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Brian Kim Stefans, “The Dreamlife of Letters” (2000)

Research Report by Kim Knight
(created 2/18/07; version 1.0)

Related Categories: New Reading Interfaces | Text and Multimedia | Collective Reading

Original Object for Study description

“The Dreamlife of Letters” is a flash poem by Brian Kim Stefans. Published in 2000, the piece is based upon an appropriated poem by Rachel Blau DuPlessis and takes the viewer through the mobile and unstable “dreamlife” of letters. The words of DuPlessis’ poem have been grouped together according to their first letter and animated in such a way that the passive viewer can only watch as the text moves around the screen. Influenced by the traditions of concrete poetry and ambient poetics, the piece foregrounds language not only as a medium of meaning, but also as a medium of design.

In 2000, Stefans was part of an online poetics colloquium which utilized a listserv for discussion. The topic of the colloquium was transgressive writing and discussion centered on Dodie Bellamy’s essay “Sex/Body/Writing.” Discussants were divided into four groups and in each group, responses to the text were conducted in a chain. The first person responds to the text, the second person, responds to the first, and so on. The poet Rachel Blau DuPlessis was in the first response position and posted a “texturally detailed, nearly opaque” poetic response to the Bellamy piece (Stefans). Stefans was faced with the task of responding to DuPlessis and wanted to do so in a manner that engaged with her poem but did not attempt to impose meaning or a narrative structure that weren’t necessarily there.

His first response was a print poem in which he alphabetized all of DuPlessis’ words and wrote short poems based upon the alphabetical groupings. This response was sent to the listserv along with a few paragraphs of prose that explained his reaction. Stefans was dissatisfied with his initial response, feeling the words took on unintended meanings when left alone and also feeling that the piece relied too heavily on traditional concrete poetics. His next version is “the dreamlife of letters.” Stefans describes the piece as a short film, one that places the viewer outside of the action.

The Flash file opens with a title page, “the dreamlife of letters,” with the subtitle “a poem.” The title of the poem then seems to spring up into the air, tumbling backwards and up the page in defiance of gravity. It lands on top of a new window that includes prefatory remarks by Stefans, explaining how the piece came about. When the viewer selects “run poem” the piece is launched and the viewer is taken to the prologue. Set against an orange background, a short series of words appear in a very clean, modernist-looking sans-serif font in either black or white. Animated across the page, these words are not alphabetized, nor can one distinguish any obvious relation among them. In Stefans’ original listserv response, he states that when arranging the words, he used a computerized process which did not account for some words. These words make up the prologue.

From the prologue, the poem moves into lists of alphabetized words that move across and around the page in a whimsical manner. Words “jump”, “skip” across the page, “chase” other words, and seem to take on a life of their own. On occasion, the animation of a word correlates with its meaning. For instance, the word “emerge” springs up from the bottom of the page, and the word “tease” flickers on the screen several times before disappearing. More often than not, however, the animation of a word is unrelated to its meaning.

At the end of the poem, the viewer is given a list of chapters or the option to “run the whole damn thing.”

Although the poem is an appropriation of a text that is responding to another text, “the dreamlife of letters” seems, at first glance, to repress the original focus on gender and sexuality. Words are taken out of what little context they had in DuPlessis’ poem (Stefans himself notes that her response is nearly opaque in meaning) and placed in new relations that obscure their original purpose. However, there remain clues to the original content in Stefans’ piece. For instance, the word “gender” appears multiple times across the screen, giving the viewer a sort of “word count” of how many times this particular term appears in DuPlessis’ piece.

Beyond the original intent of DuPlessis’ poem, Stefans’ piece raises interesting questions about language and meaning as works take on a life of their own. In the prefatory remarks, Stefans writes, “words almost invariably take on nearly obscene meanings when they are left to linger on their own.” Although Stefans was writing about his initial print response, one can see that these words take on new meanings as they are re-combined and animated. For instance, when dream and dread appear animated on the same page, both words using the same initial letter “d,” an association is made between them that is not part of DuPlessis’ original piece.

This grouping of words, overlapping letters, etc. gives the words an additional dimension. They are no longer simply units of meaning, but as with Stefans’ predecessors in concrete poetry, the words become units of design. Language is aestheticized on the visual plane.

Further, the animation of the piece, the way the words flit, bounce, and circle around the page, makes explicit the always-implicit instability of language. For instance, poetic language often draws upon the instability of language. Tropes such as metaphor, analogy, etc. invest words with meaning that seem to go beyond the simple relation between signifier and signified. However, prose writing is also subject to such instabilities depending upon the reader, context, etc. The animation in “the dreamlife of letters” makes this explicit by giving the words a life, a dreamlife, of their own.

