Robert recommends these online hypertext sites:
The Eastgate Web Workshop
The New River
In addition Mr. Kendall's own site, Word
also publishes hypertext, and the
Word Circuits Directory is a good way to find hypertext on the Web.
You can order a copy of
A Life Set for Two
from Eastgate's catalogue.
Other essays by Robert Kendall about A Life Set for Two:
The Mind as Poem: A Life Set for Two
Words and Mirrors: Confessions of an Electronic Poet
Hypertextual Dynamics in A Life Set for Two
A Life Set for Two
Hypertext by Robert Kendall
Review and Interview by C.K. Tower and Jennifer Ley
What one immediately notices about Robert Kendall's hypertext
piece, A Life Set for Two, recently released by Eastgate Systems, is that, unlike many of the hypertext projects
on the Internet, which are often written in a distinct form of conceptualized wired hipness, A Life Set for Two is very human. In a medium that already inserts enough distance between words and the reader through its glass and pixel presentation, this is a definite advantage.
Using the leitmotif of a dinner between two lovers, a his and hers
menu, and other unique conceptual design features (which we won't
detail in full, so as to leave something for new readers to discover,) A Life
Set for Two takes the reader on a journey into the inner workings of a
relationship -- where the reader's choices seem able to intimately effect
the outcome of the relationship when it's time to "Settle the bill."
All the poems in A Life Set for Two appear on the screen in timed
rhythm, which the reader can adjust. What the reader can't adjust is
the juxtapositions that occur as Kendall deftly supplies "next lines"
quite other than what one would expect. An example:
First line scrolls onto screen:
__________"I offered to buy her a jumbo-sized cup
second line arrives:
__________________of my own
third line follows:
The amount of subtext contained within the poetic narrative is striking
-- not just in the menu selections the reader can choose from, and the way
one can alter the emotional tone of the piece by choosing specific
"aftertastes," but also in the alternate, homophonic word associations
offered in some of the poems themselves. The nimbleness of thought
and word play necessary to create this construction is an elegant
counterpoint to the weight and sheer sadness of a love affair gone
Another way that Mr. Kendall's work stands apart from many other hypertext pieces we've seen is that he has taken the time to make sure that what may appear to be random choices can alter the plot line progression of the piece itself. Hypertext has always been touted as a means to give the reader more control over the development of what he/she is reading -- but often the choices offered give little clue to what will happen to the piece if they are made. Here, it's rather clear that choosing to add 'another man' or change the tonal characteristics of the setting from blue to black is going to alter the emotional content of the piece. And we encountered very few loops -- the real bane of hypertext construction, when readers find themselves caught in the same poems over and over again.
Thus Kendall gives us a piece that shifts perception on many levels -- one by supplying sentences in timed fragments that often do not continue the orginal thought in a way our mind circuitry might think they would -- another through the multidimensional aspect provided by layers of emotion, plot additions, and our own choices. We wonder what a vegetarian would make of this dining experience? Or someone who never orders dessert? We don't suppose it's possible to run out without paying the check ....
Perihelion Verbatim: At what point did you first perceive that hypertext might
be a good medium for your poetry? What benefits do you gain by the marriage of poetry with hypertext?
Robert Kendall: I first started putting poetry and computers together around 1990. I began
experimenting with animation and multimedia software in an effort to turn
written poetry into an on-screen visual performance. I was also very
interested in exploring the archetypes of mass media and popular culture
through poetry. I think there's a Cultural Unconscious waiting to be tapped
through those archetypes. What better way to get at it than by actually
incorporating the poetry itself into that great primal archetype of our
culture, the TV/computer screen?
The more I worked with computers, the more fascinated I became with the
potential of electronic text. Computers and poetry were two of my biggest
loves, and I guess I wanted a menage a trois. Interactivity is at the heart
of computing, and this soon became the most seductive element for me. The
more I thought about interactive software and poetry, the more closely
related they seemed, since both were surrogates, of a sort, for thought
processes and memory. So I set out to find ways in which the computer could
enhance the understanding of our mental lives that we achieve through
poetry. I designed A Life Set for Two so that the nonlinear presentation
of material would emulate the random access nature of memory. Reading the
poem is meant to evoke the nonlinear, associative processes of reminiscence.
The reader can explore the effects of different states of mind, different
juxtapositions of thoughts, and so on.
