What follows is the recounting of a 25 year-long folly. In 1992 I was a young graduate student, didn’t know anything about programming, had just recently acquired my first email account, and had a dial-up connection to the internet. Nonetheless, I decided I was going to make an interactive hypertextual poem, with the goal of creating a platform that could turn the reader into a writer. Through the years, there have been many versions of the poem, many collaborators, many disappearances, many resuscitations and alterations. Although the common conception of the internet is that nothing disappears (like the embarrassing photos you really shouldn’t have posted on your social media account), that hasn’t been my experience with this poem. Without a stable home, it has vanished a number of times. The code has been passed from person to person like a baton of futility. I often wanted to give up on the piece—but then someone would send me a message saying they were writing about it, or were planning to teach it, and where was it, and could it be restored. I still know nothing about programming and I am not a member of the Electronic Literature Organization, but for some reason I continue to feel a dedication to this time-consuming side project. It feels like an artifact from my younger life (and from a younger more aspirational internet), as well as a living organism that keeps changing in epigenetic fits in order to earn its place in the present. It also feels ridiculous. Here is its story.
The idea for “The Periodic Table as Assembled by Dr. Zhivago, Oculist” began when I was a graduate student in the Buffalo Poetics Program. In 1992, I was in a seminar taught by Charles Bernstein; Michael Joyce was soon to visit our class to talk about hypertext literature, which was relatively new at the time. Charles gave me a copy of Joyce’s iconic afternoon: a story on a floppy disk to peruse. Robert Coover had recently declared in the New York Times that hypertext officially signaled “the end of books,” and that the form frees the reader from the tyranny of the author by essentially making the reader a writer. It was clear to me that such rhetoric mirrored a contemporaneous desire in poetry for giving the reader more of an active role in the making of meaning. In his early essay “Writing and Method,” Bernstein wrote of the stakes of this poetic practice:
The text calls upon the reader to be actively involved in the process of constituting its meaning, the reader becoming neither a neutral observer to a described exteriority or to an enacted interiority. The text formally involves the process of response/interpretation and in so doing makes the reader aware of herself or himself as producer as well as consumer of meaning. It calls the reader to action, questioning, self-examination: to a reconsideration and a remaking of the habits, automatisms, conventions, beliefs through which, and only through which we see and interpret the world.
Hypertext wanted to call the reader to action through linkages, networks, nonlinearity—all formal attributes I believed in (and still do). And yet my experience of Joyce’s Storyspace fiction was fairly inert; I felt that I was simply following pathways that had already been completed. I was shuffling a pre-made deck, and it was confining. I was still subject to the authority of the writer, even if that writer wanted me to feel like a producer. With the hubris of a graduate student, I grumbled about it.
But I also started to ask myself what it would mean to have a reader actually make something in the act of reading, for a poem to provide a set of interesting materials that the reader could catalyze into something new. How could a digital reading space use hypertext in a more gratifying way? I’m not sure why I started to think about the periodic table as a good starting place to think through these questions, but I began to create a series of small poems around the elements to serve as “active reading” materials. If the reader could choose from a set of element-poems and cause them to combine/react in some way, wouldn’t that act of literary/scientific inquiry be more liberating and active than the arbitrary clicks required by the few hypertext narratives I had recently been exposed to? Granted, the reader wouldn’t be “writing” something original—but the selection of materials that were then worked/reworked/experimented with felt truer to my experience as a writer than the random followings and choose-your-own-adventure structure of hypertext.
There were a number of false starts. Geoffrey Wilson (a Lacanian Shakespeare scholar whose guilty pleasure was computer programming) tried his hand at making the piece run as a kind of interactive film on a CD-ROM (a cutting edge technology in the early 90’s). This attempt never got beyond the planning stages.
An excerpt from an early print version of the poem was published in 1998 as part of a PhillyTalks dialogue with Tina Darragh—a series curated by Louis Cabri at the University of Pennsylvania. In the dialogue, I stated my goals for how I wanted the piece to work in its ideal form: “I want the poem to be completely interactive…where a reader can follow chemical elements (which have been translated into words) to short poems which then provide materials for ‘reactions’ that the reader sets in motion.”
