"The language of hypertext turns almost any reading experience into one that has poetic, imagistic properties, thus expanding the role of poetry in digital writing."

-- Jennifer Ley

So You Thought You Understood Hypertext?

___by Jennifer Ley

"The World Wide Web is, of course, a huge and wonderful hypertext -- a docuverse."

--Mark Bernstein, president and chief scientist for Eastgate Systems, Inc. (The word docuverse was coined by Ted Nelson.)

Hypertext, hypertext, hypertext ... the term has become a buzzword reaching far beyond the digital arts literary community, a word that at once defines the links that make the Internet itself such a powerful associative universe, a word that also describes a still relatively new form of digital writing, in which the authors create literary works that allow readers to search out and create their own plot line and story development.

When hypertext first emerged, there was no visual World Wide Web, no html markup language. Writers who wished to organize their content in a non-linear fashion looked to print for their earliest models, to the work of authors like James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon, whose non-linear narratives set the stage for a new method of story-telling. Using computer programs like Storyspace, created by Michael Joyce, Jay Bolter and John Smith, and further developed and marketed by hypertext publisher Eastgate Systems, and Macintosh's HyperCard, the first hypertext authors were able to split a narrative into parts and provide unique paths for each, in essence giving characters, concepts or subplots a different point of view, and the reader a means to search out and create a unique reading experience.

But as soon as the World Wide Web, html markup language and higher baud rates made the Internet as we know it today a reality, hyperlinking became the underlying structure for how the web functioned. Search out your favorite writer on one of the search engines. Click on one of the myriad choices of web sites that result from the search. Read story A, which has been republished on the web with illustrations, one of which is credited to an artist whose work appears on a linked web site. Follow that link, finding a recommendations page to more sites for that artist, including a list of museums showing his/her work in the near future. Click on the link, and you've gone from reading your selected author in cyberspace to planning a flesh-time trip to the National Gallery of Art. You've just had a hypertext experience. But a rather limited one, given what's available.

Hypertext literature and digital arts are a far cry from wandering in the full wash of the Internet's associative ocean, and at times, something the web itself can't actually show you. The following first hand accounts by authors of hypertexts reveal much about what makes this form of writing special:

Deena Larsen: "I wrote a series of stories about women in a Colorado mining town. But the stories weren't enough to show the relationships --some too secret for words, some the characters didn't understand. So I put the stories in little houses on a model train set and strung different colored embroidery thread to show different connections. But you could not follow the two inch-thick maze of thread. My friends were very supportive. Comments included: 'You idiot. Do this on a computer. Here is how to work HyperCard. Now get this thing out of my basement.'

Now, that Marble Springs has been authored in hypertext you can explore the virtual ghost town by clicking on links. Connection cards with different patterns symbolize each connection. Marble Springs is a collaborative hypertext where readers can add their own stories and connections. It's available from Eastgate."

Marjorie Coverley Luesebrink, who writes hypertext fiction as M.D. Coverley: "I had been waiting to write in hypermedia all of my life. In 1995, I received an N.E.H. grant to study "New Technologies in Literature" with Katherine Hayles at UCLA. This gave me the background and support to begin writing Califia, a novel-length story of the search for a lost paradise in California. The instant that I began to write this novel on the computer, I knew I had arrived in my perfect medium. The opening page is not a text/book at all, it is a shoreline scene, full screen, with flamenco music; the reader clicks on footsteps in the sand to begin the story. Soon, the reader can choose among three narrators, travel in four directions, wander at will among the accounts of five generations of Californians, dreaming of redemption. All of this is to point out the incredible difference between linear text and a multilinear, hypermedia experience, where the image, sound, structure and print are all text. The possibilities of telling stories with information and meaning encoded in many sensory elements continues to intrigue me as a writer. I finished Califia in 1998, and it will be published by Eastgate Systems in the fall. Meantime, I invite curious readers to sample a free Beta version of the novel on CD-ROM, available now by request, from my home pages."

