October 10, 2004

Glazier’s Windows Restored

by Nick Montfort · , 10:35 pm

Anatman... book coverA Review of Anatman, Pumpkin Seed, Algorithm
Loss Pequeño Glazier
Salt Press
112 pp.

Loss Pequeño Glazier may have just experienced his geek apotheosis on Slashdot last December, but he’s a poet whose digitally engaged work, both creative and critical, has been progressing since before the time of Mosaic. His book of poems Anatman, Pumpkin Seed, Algorithm is an engaging investigation of how the projects of poetry and computer technology can jostle our cultures and our imaginations. It’s “The Comedian as the Language C,” a voyage to the south, powered by Unix.

As a poet who grew up in South Texas fascinated by cultural confluence and computer technology, I have more than a few things in common with Glazier. Still, when I first encountered Glazier and heard him read – from his JavaScript-enabled poem “White-faced Bromeliads” at Digital Arts and Culture 1999 in Atlanta, Georgia – I wasn’t won over. The surface randomness of poem, the distracting push-media trick that reminded me of the one behind Stuart Moulthrop’s “Hegirascope,” and Glazier’s reading aloud, not so intelligibly, over another vocalization of an alternate text – all these suggested that this was a work and a reading that, to quote Janet Murray describing other electronic literature, “privileged confusion.”

Having read and heard more of Glazier since then, however, it seems that I just started off on the wrong foot, or line, or poem. Glazier’s work deals interestingly with words and their cultural and technological transformations. “Bromeliads,” online, has virtues that I wasn’t able to appreciate, ironically, until after reading it in print. The overall framework, in which a photograph opens to a stanza, eight times, is pleasing. It also has lively and funny lines that express cross-cultural experience and a sense of travel. I do still find the flickering alternate lines to be a distraction from, rather than an enhancement of, the movement of the language itself. Perhaps I’ll come around to appreciating that at some point, too. At any rate, lucky me: this feature was dropped for the printed text that appears in Anatman.

Many of the texts in the book have Glazier’s digital projects as their source, and they do, certainly, serve as good advertisements for and introductions to those projects. As Glazier writes in “The Parts,”

convert wave to author, concatenations
of technical parts; its scatter deflects the work,

printing it out is only parts of
it, …

But the coherent volume is more than a partial printout, and isn’t just dead-tree documentation of online work. It’s quite able to sit on the shelf and communicate with other codices, and it welcomes your comments in the margin and your random access. Anatman can be read as a creative annex to Glazier’s Digital Poetics, as it records some of the outcomes of the literary practice he discusses there. This is a fruitful way to read the book, too. Although you can appreciate Glazier’s poems apart from his poetics, the work he’s trying to do with computing and poetry becomes most clear when you hear him speak with both of these voices.

By offering poems on paper for the human voice, Glazier engages another question besides those questions of digital poetics: whether a poem of this conventional sort is even allowed to discuss current computer technology. This question, curiously enough, actually is an issue for some people, even some literate ones. I certainly don’t need any persuading. If Thomas Hardy can pen a poem about the sinking of the Titanic right after the event, people today are certainly allowed to write about contemporary technological cataclysms, such as the release of Windows 95, a topic covered by Glazier in his poem “Windows 95.” If Zbigniew Herbert can elegize pen and ink, Glazier is certainly justified in noting, in his excellent, fine-pointed poem “How I Was Atilla in a Past Life,” the parenthesis-matching feature of text editors:

… (Though your sometimes use of parens makes
cursor leap in half-tangoes, pistachio, and Abba riffs.) …

Glazier seems to relish crafting two poems that contain the word “modem,” and seems to enjoy the sounds of technical language, to take pleasure in working with computer terms and acronyms much as Seamus Heaney revels in Anglo-Saxon-rooted words, a deft shovel working loam. “These / fibers have never been described in literature,” Glazier writes in “The Reed Heads.” Write on.

The book isn’t only about bits and words, of course: it’s also a look to the south and into the past, a trip from ICANN to toucan, an attempt to see what it means to be “‘American’ more broadly / seen” (“Xochimilco”). The pumpkin seed of the title originates, Glazier explains in a note, as a defect on the tongue, found in a muffin purchased on a bus during 14-hour trip in Costa Rica. There are perverbs (“where there’s smoke there’s / one about to cough,” “The Apex”) that question the conventional wisdom of culture, often turning towards the individual. There are English-word renderings of Spanish texts, too: “Is the fee seal / parachute tar cone…” for “Es dif�cil para chutar con…” (“Mezcla”). A gloss of Problemas de Posadas as Poseidon’s Tostadas (in “Xochimilco”) can leave us with a strange taste in our mouths, wondering how much of a loss in translation we suffer due to knowledge of foreign languages that often ends at the bottom of the menu. Food for thought, certainly.

Anatman’s poems are rife with punning references to the poet: “You got your atman in my anatman,” you might say. One example is the section “Leaving Loss Glazier,” the title of which is taken from an earlier chapbook. That particular self-reference, of course, seems to be quite in the service of no-self. Let’s say, then, in keeping with this trend, that Glazier offers us more than just a little loss in Anatman. His poems provide windows, some of them with views of our neighboring cultures, some of them interior. Anatman, Pumpkin Seed, Algorithm is essential reading for those interested in how the technologies of poetry and of the computer can meet, but its explorations are broder than that, and its appeal reaches beyond those who read both poetry and Slashdot. All sorts of tricksters and transgessors of borders are sure to find things to savor in Glazier’s book.

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