Electronic Poetry Center
In 1997, a partially interactive version was created in collaboration with Eric Rosolowski for SUNY-Buffalo’s Electronic Poetry Center. In that early version, columns from the periodic table were isolated on screen; the element symbols were replaced by words that contain the symbols. For example “Cu,” which is the symbol for copper, was replaced by the word “cucumber”; “Ag,” the symbol for silver, was replaced by the word “aggressions,” and so on.
Clicking on the word “cucumber” brought the reader to the following small poem:
cucumber to copper
originally an adjective from Cyprus
the flower is yellow and bellshaped
the most sonorous in a gang / almost always quartzous
when taken into the body it operates
and all its preparations are violent poisons
the stalks are long and slender and climbing by their claspers
The language of the poem was sourced and assembled from research into the history of the element, as well as research into the word “cucumber”—a collage procedure ultimately followed for each of the small poems in the piece. My primary sources for the research were The Oxford English Dictionary, The Periodic Kingdom by P.W. Atkins, and an online database of the elements from the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Another component of this early version was a “static” (i.e. non-interactive) poem about sight and poetic “vision” (via the figure of Dr. Zhivago), that appeared in fragments between the element columns. One of the final fragments included links to images:
In the boat of toxic preservative
the man finds the corpse to be his own (fig 1)
On the stairs in his childhood home
he meets himself behind damaged hands (fig 2)
In the car and tailed by a truck
he thinks of who he should have been
if only he had been who he should have been
Out on the heath and running after the horror of his own creation
he rejects his own actions
“He’s none of me, even as I might have been”
In the EPC version, “fig 1” (“the man finds the corpse to be his own”) was linked to a still from a B-movie called Shattered, starring Tom Berenger.
I have a vivid memory of the poet Taylor Brady, also a student in the Poetics Program at the time, screen capturing this image for me from a videocassette tape. He had some kind of new software on his computer that allowed him to do this and it seemed incredibly sophisticated at the time.
Figure two (“he meets himself behind damaged hands”) was linked to an illustration by Fermin Rocker for the story “The Jolly Corner” by Henry James:
If the EPC version of the poem had been more developed, there would also have been images linked to the lines that referenced Steven Spielberg’s first movie, Duel, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—a full set of figures forced to confront other versions of themselves. In retrospect, the irony of investing implicit content on a theme that would become its extrinsic narrative is not lost on me.
In 1998, the EPC version of the piece was translated into French and adapted into print for Format Américain, an imprint of Un Bureau sur l’Atlantique. Under the direction of Emmanuel Hocquard and Juliette Valéry, it was translated by the group Langage & Écriture at L’École des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux . In the chapbook, the hyperlinks of the web version appear as half-sheet inserts on blue paper (including the images described above—this is the last version in which they appear); it’s a beautiful solution to the problem of translating from digital to print formats.
Translating the text itself perhaps proved a bit more complicated. While the translation was in progress, I was sent a long series of questions via email regarding word choices. The questions made me think about the words from angles I had never considered before. I was a visiting professor at Ursinus College at the time, and when that position ended, I lost all of the email in that account. While I knew how to pack up the books in my office, I didn’t know how to pack up my email. I wish I had thought to print out that fascinating exchange; it is one of the many things that I’ve unwittingly lost during the course of this project’s evolution.
Blue Mountain Center
Up until this point, I had written small poems to accompany just a portion of the elements in the periodic table. I completed poems for all the remaining elements at an artist residency at the Blue Mountain Center in 1998 (there were 109 at the time; there are now 118). Then I tried to figure out what catalysts could lead to a chemical reaction. What would those catalysts look like in print? I asked my father, a chemist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, if he could send me his favorite reactions. He kindly sent me the note below which, with an amusing prescience, also touches on the themes of versioning and loss.
