, with six old Macs. At the time I didn’t know how to crack software, so I figured I had six months to learn Dreamweaver and Flash, with a 30 day trial on each computer, moving from the window to the door.

And yet even when I started creating my interactive poems/fictions, I had no idea there was anyone else creating such things, no notion of Electronic Literature or even digital art more broadly. My inspiration instead came from maps, 19th century engineering, early magicians, L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry (I took a creative writing class with Elizabeth Robinson at the University of Oklahoma during my Cultural Geography days) and a general interest in the way technology worked and didn’t work.

Ok, ok….I’ll stop there. As I’m started to ramble, ramble on, a horsey car, doors flapping in the dust of gravel roads, the wires, the telegraph wires are still there, waiting for some future/past day.

Briefly, I , very much, started creating digital literature without any idea such a world existed. Perhaps, just perhaps, that explains my unique style, that…or a bike ride concussion.

ELR: Most of your works are similar to video games. What is the purpose of the use of ludic elements in your works?

Jason Nelson: Hmmm. Actually. I’m not sure I agree with the word “most”. Statistically only a small percentage of my over 50 digital poems/fictions are directly related to games, or use, what others would call, game engines.

Sure, all, or most, of my digital creatures have play and interactivity, interface and movement as central textual elements. But only, around ten of my works would be considered games, or game-like by the game masters, those Ludic overlords who require the gates to art-games be held fast by those who alter game rules, not those who use game land/screen-scapes.

Admittedly my most well known works tend towards the game end. The idea that my game-works have spread so much more, so widely (to the millions) is interesting. What is it about a game that draws in readers/players, holds them in the creatures gaze, and compels/propels them into sharing/re-visiting?

I suppose. Hmmm. Maybe. Hmmm. Ok. How about this. When you play a game you live inside the game (at least partially). So readers tend to inhabit the gameish digital poem, they internalize the textual elements.

Sidenote: By textual elements I mean more than just words. I consider all the facets, the movement and image, the sound and interface, the video and code, the words and animations to be critical, integral textual elements of a digital poem/fiction.

Indeed, I was asked recently, during an interview for an academic position at the Rochester Institute of Technology (for which I placed second unfortunately…sniff…sniff) what makes a good digital poem. My response was, in part, that the words of a digital poem should be inter-related/connected/bred with the other textual elements (mentioned above). And if the words could be ripped out, forced on to a page, and they formed a perfectly happy poem, there was something wrong.

Jeez. I have segued massively. Back to games.

I love the language of games. It’s one of the languages I, and so many others my age and younger, learned from adolescence. A game’s grammar fires forth from triggering and gathering, from exploring/adventuring/deftly tussling, the same mental play that great/good/readable books/stories/poems entice. The world is a sad and exciting little/big game, one we lose and lose and lose and lose. And yet, holy hello, we keep playing.

ELR: You clearly establish a relationship with your readers by inviting them to actually “create a poem” as in Series Eleven or Five by addressing directly to them in the instructions as in Evil Hypnotizing Mascotte or by providing them with different options of interaction. What do you think about the apparent freedom of the reader in the digital context and how important is it for you that readers sort of “dive” into your works?

Jason Nelson: I want to reach the back of a reader’s brain. To snake my hand through the vessels in their arms/hands/ears, past all manner of organs and bones, crawling up the spinal cord/chord, past the brain’s more logical homes, and grab the grey matter home of the subconscious. Dearest gawd I want to shake the hell out of your subconscious.

This is, of course, a baffling thing for many readers/critics/reviewers. Most people equate game with puzzle or fiction with story as treasure hunt. So when my work attempts to bypass all that, and thrust itself directly into your dreamy, floaty hidden voice that makes you, ummmm…you, it’s difficult to dissect, analyse and then re-assemble.

I’ve been told by writers, famous and beginning, my creative creatures are hard to encapsulate in an article. Hurrah me thinks.

It’s been said ten trillion times by ten trillion scholars, across ten trillion dimensions, that interactive work makes the reader part of the writing process. My digital writing doesn’t really exist until someone adds themselves, moves and chooses, and each experience will be very different, deviant from others. The directions thing is curious. Adding directions into my first few dozen creations came from insecurity. I was alarmingly worried my readers wouldn’t understand where/how/when to move and click and write and select and push and run and jump and fire and cry, so much crying. So I added directions and signs, like arrows pointing to critical moments, or endgames.

And now I include an arrow or arrows in everything I create. It’s become an internal meme. The directions have shifted from useful to meta-play, self-disregarding and ego-booming. The reader is driven to the park, shown the various paths, wooded or concrete or muddy hollows, and then pushed into the grass while dogs come running, come running, their digitally paws leaving growling, barking marks, go play, go play.

ELR: One of the major innovations brought by New Media technology concerns the literary aesthetics. Along with the ludic elements and the possibility of interaction mentioned above there are audio-visual effects and hypertextual links which transform the plain text into a work of art and the act of reading into a complete new experience. Could you describe your concept of aesthetics in digital poetry?

Jason Nelson: I so totally want to just say “No”. In a kind-of curt, aren’t I an arrogant and superior bastard whose work is unapproachably beautiful and self-perfect. And the aesthetics can only be described by seeing/reading/playing the work itself.

But that is an easy place to live, one devoid of discourse. And as my work is too messy and broken and playful and frayed and strange to be allowed seating in the Perfect Club, aesthetics are the crutch my digital poems/fictions use to cross the swollen river (the deer enclosure was empty, but the horses still expected apples).

Nothing about the world, the land/city/nature/culture-scapes around us is clean and well formed and exacting. Despite roads and the square shapes of buildings, the networks and calendared schedules, most of our surroundings are tethered to chaos theory, to incomplete stories, brief visions/expressions heard while galloping past.

And yet so much of New Media art/literature borrows from the clean lines and perfectly proportioned, complementary colours of design. It pretends to work, everything intentional and inter-locked and design-porn perfect. So my aesthetic comes from this place. This imperfect, messy, collided swirl of clanging ideas, smashed together stories, brief and disconnected phrases/visions. Sure there is always a strange attractor, always a hovering point, around which the theme of my literary creatures swarms. And yes, sometimes my works (odd using the term work for creative digital text play) do collapse into straight narrative, direct point, simple and clear visuals. But always with the hand-drawn, the organic line and carolling poetics in mind (in the back of my mind…mind you….minding…ok ok. I’ll stop).

Did I even answer your question? How about this.

When all the various media, interface, texts, words, coding, interactivity hold hands, gather up power tools and build treehouses for wolves with jetpacks, I’m super darn chuffed (happy in Aussieland).

ELR: You have launched the new website for the Dispersed Digital Poetry Project. Could you illustrate the process with an example and use this very blog to host one of your poems?

Jason Nelson: Of course I can and will! Your site/audience rocks. The notion of the Dispersed Digital Poetry project is somewhat simple. I’m creating a series of digital poems, possibly up to 50. Each of those digital poems will be hosted on a different website, with all the various sections then inter-linked and connected. So there will eventually be 50 different entry points, and as the reader moves through the series, they will be continually entering new domains (literally).

I have around 20 or so started, and will launch the series soon. Part of the process comes from my ever-experimenting creative methods. On my hard drive there are dozens of half-started/finished digital poems/fictions. Some of them are ambitious giants and others are smaller inventions, playful gizmos. The Dispersed project will give all those orphaned interactive poems homes, and in turn, bring new audiences to both my work and the sites that host a section.

So, yes, do come and play.