by Ian Hatcher and Stephanie Strickland
Ian Hatcher: How the Universe is Made (Ahsahta Press, 2019) is a new and selected collection, containing poems written between 1985 and 2019. When I read it I was struck by how it functions as an oblique autobiography, a chronology of aesthetic, ethical, and intellectual concerns evolving over time. Can you speak to the arc of the collection as a whole, as well as the sub-arcs of individual books within it?
Stephanie Strickland: The cover, a Micronesian stick chart, is a first answer to this question of arc of the whole. Such charts show wave patterns and currents. Ancient mariners navigated thousands of miles with only their bodies and the sun and waves and sticks to guide them, along with a tradition of oral instruction. That is how the universe is made and known, by moving in it, in a medium that flows everywhere in which wave and current patterns are ever-evolving. It is no goal to name these, or lock them down in restrictive categories, but rather to invent-find a chart or scheme or device by which to travel and to bring with you what you know and need in your body. The question that arises, as the book proceeds, is whether computational code is, or is not, such a scheme.
A second answer to the question of the arc of the whole is the introductory Lineage-Linkage-Homage poem. It was written in response to a call to create something for a museum floor, vitrines to be filled with content important to you. This, too, is how the universe is made, by lineage, linkage, and homage—homage being a kind of time travel.
The New & Selected volume closes with a selection of new poems called The Body Obsolete. The body is under attack by the shape-shifting powers of abstraction, technology, and climate crisis. Here, quoting Whitman:
Racism and gender discrimination return as sources of pain, and the section ends with a long poem, “Are You Sure?,” in which science, myth, history, and technology develop at dream speed to arrive at a contemporary five-year-old girl who is trying to ‘get it,’ to proffer a solution, to take it in.
Each individual book does have a definite shape as well. Give the Body Back is semi-biographical, exploring the identity of a woman speaker from her mother/daughter relationships on to relationships in the sphere of public speech, registering the impositions of myth, art, and literature, as well as taking in the unheralded speech of older women. It inaugurates a persisting concern with embodiment and language suited for action (past any name or norm).
The Red Virgin: A Poem of Simone Weil, my second book, comes from an impulse to rescue Weil—whom I read extensively after my mother died—from being caught between fierce adoration and fierce condemnation. I quote her words (in my translations) and use lots of biographical information, but from the specific intention that the book can be read in any order and still offer a through-line. The Contents are alphabetized like an Index, and it reads quite differently depending on where you start, challenging a reader to choose their own order, to make their own meaning, or absorb the alphabetic order as given, paging through as it were—although this book was chosen for a prize by a woman who was blind, who did not “page through,” but rather had it read to her.
True North begins to focus on mathematical and scientific procedure—both because I felt those parts of Weil’s thought were not honored in my prior book, and because I became acquainted with Josiah Willard Gibbs, at first through Muriel Rukeyser’s unauthorized biography. Gibbs, at Yale, was the country’s first theoretical physicist and was an isolate contemporary of Emily Dickinson. I consider them together. The shape of this book, as I envisioned it, is three-dimensional. Its five sections, The Mother-Lost World, Blue Planet Blues, Language Is a Cast of the Human Mind, Numbers Nesting In Numbers-Nesting-In Numbers, and There Was an Old Woman are separated by five page-centered twirling—or twirlable—top-shaped poems that explain how to find the direction true north using only your body, the earth, and sticks and string. In my mind the procedures form a kind of maypole around which the other sections float out like ribbons. This vision led me to attempt my first actual hypertext, with Storyspace software, which in no sense let me realize it, nor would any software available to me today.
The V project books are written in, and should be read as, a “wave.” That is, I sat down and wrote them straight through, at first as tercets—though since we were not accustomed to web scrolling at the time, I published them as one 15-line Son.net per page and only later as Tercets with page headers derived from the digital implementation. The six V versions consider spiritual technology from Simone Weil and others, especially the Haitians Maya Deren knew and the scientific knowledge and symbolism of Neolithic people. I had visited prehistoric caves in Southern France and learned from many Arthur Corwin lectures at Cooper Union and the associated Lubalin Center exhibitions.
