24 March 2000
William Gillespie, Scott Rettberg, Rob Wittig

William: Well, I'm sitting here at the Holy Grail in Cincinatti with Scott Rettberg of the Unknown and Rob Wittig of tank20. It's getting late but I've just put a dollar in the jukebox. We're here in Ohio to attend the Ropes Lecture Series at the University of Cincinnati and to seriously contemplate the future of electronic literature. Among the guest lecturers are eminent novelist Robert Coover, UCLA professor Katherine Hayles, and, well, us. And Dirk.

I missed the roundtable this afternoon because I was teaching Dirk's high school creative writing students how to write hypertext fiction. Although they were skeptical when I presented the assignment this
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afternoon, they are all now firmly entrenched in the hypertext canon. Poor kids.

Scott: Well, the panel went pretty well. Rob Wittig says he'll pass a photo onto the newspoetry list. Kate Hayles was really pretty brilliant. She stressed, in a highly erudite yet very human way, the fact that collaborations between writers and artists and programmers etc. happening right now on the web are nothing for us to be scared of, as people who love literature, that they are in fact symptoms of increasingly exuberant period of experimentation, of which newspoetry is a part. She mentioned the life-size bikini-clad poster of Joe Futrelle she had hanging in her office at UCLA. Not really. That part was a lie. But William Blake came up, we're going to post the realaudio at You should hear it, was pretty good stuff and Coover was right on too. By now you know that Coover's a pretty major figure - a great writer godfather to the hypertext movement and a great man in the great man theory of history sense of the word. I clicked for him last night. Rob Wittig will now provide you with further details of the U of Cincinnati Ropes Lectures on the Electronic Literature Experience.

Rob: Coover's angle this February is to look back on the past decade-plus of off-line hypertext and label it a Golden Age . . . a canny move that cuts several ways. First it places us (as he pointed out near the top of his talk) at the beginning of the Age That Follows, since Golden Ages are always only Golden in hindsight. Secondly, it casts suspicion on (or at least gives a warning about) the age that follows, since Golden Ages are traditionally followed by Silvers . . . then we're cast into Irons. Third, it prepares his following to look to new sources of reading pleasure beyond the suddenly canonized '80s-'90s hypertext legends . . . legends he helped establish. (Fourth, and only incidentally, it places him in the position of an Arbiter of Ages. )

The warning he's moved to give about the current age of hypertext is, in my listening, prompted by his heartfelt devotion to a particular mode of reading he most strongly experienced with through absorption in big books . . . and which he's failed to find duplicated in his open-minded browsing of the big wide web.

Kate Hayles pushed the room gently and articulately toward acceptance of the different modes of reading that inevitably result from the postmodern tinkering with the form and mechanics of storytelling. Kate is a champ. "One of the gang," as Scott said during the excited chatter after her evening lecture. She said, better than I've ever heard, the basic facts that cry to be told during any comparison between electrolit and paperlit: that books went through the same intense period of exuberant experimentation that electronic literature is currently going through. "The interrogation of the specificity of print first happened a long time ago," she testified . . . and we best not forget that, and make the mistake of taking the current state of print as somehow "natural."

The sharpest uppercut of the Q & A was Kate's response to a question about the scholarly response to electronic lit . . . when she drew a deep breath, got a sparkle in her eye, and went: "I see a fork in the road. Universities will choose between having departments of Print Literature and Departments of Literature. (pause) Departments of Print Literature will continue to have a venerable place in the institution . . . (pause) much like Departments of Classics."

(general gasp)

Scott: Rob's characterizations are correct, except that he is perhaps underestimating Coover in the Agent Provacateur Department, which is to say: Coover is often spinning tales for political effect. And his message, at least as I hear it, is, "writers, get up off your asses and create in this new medium, or the train will leave the station without you and without what you treasure about reading." That's how I hear what he's saying.

Rob: Scott is absolutely right. Where's that pitcher of Caffrey's? Where's our pizza?

Wiiliam: Don't worry Rob: Cincinnati is always good to us, if only in the end. During her presentation this evening, Kate Hayles passed around the auditorium about six artist's books. An artist's book is a book where attention is paid to innovation in all aspects of bookmaking, from
aka unknown
the text itself through unusual choices of paper and binding techniques. These books are generally costly, have a severely limited print run, and are a genuine pleasure to hold. It was a generous move for her to share her collection, and she opened herself to the risk of having her books ripped off by unscruplulous, starving grad students. Her point was to define "hypertext" as seperate from, although overlapping with, electronic literature, and to establish "hypertext" as a tradition much older and richer than its recent electronic manifestations. To be honest, I think fewer than half the books she passed around meet her lucid (!) definition of "hypertext" (most of them did not have multiple reading paths), but I don't mind. I took notes on each book I got to handle, which had the unfortunate consequence that I wasn't listening when she talked about Moulthrop. Regardless, I now have the addresses of a publisher of artist's/artists' books in Rochester, [add link] and a store/gallery in the Village.

Scott: She figured out the logic behind Mouthrop's Reagan Library, which isn't easy to do. Stuart's work is conceptually brilliant though not transparently so.

A Humament by Tom Philips was one of the two books she focused on in particular. The first time I saw that book was in William's kitchen in Urbana, before he moved into the penthouse and well before he moved into the house. I believe that book was flipped through during one of the early Unknown nights, maybe even the night when we did the blue notecards. It occurs to me that Kate Hayles might offer William some logical justifications he hasn't even yet contemplated for his sudden addiction circa 1998 to electronic forms of literature.

William: It's true. Tonight I shared with Rob and Scott a "hypertext" (multiple reading paths) poem I wrote in 1996: six stanzas on separate postcards which can be read in any order. A Humament is a book I know a few newspoets already own - it is a "treated Victorian novel." A London painter named Tom Phillips purchased a "turgid" (Hayles' word) Victorian novel at a thrift store for twopence, and proceded to paint over every single page, only allowing a few fragments of the original text to show through. As an artist's book, this book is unusually fortunate in that it has enjoyed three print runs, each time an improved edition revised by the artist. It is probably still in print. It is a true palimpsest, a gorgeous work, and a damn silly idea. I'm glad it's getting some professional criticism from an intellectual titan like Hayles.

Well, tomorrow is our reading. It's closing time, the stools are being upturned onto the tables, and that's the way it is.

Scott: Still fighting the good fight we think. Unknown

Newspoetry at Spineless Books