Interview with Leonardo Flores

Originally published on the 20th of November 2013

ELR: Leonardo Flores you are running a project called I ♥ E-Poetry and in the year 2010 you completed your PhD dissertation, titled Typing the Dancing Signifier: Jim Andrews’ (Vis)Poetics . When and why did you start studying e-poetry?

Leonardo Flores: I started studying e-poetry back in 1999 when I took a course with Neil Fraistat at the University of Maryland. The expressive potential of digital media instantly caught my attention, and I continued to explore this topic in other courses with Martha Nell Smith and Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, who co-chaired my dissertation. My fascination with e-poetry (and electronic literature in general) arises from its intense engagement with language in digital media– a rapidly diversifying set of software and hardware devices that people are increasingly reading, viewing, listening, playing, and communicating with. Because electronic literature explores the affordances and constraints of these technologies by placing them in conversation with literary and cultural traditions, it becomes an important testing ground for the future of language-based human expression in digital media.

ELR: Writing poetry with digital tools sets completely new paradigms for both poets and readers. Where do you see the main differences between authors of printed texts and digital born works and, with regard to the reader, how do new media tools change the aesthetics of literature?

Leonardo Flores: Authors of printed texts write linguistic and graphical texts that sit still on a page, awaiting a reader to make them come alive with their physical and mental voices. These words on the page are executable codes that run on human bodies, particularly those that have compatible language software installed in them. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky expressed this best when he said “in poetry, the medium is the audience’s body. When I say to myself a poem by Emily Dickinson or George Herbert, the artist’s medium is my breath. The reader’s breath and hearing embody the poet’s words. This makes the art physical, intimate, vocal, and individual”. Pinsky’s definition admittedly focuses on poetry designed to be performed vocally and excludes other traditions, such as visual poetry, but I find this notion intriguingly extensible, particularly when dealing with e-poetry.

Authors of born-digital works write texts that can be described linguistically and graphically (same as writers of printed texts), but their texts can also be described by their scripted behaviors. These words in a file are wrapped in executable codes that run in the readers’ computers (used broadly to include all digital devices: smartphones, tablets, consoles, etc.) to produce a text that a human can read in the way Pinsky describes, and beyond. The e-poem thrives in this space, using the computational, multimedia, and time-based characteristics of digital media to go beyond the static behavior of language in page spaces defined by print and allow its language to change, move, respond to reader input, operate on a schedule, or incorporate audio into its performance. Works of electronic literature activate feedback loops that blur the boundaries between a human reader and its computer, so the audience’s body that the poet writes for can be understood as a cyborg or posthuman body (as discussed by Haraway and Hayles, respectively). The physicality and intimacy of the e-poem includes the processor, software, and input devices as well as the hands, eyes, and voice of the reader.

Literature has been shaped by centuries of creation, production, and distribution through the printed word which has had a profound impact on its traditions, theoretical approaches, and aesthetics. A move away from the printed page– easier said than done, since it has been remediated so effectively in digital environments– represents a break from those traditions and aesthetics. How would literary tradition help you understand a Twitter bot, kinetic typography, or interactive fiction? I feel that readers should relax their expectations when reading electronic literature in order to be receptive to the works, and then selectively test different aesthetic principles against the work, leaving room for the development of new ones for that which doesn’t fit traditional aesthetics. When reading e-poetry you may need to judge by aesthetics developed for other media, such as photography, film, the visual arts, music, typography, video games, and software. E-poetry doesn’t occur in a cultural vacuum and is often in conversation with literary and other cultural traditions. As readers become familiar with emerging genres and traditions of electronic literature they begin to understand their poetics and aesthetics.

ELR: Would you say that e-poetry and electronic literature in general are literary experiments?

Leonardo Flores: Yes and no. E-literature and e-poetry are experimental insofar as they engage language in a media environment that is relatively new, especially when compared to the well established written and printed word. Computers offer writers a powerful set of tools for writing, programming, and multimedia production. Most use them to produce texts and works for other media, such as print, or e-books which are simply a representation of the book in digital media. Others take advantage of the computer’s capabilities to produce works that engage digital media’s affordances. That represents a rupture with most of our literary tradition, which has been shaped for centuries by print and its publication formats. But this is not any different from the experimentation that occurs whenever a new technology comes around. When the technology is new, the early adopters experiment first, and mainstream culture follows (or doesn’t). The typewriter inspired poets like William Carlos Williams and E.E. Cummings to experiment with spacing and arrangement of letters, words, and lines on the page fueling further experimentation along the lines of the Concrete Poetry but also more mainstream adoption, as in the Black Mountain Poets. Nowadays, spacing a line away from the left margin or breaking spacing conventions at the service of poetic expression isn’t considered experimental writing. I’m already seeing a generation of emerging writers for whom placing language over an image or video or creating an animated GIF is as naturalized as writing a paragraph. As they develop into the next generation of writers, poets, artists I expect to see literature become increasingly multimodal and their writing to increasingly follow in the traditions of electronic literature. I think there will always be an experimental aspect to literature and media in part because they are always evolving and creativity won’t wait for mainstream culture to catch up.