After V: WaveSon.nets / Losing L’una came Zone : Zero. It is accompanied by a CD which includes two digital poems, Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot and slippingglimpse. Within the book are the print versions of those poems which evoke the stories of (carbon-soot-based) human beings as they encounter (silicon-sand-based) computational life. I had spent many weeks immersed in N. Katherine Hayles’s first NEH seminar on digital literature. Prior to that, I had been involved with digitizing and doing digital reference work in a college library. Zone : Zero is also shaped into five sections which have now become hardened zones, not floating ribbons: Zone Armory War, Zone Moat Else, Zone Dungeon Body, Zone Rampart Logic, and Zone Mote Else. This book has by far the greatest variety of visual presentations of text.
The next book is Dragon Logic. Again there are a set of five sections, e-Dragons, Sea Dragons, Hunger Dragon of Unstable Ruin, Dragon Maps, and Alive Inside the Dragon, but this time there is also a section of Codemakers A to Z—a kind of poem as biographic glossary—and an Afterword poem, “Unsolved Problems.” Many disdain glossaries, coders, makers, and any Afterword, but more and more they feel necessary to me. After Dragon Logic, V : WaveTercets / Losing L’una was published, together with its app which you [Ian] and I made together, and now this New & Selected, How the Universe Is Made, and Ringing the Changes.
Hatcher: Grappling with the massive web of intersecting threads of human understanding and history seems like a central problem of our time. When I taught Dragon Logic, my students told me they found its language difficult at first, but as the book progressed it gradually came into focus for them through accumulation. I know your editing process is painstaking and you strive for clarity in the conveyance of mathematical and scientific concepts in your work. How do you strike a balance between rendering the complexity of strings intersecting each poetic node and making the language clear enough to understand?
Strickland: What guides me most is a notion of scale, not weight scales, or music scales, or bigness (built on a grand scale), but rather significant shifts in resolution, which means the range or distance at which human observation occurs. Knowledge used to come exclusively through our senses and exist at the scale of the human body, the foot or meter or yard, a scale of 101. However, in the past two centuries, much more knowledge has been based on extensions of our perception and covers the nearly unthinkable range from the observable universe (1026) to the subatomic (10-16). Each change of superscript number represents a huge observational jump, and observations at the bigger and smaller scales can only be made through elaborate practices of preparation and very powerful instruments. So if I look across the room, you are a body of limbs, but if I see you through a microscope, you are a mass of cells, and if I am in a space station you are at best an (imagined) dot, and these observations cover only a small part of the middle of the range of available resolutions.
The bewildering truth is that you are, all at once, existing at the full range of all these scales. It is disorienting to shift between them. No one is comfortable with it initially. That ‘jump’ perspective conflicts with all ideas of reality enshrined in the concepts and categories of our current language. These all stand on their autonomous own and smoothly oppose or dominate each other. The ethical point is that scale is a fundamental concept in ecology, where interconnection (the full complexity of intersecting webs), and not separation, is basic. Ecology always occurs at two levels: the level or scale at which an effect is discernible and how that is connected to the 101 human level.
For a long time I felt stymied by language based on Newtonian or Galilean or pagan physics, since we live in a world of quantum (and relativistic) physics—just to mention a common example, by using GPS—which this language does not illuminate. Only mathematics seemed to capture it. Because I thought poems should emerge from their present, I thought it was important to evoke scale and interconnection as entries into quantum and ecological science, mediated by math and computation. What is especially hard to understand is that you are at one and the same time completely different things (as understood at 42 scales), and yet you are one unique node, and you are entangled in the entire observable universe—you, after all, have a few grams of deuterium in your body which come all the way from the Big Bang.
So yes, the reader is overwhelmed. We, as a culture, are. Substituting metaphors and narratives which are easily graspable in older language is part of the problem! If you persist in saying the sun rises and sets, that language actually makes it more difficult for you to understand that the sun is stationary and it is the earth that is moving relative to it. So-called women’s arts (sewing, crochet, weaving, tatting, lacemaking) as well as choreography and music are very useful however. These are often, as it turns out, a variety of mathematical maneuvers. One has to “piece” together and overlay and patch all the scales. Each person will do this somewhat differently, depending on where they are and where they have been.
