Flying Blind: An Interview with Judd Morrissey and Lori Talley
By Jessica Pressman
Jessica Pressman: My Name is Captain, Captain. is a book-lovers work of electronic literature, both in its remediation of print and in its tightly written poetry. What do you perceive as the relationship between this work and print?
Judd Morrissey and Lori Talley: It is undeniable that the work bears the influence of printed text, and also other mediums. The white space was essential for the poem to take place. We needed to clear the visual plane, and this caused us to resist any elements that felt to be extraneous or incidental, including sound, although this is a medium in which we have been deeply involved for years. Silence is crucial to the piece in the same way that a quiet space has always been important to the practice of reading. We wanted there to be no separation between the graphic, textual and the interactive, for the poem to be persistently evolving within a set of carefully chosen parameters, and this caused us to strip down to basics of form, line and color. The relationship to print was perhaps unavoidable because of the inherent and inseparable influence of literature as we have known it, and because we have both worked extensively with print-making, letter-pressing, and the physical construction of books. In fact, we initially laid the text down on acetate and vellum to experiment with its vertical overlapping. In addition, this particular poem references the printing press as well as various other technologies for transmission and communication. However, it should be said that our approach to the work was unavoidably informed by a variety of new and old forms and principles.
JP: The silence of Captain is indeed pivotal. There is not a lack of sound, but rather a silence that fills the reading environment. The silence is particularly apparent since this work is built in Flash; I was reminded of the reticence of Elizabeth Bishop. Do you think that electronic literature, in general, suffers from a "too much" syndrome: too much focus on image, sound, effects, and too little on the literary construction of the work?
M&T: For us it has been a delicate balance of technical skill, writing craft and design. As for e-literature at large it's hard to say it suffers from a too much or too little of anything syndrome because it is still a budding form. It's absolutely necessary for it to explore the ever proliferating tools of the medium, even if at times in excess. We have, in the pieces addressed in this interview, not even begun to exhaust the possibilities of the medium, and we are now experimenting with deeper technologies, but the responsibility is always to the writing, in whatever media.
JP: Judd, your previous work The Jew's Daughter explores the significance of textual context and reconfiguration. While the screen remains static (visually), clicking an active link prompts a change of text within a section of the current screen. The change of textual configuration creates a narrative meandering through subjectivities, cityscapes, and dialogues in the style of Faulkner or Joyce. Captain is also motivated by an exploration of context and textual configuration. However, The Jew's Daughter was a narrative piece, and Captain is poetry. Do either of you perceive there to be a difference in experimenting with word context in poetry, a genre that entails strict word choice and placement, as well as line rhythm and meter? How do you perceive a difference in experimenting with contextual configuration in narrative versus poetry?
M&T: An architect will tell you if you want more usable square footage for a space design it using rectangles and avoid arcs in your walls. By this principle, the symbol used to contain and plot the text of Captain was actively shaping and demanding a distillation of the phrases. The pace and organization of the piece, which does not abide by any formal metrical constraint, came out of our negotiation with this spatial limitation. The Jew's Daughter, on the other hand, is always overfilling its seams. For the most part, it is consistently at maximum capacity of the rectangle. It is a much denser work, but is no less concerned with language and rhythm, and is by no means strictly narrative. It is especially preoccupied with voices and their signature cadences, and, form time to time, breaks into song. Really, both pieces are concerned with the desire for simultaneity, for everything to exist all at once. In the automated section of My Name Is Captain, Captain., there is a sense of chaos created by the speed of the transitions and an over-saturation of the language fusing together to define the central icon of the piece, an airplane suspended backwards in flight. You are dropped into the reading of the piece having already been shown everything. That said, we're not overly concerned with genre boundaries, much more so with the plasticity of language across media and the intersection of writing and the programmatic modulation of writing and reading experiences.
JP: Your work seems inspired by the intellectual concepts and aesthetic principles of Concrete Poetry. Do you consider this classification appropriate?
M&T: There is a definite parallel that can be drawn, and an influence that was conscious to some degree, so the classification might be useful, but influences are always difficult to separate out, particularly when you are dealing with two people who see, hear, think about and assimilate all kinds of things. But, yes, concrete poetry and its predecessors, as well as certain kinds of painting, parameter-driven literature and design have informed our process. We needed to create a language where reading, seeing, and acting upon the work would not feel like separate activities. We did not want to create a multi-media work, but a language within the digital medium.
JP: How do you understand your work as creating "a language?
M&T: Perhaps we used the word "language" loosely, and the poem itself does this ("the poignancy of her alphabet"), but we were systematically composing in several languages at once: a symbolic visual component that points to an established global language of images (the Mastercard symbol), morse code, computer code, English. We were creating a referential relationship between them.
JP: What works or poets are most influential to your work and particularly to this piece?
M&T: It would be difficult to separate out a discrete list of influences from literature because anything can find its way in. And much of what might be considered source material would not typically be thought of as literary. Many of the texts that we kept around at the time of the making of this piece were published diaries, historical accounts of early flights, and the press coverage of John F. Kennedy, Jr.'s plane crash and the downed EgyptAir flight off the coast of Massachusetts.