Stand alone software (like Storyspace and HyperCard) gives hypertext authors much more control over what the reader sees and how he/she sees it when viewing a serious hypertext work (more on the definition of 'serious' later.) And though recent advances in java, javascript, and dynamic html are giving web authors more options than your standard link-and-click, the fact remains that the two major browsers don't always 'see' things the same way. Viewers' computer operating systems do or don't contain author-specified fonts, Macs and pcs have a horrible habit of presenting picture and font sizes with just enough difference to make a graphic designer consider tossing the monitor out the window, and the range of plug-ins necessary to actually experience some hypertext web work is constantly changing.

Thus some hypertext authors, like Robert Kendall, who has been teaching hypertext since 1995 in a course he developed for the New School for Social Research (a course also offered over the web), has at times written his own computer code to achieve the look or word delivery system he's after for a particular piece. In a hypertext poem like A Life Set for Two, where words arrive at programmed intervals, interrupting the viewer's expectation of what the text will say 'next', the software is a core component of the literary experience itself. Writing only for one platform, Kendall is assured that when his work is published on disc, you're going to see relatively the same vision he had.

Or, to put it another way, hypertext, which was designed to give you choices, can give you more specific, author defined choices.

But Kendall is also pioneering work on a library of web-specific javascripts which will give hypertext authors even more flexibility when structuring texts on the web. In hypertext, it's not uncommon to see the author seek out a new means of programming language and use its specific features to design not only the presentation, but the actual concept and structure of a new piece. Like an infinite possibility of memotic neural paths, the aids that allow hypertext authors to create their work offer specific assets, depending on the tools themselves. Both dhtml and javascript change the way authors and readers think about linking, as both languages allow the same page to carry multiple layers of information, which the author can make available at strategic points in the narrative.

What does all this mean for poets and poetry? To quote from my own editorial at The Astrophysicist's Tango Partner Speaks, the first hypertext poetry site I developed on the net:

    "... when I think about the experience of reading poetry, I am immediately struck by how intuitive a process it is to enter the world of another writer's symbol and language architecture. Often what I'll perceive about a poem isn't something I can describe - to describe it would be to weaken the thought construct the poem has painted in my mind. But the poem will often make me think of a particular piece of art or, of another poem by another author.

    Hypertext linked poetry sites allow an editor to act as a neural tour guide - to build layer upon layer of image. An editor can amplify a specific image or emotion, or veer off into aligned but separate territory all together."

It follows that what we can do as editors by linking individual poems, poets can also do (and have done) within their own poetry. Consider the the collaboration between M. D. Coverley and Stephanie Strickland, whose hypertext web poem StoneIs has been adapted from Stickland's Storyspace authored True North. StoneIs presents alternative, linked paths through the text and imagery of the poem, artfully constructed so that any path the reader chooses presents the poem as a seamless whole. Rob Kendall is also adept at the seamless offering of poetic alternatives, most recently demonstrated in his web-based work, Dispossession, on view at Eastgate.

Presenting poetry in hypertext gestalts is something that Talan Memmott -- artist, writer and editor, and Christy Sheffield Sanford -- artist, writer and curator, do exceedingly well. Memmott has created the web site, BeeHive to showcase the work of traditional text poets as well as hypertext. Sanford holds the post of first Virtual-Writer-in-Residence for the trAce Online Writing Community, where she curated and designed the web anthology project My Millennium. Both are adept at using web-based programming language in their own work; Sanford's richly illustrated, The Madame de Lafayette Book of Hours, premiered online in 1996, her piece "NoPink" was awarded The Well's prize for the Best Hyperlinked Work on the Web in 1998. Winner of numerous grants and awards, Sanford has seen her work praised in a diverse group of publications, from Atlantic Unbound to Art Forum . Memmott, a student of the late Kathy Acker, has firm roots in the visual arts and web production technology.

One thing that hypertext seems to be doing to the concept of poetry on the net is changing our expectations as to what makes up an individual poem. Once we click/link/layer to a new associative thought, have we entered a new poem, or merely flipped an electronic page? The language of hypertext turns almost any reading experience into one that has poetic, imagistic properties, thus expanding the role of poetry in digital writing. To quote Kendall: "I like to think that programming language and the language of poetry can go hand in hand to express different sides of the creative personality. Writers are only beginning to learn the language of software. I believe that eventually the interactive possibilities of text on screen will be as uniquely rich and expressive as the medium-specific possibilities that distinguish written and spoken poetry from one another."