Two poems from the book illustrate this particularly, but differently. The title “Burning Briar Scanning Tunnel” merges three scales: the burning briar is Moses’s burning bush and/or the North Star, code-named Burning Briar by slaves escaping north, while Scanning Tunnel is the name of a type of microscope that allows one to dip a probe into matter and write with atoms. This illustration might suggest that the title was a calculated or strategic choice. Rather, the complete reverse. “You take what the universe sends you,” as Ólafur Arnalds said last night on the radio. Only later do you sometimes “understand” it. Understand it, or not, you can feel very sure that it is what it needs to be, that it is what was sent you.
“Presto! How the Universe Is Made” is more consciously based on the procedure of iteration performed at smaller and smaller scales, such that a visible 101 box and cone are turned into a star shape, at first visible as such and then not, going on past shape into apparent texture at deeper and deeper scales, on to subatomic, whereupon the process repeats. The (non)conclusion of the poem refers to an oscillation of possible ways of seeing (or/and). Its ending phrase, “Repeat:” in conjunction with Presto! at the head of the title evokes the musical notation for D.C. al fine, or da capo al fine. (I would have loved to get the strong light double bar in ahead of it.) These particular scales bear a fractal relation to each other, and a musical weaving of lines can sound comparably complex. We do now understand that the sound of the universe is a musical note, as perceived and translated by us in the LIGO discovery of gravity waves in 2015.
Hatcher: Your poems, too, have musical substrates that I sometimes sense on the page but especially hear when you read aloud: implicit rhythms, emphases, repetitions, cadences, sonic tones. Can you talk about the patterning on that particular level of scale, and how it emerges as you write?
Strickland: Sound is my touchstone and bedrock. I hear the form in the sound, always the sound of a human voice, always read aloud, whatever the content. Only in my lifetime has a machinic or computational voice come to be a cultural commonplace. You [Ian] do wonderful performances wherein a human imitates a machine imitating a human . . . . We train children to give peremptory orders (not polite requests) to devices meant to sound like complaisant females, e.g. Siri, who mishears ‘Nietzsche’ as ‘nature’, and the like. Why don’t these voices sound like our political representatives who should do our will?
Of course, sound means highly specific, anatomically-conditioned, breathing patterns and regional pronunciation. I was born in Detroit and moved to Chicago at age 7. I moved to New York at 14. Canvassing in New York, I was told “you are not from around here,” my accent so apparently wrong, though I have lived in New York from 1956 until today, only spending time away for college. One place accent came to matter a lot was in The Red Virgin. In proper French, Simone Weil’s name is pronounced something like Si-mun. Whereas I, anglicizing, always call her Si-moan, the long o. As she sometimes signed her letters Simon, a whole set of tones comes into play.
The music works far below any individual linguistic component, because it changes as each interacts with and influences the other. Two of the best books I know that probe these aspects are Reading Voices: Literature and the Phonotext by Garrett Stewart and How to Read an Oral Poem by John Miles Foley. They ground what I seem to do intuitively.
Hatcher: Your background in mathematics is an influence on your work, and many of your poems incorporate graphs and numbers and other symbols in ways rarely seen in poetry. Earlier you spoke of levels of scale and resolution; could you zoom in now on your use of symbols, particularly non-alphabetical ones, and talk about the work they do in your writing?
Strickland: For a start, the physical contour of a poem and the way it maps a page are important to me. Print can lead the eye’s movement around a contour, or to the space between words. Letters themselves are images that conjure sounds in the mind’s ear. Font is all-important and controls the space between letters.
I have even used imitative structures. The dome and dome-reversed shapes, in “so it comes in the fullness of mind and it came to,” are the actual meaning of that poem which repeats its words in reverse order. “War Day” is a grid of boxes, an extreme disconnection imposed in the guise of a rational scheme of encapsulated fragments, all associated with the first Iraq war. In “0 Shortcut to What?,” which has an epigraph from Stevens’s “The Snow Man,” the imitation is of a snowman, while “Imaginary Numbers” is a top-shape, twirlable on its axis, which the “True North 1-5” poems also have.
