/ The Literary and the Computational: A Conversation with Nick Montfort

Abstract

James J. Brown, Jr., interviews author, programmer, critic Nick Montfort about his work as president of the Electronic Literature Organization and multiple projects including Curveship (an Interactive Fiction authoring tool) and the new volume of the Electronic Literature Collection.

One of my first encounters with Nick Montfort’s work involved plugging this line of Perl code into a terminal window:

perl -le 'sub b{@_=unpack"(A2)*",pop;$_[rand@_]}sub w{" ".b("cococacamamadebapabohamolaburatamihopodito").b("estsnslldsckregspsstedbsnelengkemsattewsntarshnknd")}{$_="\n\nthe".w."\n";$_=w." ".b("attoonnoof").w if$l;s/[au][ae]/a/;print;$l=0if$l++>rand 9;sleep 1;redo}'

I pressed the “Enter” key and watched a poem scroll down my screen. There’s no real way of knowing what my first encounter with “ppg256-1” looked like (each iteration is unique), but it probably looked something like this.

In “ppg256,” Montfort authors a procedure that generates poetry, and this notion of procedural authorship is but one way that digital poetry shifts our various approaches to poetry and literature. Something like “ppg256” is an example of what happens when poetry meets the digital, and Montfort has been one of the major forces in the field of electronic literature. He has authored poetry and interactive fiction (IF), including the award-winning Book and Volume. In addition, his theoretical work in various areas, including IF (Twisty Little Passages, 2003), New Media Studies (The New Media Reader, co-edited with Noah Wardrip-Fruin, 2003), and Platform Studies (Racing the Beam, co-authored with Ian Bogost, 2009), has helped define the various scholarly agendas of new media and electronic literature.

Digital technologies have certainly changed how we think about the vetting, distribution, and publishing of content, and Montfort’s work as president of the Electronic Literature Organization engages with these questions. But in addition to changing how we distribute poetry and literature, the field of digital poetics also allows us to re-imagine poetics itself. From digital poems to video games to IF, digital technologies are opening up new possibilities for artists and poets. Montfort’s work suggests ways to think about digital poetics as we consider issues of distribution and the refiguring of literary practice. My conversation with Montfort proceeds along these two paths as we discuss a range of projects, from Curveship (an IF authoring system that he recently released) to the new volume of the Electronic Literature Collection.


JB: You currently serve as president of the Electronic Literature Organization. What is your vision for the ELO and what kinds of changes have you put in place since taking over?

NM: Over its history of more than a decade, the ELO has developed a clear mission (“to facilitate and promote the writing, publishing, and reading of literature in electronic media”) and several successful projects: a website, an international conference, the Collection, and the Directory. Not only do we have a diversity of projects, but all of them are at least at version or volume 2. We may develop in some new directions over the next few years, but I've mainly been working to help the Organization continue these successes.

JB: The second volume of the Electronic Literature Collection was published in early February. How long was this in the works and what’s the process for publishing something like this?

NM: It was a process of almost three years, from putting together the call for works to releasing the volume. Each of the volumes were edited and produced by a collective of four people—a different four people, because the ELO wanted to include different perspectives. Volume 2 was edited by Laura Borrás Castanyer, Talan Memmott, Rita Raley, and Brian Kim Stefans.

Electronic literature, of course, does not fit into a traditional print book. Putting together a collection of dozens of works, and making it accessible across platforms on optical disc and on the web, is not at all easy. The second editorial collective cast a wider net and decided to include a wider variety of work than we had in the first volume, including documentation of performances and installations. And, they reached out to include work in many more languages. So, it was a difficult task—and one I’m very glad this group took on and accomplished.

JB: If Volume 2 of the ELC casts the net wider, does this signal a changing definition of electronic literature? Or does it signal a broader umbrella under which we can fit other kinds of artifacts (games, interactive fiction, etc.)? In short, what's the function of the category of “electronic literature” these days?

