Emulating the Past [1] — Geof Huth

Holiday Inn Express, Room 321, Poughkeepsie, New York.
Wednesday, March 30, 2005

I’m back in a hotel I last visited in December (in a room whose number is an anagram of the number of that other night’s room). Tomorrow, I’m off to Long Island, specifically to Garden City (a place that has grown out of its name) and to another hotel I’ve visited in the past. My life has a way of repeating itself.

Today, I spent much of my day in our Poughkeepsie office, finishing up a presentation on Adobe’s portable document format. Part of this presentation will focus on the development of PDF/A, a standardized and restricted version of PDF intended to be a stable format for the storage of records of long-term value. PDF/A will ensure long-term usability and viability of electronic documents by disallowing the use of some possible features of PDF: It will not include audio or video files, javascript, or attachments. The technologists devising the PDF/A standard are telegraphing a message to us they do not even realize: Digital poetry is too difficult to preserve. They have stripped from their draft PDF/A standard those features that would define a digital poem.

With a little imagination, though, we may be able to devise ways to capture and preserve digital poetry, at least temporarily. One solution, though not a preferable one, is to convert the digital poem to some simple audiovisual format: motion-picture film, videotape, mpegs. In the late 1980s, when I was wondering how to preserve my cache of my own digital poems, I decided to capture them on videotape. This method wasn’t an entirely flawed solution for my simple digital poems, since they required little human interaction to function, but this solution would be untenable for digital poems that required interaction to become what they were—because videotape does not really support interactivity.

A second preservation solution is to save the code itself, in the hope that sometime in the future someone will be able to bring that code back to life. The syntax of the Apple Basic code I used for my poems was so simple that a reader with any experience writing code would be able to imagine what the poems would look like when released onto the screen. But the experience of flipping through pages of code does not resemble in the least the experience of watching an aural and kinetic poem generating itself upon a computer screen. Still, I took advantage of this solution in tandem with my videotaping.

And I waited.

Last year, I implemented my third solution, and the one that works (at least for the time being). I used an Apple II emulation program that can function as an old Apple II computer would function, that understands the Apple Basic code I feed into it, and that translate that code back into precise representations of the original poems. Unfortunately, this solution required me to retype all the code of each poem back into this program. But I have been able to send the emulation program along with electronic copies of my poems to people I know and they have seen these old poems in action again. People can once again see the opening title sequence to my completed (and circular) digital poetry collection, Endemic Battle Collage,

Geof Huth, Excerpt from “Title Screen”
of Endemic Battle Collage (1987)

which doesn’t seem quite like itself when presented here, because this is but a fraction of a second of what it really is. This screenshot is almost nothing. We can tell the text on the screen is transforming into something new, but we don’t know in what manner the text appeared on the screen and we don’t what it will become.

Geof Huth, Excerpt from “red thread” (1986)

Back in 1986, I did quite a bit of sewing on a sewing machine, so I wrote a simple poem that mimicked that experience. In this shot, we can see the point at which the focus of the poem changes, but there is much we cannot see. We cannot see the simple way this text moves across the screen, and we cannot hear how this poem imitates the muffled grinding sound of a sewing machine pulling and piercing through fabric.

Geof Huth, Excerpt from “SUDDEN WINDOW” (1987)

“SUDDEN WINDOW” is completely lost in this frozen state. A poem about the sometimes powerful isness of sight, “SUDDEN WINDOW” flutters in front of our eyes, its words beating and blurred like the wings of a hummingbird in flight.

Geof Huth, Excerpt from “the mist” (1987)

A digital haiku, “the mist” recreates the experience of sitting in a canoe on a lake in the early morning, when wings of mist silently fold into each other. The digital version of this poem figuratively folds the mist into the mist, and the reader of the poem can see this occurring on the screen so the “unreadability” of certain “frames” of this poem is of no concern. Frozen in place, these words seem to be nonsense.

There are other ways to preserve digital poetry. For instance, I could recode these poems in contemporary formats, maybe as javascript, for instance. Sometime this year, I plan to display all the results of these experiments: digitized video of the poems, the pure code, the emulated poems, and maybe even reimagined versions of these poems in new formats. I might even complete my two incomplete collections of digital poems, Wrapping my Breath in Foil and Magnetic Definitions. (The word “magnetic” in the latter gives away the age of these poems.)

This plan may be a ridiculous amount of work for such modest poems, but I don’t want to abandon these clumsy little harbingers of the past.


[1]   Originally published Wednesday, March 30, 2005 at dbqp.blogspot.com/2005/03/emulating-past.html

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