In February, 1999 I gave a reading with Jackson Mac Low at the Dactyl Foundation in New York. Mac Low was one of my heroes—I had written about his work in my dissertation—and I remember being quite nervous as we both sat at a wooden table before the audience. I also remember doing some kind of improvisatory experiment that required audience participation, but I can’t remember the particulars. In my files for this project there is a “script” with the names of those who participated; I’ve reached out to some of them with no luck. We’ve become so used to documenting our experience in the moment that we’re in, that it’s near impossible to imagine remembering anything without the help of a mobile photo-sharing app. However, in my files I also find a small envelope with “experiment with Jackson” written on the front. Enclosed is the following key:
Why these particular chemical elements? Did I ask Jackson to choose some elements beforehand? And why these particular instructions? All these years later, I can only guess: Os is the symbol for Osmium, thus the instruction to “describe” me. Did I have the nerve to ask Jackson to do so? Na is the symbol for Sodium; sodium is highly reactive—is that why the instruction is to rap the table? N is for Nitrogen, as in nitrous oxide, therefore laughter. S is for Sulfur; sulfur oxide is used for etching, therefore the directive to “say something cutting”? The envelope also includes groups of color-coded words—another part of the puzzling residual evidence:
The groupings contain the words of the small poems I wrote to pair with the four elements in the key. For instance,
Narcotics to Sodium
the youth was his own headache remedy, reflection
of caustic salt: —ike (—yke) —ick
swallow, inhale, inject the D lines of the sun and stas
this later Daffodil
Beyond that, the procedure from that evening, and the activity it was determined to inspire, remains a mystery.
In 1999, an expanded version of the EPC online version appeared in print in my book The Character (published by Beacon Press), but without the figures. A note gives a link to the EPC. There is also a dedication to my chemist father, and an epigraph from Joan Retallack: “I once heard a scientist who loves poetry say, the language of science and the language of poetry have in common that they are both natural languages under stress.” (Almost ten years later I gave a reading with the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffman—who was also reading from his poetry—for Temple University’s General Education program. After presenting excerpts of my periodic table poem, Hoffman informed me that he, in fact, was the scientist Retallack had quoted.)
The first fully interactive digital version of the piece was programmed in Perl by Sean O’Donnell, a friend of a friend, and hosted at his website (at www.outplace.net) from 2002-2004. A small grant from Temple University allowed me to pay for his help. After numerous conversations with O’Donnell about design and possibilities for interactivity, some major structural adjustments were made. After an introductory splash page, the reader was brought to a full periodic table, with each symbol functioning as a hyperlink to the small poems. When an element was chosen, the small linked poem popped up in a separate window.
This particular version of the piece included a visual component which has since disappeared: when a small poem popped up, it would be accompanied by a clock with Dr. Zhivago on its face.
While the hands on the clock spun, a word from each poem was randomly selected and then matched to a tag found in one of a number of image databases (such as eyewire.com, istockimage.com, altavista.com, etc.). When an image match was found, it would appear in the box; if a match wasn’t found, the word that was searched would show up in the box. Hovering the mouse over the image revealed the search term. Here is what happened at one point when the element Europium (Eu) was selected from the table:
(At this point I have to note the absurdity of the fact that the image above and those below exist only because I presented the piece at the Bowery Poetry Project in 2003. There wasn’t a live internet connection available, so I pasted screen captures into a powerpoint. Now those powerpoint images are the only evidence of the outplace.net version that exist, and to include them in this essay, I had to screen capture them again. This might be like shooting a movie to video and then videotaping the video, burning that to a DVD, only to rip it again so you can stream it on youtube.)
I loved the image-match feature of this version because while the poem for Europium remained the same no matter how many times “Eu” was selected from the table, the image had the capability of changing as the image databases shifted. The text and image combinations added a whole other layer to the experimentation. While this chance element ultimately had to be removed, another chance element remained: fragments of the static Zhivago poem show up randomly at the bottom of various pop-up windows, as shown below for the poem linked to Ruthenium (Ru):
As with the images, this randomized feature allowed for unpredictable juxtapositions—but it also made it impossible to read the static poem with any coherence. Because of this, a link to Zhivago’s complete and uninterrupted “testimony” was added to the splash page.
Randomization was also central to the catalyzing reactions that readers would initiate once their elements were selected. The reaction procedures included “dissolve,” “stir,” “heat,” “dilute,” and “centrifuge.” For each of those procedures, O’Donnell and I discussed possibilities for an analogous language visualization. How could a text be shown to dissolve, to decompose, to break down? Our solution was to remove words containing fewer than five letters in the selected element poems. Below is the result when a combination of the poems for carbon, ruthenium, and europium dissolve:
The procedural equivalents were compromises, informed by programming limitations at the time. In some instances we included what the ideal solution would be. For example, the centrifuge action randomized lines to make a new stanza; the ideal solution was to let “heavy” words (those of more than four letters) fall to the bottom, while “lighter” words of four or less letters would rise to the top.