Much has been written about the downside of hypertext. You can't take it with you to the bathtub. (I've seen this statement in print so many times I'm starting to keep a personal list of authors I know who read in the tub ... there's a consumer application in this somewhere). Many of us miss the texture of paper beneath our fingers. Reading text on a monitor seems to cause more eyestrain than reading text on the page. (Although I'd hazard to guess that this has more to do with two factors: a. much web text is displayed at widths that mimic a piece of typing paper, rather than the more comfortable eye-scan width used in printed books, and b. many web sites still code text as black on white; given the luminance in monitors, off-white can be a much more comforting background color for text.) But acceptance of hypertext and all the innovation it represents does not have to mean that the age of the printed book is dead, but rather, that a medium exists on which to develop and disseminate exciting new literature. And this work won't be limited to the web or computers, as innovative writers like Dan Waber pen book-length 'poems' that, once printed on individual pieces of paper, are designed to be aligned and read in ever interchangeable patterns. As conceived, to quote Dan: "The reason I didn't execute this as a hypertext is that it cannot be accomplished electronically. I looked, I tried, I finally realized that something else could be done [electronically], something wonderful perhaps, but not this." Waber's influences? e.e. cummings and James Joyce.

Which brings us back to the issue of 'serious' hypertext. Right now, publishers like Eastgate concentrate on what they believe to be the scholarly market for hypertext, while the sales of games like Myst demonstrate that many people are interested in interactive story-telling given access to a narrative presented in iconic, hypertext fashion. With more money at their disposal, the game programmers are way ahead of the literary types when it comes to technology and distribution, but it doesn't have to stay that way. Authors like Coverley and Larsen see no reason why hypertext can't be serious and popular. And having viewed the beta release of Califia, I can imagine many people buying both Califia and Marble Springs for the wealth of meticulously researched, factual information these works present and the intriguing, treasure-hunt interface utilized in their presentation.

As witnessed by all those parents who eagerly wait for the kids to go to sleep Christmas night so they can commandeer the video game controls, the issue for literary hypertext in the future may not be so much one of finding an audience, but one of letting the audience know that such wonderful, innovative work exists. And if this means more people will find their way to 'serious' literature in the future, I for one am all for it, because this article has merely scratched the hypersurface of what's available.


Selected biographies and further reading:

Mark Bernsteinis president and chief scientist of Eastgate Systems, Inc., a pioneer company in the development of hypermedia and hypertext writing tools, and world-renowned publishers of original hypertexts--poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Referred to in the New York Times as "the New Directions of electronic publishing," a reference to the famous vanguard print publishing house of the 1930s to the present, at Eastgate, Bernstein, a Harvard-trained scientist, has created and managed hypertext tools and technologies, including the Storyspace hypertext writing environment.

Eastgate currently publishes approximately 35 original hypertexts, as well as hypertext writing tools including Storyspace and Web Squirrel.

Selected Publications:

Bernstein, Mark, and Linda Thorsen. Developing Dynamic Documents: Special Challenges for Technical Communicators. 34th International Technical Communications Conference. Denver: 1987.

Bernstein, Mark, and Elli Mylonas. A Literary Apprentice. Association for Computing In The Humanities. Oxford, U.K.: 1992.

Bernstein, Mark, Michael Joyce, and David B. Levine. Contours of Constructive Hypertext. European Conference on Hypermedia Technology. Milano: Association for Computing Machinery, 1992.

On Writing Hypertext: Tools for Information Farming. Association for Computing in the Humanities. Paris: 1994.

"Chasing Our Tails/Chasing Our Tales." Chorus October, 1997 (1997)

(1998). Hypertext Gardens

(1998). Patterns of Hypertext. Hypertext '98, Pittsburgh, PA, ACM: 21-29

(1999) "Where are the Hypertexts?" keynote address, Hypertext '99 (Darmstadt, Germany)

M.D. Coverley is the pen name of Marjorie C. Luesebrink, M.F.A. She has been working in interactive hypertext fiction since 1995. Her full-length, CD-ROM hypermedia novel, Califia, is forthcoming from Eastgate Systems.

