Framing “Off-screen Romance” — Jim Andrews
Romance” is the last poem in First Screening.
It was one of the last three poems composed in the suite. We know this
because the three floppies Barrie Nichol gave Lionel Kearns, which we infer
were floppies-in-progress, are missing “Reverie,” “Any of
Your Lip,” and “Off-screen
version of “Reverie,” “Any
of Your Lip,” and “Off-screen Romance".
Marko had already created the code for the other poems in First
So my work was mainly a matter of applying the code Marko had already written
to the remaining three. Though Marko did write a new function (basically
function A) used only in “Off-screen Romance”.
look at the poems more carefully and differently when working on something
to consider the timing of events more carefully than I did when just viewing
the poems, and came to an appreciation of bpNichol's engagement with rhythm
Screening (as well as Marko's deft work in adapting First
understand the structure of the piece so I could code it without having
to code each 'step' in the dance (of which there are probably a couple
“Off-screen Romance” consists of two words: “FRED” and “GINGER”. “FRED” is
for Fred Astaire and “GINGER” is for Ginger
Rogers; they're famous, of course, for their dancing in movies from the
thirties and forties. “Off-screen Romance” shows two words dancing
around the screen together. Almost invariably, words are said to “dance” on
the screen by commentators on kinetic poetry. Here it is figuratively
literal. They do indeed dance. Or they “dance”.
Choosing to create a near-literal dance is quite a good choice in an early
work of computer poetry: the metaphor is rich and strong. It permits strong
simplicity: simplicity that's lively and suggestive. You can connect with
it at various levels.
FRED and GINGER dance on-screen. Why then is it called “Off-screen
The title alludes to the oft-rumoured but never confirmed and probably
imaginary off-screen romance between Rogers and Astaire. It sounds another
cinematic note. It also reiterates Nichol's concern with the screen. The
poem is dedicated to Ellie Nichol, who was married to Barrie Nichol. That's
surely the prime reference to off-screen romance. It's a love poem for his
wife. Additionally, Line
110 of the source code, which is displayed after we follow the prompt
to type “List 100,118”, says
110 REM FOR THE CURIOUS VIEWER/READER
THERE'S AN 'OFF-SCREEN ROMANCE' AT
1748. YOU JUST HAVE TO TUNE IN THE
poem is off-screen in the sense that to play/view it, you have to type
in a command. You have to engage with the
language machine at that level to view the poem that remains off-screen
until you summon it. This encourages us not only toward some basic interactivity,
but toward looking into the
programming source code itself. “Off-screen Romance” is
presented not simply cinematically, but at a slightly deeper level of
“Off-screen Romance” is one of the longest (in its source
code and temporally) in First Screening and is the most
interesting technically. To me, it is the most interesting of bpNichol's
computer poems. Not simply because it is the most sophisticated technically,
but because of its liveliness coupled with its formal intelligence, curiosity,
entrance beyond cinema into computer poetry, and its celebration of romance,
life, and the patterned rhythms of dance/life/poetry/music.
In “A Few Notes” amid the printed matter of the Underwhich edition, he says:
The dozen poems...were composed over the period of a year & a half.
As a result, tho the on-screen activity never reveals it, the off-screen
programming moves from brute stumbling to some much more elegant solutions,
a record of how the process of programming, the process of composition,
guided me to the final result.
The on-screen activity may not reveal it directly but, by the time he composed “Off-screen Romance,” the “more elegant solutions” were
supporting poetical conception more attuned to the strengths, weaknesses,
tones, and structures of the Apple IIe and perhaps kinetic poetry more
generally; everything was working together at both the technical
and poetical levels.
You can see
the code for “Off-screen Romance” starts at line 1600 and
goes to line 1826. You see seven FOR loops in the code (A, B, C, D, E,
F, Y). Each of these FOR loops describes a part of the dance.
The A loop dances FRED and GINGER from top left to
the centre of the screen; loop B trots them from the centre back to the
top left; loop C begins with FRED and GINGER at the
centre and then moves GINGER
to top right and FRED to bottom left; the D loop returns them
from that position to centre-screen; E twirls them from centre-screen to
bottom right; F moves them back to the centre; and Y dances them in a small
The entire sequence of the dance is like this:
Sort of like the rhyme scheme to a literary form of some kind. Or a sequence
of amino acids. It is a larger pattern made up of smaller patterns.
Like dances and poems and other patterned things are. And there is a certain
logic to the way the dance routines can be combined; BC doesn't work because
at the end of B, GINGER and FRED are at top left, but C starts them
off at the centre, so BC would result in a teleportation dance (which may
have yet to be danced).
This is the main piece in the suite that builds routines and then
patterns those through arrangement and repetition.
It is a consideration of and participation in the dance of life. Where old
things are arranged in new ways. That's at least part of what new work
In programming, you can hardly avoid having to deal with repetition and therefore
rhythm. Once a computer has done something once, it is very easy to make
it do the same thing again. In this sense, programmed work usually
deals with rhythm and repetition, whether the programmer does so consciously
or not. The loop is one of the fundamental structures of programming. But
can you make it funky? Can you give it humanly significant rhythms and
feeling rather than just the rhythms of an automaton? In “Off-screen
Romance”, it isn't just through the animation itself, but through engagement
with the work as a written thing both at the level of the screen and the
off-screen level of programming that we come to a deeper appreciation of
the relations of the piece to writing, poetry, and synthesis with
other arts such as music, cinema, programming and other time-based arts.
In this sense, “Off-screen Romance” refers to the romance of all that is present
but unseen on the screen.
Paul Dutton describes bpNichol as “an artist whose
whole being and opus was dedicated to the multisensory and multimedia expression
of the literary impulse”.
It is rather important, then—not
only as a part of the early history of digital poetry but also to an awareness
of bpNichol's oeuvre—to
First Screening as accessible as his other types of work.
He understood that writing is now a larger thing than solely words on a
Screening and its “Off-screen Romance” is, in part, a romance
with or dedication “...to the multisensory and multimedia expression
of the literary impulse” extended, in this case, into the synthesis
of poetry, the cinematic, the silent sound poem, and a “tuning
the digital “programme”.
 Try any of these: RUN 1748, RUN 1748-, GOSUB 1748, GOSUB 1748-
 From a 10/10/2006 Paul Dutton email to
Marko Niemi, Dan Waber, Lionel Kearns and Jim Andrews.
 Line 110 of the First Screening source code
says “For the curious viewer/reader there's an 'Off-screen Romance'
at 1748. You just have to tune in the programme”.