O’Donnell’s outplace.net version of “The Periodic Table…” was a huge leap forward from the initial sketch at the Electronic Poetry Center. Unfortunately, two years later O’Donnell changed servers and was no longer able to host it. It was 2004, I had no website of my own, and I had no idea how to give the piece a home. The piece disappeared for three years.
Phil Fizur (tech support for the College of Liberal Arts at Temple at the time) made several courageous yet failed attempts to get the piece hosted at Temple University and then on his own personal server. Meanwhile, I was facing what seemed to be the very real possibility that all of the work I had done might continue only as a memory. I silently promised myself that I’d stick to books from then on. But just when I had given up hope (we’re up to 2006 now), I participated in a panel session on digital literature at the Kelly Writers House. Nick Montfort, a fellow panelist, offered to post a call for help to eliterature.org: “Poet Seeks Help Restoring Online Work… needs help renovating a hypertextual interactive poem back into the ether.”
A number of generous people responded, including David Ayre, a software developer and former member of the Kootenay School of Writing in Vancouver. Ayre ultimately brought the poem back into functionality and gave it a home at gtrlabs.org, with the help of another small research grant from Temple. The major change he made to the interface had to do with how the catalyzing procedures were actualized. While the previous actions were limited to stanza, word, and letter randomizations, Ayre introduced some animation effects and transformations. For example, “dissolve” slowly faded out all the consonants and “dilute” expanded kerning of letters within words. Some of the effects were too literal (adding “heat” turned text into red jiggling/vibrating lines), but overall the piece was getting closer to what I imagined for it, and it was accessible from its new home…until it wasn’t. After four years running, the piece once again disappeared in 2011, when Ayre changed jobs and servers.
In the fall of 2011, the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia asked me to give a reading in conjunction with their exhibition “Elemental Matters: Artists Investigate Chemistry.” Once again I had to revert to showing the powerpoint slides from my Bowery Poetry Project presentation in 2003. I bemoaned the fact of the poem’s disappearance during the course of the reading; afterwards, audience member Vladimir Zykov offered to help me bring it back again. I had worked with Vlad at Temple and knew him as a poet; I quickly took him up on his offer, this time funding the work out of my own pocket. It was great to work with someone in person again—particularly someone who understood my aesthetic sensibility. Vlad and I came up with a new set of rules for the combinatory procedures, adding in rules for evaporation as well:
How can text be shown to melt or reduce into a liquid condition?
Solution: Fade out to invisible all but the most common 100 words in a text.
How can text be stirred?
Solution: Randomize words to make a new poem.
When heat is added, elements are more likely to bond with one another. How to show elements forming bonds?
Solution: Intersperse syllables from the component poems to form a new poem.
Dilution reduces the strength of a substance by admixture. How can this be shown?
Solution: Gradually replace all consonants in the poem with vowels.
Centrifugation is a method of separation, after which the heavier elements move to the bottom and lighter ones move to the top. How can text enact this kind of separation?
Solution: Reorder the text by word length, with the shortest words at the top and the longest words at the bottom.
Evaporation is a method of drawing moisture from a solution, leaving only the dry solid portion. How can this be shown to take place?
Solution: Remove most of the vowels in the poem, leaving all of the consonants.
All was well with this version until about a year and a half later when, at a reading at the University of Maine at Orono, I was informed by a student that the piece had vanished once more.
Luckily, that last disappearance was relatively short. I finally had my own website and Vlad moved the piece from his site to mine in 2013. It resides there now…but for how long before it must evolve again or be lost for good? It has been in progress for almost half of my lived years, but no doubt it will disappear before the physical books I’ve published. In the meantime, I hope it can be enjoyed as a folly of the past, built out of the desire to create poetic action in the present. Its evolution has been a series of unplanned adjustments, a sometimes stumbling trek full of interesting collaborations and translations, toward the dream of infinite futures.