So I felt that hypertext let me build a window into some of the actual
processes underlying emotional ambivalence and inner conflict, rather than
just presenting the finished products of such inner activity. An unexpected
benefit was that it allowed my poetry to really broaden out. My linear poems
intended for print tended to be very directed and self-contained and usually
not more than a page or two in length. When I worked with hypertext,
however, the text began to grow organically in many different directions at
once. Every stanza became a seed bed for many other stanzas. I could explore
many different variations of a single idea. I set out to write a relatively
short poem and ended up with one of book length, just as a natural outgrowth
of the medium.
A Life Set for Two seems to operate on a very human level, quite
different from the conceptual/intelli-speak utilized by some hypertext
writers. Is this typical of your work or an evolution?
When I began A Life, I made a conscious decision to focus the work on very
human elements and to give it as much emotional depth as possible. I wanted
to prove that computer-based writing wasn't incompatible with deeply human
expression. A number of people have noted that this work is more direct and
less cerebral than many of the poems in my previous printed book, A
Wandering City. Postmodern writers often tend to work against their medium,
and I think to some extent I was working against the perceived coldness and
impersonality of the computer.
How much does the viewer's first choice in menu selection ordain the
ending of the poem as a whole? His/her subsequent choices?
There are a number of different alternative endings for the poem. Once you
get a certain ways into the poem, you can choose to end it, and the program
decides which ending to give you. The choices you make at the beginning of
the poem don't have any direct effect on the ending. It's the choices you
make when you read the last five or six nodes (text sections) that will
determine how the poem ends. The reader can shift the poem through different
moods and can engage or disengage particular themes, and this affects the
ending. The node that you're currently reading when you decide to end also
influences the ending to some degree.
You have said about your piece, ALSFT, that it makes use of an "unusual
system of dynamic hypertext in an effort to make the interface more
immediately and transparently responsive to the reader's needs..." How
you go about judging the reader's needs when you set out on a project
this? Does the hypertext medium call for you to think more about your
reader than if you were working in a more conventional medium?
Hypertext does make me think more about the reader, in the sense that there
is a more complex set of responses I have to take into consideration. With a
printed poem, I have to consider how the reader will respond to my words and
the way they are laid out on the page. With a hypertext, the reader reacts
not only to the words themselves, but also to the interactive choices that
are available and to the interface that presents those choices. It's much
harder to predict how people will respond to the interactive elements. Any
given point in a reading represents the cumulative results of all the
reader's interactions up to that point. To really gauge what a reader is
likely to be thinking or is likely to want to do there, I need to know a lot
about what has transpired between the reader and the poem up to that point.
Obviously a tall order.
To figure out how readers will probably negotiate one of my hypertexts, the
first thing I do is read through it myself many times, choosing a different
route each time, trying to put myself in the shoes of as many different
types of readers as I can. Then I give it to other people and ask for
feedback, or where possible watch over their shoulders as they read. After
working with hypertext for a long time, you develop a sense for what readers
are likely to want in their interactions and you learn how to accommodate
(or play with) these desires. You also learn how to anticipate likely
reading patterns. This isn't enough, though. I make my software aware of
where the reader has been in the poem. The program then tries to use this
information to make sure that the choices presented to the reader are as
meaningful as possible.
A Life Set for Two, clearly inhabits the realm of figurative
language. But can the term figurative be applied to other aspects of
piece as well as for instance, the programming?
Yes, I think that writing program code is a type of figurative writing. I
wrote the program for A Life myself in Visual BASIC, and as I was doing
the programming I was struck by the similarity of the process to writing
poetry. Computer programs are highly metaphorical on many different levels.
On the highest level, the software interface is loaded with symbols and
icons. On the lower levels, under the hood, we use the names of functions
and variables to represent all sorts of complex procedures and behaviors.
It's the same voodoo the poet uses, really. The words of a poem conjure up
all sorts of images and emotions in the reader's brain. The lines of code in
the program conjure up the illusion of things and places and behaviors there
on the computer screen, which in reality is just a bunch of phosphors
illuminated by cathode rays. A lot of artistry has to go into the
programming itself to make the illusion work -- the illusion that the
computer is really creating a consistent little world for the reader to
enter. The software designer has to avoid breaking the spell just as much as
As you wrote your own code for A Life Set for Two, was there a parallel
in the construction of the code to the construction of the lines and
stanzas within the verse? Is this a chicken and the egg question? Did
one come first -- or did they influence each other?
The programming and the writing of the text went hand-in-hand and influenced
one another greatly. In everything I wrote I had an eye toward how I wanted
readers to be able to manipulate the material. As I conceived new variable
elements I had to come up with ways of implementing them in the program.