Recent short fiction on the web includes: "Life in the Chocolate Mountains." Salt Hill #7. Literary Magazine of Syracuse University. Spring, 1999.

Rain Frames", forthcoming from Interrobang Magazine Canada. 1999.

"Fibonacci's Daughter." Part of collaborative on-line writing project, trAce, University of Nottingham, U.K.

"Egyptian E-Mail", Enterzone Magazine #14. June, 1998.

"The Little Lacemaker, Elys" The Book of Days of Madame de Lafayette, Christy Sheffield Sanford, project director, collaborative web project. 1997-98.

"The Probability of Earthquake" Blast 5 Produced by the Art X Foundation, New York. 1997-98.

Works in progress: The Book of Going Forth by Day, electronic hypermedia novel.

"Fingerprints on Digital Glass" collection of electronic hypermedia short stories for the WWW.

Coverley's non-fiction and scholarly articles on folklore, contemporary literature, and hypertext technology have appeared both in print and on-line. She teaches writing and literature in the School of Humanities and Languages at Irvine Valley College, Irvine, California.

Robert Kendall is the author of a book-length hypertext poem, A Life Set for Two (Eastgate Systems, 1996). He also has interactive poetry on disk in The Little Magazine, Version Box, and the anthology Behind the Lines (forthcoming from Eastgate).

His hypertexts are online in the Eastgate Reading Room and the Iowa Review Web. A Wandering City (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 1992), his printed book of poems, won the CSU Poetry Center Prize. He has received a New Jersey State Council on the Arts Fellowship for literature and a New Forms Regional Grant Program Award.

Kendall writes and lectures frequently about interactive literature and electronic publishing, and he teaches hypertext poetry and fiction through the on-line DIAL program of the New School in New York. He is the hypertext literature editor of the SIGWEB Newsletter (published by the Association for Computing Machinery), for which he writes a regular column. His Web site Word Circuits publishes hypertext literature and offers a host of literary resources. He is codeveloper of the Word Circuits Connection System, a hypertext authoring tool for poets and fiction writers.

Kendall's hypertext poetry:

"Frame Work" Iowa Review Web 1999

"Dispossession" Eastgate Hypertext Reading Room, 1999

A Life Set for Two (Eastgate Systems, 1996)

After Closing (forthcoming in Behind the Lines, Eastgate Systems)

An extensive list of Kendall's essays and articles.

Deena Larsen is "... an incurable hypertext addict. My walls are covered with hypertexts, (bits of text connected with ribbons and embroidery thread. My next project will be to set up a 12 step process for other addicts, just as soon as I shake off my own addiction. (Don't hold your breath, though.)"

Marble Springs available from Eastgate, explores a Colorado mining town.

Samplers : Nine Vicious Little Hypertexts on view at Eastgate, is a bunch of short stories with everything from sentient traffic barriers to coyotes who can destroy the world.

Triangulation (B&A New Fiction, forthcoming) is about love and power.

"Ferris Wheels" Iowa Review Web takes spaceships and subatomic particles into account before answering a marriage proposal.

"Stained Word Windows" Word Circuits is a geometric poem about rifts and views.

Larsen has several five minute hypertexts on the way: "Sand Loves" (Eastgate), "Mountain Rumbles" New River, "Ghost Moons", Burning Press Stone Moons (Eastgate, forthcoming) is a large novel about a mother who fights Social Services and the moon for her autistic child.

Talan Memmott is a writer living and working in San Francisco, California. He comes to writing from a background in fine art, having studied painting, installation, video and performance art, as well as critical theory. Memmott currently works in the multimedia field as Production Director for the web development firm PERCEPTICON and serves as Creative Director for the literary hypermedia journal BeeHive.