NM: Electronic literature is the intersection of the literary and the computational. The ELO’s short definition of electronic literature has been, for some time, “works with important literary aspects that take advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer.” This includes a program for the Manchester Mark I along with some modern video games that have literary aspects—and many other things in between. It of course includes work in any language.

So, there was no underlying change in what the ELO considers electronic literature as we progressed from Volume 1 to Volume 2. In both cases, the editors were trying to use the available resources to collect and make accessible electronic literary work. The first editorial collective simply didn’t have the ability to assess work in Catalan. We didn’t, of course, think that a piece in Catalan wasn’t electronic literature.

JB: What kind of interaction do you see amongst the various strands of work happening in electronic literature? And what is the role of electronic publication in those various interactions?

NM: Effectively, “electronic literature” works as a “big tent” term that is inclusive of practices such as digital poetry, interactive fiction, and hypertext fiction—among others. It does emphasize the literary, but, as our conferences demonstrate, the ELO is open to other aesthetic practices involving the networked computer and seeks connections with them. Games are not universally literary, but some game makers do have aesthetic concerns that relate to those of e-lit creators. There are opportunities for conversations in many places.

It’s interesting to me that computational poetry generation has been going on in many, many contexts since the 1950s, but there has never, as far as I know, been a conference or festival about poetry generation. The many people who have a poetry generation practice have been dispersed and often unaware of the details of each other’s work. While it would be great to have specific gatherings for practices such as this, it is very good for now to have opportunities at the ELO conference and other conferences for people working at these goals to come, talk with each other, and talk with others who are undertaking related projects. And, it helps to have publications, exhibitions, and other opportunities for these practices to be shown to the public and to further develop, particularly when they enlarge traditional categories or cut across them.

JB: Does the ELO have interest in finding a broader public audience for e-lit? It would seem that the web might offer this possibility, but it also seems that e-lit has yet to find an audience outside of the academy.

NM: The ELO has members and directors who are not academics; e-lit certainly has an audience (and is created by people) outside of the academy. I think the readership of e-lit compares favorably to audiences for other cutting-edge categories of creative work. That said, I and other ELO members would definitely like electronic literature to reach a larger number of readers, to broadly show that the standard e-book is the starting point, not the limit, of what computers can do for literary reading.

JB: You recently published Curveship, a system for authoring interactive fiction. I use the word “published” and not “released” (a word that we would typically use when discussing software) for a specific reason: Curveship is an authored artifact. A project like this opens up all kinds of interesting questions about electronic publishing and digital poetics. I’m wondering if you can talk about how Curveship is different from other systems for authoring interactive fiction and what you think something like Curveship says about the current state of electronic publishing.

NM: Traditional IF systems provide a simulated story world, with characters, locations, and objects. Curveship also allows an author/programmer to control the narrative discourse—the way the story is told—so that one can focalize different characters or tell events out of order.

Curveship (like almost all of the examples of electronic literature in Volumes 1 and 2 of the collection) isn’t usually recognized as being an example of, or related to, electronic publishing.

As I mentioned, Curveship specifically is a platform for creating interactive fiction with narrative variation. The system does some new things, informed by narrative theory, that are meant to provide new literary capabilities. But there are also existing IF platforms (such as Inform 7) and interpreters (such as Parchment) that are polished, solid examples of electronic publishing—a type of publishing that engages computation, not just the display of texts. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and I did discuss such platforms in our pamphlet for e-lit authors, Acid-Free Bits, but it would be good if they were more often considered in the context of electronic publishing.

JB: Can you envision future anthologies or collections that would do for these platforms what something like the ELC has done for e-lit? Or are there other ways to document and preserve such platforms if and when users move on to other platforms?

NM: I’m imagining a project in which editors would preserve 60 platforms rather than collecting 60 e-lit works. The average number of platforms that a “reader” (actually an author, in this case) would use would be very few—probably two or three—as opposed to the much larger number of works that people would be willing to read—30 or so?—in something like the Electronic Literature Collection. And the technical challenge of getting everything working would be tremendous, increasing much more than 60 fold. So, yes, I can envision it—and it seems like a project to be avoided!