ELR: What could you tell us about the actual status of the science of electronic literature? Is there a literature canon, a defined terminology or methodology? And how important is it for a scientist to have an institution?

Leonardo Flores: Electronic literature is a strange creature because it emerges from many traditions and impulses, many of which are literary and artistic, but others which involve other aspects of culture, such as comics, gaming, programming, computer, media, film, audio, and video. Literary theory, designed primarily for literature developed by oral and print cultures, offers productive but limited tools for the analysis, interpretation, and evaluation of electronic literature. These critical practices need to be updated, adapted, or supplemented by methodologies used for other media. An example of this is what I like to call Close Reading 2.0, which updates the Formalist practice by reading closely the screen text, along with the source code, interface, media, materiality, paratext, and programmed textual behaviors. There are also methods designed with digital media in mind, such as media-specific analysis, critical code studies, platform studies, software studies, ludology, and others.

Digital Humanities methods are also being employed in the study of electronic literature, particularly through the development of databases and online resources that categorize, tag, and encode catalogs with metadata that allow distant readings and data visualizations. In I ♥ E-Poetry, we describe works by technology, publication, author(s), year, genre, and textual behavior– a typology that I developed for my dissertation and which will be described in more detail in an upcoming article. The ELMCIP Knowledge Base, led by scholars Scott Rettberg and Jill Walker Rettberg is currently the leading database being used for data visualizations on electronic literature.

An indicator that the development of electronic literature resources around the world has reached a critical mass is the Consortium on Electronic Literature (CELL) organized by the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO). Our current activities focus on the development of a common search engine for all our databases, as well as a developing a common taxonomy to describe our collections. Each one of the Consortium members have institutional homes and support, yet receive contributions from an international community of scholars, both affiliated and currently unaffiliated.

It is always better for an e-lit scholar to be affiliated to an institution, but there are good opportunities in the meantime, in the shape of post-docs, Fulbright scholar opportunities, visiting scholar positions, and other ways to contribute to these resources. I currently have three temporarily affiliated scholars or doctoral candidates participating in I ♥ E-Poetry as guest or regular contributors and while I can’t pay them, they are likely to become collaborators in projects I am seeking funding for.

ELR: On your webpage you can read: “His research areas are electronic literature, poetry, and digital preservation of first generation electronic objects.” What would you say are the main issues regarding the preservation of electronic/digital literature works?

Leonardo Flores: The main issues arise from the fact that works are created in the context of complex computational environments and as time passes these environments change, sometimes so rapidly and so much that they works start to malfunction and may even become obsolete. Works may be updated or ported to work in new or different environments and old environments may be emulated, but there is always loss of information when this happens, and new contexts add information to the texts. It is therefore important to preserve and describe copies of source files for electronic literature.

For example, I recently submitted a funding proposal to create and publish an online archive of source files for electronic literature created with Macromedia/Adobe Flash and Director during the first decade of the 2000s. This was a vibrant period in the creation of electronic literature because the widely adopted software allowed for sophisticated multimedia integration, animation, scripting, and interactivity. It inspired a generation of writers to explore the expressive potential of language in digital media, leading to a period of unprecedented production of electronic literature.

These works are published in proprietary formats—Shockwave and Flash—requiring browsers to be equipped with the necessary plugin to read them. When Adobe purchased Macromedia and its authoring software in 2004, they focused their development on Flash and started to phase out Director through infrequent updates and limited support. In 2010, Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced that the Flash format would not be allowed or supported in iOS, which powered their increasingly popular touchscreen devices. Before long, Adobe announced that they would no longer develop Flash for Android and that it would be slowly phasing out this file format. The latest versions of Flash and Director allow users to export their content into HTML5 and desktop apps for Mac and PC computers. Google has developed a tool called Swiffy that converts Flash to HTML5, attempting to offer ways for content developers to shift away from formats condemned to obsolescence.

To complicate the situation, the published Shockwave and Flash formats are compiled, which means that their source code is unavailable for study or preservation. So while there are hundreds of works published (documented – the ELMCIP Knowledge Base lists over 400 works in Flash and Shockwave format out of its 2000+ work database) of electronic literature in these formats, the source files are unpublished and endangered, since they are saved on their authors’ hard drives. There are currently no systematic efforts in place to solicit and preserve these source files.

My proposed project, titled “Flashy Bits: Creating an E-Lit Archive,” seeks to address that need by creating an archive of electronic literature, powered by Omeka, a Web based open-source collection management software.