"NEXT:[N]ex(i)t" trAce/"My"Millennium

"Mixed Media(tion); Constructing the End-Image" iFilm.net

"The Apparatus and the Eye; Changes in Cinematic Space" iFilm.net

"Trimalchio's Diet" BeeHive

"Reasoned Metagoria" frAme #3

"A Machicolated Body" Perforations 17

"Delivery Machine 01" Perihelion's Archives

"Charm School" Big Bridge

"Jilt; a romance" BeeHive

"Bread.Crumbs" BeeHive

Christy Sheffield Sanford holds the first trAce Virtual Writer-in- Residence post. She recently won an Alden B. Dow Creativity Fellowship to work on a web-essay, "The Roots of Nonlinearity: Toward a Theory of Web-specific Art-Writing." Her work has been praised by Frederick Barthelme in Atlantic Monthly Online, George Landow in Hypertext 2.0 and N. Katherine Hayles in ArtForum. Her online work has been published by Light and Dust, Enterzone, Ylem, Salt Hill, New River frAme, Perihelion and many other ezines and project sites. In 1999, her web projects appeared in the Amour-Horreur Show at Galerie La Centrale, Montréal and the Aix Art Contemporaine Web en Provence Exhibit. She has won eight grants including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and two Rockefeller-NEA sponsored grants for New Forms. She is the author of seven books including The H's: The Spasms of a Requiem, The Italian Smoking Piece, Sur les Pointes: the Ballerina and the Sea Anemone and Only the Nude Can Redeem the Landscape. Her book, Library of Congress is forthcoming from Bloody Twin Press. Her experimental novel, Safara in the Beginning will appear in an Eastgate CD Anthology.

Christy Sheffield Sanford

"Rockgarden of Love" Light and Dust

"Light-Water: a Series of Meditations" New River

"Jill Swimming" Selected for the Aix Contemporaine Exhibit, Provence, France, 1999

"Moon Swimming" Ylem's Private Loves Public Opera

"The Brain Computer Metaphor" frAme

Stephanie Strickland's poem, "Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot," was chosen by Heather McHugh for the Boston Review 1999 Poetry Award. A hypertext implementation of this poem, featuring the work of many mathematically-minded digital artists, will be published on Rob Kendall's Word Circuits site in October.

Her hypertext poem, True North, published on disk by Eastgate Systems, was awarded a 1998 Salt Hill hypertext prize, and she has work in the forthcoming Eastgate anthology, Behind the Lines.

Strickland has published three essays in the electronic book review: "Poetry in the Electronic Environment" [ebr5]; "Seven League Boots: Poetry, Science, and Hypertext," which is itself a hypertext [ebr7], and "To Be Both in Touch and in Control" [ebr9]. An essay on True North, by Joe Tabbi, called "A Migration between Media," also appears in ebr9.

Strickland is the author of three books of poems, True North (University of Notre Dame Press, 1997 Sandeen Prize, and Poetry Society of America, Di Castagnola Prize), The Red Virgin: A Poem of Simone Weil (University of Wisconsin Press, 1993 Brittingham Prize), and Give the Body Back (University of Missouri Press, 1991).

Dan Waber spends an unhealthy amount of time trying to get words to do the absurdly simple things he asks of them. His efforts have appeared online in The Astrophysicist's Tango Partner Speaks, Recursive Angel, and grepoetry. He is currently seeking a home for his first book--a critique of the linear structure of language. He can also be found from time to time on the Undernet's #poetry channel hiding behind the nick [brick] when he's not immersed in his new cooperative venture (with Jim Andrews and Tom Purdue), webartery.com.

The Astrophysicist's Tango Partner Speaks

Recursive Angel


Riding The Meridian--Theory


Other Internet Sources for Hypertext:

Mark Amerika's hypertext domain.

trAce's hyper-literary journal.

New River
Editor Ed Falco's online journal of hypertexts.

Edited by Elizabeth Fischer.

Created by Brown University.

Salt Hill Review
Editor, Jeff Parker.


Jennifer Ley is a writer/artist and executive editor for Riding the Meridian.>/i> Her most recent work utilizes web-based hypertext technology. She is currently working on her first novel-length hyperproject, while "The Body Politic", her most recent experiment in hyperlit, recently premiered online as part of My Millennium and is part of the Artist's Salon at Digital Arts and Culture, '99 sponsored by the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Bergen - Norway.

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