CHRISTOPHER T. FUNKHOUSER
from LAYERED EFFECTS IN MULTIPLEX POETRY SINCE BLACK MOUNTAIN
The maximization of resources which occurred at Black Mountain is posited as an important and direct influence on performance art and poetry in the United States after the second world war. These developments in twentieth century art and poetry, undoubtedly influenced by dada and other precursors, result from the technological ability for the composer to allow and/or control numerous variables of the human senses within the framework of a performance situation. A preoccupation with and desire for effect upon an audience is what leads creative minds to multimedia. As former Black Mountain faculty member Robert Creeley writes in the Introduction to the Poetry In Motion II cd-rom, "...poets particularly need to be heard, need an active and defining presence, need physical sound and sight."
A trajectory of multi-layered poetry in the United States has kept in-step with the localized activities at Black Mountain. Through the late 50s and 60s, the arts were juxtaposed through the activities—the "Happenings"—created by Allan Kaprow and FLUXUS, predominantly in New York City. Kaprow was a student of John Cage's, and saw the importance of breaking down separations between the arts. Many writers began to use multiple voices and sounds in formal or informal communal poetic events. Allen Ginsberg describes the "glorious ferment" in New York in this period in the "Foreword" of the Out Of This World anthology, writing, "The literary, musical, and cinematic avant-garde, as well as civil rights, censorship, and minority problems, all came together at one point, one spot in time, in the early sixties" (Waldman xxvi).
Particular aspects of the Black Mountain continuum solidify and make clear poetry's status as a potent performative and intermediary form in the latter part of this century. Performance poetry blossomed in North America in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Its most active practitioners (of that period) are chronicled in Ron Mann's video Poetry In Motion (subsequently converted, with additions, to a pair of cd-roms). This project has been extended into the 90s by the recent The United States of Poetry video series. With the "mimeo revolution" (extended by the xerox machine), the publishing of poetry in print also proliferated. Loss Pequeño Glazier's annotated history of small presses reports that the number of poetry magazines increased by 1900% between 1965 and 1990 (from 250 to 4800) (2).
In the most recent decade a severe de-centralization of creative energies has happened. In part, this is due to the "technology" of culture and the expanding demographics of American poetry (including disagreement around issues of form amongst poets). Charles Bernstein, in A Poetics, describes recent literary history as being "characterized by the sharp ideological disagreements that lacerate our communal field of action" (1). The near void of interdisciplinary cultural and educational institutions such as Black Mountain presents practical difficulties in the creation of a kinetically-minded community. Naropa Institute, New College of California, and The Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church in New York, all of which have direct foundational ties to Black Mountain, are among the few places where an integrated, collaborative approach to poetry has been encouraged and able to ferment in the past several decades. Yet their relative distance from one another as well as other symptoms of cultural atomization prevent the ideal presence of a communal field of action and inquiry. This condition, however, may not be as problematic as it seems if, as Don Byrd points out in his study Charles Olson's Maximus, "The Center is not a place as such but an engagement of attentions which is necessarily located" (64).
A capacious alternative approach to intermedia arts—mostly speculative at the time—began to develop in the 70s. Ted Nelson writes in Dream Machines : "...a very basic change has occurred in presentational systems of all kinds. We may summarize it under the name branching, although there are many variants. Essentially, today's systems for presenting pictures, texts and whatnot can bring you different things automatically depending on what you do" (44). Nelson promotes the computer as a mechanism which collects and organizes disparate texts, and suggests the generic terms "hypertext" and "hypermedia" for presentational media which performs in multi-dimensional ways. Several writers have subsequently chosen to adopt cybertext as a term which attempts to broaden yet create a unified field for computerized and other interactive texts. [see Espen J. Aarseth, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1997) and John Cayley, "HYPERTEXT / CYBERTEXT / POETEXT." ]
Digital systems have developed substantially since their conceptualization, and a few efforts have been made in the name of poetry. Contemporary artists using digital multimedia gain the ability to mechanically process and cross-index amounts and types of information inconceivable to artists, writers, scholars of previous generations. A movement toward encompassing multiple forms through electronic networks is appropriate in a country whose artistic milieu is energetic, varied, and surrounded by various forms of media. Texts developed using hypermedia bring sonic, alphabetic and visual (static and kinetic) materials together. Though poetry has always been layered, has "branched" in certain senses, increasingly computer technology has come to play a role in the projection and performance of a poetry of layers. With hypertext, writes Michael Joyce, "The text becomes a present tense palimpsest where what shines through are not past versions but potential, alternate views." (3) A range of intertextual associations, and graphical combinations are possible via the computer screen.