Then as I wrote the program code I discovered that some ideas for
interaction were prohibitively difficult to realize and I had to give up on
them. Conversely, some of the capabilities I built into my program sparked
new ideas in the poetry. The programming and the writing were particularly
closely integrated in creating the movement of the text. All of the text in
the poem is kinetic -- the lines slide onto the screen in various ways. I
envisioned particular ways in which I wanted the text to move and then wrote
the code to achieve this. When I actually saw the text moving around on the
screen, however, things often looked different than they appeared in my
mind's eye. I found myself constantly adjusting the layout and the wording of the text
to accommodate the kinetic affects that were possible. It's
sort of like writing music for a specific instrument. You have to take the
peculiarities of the instrument into account as you compose -- but in my
case, I was building the instrument at the same time I was composing the
music for it.
Are you at all concerned that some readers might be turned off or cut
from your work, due to the "prerequisites" it requires -- a certain kind
of hardware and basic operating knowledge -- or are you more focused on
new innovations in technology that will reduce the possible barriers?
The technical barriers are always a big concern and I do whatever I can to
smooth them over for readers. I tried hard to minimize the hardware
requirements and make the poem's interface as transparent and
self-explanatory as possible.
I wish A Life would run on a Mac, but there's no viable way to port a
Visual BASIC program over to that platform. If I had used a cross-platform
authoring system, which would have let the poem run on both Mac and Windows,
I would have had to sacrifice of lot of functionality. I had to make a
trade-off, reducing the accessibility of the poem in order not to compromise
my artistic goals.
It's frustrating, of course, that some people can't read the poem simply
because they don't have a computer, or the right kind of computer. But then
this problem will eventually disappear. To put it in perspective, consider
that at one time the percentage of the European population that knew how to
read was probably much smaller than the percentage of Americans who
currently own computers.
design a piece like this which would be viewable on the Internet?
In my latest hypertext -- a poem called "Dispossession," which will be
replicate some of the dynamic hypertext elements found in A Life. The
program tracks the reader's progress and makes changes to individual nodes
depending upon what the reader has read. There are limits to what you can do
Life in Java, perhaps with some help from Dynamic HTML or ShockWave. Java
is still pretty unstable, though, so I'm not sure it would be a very
practical vehicle for something so complex. Eventually, of course, we will
be able to do just about anything on the Internet. Then things will get
What does interactivity mean for poetry? Do you believe introducing
interactivity into poetry helps strengthen the poet's vision? Does it
clarify or mystify his/her intent?
I think of poetry as a lens that lets us see in a new way. It may let us see
things more clearly or glimpse otherwise inaccessible regions. It can reveal
things we didn't know were there or put what we thought we knew into a
different focus. Interactivity definitely extends the range of the lens in
ways that were never before possible. For one thing, it lets us view
processes from the inside, from the viewpoint of active participants.
Interactivity can bring one closer to the actual unfolding of experience or
thought or feeling. It also makes us more aware of the processes of reading
that we take for granted -- the processes of shaping meaning -- so the lens
can become a mirror that language holds up to itself.
Interactive poetry gives us a more accurate bead on the multiplicity of
life. All the seemingly contradictory or incompatible elements of a
situation or subject can be equally represented in a hypertext in a way
that's impossible with linear work. Hypertext extends the metaphorical range
of the poem as well. Images can be juxtaposed much more freely in a
nonlinear text, since the same passage can effectively be in several
different textual places at once. This can bring out relationships that
would lie dormant in print. Of course, this doesn't mean that all poetry
would be appropriate for hypertextual treatment. But hypertext is a door
into rich territory for those who wish to enter.
What are you working on now? In what new directions is your work
Currently I'm focusing on the Web -- mostly miscellaneous shorter pieces
that experiment with different interactive techniques. These include a set
of hypertexts called "The Seasons," of which "Dispossession" (mentioned
above) will be the first installment. I'm developing dynamic hypertext
techniques that will make the poems more responsive to the reader -- make
them pay better attention to what the reader is doing so they can respond
more "intelligently." I'm also interested in breaking the rules of
hypertext -- disrupting some of the conventions that have already arisen in
the new medium.
I've been having some trouble with repetitive strain injury, which has
forced me to limit my time at the computer. During my "down time" I've gone
back to writing poems for print. It's sort of nice to get away from the
computer completely once and while. Just me and my pencil -- sort of like a
camping trip that lets you get back to nature. But it's funny -- sometimes
when I'm alone with my pad and pencil, I just can't get a poem to work on
the page, and I have to take it to the computer and put it into hypertext.
It seems that the digital muse has forever altered the literary wiring of my
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