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Poetry and the half-print, half-digital world

We were delighted to meet the talented Amaranth Borsuk, poet behind the augmented reality Between Page and Screen project, when she came to London to join us at the FutureBook Innovation Workshop in association with The Literary Platform. Here she talks to online publication the Daily BR!NK about Between Page and Screen, poetry and half-print, half-digital world.

DB: On your bio, it says you work on and teach digital poetry; how would you define digital poetry?

For the sake of the class I teach at MIT, digital poetry is any poetry created using contemporary digital media or to be read using digital media. The class runs the gamut from using programming to create automated text generators to creating digital videos of poems, and also creating interactive Flash poems.

DB: Does the idea of digital poetry exist outside of the classes you teach? Is it new part of the poetry world at large?

It’s a thriving form of poetry! There’s a wonderful community of writers and artists who are creating digital poetry, and they have a biennial conference that just celebrated its tenth anniversary in May. It’s an international group that is really pushing the boundaries of how we experience poetry. I think it hasn’t totally crossed over into the mainstream, but it is a large subset of the poetry world.

DB: Can you talk about the conception of Between Page and Screen?

The idea for Between Page and Screen came out of Brad and I wanting to create a book to address the current state of reading, where we’re reading more and more on screens and on hand-held devices and on computers, but there are still a lot of us – myself included – who really love books as physical objects. And for me, that’s not only because I am a writer but also because I have a background in book art, so I love books as objects. Augmented reality seemed to me to be tailor-made for this exploratory space where both a page and a screen are necessary to get at the text.

DB: Your partner in this project, Brad, has a technology background, correct?

Brad works on user experience for websites. He’s done a lot of interesting stuff with Flash, and I knew that I could trust him to get all the technical parts down, but more than that, we were able to have a dialogue about what the book could look like, a discussion about the potential for 3-D mapping. It stimulated me to think about other ways the text could perform. The tendency of a writer is to think in the two-dimensional space, and even working typographically, it’s still a visual arrangement that is for the flat plane. But the great thing about augmented reality is that it’s something that pops up in space. Thinking three-dimensionally is something we did together.

DB: What is it about poetics that allows for such a transformative potential, especially regarding augmented reality?

[thinks] One reason is that poetry is already so much about language, about a close examination of words. Between Page and Screen consists of poems that meditate on the words “page” and “screen” – the two characters who are writing letters back and forth have these sort of coded messages to each other that are about what the words for their own names mean. They’re actually playing with language through etymology.

DB: Watching the video demonstration of the book left me thinking about the title of the project. I see the page, and I see the screen, and I’m left to wonder about the “between.” What lies between the two? Is it imagination, the reader…?

Well I love the answers that you have for that question! I think it’s a question the project tries to pose: What is between and how do we get between? For me the reader is definitely there, because without the reader, the poems never appear. There has to be someone to hold the book, open up the webpage, and to look at the screen in order for those poems to be there. And also, the sort of in-between is also a reference to the dialogue that takes place between the page and the screen – so it’s a reference to both the form and the content.

DB: How does the technology work? Is it similar to something most people already use and understand?

It’s pretty similar to technologies we already interact with. You might have a plug-in with Skype that creates animations that float around your face. Between Page and Screen is written in Flash and what happens is your webcam minimizes the visual information that it gets on screen, and it turns things either black or white and looks for squares. And if it finds a square, it reads the interior space of the square, and if it recognizes that shape, it plays the corresponding animation. It uses the distortion of the corners of the squares to determine where the square is located in space, and from that image, it can then map the image three-dimensionally. So when you move, the image moves in a corresponding fashion. It’s not even new technology; what’s new is that augmented reality is now available to you through Flash on a home computer. It used to be something you could only play with in immersive environments – like virtual reality spaces, and you had to wear a helmet.

DB: Has the content of the book itself been put on a backburner in any way because of the excitement for the technological component?

I hope not! At least not for me as a writer. I believe that in both book arts and digital poetry, the work must call out for its medium. They have to really intertwine. The poems in the book are full of wordplay that tries to unpack the very print/digital relationship it depicts. As P and S (the book’s characters) attempt to define the bounds of their romantic relationship, the reader gets a sense of the larger relationship that’s at stake.

I think that for some people, the content is secondary. And that’s okay with me. If the only experience a reader has with the book is the pleasurable moment when you first open it up and see something happen, that’s okay. What we really wanted was to create a sense of excitement that you get as a kid playing with your first pop-up books. There aren’t many books for grown-ups that can excite us in that way – we think we’ve seen it all.

DB: What was the hardest part of the whole process? Any snags?

Comically enough, the hardest part off the process was letterpress printing and hand-binding the book! It took me about a month to do all of the printing and binding. I did the artist book edition of twelve, but we’re thrilled that Siglio Press is going to put out a mass-market edition of the book. It’s really exciting to us to think about getting the book out to a broader audience, and the publisher, Lisa Pearson, understood immediately what we were doing conceptually and aesthetically. She’s dedicated to putting out books that merge the visual and literary. Her books are beautiful.

DB: You talked a bit earlier about the importance of the book as a physical object, especially in your previous experience with book art. When you created Between Page and Screen, what was important to you in creating the actual book?

For the limited edition version, it was important that the book was in dialogue with the history of book art and fine-press printing. The markers that trigger the animation already reminded me of mid-century book artist Dieter Roth – he did all these beautiful cut books where he would cut out shapes and the pages would layer one on top of the other and you would get different designs. And I knew I wanted to work in a square format – which is also a format he used very often. The paper it’s printed on is fine-press paper, letter-press printed and hand-bound, in order to take part in that tradition.

DB: What advice would you give to poets who are starting out in this half-print, half-digital world?

[thinks] I would say, don’t be limited by technology. If you want to do something, find someone who can help you do it. If you’re a writer, don’t forget about aesthetics, and if you’re an aesthetics person, don’t forget about the words – because both are important.

DB: That’s perfect advice in relation to your wonderful project, so thank you! What’s next for you and Brad?

We’re exploring opportunities to work with X-Box Kinect to create an immersive, interactive site-specific poetry experience. And my other future project is that I’m working with poet Kate Durbin on an e-book for a book of poems tentatively called Excess Exhibit that we wrote together.

DB: How can Daily BR!NK contribute to your success?

I’d love to connect with developers who are interested in creating books for iPad and interactive e-books. I’m also looking for readers for the future publication and people who want to have dialogue about what the future of the book might look like.

Photo credit: Brad Bouse

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