On First Screening — Dan Waber

t will come as no surprise to anyone with more than a passing familiarity with the works of bpNichol that he wrote computer poems. Simple deductive reasoning makes the case: could/did he have access to computers? If yes, then there is a high probability that he made poems with computers. In fact, employing a generic version of this equation is more efficient than listing the usual litany of modes he worked in. Simply substitute X for computer. Could/did bpNichol have access to X? If yes, then there is a high probability he made poems with X. If no, there is a high probability he had sketched plans to make poems with X.

And while his exploratory nature was well-suited to a wide range of media, computers, in particular, are located smack dab in the sweet spot of his interests. Computers have, from early on, been ideally suited for text manipulation, executing logical loops (with their attendant trap doors), and at their most fundamental level computers bear witness to the fact that language systems are hackable.

My best friend makes his living as a computer programmer, and he’s also gifted with languages, computer and otherwise. Whenever he needs to learn a new programming language he makes the same first program, an animal guesser. He does it for two reasons. First, because the animal guesser helps him to immediately grasp the deep nature of any given language. He’s so familiar with the concept, and the mechanisms necessary to articulate it, that learning how to accomplish that same functionality in a new language teaches him how to do entire classes of things. Second, because each language implements the animal guesser in a slightly different fashion, he ends up learning more about the animal guesser, itself, as a trope. This increases its usefulness as a learning tool for the next language; a compounding system of improved efficiency.

Most poets never really have the opportunity to play with the same trope in a vast array of contexts. But, then, most poets aren’t bpNichol. He worked in so many modes that he was able, when given the opportunity to work in the completely new (at the time) mode, to reach into his bag of tropes and use them to perform a swift and thorough examination of what was possible.

These poems are easily identifiable as being the work of bpNichol, for a range of reasons. One factor is the language, the vocabulary itself. Throughout the landscape of his body of work we are regularly visited by rock, train, father, poem, night, storm, and wave.

Another contributing factor is the set of techniques that weave through so many of his other explorations: repetition, permutation, self-reflexivity, self-referentiality, the visual page as a compositional space, and the word and the letter as manipulatable aspects of the language.

A third factor is the range of subject matters he addresses, subjects which consistently add up to a thrumming blend of joy offset by alone. We build the tower and it ends in Babel. Sitting down to write you this poem implies that you are absent. Rock, island, wave, shadow.

But, for me, the crucial factor that makes these poems so identifiably bpNichol is the way they are, simultaneously, a study and an exploration of the theoretical and practical limits of the medium at hand.

Take, for instance, “SELF-REFLEXIVE NO. 2”. Anyone who had anything to do with computers around 1984 is familiar with that particular visual effect produced by the bottom line of a screenful of repeating-loop text. We all saw it, but paid it little regard. To bpNichol, that’s not visual cruft, that’s not an annoyance, that’s a feature that can be leveraged into making more meaning with the right kind of poem. And this is the right kind of poem. This poem grew out of the same kind of wrangling with the conventions of a printed book which produced his series of explorations of the book machine.

Or, look at “AFTER THE STORM.” Here’s a piece that grew from the seed of an awareness of what effects were available—the words chosen, the poem itself, must have come after the fact of apprehension of the limits of possibility. Instead of asking, “How can I make this poem I have already in mind?” bpNichol is asking “What possibilities for poems are present?.” As much fun as he’s obviously having here, it is also clear that if warp and fade and morph could have been coded this would have been a different poem.

For bodily engagement with the media, compare how the voice register plummets of “Pome Poem” are required by the lungs with how the motion of “SELF-REFLEXIVE NO. 1” cajoles the eyes into and out of REM-like activity.

For a direct porting of an existing poem into the digital realm, see “SENTENCE,” which worked every bit as well (but differently) on paper than it does here. The digital version allows for the “action” that makes the poem work to occur on a single page; in the process the reader gives up control of the reading. This particular trope happens to be realizable in three-dimensional space, as well, and given notes he left for (sculptural) three-dimensional pieces I think it’s safe to say that if he could have coded it then, he would have.

For a look at where the boundary of code and poem is for a poet concerned with creating as many exits and entrances as possible you will need to put your hands on the keys and type, you will need to enter into the program, interact, stop being passive and ask to be shown the dance of the “OFF-SCREEN ROMANCE”. And for those of you interested enough to actually read the code itself, there is yet another poem. This is the abundance of bpNichol; there is more, there is always more.

Watch these poems and you will see how he was already imagining possibilities that the technology couldn’t support, yet. Just as he did with the book machine, the voice machine, the copying machine, the audio machine, the visual machine, and the human machine.

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