Robert Kendall's Hypertext Poetry Class: A Student's Perspective
by Jackie Craven
It took me two years to work up the courage to sign on to Robert Kendall's class. I'd read his article "Writing for the New Millennium: The Birth of Electronic Literature" in the November 1995 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, and I was eager to try my hand at what seemed to be a revolutionary genre. But I'd never used a computer for anything other than word processing and casual Web surfing, and I was certain that the class was beyond my abilities.
Nevertheless, I began to haunt Robert Kendall's Web site. I read some of his poems and sent him timid e-mail inquiries. His responses were encouraging. I registered for the class, canceled my registration, and then registered again.
If there was going to be a revolution, I wanted to be there.
The Cyber Classroom Dreaming
Reading Writing Moving On
The Cyber Classroom
Alone in the flickering light of my monitor, I wondered: What have I gotten into? I was not only a beginner at electronic writing--I was also a newcomer to online education. Navigating the classroom interface was easy enough, but I wasn't sure how to interact with classmates I could not see or hear. Their messages, which came from New York, Australia, Pennsylvania, and Singapore, discussed writers I had never heard of and used terminology I did not know. I mixed up names. I confused the teacher with fellow students. For more than a month, I mistook a grown man for a young coed.
But with the confusion came a giddy sort of freedom. No one could see me! No one knew who I was! So I plunged into discussions about authorial control and I participated in heated debates about matters I scarcely understood. And because I was safely shrouded in anonymity, I blurted questions: What's Java? What's a cookie? What's an applet?
No one asked me to leave.
Early into the course, classmates began to describe hypertexts they would like to write. One student proposed a "network of bifurcations"; another (probably tongue-in-cheek) suggested a rewrite of the Bible.
"I will be content if I can make just one scratch on the cave wall," I said. But I was quickly caught up in the dizzy excitement. I announced that I wanted to write "something Jungian"--an extended work of hypertext in which I would peel off layers of personality, superimpose many voices, and create startling juxtapositions and haunting recurring motifs.
My ambition was to resurrect a collection of short stories I'd written several years ago, a series of fanciful tales titled 12-Step Parables. Loosely based on the 12 suggested steps of self-help programs such as AA and Al-Anon, the parables were supposed to be about powerlessness, surrender, and transformation. But words on paper, frozen in fixed sequence, seemed to contradict the ethereal nature of the ideas I was trying to convey.
Hypertext suggested new possibilities. By weaving several narrative paths through the stories, I could distort time and reality. I could string together voices in eerie, dream-like sequences, and I could blur the boundaries between narrators. Characters could merge and take on new forms. In this way, structure would mirror theme.
Dreaming these grand schemes, I never stopped to consider that I had never actually read a longer work of serious hypertext literature. I wanted to write hypertext, but I did not yet have the patience or the skill to read it.
Our class was assigned Tim McLaughlin's hyperfiction, Notes Toward Absolute Zero (Eastgate). I wandered about in the text feeling disoriented, frustrated, and eventually, angry. Robert Kendall was reassuring. "As you become more used to the interface and the process of reading hypertext, you'll find it easier to handle the navigational obstacles," he said.
He sent us out into the Internet to explore the Web sites of other writers who were experimenting with electronic literature. I rattled around inside Hegirascope by Stuart Moulthrop. "Hypertext is radically different from written text," I concluded. "Hypertext places new demands on readers."
Robert Kendall gently suggested that hypertext was not as radical as I imagined. "There is a continuum from print to hypertext," he said. "Some printed works (such as some of Robert Coover's fiction) seem more 'hypertextual' than some true hypertexts."
Judy Malloy logged on for a class visit, and I explored her Eastgate Web Workshop hyperfiction, l0ve0ne. Tim McLaughlin visited, and I read 25 Ways to Close a Photograph. When I returned to McLaughlin's Absolute Zero, I discovered that I was no longer unsettled. What had once seemed like abrupt "dead ends" now felt more like chapter endings--logical and satisfying. Simply through the practice of reading, I was becoming more relaxed and confident, and I was now able to enjoy the chorus of narrative voices in McLaughlin's work.
Reading the works of other writers and following the class discussions gave me some ideas of how I might approach my own hypertext project.
In The Changing Room (Word Circuits, 1998) began with eight short tales from my old manuscript, 12-Step Parables. Working in Storyspace (Eastgate), I divided each tale into 15 to 25 nodes. Then with little thought to the overall structure of the work, I linked characters, visual images, and references to colors, sounds, and sensations. I did not know HTML and had never before used a hypertext authoring program, so the simple act of making links--any links--was thrilling.
I hoped that my audience would follow the flow of related images and weave in and out of all eight tales, passing through a few key nodes again and again. I worried, however, that many readers would simply click through the tales chronologically, following plots rather than themes. So every five or six nodes, I inserted basic links to divert readers onto a new narrative path. Then I whittled away at the links, rooting out loops and dead ends.
As I experimented with the ways my narrators and their tales connected, new characters and new situations took form. For example, one narrator, Gifford, found himself inside another narrator's life. A message written by Gifford took on new layers of meaning when it reappeared in different narrative strands. Meanwhile, the musings of his daughter, Rita, became intertwined with the narrations of all the characters.
Although I liked the stark simplicity of black type on blank white pages, I recognized that my project needed navigational icons and an opening map. I got Adobe PhotoShop and began to experiment with graphics. Illustrations which were added as an afterthought became increasingly important.
By the end of the semester, Changing Room had evolved into a very different work, virtually unrecognizable from the original print manuscript.
New readers of hypertext often wonder, "How do I know when it's finished?" As a student of hypertext, I might ask the same question about our online class. For me, it never truly ended.
I continued seeking out web sites of hypertext poets and fiction writers, and I began ordering longer hyperfictions from Eastgate.
I enrolled in two new online classes--Adobe PhotoShop and Web Graphics--and I created more illustrations and a simple animation for Changing Room.
Guided by Robert Kendall's suggestions and comments from classmates, I continued revising. I expanded some of the story lines, added new navigational buttons, and exported the work from Storyspace to HTML for publication on the Internet.
The following summer, I drove 9 hours to the Hypertext '98 convention, where I met Deena Larsen and Bill Bly, both graduates of online classes taught by Robert Kendall.
And making plans for a new work of hyperfiction, I prepared to begin again.