JP: The trauma of the CAPTAIN at the heart of the poem is constantly present (and capitalized). What is at the heart of My Name is Captain, Captain.?
M&T: There is no trauma, only its simulation. This event is what the poem sets out to rediscover, and the question of this trauma is now left to be explored by the reader. The poem is simultaneously intimate to us and completely impersonal and archetypal so as to be anyone's experience. It is essentially an examination of loss and departure in which the personal, mythological and historical coalesce. It comes naturally out of a period of time when our lives were pervaded by a central Eurydice myth and its historical expressions.
JP:: What drove you to your exploration of aviation as a theme and metaphor for this piece?
M&T: Initially, it was not an idea, but something to which we were led or misled, by intuition. It then became an idea. This theme was inherent to the poem's text, and, in a later stage of the work, it became the unifying visual and navigational element. Dead reckoning, or flying blind, is the central metaphor and it relates to both the writing and reading of the work, to a sort of real-time urgency and elusiveness.
JP: I'd like to ask about the powerful and elusive titleMy Name is Captain, Captain.
M&T: The title was taken from a moment in the Lindbergh kidnapping trial, something said by Hauptmann, whose name translates into English as "captain," to Lindberg, a captain by appointment.
JP: To segue into a discussion of your artistic process: how does the tool, in this case Flash, effect your creative conception and execution of the literary work?
M&T: The piece was developed in several stages and was, for the most part, initially written and plotted using a text layout tool. Flash allowed us to program in indeterminacy so that the act of reading disrupts, reconfigures or builds upon the poem. This could have been done with any number of tools or languages, but we wanted the legibility and flexibility of vector-based text. Any writing environment is different than another. It's different to write by hand than to use a word processor with the simple ability to cut and paste, or a layout tool like Quark Xpress which is like a digital canvas. When writing, editing, re-writing, or programming text in a graphical interface for animating and scripting there is no clear separation between writing and other acts, but this is something that eventually becomes natural. The malleability of text, the ability to break it, smear it, and transform it was probably the most interesting compositional lure, in retrospect, because it afforded the most compelling surprises. An example of this is on the page containing the line "in dim outlines left by the body," where the textual material is transformed into a graphical representation of the inky outlines of a female form.
JP: In the early days of hypertext, there was much utopian discourse about electronic literature as a collaborative medium. In practice, however, this often distilled into a collection of stratified efforts (programmer, poet, and designer). Yours seems to be a true collaborative partnership, and the poem itself conveys a reoccurring theme of intersection. How do you achieve your collaboration, and how do you conceive of intersection as a subject in the work?
M&T: Yes, this idea of collaboration is something we often find ourselves addressing, particularly the difference between a collaboration that is intimate and one that is more pragmatic, and ultimately both have their place. But you are right to recognize the theme of intersection as being related not only to the content of the poem but to its creation, that it is the product of a deeper exchange. This concept of exchange, of the "currency" of interpersonal relationships, is important to us. For a long time we have wanted to make decals of our central symbol and place them with the credit card stickers on the windows and doors of banks and businesses. Within the work, the permuting symbol, which was conceived from descriptions and photographs of the "signature" left behind by the alleged kidnappers of the Lindbergh baby, suggests this idea of intersection and also points to a question of responsibility. When reading stories and accounts from the early age of flight we traced several types of partnership, a richly arrangeable cast of pairs: navigator and pilot, husband and wife, agent and celebrity, a pilot and his plane, a pilot and his mother, a pilot and a carpenter, and in the central fictions of this time there is always the question of what happened and who is responsible. In the case of Lindbergh and Hauptmann, for example, there is an intersubjectivity in terms of criminality, either person in the relationship could be said to be the criminal for various reasons. So, this darker sense of intersection frames the poem.
JP: You identify the influence of parameter-driven literature, and there seem to be elements related to computer games: a controller stick, moving arrow, three boxes that open to different sections. Are you influenced by computer gaming and/or the theoretical discussions of its narrativity?
M&T: Not in any conscious way. Neither of us has played computer games to any significant extent, and we haven't been concerned with gaming and its narrative applications. In the last few months, we've been looking into writing for virtual reality spaces, and, in this case, the reference seems to become unavoidable. We had been exposed to quite a bit of user interface design through professional work, and we struggled to reconcile the desire for an uninterrupted "blind flying" experience and the need for a certain level of usability. At some point during the final production of Captain, we realized that we needed a secondary navigational interface for referencing and accessing different areas of the poem. This is where the joystick-like controller came in, which is actually the "g" key from a typewriter.
JP: You mention "responsibility" a few times during this interview, and within the poem there seems to be a pervading question of where responsibility lies and who "made a mistake." What kind of responsibility do you desire and expect from the reader?
M&T:To read. To write. To repeat. To become the ear of the poet-sleuth who excavates the poem, stirs up history, only to become implicated in a new repetition.