Ian Bogost and I are now editing an MIT Press book series, Platform Studies. This invites consideration of individual platforms and how they relate to creativity, literary and otherwise. Without trying to preserve access to platforms ourselves, we are seeking to allow scholars a new space to write about how platforms are a part of culture and of creative work. Efforts like these, and per-platform efforts at porting, emulating, migrating, and documenting, will be important ways to continue to use and understand platforms.

JB: Do you see digital poetry serving a pedagogical purpose? I have taught your “ppg256” series of Perl poems as an example of procedural authorship. You have written the procedures that generate the poems, and this changes how we think about poetry and writing in general. I think something like ppg256 gives people with little background in programming some sense of how to think algorithmically. Is this something you consider? Should this be one of the goals of digital poetry?

NM: I’m glad to hear that you’ve taught pieces from the ppg256 series. Very broadly speaking, I think all excellent poems, and programs, have things to teach us and show us. I suppose a “crossover” piece that engages two domains, such as computation and poetry, does have some special potential to invite students of one topic to explore the other. That being said, and while ppg256 was created to invite engagement and understating, I didn’t have the classroom context specifically in mind.

JB: But I’m also wondering about a broader notion of “pedagogy” here. That is, can digital poetry (or electronic literature, or games) teach the non-programmer about how code works? Can it do this without asking the audience to become a programming expert?

NM: Yes, certainly. Computational art can do this as well; so can games. People benefit from getting involved with computing through channels that particularly interest them. For those who are inclined to enjoy the poetic and imaginative, and to enjoy language, electronic literature generally seems like a great way to go deeper into programming and computation. I hope that’s specifically true of the ppg256 series, too.

JB: I've heard rumblings that you and some others are at work on a collaborative monograph that examines a single line of code. Can you describe this project and how it emerged?

NM: I am indeed heading up a project to have 10 authors write a single-voice academic book about a one-line Commodore 64 BASIC program. It started because I threw this one-liner out for discussion (online) and, thanks to many of my current collaborators, it proved to be very productive of discussion. It seemed that by trying to fully understand this one line we could profoundly inform code studies, a family of approaches that has literary, aesthetic, political, technical, and broad cultural significance.

The form of the book came about because the edited volume format seems to often produce articles that do not relate to or speak to one another. It seemed to me that it would be more interesting to try this rather odd project than it would be to do another standard edited volume. We’re at work now, writing, with some of the book finished and more to do before we have an entire draft manuscript. I don’t know for sure what we’ll come up with, but I do know that we’ve already gone way beyond what I, or any of us working alone, would have written.

JB: A number of your works and collaborations—Twisty Little Passages, Racing the Beam, The New Media Reader—have been published by MIT Press. At a moment when we read and hear about the difficulties facing academic presses, MIT seems to produce beautiful and interesting books. What are your thoughts on how MIT Press has been able to do this? And what thoughts do you have on what the scholarly press of the future will look like?

NM: The MIT Press has a tradition of excellence in design and production, has editors who are forward-looking and willing to take risks, and does a great job of traditional distribution through bookstores and of exploring new models for scholarly communication. The editors are in touch with emerging fields and trends and they are working with authors and reviewers who are part of those.

It seems to me that the production and distribution of books will continue to be part of what the scholarly press of the future does. In some disciplines, print publication is strongly waning; in others (such as architecture), there is actually no digital equivalent of the book at all.

But physical book or no, presses will continue to carry out those functions that they do well and that will still be relevant: conducting peer reviews and passing along the editorial advice of reviewers, offering other high-level editorial advice from the proposal stage on, making publication decisions, copy editing, carrying out production work, and seeing to it that readers (including those who will critically review and assess the published work) know about new publications. I hope presses will also advocate for a better copyright environment in which academics are freer to work and write and that they will help us find models that will support making our work freely available to the public online.


James Brown is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research focuses on digital media, rhetoric, and writing, and he teaches in the UW Digital Studies program. Learn more at his website or follow him on Twitter: @jamesjbrownjr