I have often returned to a characteristic contour. The most prevalent is a stanza or whole poem shape that starts wide and tapers down as if to the waist of an hourglass. It could evoke a cup or bell or breast. It is a half that if symmetrically reflected across the gutter, or if imagined into three dimensions, would open to a revolving whole. This shape results in the last words of each line standing out. It occurs in my first book in “Living On Air,” a poem Seamus Heaney took for a special issue of Ploughshares. The words ventriloquy, wholeness, vinegared, hard, happen, greenhouse, and crazed stand out, and they are a kind of brief/keyword evocation of the whole poem.
A different kind of contour occurs in WaveTercets where the headers on the page refer to constellations not in evidence on the page (visualized only in the online versions), though of course the headers do relate to poem text on the page. The Dragonfly header on p. 207 may refer to a fairy tale or to a mathematical structure. Only on p. 211 do you understand that Emerald Darner is the name of a dragonfly—but do you know that, any more than you know what Cantor dust or krill or Indra’s Net is? Some will know. In our age of search, some will look it up. Very few know ‘renormalized,’ but perhaps you think you do, sort of. You are being asked to intuit or affirm (or deny) some kind of interconnection you perhaps did not sense before.
In “Black \ White” the contour and the imitation, the balancing spinning top, fall apart. The backslash in the title, the extreme 5 point ellipsis enforcing extreme pause, the highly graphic and alliterative and choppy innermost stanza, and then the disappearance of air in the fourth stanza open the horror-distance of drowning. At the last, poles are no longer upright.
For me the river goes back to the poem “Constant Quiet,” which has appeared earlier in the volume, and to Emmett Till. The pole is world-axis, flagpole from the war, pier, and fishing pole, perhaps Huck’s, but the basic truth is slash and backslash and horror distanced and sorrow unmastered.
I use numbers in very particular ways. One example is the number line with its embedded nested parentheses for the Numbers Nesting In Numbers-Nesting-In Numbers poems on p. 72-77. (Only some of these are included in the New & Selected.) The phrase “Numbers-Nesting-In” itself cries out for mathematical symbolism to be visually clear.
Another use of numbers, and the hardest to understand perhaps, unless you are a librarian or researcher, is the government document numbering system by which the stanzas of many of the Losing L’una poems are separated. Here numbers do not advance decimally—that period is not a decimal point. Each place location advances independently. So “This Is the Void” (where the verses go 3.53, 3.54) is alternated with a simply numbered “Wearing Out,” but is followed by “Essay on Mis-labeling,” (where the verses go 4.55, 4.56, etc.) Here, .55 is picking up on the advancing that occurs in the numbers after the point, while the initial number advances by itself, 3, 4. Interconnection occurs in a complicated way, confusing but nonetheless guiding.
The “L’una Loses” (death of Simone Weil) poem goes from 0.0 to 0.12, then back to 0.0, and then 0, a different non-numerical end. There is also always the question of whether one reads out, or reads over, these numbers and how they differ from, say, a bullet, or other stanza marker, giving rise to alternative ways of perceiving the poem. In “L’una Loses,” just letting your eye scan from 0.0 to 0.12 and back to 0.0 and 0 is the poem, too, in a very condensed way. Downward arrows are used for time progression in “Are You Sure?”. The progression here is in a circle, starting and ending in present time, with a kind of deep background “history of knowledge” in between.
In “Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot,” Sand’s reply (0100011) is emergent and overrides the original simple scheme of call and response, numbered alternately 0 and 1, 0 for Sand-Silicon-she and 1 for Soot-Carbon-he. So what starts as a label for their turn-taking gets absorbed by Sand into her/its own “voice”—and that override occurs a couple more times in the poem. Prophetically! It happens all the time now.
The second half of “Gibbous Statement” is pure asemic graphical notation. I didn’t include “Breaking the Mandala” in the New & Selected. It includes seven equations. Other poems make use of use of pipes (computer science) or Sheffer strokes (logic) and zetas to proceed. From Dragon Logic on, I’ve used | and :: to divide elements of a sentence or phrase. Text, in our pandemic whose danger fails to be fully communicated by it, is increasingly roughened with graphs and curves and statistical measures that may as well be magic sigils, which if not understood properly can as easily be used for evil as for good. Either we’re on the verge of a different understanding—or intuition—of how to understand this “magic” in order to care for each other, or we will drown.
