I Descend into Hypertext

by Bill Bly

In the spring of 1995, when I first heard of Rob Kendall's Hypertext Poetry and Fiction course at the New School, I'd already experimented with Storyspace and had read a dozen or so works of hypertext literature, including Michael Joyce's afternoon, Carolyn Guyer's Quibbling, Stuart Moulthrop's Victory Garden, Deena Larsen's Marble Springs, and John McDaid's Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse (all from Eastgate Systems).

More precisely I'd read at them: I knew they were interesting and important; what I couldn't ever figure out was whether I was reading them right, and despite all those assurances that there was no "right"; way, or that any way I read them was valid, I had yet to get any of them the same way I got "regular" fiction and poetry. At that time no one else I knew was reading hypertext, so there was no one with whom to talk about it. But when the course came along I knew I'd get just that, and I enrolled as soon as I could. I liked it so much I signed on for a second hitch the next term.

This was before the Web became a household word, and Rob had to conduct the course using CAUCUS, a not very user-friendly conferencing application then in use in the New School's DIAL (Distance Instruction for Adult Learners) program. In addition to the challenges presented by Caucus, we were using Storyspace, that very versatile but also very quirky program, as our hypertext authoring environment--and on Windows as well as Macintosh platforms. A lesser teacher than Rob might have been disheartened by the communications problems, and these problems did discourage a few students, who fell away as the term progressed. But those of us who soldiered on reaped a terrific benefit.

For me this meant getting a leg up on my first two complete hypertexts, We Descend (published by Eastgate Systems in 1997) and Wyrmes Mete (to be included in Eastgate's forthcoming anthology of hypertext poetry, Between the Lines, for which Rob has written the introduction). Neither of these two works existed in anything like hypertext form before the class, and without the class, I don't think either would be finished--I'm certain that We Descend would still be nothing but a collection of notes scattered through half a dozen notebooks and twice as many separate word-processing files.

We Descend is set in the distant future, and takes the form of an archive of writings by a number of different authors from widely separated periods of time. A Scholar has discovered the fragmentary "papers" of a shadowy figure known as Egderus Scriptor, who lived some thousand years before him. Included in the Egderus collection are transcriptions of much older writings, those of the Ancients, survivors of a still more ancient catastrophe of unimaginable proportions. The Scholar attempts to put these writings into some kind of order, but before his work is finished, the archives are confiscated and work upon them taken over by another man, who has apparently provided anonymous glosses and commentary upon all the writings, including the Scholar's own.

Given the multiplicity of voices in We Descend, it seemed the best way to present their stories was as hypertext, which also provided an apparatus for many layers of commentary and a way to cross-reference and link together related materials that might be separated by sometimes vast tracts of time.

In many ways, Wyrmes Mete is a much more traditional work. It began as a chapbook of poems on the subject of death ("wyrmes mete" is Middle English for "worm's meat"--food for worms). By putting the poems in hypertext form, I was able not only to once again connect related ideas in different poems, but also to create a three-lobed structure, analogous to three sections in a print book, though in "contour" more like three branches off the same trunk or three meandering tributaries that eventually flow together into a single poem, which had once been the title poem of the chapbook, "Say Goodbye." I also contrived for this poem to be the only intentional dead end in the hypertext, which the reader cannot "pass," thus forcing him or her to return to life, so to speak.

I think what I most enjoy about working with hypertext is the building--i.e., erecting, furnishing, and arranging a structure in which a reader can roam and rummage. The writings themselves are not usually "hypertextual" on their own recognizance but become so when placed artfully within an interactive context. That part's fun, but also hard work--which I don't mind, but I fervently long for the day when our authoring tools aren't quite so crude.

I'm greatly encouraged by interface improvements provided by moving Rob's class to the Web, as I found when I was a guest this summer, three years after my own first taste of an online class. Not only was I pleased to rejoin those heady theoretical and technical discussions, but I was able to resume a beloved pastime, soothing as knitting, that I discovered in my first sojourn in the class and perfected in the second: downloading new contributions since my last visit, importing them into Storyspace, linking them together. (This inveterate, not to say addictive, archivism is of course betrayed in We Descend, whose second volume is already under way.)

There are other advantages to taking a class online, in addition to its providing an excuse to build more hypertexts: the ability to carry on multiple conversations at the same time, and the opportunity everyone has to think things through carefully before responding to what others have said (not that I always did this!). I'm not sure it will work with every subject, but I'd recommend it enthusiastically for anyone who wants to learn about hypertext.