Alison Clifford, The Sweet Old Etcetera

Clifford uses Flash to adapt several poems written by E. E. Cummings. The result is interactive visual poetry that grows from a simple parentheses/seed to an animated landscape made of layered text, image, and sound. Primary themes include the “remediation” of print; distributed authorship; defamiliarizing the reading process to explore cognition; the relationship between parts and whole; the ways in which language builds worlds.

Textual Features (show Cummings’s influence)
  • play
  • experimentation with language
  • visual and textual puns
  • nonstandard use of parentheses, capitalization, punctuation, spacing
  • words joined, split, and rearranged (Clifford compares this to computer code)
  • entirely appropriated text

Media Features
  • kinetic typography: letters in the word “grasshopper” jump, the o’s in “look” blink
  • calligram: typeface is arranged to create an image that expresses visually what the words say
  • audio elements: single notes occasionally synchronized with reader’s clicks
  • pacing/timing affects reading
  • 2 distinct visual styles: for individual poems, simple black text on white background with links in red; for main screen, animated landscape made of text, collage-like, red sky looks like watercolor
  • navigation: no directions, although color and music sometimes help reader know when/where to click, swaying tree is like Table of Contents, ability to replay poems
  • extratextual elements: Guest blog (social media-but no comments!), Links about Cummings (pedagogical possibilities), Project info (her artist statement)

Reading Experience
Clifford’s piece is interactive. As the reader explores, more of the landscape appears. This unlocking of new levels functions as an incentive and incorporates a feeling of game-play. The piece is multilinear in that the reader can choose which poem to read in any order and even replay poems. However, the piece also stymies agency. The swaying tree makes it difficult for the reader to click on the links to poems. Sometimes links are activated by a click, but in some cases just moving the cursor activates them. While the reader can choose which poem to read, once a poem is chosen the reader must follow all the links in a linear path like a rat in a maze. Like other links in the piece, the asterisks/flowers turn red and play a note when clicked, but the flowers don’t seem to have any function. At times, the piece stalls when the reader struggles to find the link to the next section. These ambiguous puzzles and nonfunctioning links make the reader feel a lack of closure.

At first, Clifford’s digital remediation of Cummings’s poems seems to use new technology to fulfill the original poet’s wildest dreams. Cummings was an avant garde painter/poet who wanted to add visual elements and movement to his poems, but a typewriter and a piece of paper can only go so far. Clifford’s adaptation shows off the conceptual capabilities of new media. Still, her adaptation hints at the pitfalls of “technofetishism” as well (Spinelli 101). Kinetic typography may emphasize some of the themes in the original poems, but the timing and linear progression of the animations may obscure them, too. Clifford’s animations dramatize one way of reading the poem and persuade the reader to follow suit, whereas a print version would present the entire poem to the reader at once, allowing the reader to see the visual whole and then puzzle out how to read the parts (left to right? bottom to top? inside parentheses then outside?). Is it possible that Clifford’s roadmap might subvert Cummings’s goal of defamiliarizing the reading process instead of emphasizing it? In this way, Clifford’s interactive piece could prove more linear and give the reader less agency than a print version.

This tension between print/digital combines with other tensions in the piece: the musical notes somehow make the silence louder, the user-friendly extratextual elements belie the lack of navigational instructions, the red sky adds a dark undertone to playful poems about spring and nature. Altogether, these tensions create an ambivalent tone. This ambivalence about “remediation” addresses some of the concerns expressed by Robert Coover in “The End of Books,” in which he worries that visuals will displace text and describes the “anxiety of obsolescence” of learning a new tool only to see it replaced. By explaining her intentions, calling her piece a “personal response,” and providing access to the original poems, Clifford carefully validates these concerns.

Original text of "l(a"

Clifford Screenshot 1
Clifford Screenshot 2
Clifford Screenshot 3