Research Context:
Although Stefans describes “the dreamlife of letters” as a short film, it also occupies the category of “poem” as evidenced by its subtitle. For this reason, the piece is of interest to the fields of avant-garde and digital poetics.

In addition, the poem is of interest to those studying machine readers. According to Stefans, “I ran some computer processes on [DuPlessis’ poem]; actually, all I did was alphabetize the words in it and then construct shorter poems from them. However, various faults in the method left a cluster of non-alphabetized words at the top, and words that appear after m-dashes and slashes are not alphabetized” (original response to DuPlessis). The unexpected results of this processing — words that could not be accounted for and words that slipped out of alphabetical order due to punctuation — may be of interest to those studying the role of the machine in reading. Some of the words that are not alphabetized, such as “en,” “gender,” “gin,” and “half,” seem ordinary enough and thus point to slippages in the machine’s ability to alphabetize them. Certainly these types of “processing errors” also occur in human reading practices. The context of the machine’s errors may provide insight into overlaps or differences between human and machine readers. Other words that were not alphabetized, such as ”(and,” ”(as,” and ”(ewe,” are interesting because of their relation to punctuation. Generally punctuation is meant to direct a reading. In the case of the machine, opening parentheses seem to misdirect the reading.

Technical Analysis:
“The dreamlife of letters” is a flash poem, but is not interactive. Once the viewer launches the poem, it runs in a movie that is approximately 11 minutes long.

The poem appears in a new window which measures approximately 5.5” wide by 6” high. The bright orange background acts as the setting for the black or white words that are animated on-screen. The font is a modernist-looking, sans-serif font . The simplicity of the design allows the animation to take center-stage in the poem’s interpretation. Rather than asking the reader to extract meaning from various fonts and colors, the mobile and shifting nature of language is contained within the unexpected movements that the words make across the screen. Traditionally, this sort of modernist design has been interpreted as a rejection of excess. However, in this context it may be possible to read the simple, clean design less as a rejection of excess than as a recognition that excess lies within language itself.

Evaluation of Opportunities/Limitations for the Transliteracies Topic:
“The dreamlife of letters” is of interest to Transliteracies in terms of the way that traditional texts are reconceived in new media. In some ways, Stefans’ piece is a sort of interface in and of itself. By appropriating DuPlessis’ poem, it gives the reader a new way in which to approach her difficult work. This, however, is not unique to new media poetry. What is new is the set of tools available to artists who create via deformance (experimental acts of interpretation that sometimes might be considered creative acts in and of themselves — Jerome McGann, Radiant Textuality). It may be possible that Flash, with its emphasis on animation, lends itself to a particular kind of digital hermeneutics.

Additionally, the way the machine processes influenced the arrangement of Stefans’ poem may be of interest in terms of the way the machine reads and affects human reading. The prologue of Stefans’ piece, composed of words not accounted for by machine processing, raises interesting questions about the gaps in machine reading. For instance, what kind of meaning can we infer from that which the machine finds unaccountable? How does the human reader encounter these anomalies and incorporate them into his or her interpretive act? And so on.

And finally, leaving aside all references to the poem’s origin in another text, there is the question of how the flash interface of this poem differs from the analog experience of reading concrete poetry. The animation, which is consciously non-interactive, is in some ways a more writer-directed experience than reading concrete poetry in print. Unlike works such as Ian Hamilton Finlay’s “Star/Steer,” Stefan’s piece cannot be taken in at-a-glance. The user must wait patiently while the poem runs its course. The only sort of telescopic reading available is to view the table of contents at the end, a less than comprehensive reading. It is true that there are longer works of concrete poetry that also resist this type of holistic reading. Perhaps one of the most famous examples is Mallarmé’s “One Toss of the Dice will Never Abolish Chance”. The contrast here is that Mallarmé’s piece allows the reader to establish the pace of the reading, to employ Barthian tmesis, while Stefans’ piece traps the reader within the pre-determined pacing and trajectory of the poem. In this way, the poem echoes the spectacle of film. Again, the table of contents may allow for a more recursive reading process, giving the reader a chance to go back and revisit portions of the poem. This forces the reader into a metacognitive awareness of the reading process. Of course, not all Flash poetry has these characteristics, but it is worth thinking about the ways in which the medium not only changes the reader’s position vis-à-vis the text, but also how the medium might encourage the reader’s awareness of her own microprocesses of reading.

Resources for Further Study:

  Kimberly Knight2, 02.18.07

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