Harry Burke explores the poetry of the net sensation weaving romance into browser tabs
My friend Rachael Allen recently shared with me a screenshot of some tabs she had open. There was nothing that spectacular about it - it was part of an email thread we’d been having in the background to both of us working late - yet exactly in its banality something caught my eye - a poem, in its bottom right hand corner (“Word and Things” by Noelle Kocot; I googled it). It might have been a side effect to having been staring at a laptop screen for the past twelve hours, but this struck me as an amazingly intimate and intricate detail to be shared into, if not at the same time somehow an inherently nostalgic one. For trends come and go with increasing punctuality online, but what level of removal do you exist in when you look at such an image and think “♥, this reminds me of 2010”?
Attempting to validate this, which felt something like trying to find a receipt for an old desire, I came back across Frank Hinton’s video “Your search - DOIUFHEFIUAEGHFIUEAfiuahef - did not match any documents”, uploaded to Vimeo two years ago. Taking the announcement of a new blog called Internet Poetry as its starting point, this video then stagnates through the internet for six minutes, combining (aligning?) the ennui of StumbleUpons and failed google searches with flashes of poetry and other subjective interventions. Internet Poetry is a tumblr initiated by Steve Roggenbuck, which publishes “screenshots of poetry being distributed with guerilla tactics on the internet”. Predominantly populated by snippets of social media and image macros, the site nonetheless suggests a rupture in how the poem relates to the context that surrounds it. For in a lot of ways the screenshot provides a visual analogue for the place of the poem in relation to the internet. Essentially a bit of reality cut out and saved for later(imagine how the screenshot might develop if Google Glass becomes commonplace), the screenshot, like StumbleUpon, prizes the accidental connections and associations that arise in web-like or rhizomatic information structures. In this way it is not too dissimilar from the process of poetry itself, for if you put common building blocks (language) together in playful and experimental ways, new forms will come out of this, and new standards will eventually be invented.
Hinton’s video takes this as read, crawling through the sorts of contexts and associations that provide the architecture of life and creativity online. Yet if this is so much the structure of how we consume information (how many other articles, videos, status updates are you engaging with as you read this?), why does so much writing published online replicate the white background and confined borders of the printed page? Even the Internet Poetry blog carries this form; it becomes perhaps most revealing and visually stimulating as you visit its archive. If the emergence of the screenshot poem can be seen as simultaneous with a predominance of associations as a tactic for making sense of contemporary culture, then its demise occurs most likely for the same reason. In a culture where connections are already ubiquitous, why further visualise this?
Bunny Rogers I don’t think ever made a screenshot poem. But her poetry exists defiantly within this condition of connectedness, sticking biros, needles, roses in it. What were the associations that came to you when you first saw a pair of legs, disembodied but heeled, an image rigidly vertical as if holding up the poem it sits beneath? Or the image of her next to filipa, who seems as ambiguous and careful as her writing, maybe her lover, maybe her teacher, maybe both? The truth claim of photography is the term used by Tom Gunning to describe the prevalent belief that traditional photographs accurately depict reality. Drawing on the work of Charles Sanders Peirce, he uses the concept of ‘indexicality’ to refer to the physical relationship between the object photographed and the resulting image. Rogers’ images, just like her poems, operate on the exact same claims of truth, yet playfully and purposefully skewer this indexicality. Indexical behaviour or points to (or indicates) some state of affairs - there could be no more accurate description of Rogers’ work. Yet how do they do this pointing? What’s this state of affairs?
Further, what if we were to take the poem as a screenshot in the midst of patriarchy? Or capitalist hegemony? Or more prosaically, love? Rogers’ poetry exists in a relationship to an art practice, to a social media presence, to presumably much of her character and personality in real life, as well as to a tradition and discourse of poetry itself. It is exactly their sparsity, their aloofness and their ephemerality that highlights the extent to which their meaning relies on all that which surrounds them, and it is this makes them so compelling. For it isn’t just that their meaning is constructed through this indexicality, but that it subverts it. “u can’t squueezw blood from a shoe” reads as as furious and compelling a statement as “I used to smile to say hello”; in both cases they take idioms and conventions and reveal their brutality. What sort of resolution comes out of this is left unsaid, and if anything this becomes a question forced upon the reader.
There’s an old creative writing maxim that forms the backbone to probably every creative writing class or introductory manual: “show don’t tell”. If the internet does both, then Bunny Rogers does neither. For as video trailers, personal brands and other extra-poetic measures become increasingly part of the landscape of contemporary poetry, they of course put pressure on how the poem works and means. If the screenshot poem marks the point where context becomes part of the language of the poem, then Rogers’ work destabilises not simply one nor the other, but both, and the relationship between the two in general. And if they’re indexical, then it is exactly the truth claim of this that they point to.