Of course, it is a radically different situation to be in front of a computer "reading" than it is to be in an audience witnessing a performance: an abstraction exists in the absence of the presence of a group or human energy. Though perhaps no more than in other forms of literary transmission, such as books, television, radio, and so on. Other concerns exist regarding the new media's ability to effectively enact a transference of experience and art. Digital multimedia cannot carry the gestalt or community of Black Mountain much more than Voyager's cd-rom, THE BEAT EXPERIENCE carries the spirit of the Beat poets. It can, however, carry the blend of media in publication form and, more importantly, lend itself to some of the important artistic methods and philosophies at the core of Black Mountain poetics. In fact, technological / hypermedia manifestations of literature and art practically demand intermediary collaborations. Creative modes of "interactivity," expansive databases, and knowledgeable designs for digital multimedia will relieve some of the obvious concerns about a poetry relying on computer interface for effective transmission. What is happening is not some sort of post-human poetry: someone or someones invent the work, write the codes, broadcast and receive vision. Meaning is revealed or evoked through the programmatic, yet malleable, transmission of the "performance." Both creative and critical texts are layered in new ways. Mutational layers such as color graphics are obvious, as are the benefits of various forms of linking.
Artists associated with Black Mountain were able to create a matrixed/non-matrixed multi-layered field for poetry. With the development and proliferation of mass-media, electronic networks, and hypermedia, terms for performance have unquestionably shifted since the 50s. It is impossible to suggest that computers are a catalyst for various circumstances and ideal possibilities described above. Still, the increased number of parameters in simultaneous projections and sounds enabled by new media imply new combinatorial creative procedures resulting from art, music, and writing which cannot rely implicitly on either unique approach. Nevertheless, nothing like a Black Mountain poetry or poetics exists in cyberspace to this date. The investigations of Jim Rosenberg, John Fowler, Diana Slattery, Charles O. Hartman, Christy Sheffield Sanford, Alterran Poetry Assemblage, Betalab, the Electronic Poetry Center, Eastgate Systems, and others, no matter how sophisticated they are, include but the earliest efforts in designing digital intermediary compositions.
In The New American Poetry, Black Mountain faculty member Robert Duncan writes, "A multiphasic experience sought a multiphasic form." Duncan describes how he seeks, "those forms that allow for the most various feelings in one, so that a book is more than a poem, and a life-work is more than a book, yet they have no other instance than a word" (435). His own "multiphasic" work stems from mythological, philosophical and other sacred texts as well as writings from his favorite contemporaries. In his poetry, Duncan successfully weaves language and an integrated vision into a dense and expansive array of verbal lyricism, which he had no other way to produce than by type set on a page or by reading aloud.
Whether or not cybertext truly allows "various feelings in one," or allows a book to be more than a poem (or a life work to be more than a book) still depends on content and a constructive and passionate energy put forth by the author. Conceivably, it could be decades before anyone finds a way to synthesize a grand poetic vision and the computer. We do know for a fact that electronic composition, vast storage and telecommunications systems now allow for different types of poetic literature to be designed, created, and distributed. These new systems in part transplant the most effective attributes of the old techniques into the new in a process of using "a word" to absorb and transmit a poet's vision outward.
It is apparent that several cybertext authors have engaged with what Gerrit Lansing describes as "the unchosen weather of the paradigmatic and syntagmatic forces of present language" so powerful in Duncan's work (198). We see this foregrounded in works which adopt the icons, metaphors, and terminology of computers and networks in order to "subvert" them. These self-reflexive texts intend to critique the media itself. This is not an absolute praxis, however. Many forms of cybertext earnestly attempt to use new media to advance poetry into the electronic realm. Phases, forms, and interpretations of cybertext have been produced; more will be. Some may already be read as "multiphasic," but as Duncan's poetry and methodology grew out of many years of living research, reading, conversation, and careful consideration of all of the aspects of writing poetry and being a poet, surely we have not yet seen the maturity of dramatic open forms in electronic work.