Hatcher: You have written 12 digital poems in collaboration with others (including several with me). In a section at the end of the book you call them “Poems Procedural, Generative, Kinetic, and Hypertextual.” Of course, the procedural, generative, kinetic, and hypertextual aspects of these poems cannot, for the most part, be rendered in print. Why include them in the book?
Strickland: Many of the digital poems, though not all, have print “counterparts,” the most straightforward of which is one of the earliest, Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot. Other digital poems such as Sea and Spar Between do not have a print counterpart, nor could they, so vast is their full extent which generates more text than a human could read. Sea and Spar does however have two counterparts of its own. Duels—Duets reflects on its collaborative composition, and cut to fit the toolspun course glosses the code with comments in English that explain how literary choices for the work were implemented in code decisions.
The 6-part V project is the most complex. As a double book published by Penguin, V: WaveSon.nets / Losing L’una won the Poetry Society’s Di Castagnola Award. Its two components, bound upside-down to each other, lead to the Vniverse URL printed on the V of pages at their joining midpoint. Arriving there from either direction a reader must upend the book to continue print reading or go online to read V: Vniverse, a Director/Shockwave project. Another highly visual part of V is Errand Upon Which We Came, a Flash interpretation of a poem in Losing L’una. Later V: WaveTercets and the Vniverse app, which you and I designed, were added to the group.
V explores configuration vs. sequence, time-based vs. fixed access, and alphabetic vs. diagrammatic display. Its print-readable content persists in all six of its versions, though sometimes it is truncated to keywords or phrases, sometimes it is colored, and sometimes it is associated with a navigable/linked set of invented constellations. A major difference between the print versions is the lineation. Though Losing L’una stays stable, two types of Wave exist. One long rolling wave occurs in the one long scroll of WaveTercets, while in the 15-line Son.nets of WaveSon.nets, which rarely end with a finished sentence, a different kind of paused ongoing-ness occurs. Many other differences characterize the versions—including the chance for readers to draw their own constellations into the app and to access an oracle.
The same impulse of frustration at Newtonian language and the ubiquitous lockdown rectangular page frame that led me eventually to attempt 5-sided pages and translucent overlays early on in my efforts led me to digital poems. They could move as if in three dimensions, they had explorable depths and layers—sometimes beyond any human ability to exhaust them, they permitted a great range of image and graphics, and they allowed shifting of the time course of any reading. They shed new light on old words, and they let me explore insights I could not on the page, such as having Atlantic waves read the text in slippingglimpse.
My latest digital-poem-book, Ringing the Changes (Counterpath Press, 2020) is a more complex hybrid form. Starting from the embodied practice of 17th century church tower-bell ringers, whose invented patterns are now understood as group-theory symmetry operations, my collaborators wrote code for one particular seven-bell pattern called Scientific Triples. By modifying this idea from sonic to verbal practice a book was printed from the code. It exhibits a poetics of interconnection wherein the text each bell owns and chooses randomly for each page consorts with a different output from the other bells each time. Never will the pages repeat each other for the entire course of 5040 “changes,” though only 161 of these (161 pages) appear in the book.
Six of the bells have one predominant source. The 23 different texts assigned to them are sampled from the writings of an artist/researcher of gestural instruments and responsive environments (Sha Xin Wei), a politically active mystic (Simone Weil), a cultural critic and researcher who understands being human as praxis (Sylvia Wynter), a conceptual video artist and essayist (Hito Steyerl), a computational philosopher (Yuk Hui), and a pedagogical guide to bell ringing (John C. G. Sturdy). The seventh bell samples a medley or mixtape of writings by artists, media scholars, mathematicians, architects, design theorists, theoretical physicists, computer scientists, literary scholars, critical race theorists, poets, ancient Greek philosophers, and global women’s rights activists. The names of Black men and women subjected to state-sanctioned violence resonate throughout the text. From body to code to sampled texts to fixed print, the work in many ways explores how the print and the digital are part of one many-layered expressive matrix.
Hatcher: In your first response above, you mentioned an unrealizable form you see your True North poems taking: twirling in three dimensions, fluttering like ribbons around a central maypole. You’ve mentioned to me on previous occasions your longstanding vision for a version of Vniverse as an immersive multidimensional physical installation, one never realized. To close the interview, could you describe this vision in detail, and what the experience of it would be like?