Using Black Mountain as a model for such poetry certainly demands further scrutiny. Charles Olson, directing Black Mountain at its very end, states his conception of the school: "What Black Mountain College sets itself to do is to breed the first-rate alone. And it does it by opposing, as of knowledge, the particular to the general; as of the person, the common to the special; as of culture and belief, the active to spectatorism..." (Harris 180). The first consideration here, toward the development of progressive forms for poetry, of favoring the particular over the general, is not as much of a problem as the specialized and spectatorial aspects of the highly technologized forms under discussion. Questions of access and effective modes of interactivity perhaps undermine my proposal of them as such. At the same time, according to Harris, just before Black Mountain closed, "Olson formulated what was by far the most visionary of his schemes for the college. The new college, described by Robert Duncan as the center of a 'dispersed force,' would retain a nucleus faculty...and sponsor a program of satellite projects...located in cities all over the world" (180). The location of such a poetics may be precisely and effectively enacted through the electronic passages and connectivity enabled by machines. Conflation of these electrifical communities may be debatable because the artistic activity at Black Mountain stemmed from a physical and living space. A digitized presentation of poetry in a non-spatial, non-cotemporal form might even be considered by some to be antithetical to the purposes of Black Mountain. I see contemporary methodologies as opportunities to renovate an innovative poetry and poetics, useful to persons interested in an art comprised of varied activities happening independently of one another. Spontaneous, creative, potentially globalized approaches may be simulated by computer processes, as a disembodied poetics grows cross-culturally.
Multiplex is precisely the word which defines the context of cybertext in the current creative and technological moment. Multiple layerings, and the use of telephone circuitry and television receiving equipment capable of carrying two or more distinct signals, are symptomatic of a growing body of literature today. A potential inclusivity, anthological and transgenral, exists through the media's layering abilities. A practical and focused example is built in to the electronic version of the previous Black Mountain essay. Its first link, the "Prologue," is an example of what a colleague affectionately called a "pre-emptive strike" against a basic feminist critique which might be levied upon regarding the school (and my pinpointing it as the orgins of multimedia poetry in the United States). This "Prologue" includes relevant commentary on the subject as well as links to missing past and present counterparts to this lineage. This effect enables considerations to be pixel-by-pixel in the present.
We have reached a point in the age of mechanical reproduction where the demands of the multi-layered poetry born at Black Mountain can be at least immaterially satisfied by manifestations from the new machines. It is an extremely demanding, highly processual, type of work but the tactics and machinery are in place to invent a vibrant poetry as a result of the invention and proliferation of digital media. Given the computer's ability to be programmed to create, change, and recover particular encounters within a textual body of knowledge and forms, it is possible that creative effects born at Black Mountain may be cooperatively carried to the present.
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Bernstein, Charles. A Poetics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.
Byrd, Don. Charles Olson's Maximus. Carbondale, IL: University of Illinois Press,
Duncan, Robert. In The New American Poetry, Donald M. Allen, ed. New York: Grove
Glazier, Loss Pequeño. Small Press: An Annotated Guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood,
Harris, Mary Emma. The Arts at Black Mountain College. Cambridge: MIT Press,
Joyce, Michael. Of Two Minds: Hypertext, Pedagogy and Poetics. Ann Arbor:
University of Michigan Press, 1995.
Lansing, Gerrit. "Robert Duncan and the Power to Cohere." Scales of the Marvellous.
Robert J. Bertholf and Ian Reid, eds. New York: New Directions, 1979: 198-199.
Nelson, Ted. Dream Machines/Computer Lib. Chicago: Hugo's Book Service, 1974.
Waldman, Anne, ed. Out of This World. New York: Crown, 1991.
Christopher T. Funkhouser © 1997.