Strickland: Please note that any bolded word or phrase below represents a technical challenge.
The V project is an extreme example of how differently text acts and interacts inside different reality-textures. The seemingly simple white page—only simple thanks to thousands of years and more of evolving ways of presenting text on paper or papyrus or vellum or silk or bamboo—would be present in the installation on lecterns at which the books V: WaveSon.nets / Losing L’una and V: WaveTercets / Losing L’una would be available, the pages weighted and lit to stay open at a chosen location.
A second level of text presentation would be these same texts on interactive touch screens arranged such that touching a word on the screen/page would activate its presence in the Sky. These lecterns would form an outer rim of the installation. Alternating with them as part of the rim would be computers displaying the interactive Shockwave work V: Vniverse and the interactive Errand Upon Which We Came poem from Losing L’una. These open the reading experience of the poem in ways impossible on paper and in ways impossible on a screen-representation of paper. In particular V: Vniverse can be read by number (using the number dial) or by touch, using a hovering mouse to reveal varying amounts of text. Allowed gestures, which prompt differing responses, include swinging, sweeping, lingering, clicking once, and clicking persistently in the same place. At this point one is reading, first of all, transitions and only secondarily text in a sort of sibylline space. Errand uses a number of devices to affect the speed of its presentation, including a butterfly. Yet the body is still only engaged, as yet, at the hand and eye level, even when we include some iPad app locations in the ragged rim of our installation universe.
This rim of lecterns and computer stands surrounds a pool or pond, in which the Sky is reflected. The Sky consists of the set of imagined constellations appearing in the Shockwave file. Though not identical with either astronomical or astrological constellations, the diagrams that appear in response to a sweeping or swinging movement of hand across the V: Vniverse screen are spontaneously read by readers as constellations, and Cynthia Lawson-Jaramillo and I call them that in our instructions.
The constellations are to be rigged up in the Sky. Perhaps they will always shine and triggering a star will cause it to blink and speak. Or perhaps they brighten sequentially. Or perhaps they are dark until triggered. Or perhaps their response will depend on the number of people interacting with them simultaneously. Perhaps the pool is made of Mylar. That would help with the ‘electrical situation’ compared to an actual pool with waves in it, though of course I would prefer the latter. Here the desired opportunity to read by wading in the water arises. As you look up or interrupt a beam of starlight you would trigger its bit of text or perhaps only its associated keyword. Perhaps these have tones and a chorus could be improvised by adventurous waders. How much would need to be done to assure that a cacophony of noise did or did not occur with multiple waders? Perhaps curtains of steel mesh will catch and hold the projections with a certain latency. An echoing space of constellations and keywords may at certain points give rise to heard readings of the WaveSon.nets. Both Cynthia Lawson-Jarmillo and I are interested in the creation of new social reading spaces, experiences of exploratory reading.
An additional feature, not as important to me, is the possibility of generated WaveSon.nets, a program to randomly associate any other 4 triplets to the one chosen or bumped into by the exploring reader. If the reader chooses triplet 7 and the computer chooses 9, 91, 231, and 85, then the assembled poem would be titled WS 220.127.116.11.85 which would toggle to the triplet set titled 18.104.22.168.85. If one of the pre-existing WaveSon.nets happened to occur, it would be called by its name, WaveSon.net 32, for instance. The reader could thus release WaveSon.nets never seen in print and perhaps never seen again. Another question arises as to how densely one wants to layer the screen or Sky. Should each poem disappear entirely? Should some state of the palimpsestic disappearance be preserved and overwritten until a given visual density is achieved that pleases or satiates the reader? This aspect was brought home to me especially when I visited the Kerry International Dark Sky Reserve in Ireland. This sky is kept free from light pollution as an important asset of natural night sky heritage. The crowding fullness of stars in a true dark sky, as seen by most on earth prior to a couple of centuries ago, is a true wonder, abundance rethought and re-understood.
An extensive account of the thinking that went into V can be found at http://vniverse.com. Choose Original Shockwave Vniverse and then Essay.
For more information on Stephanie Strickland’s work, visit stephaniestrickland.com.