Poets embrace multimedia form

CD-ROM: Graphics, sound, even hyperlinks are part of Loyola poets' brave new world.

June 21, 1999|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

As a graphic designer who gravitated toward computerized design in the early 1980s, Diana Samet has put much thought into the infinite and intriguing possibilities of the "multimedia world of nonlinear thinking."

It was only a matter of time before electronic books that made use of this technology became commonplace, Samet realized. She also thought that poetry, rich in imagery, would lend itself nicely to these tools. So, "why not do a book with my friends, the poets?" Samet thought.

The poets, four of Samet's colleagues in the department of writing and media at Baltimore's Loyola College, responded differently to her proposal when she presented it more than a year ago.

Christine Higgins, for one, eagerly accepted the challenge.

The idea -- to create a CD-ROM that explored poetic concepts through sound, hypertext, graphics, text and animation -- appealed to Higgins. The Loyola and Johns Hopkins University instructor had no qualms about subjecting her poetry, often intimate meditations prompted by memories, to high-tech wizardry.

She had recently read an essay about Emily Dickinson in Salon, the online literary magazine, and found the illustration -- a simple portrait of the poet -- to be static and uninspiring, com- pared to the animated motifs Samet had demonstrated with a software program called Macromedia Director.

Through the electronic activation and illumination of poetry, Higgins saw a wonderful opportunity to "look at things in layers and to be stimulated visually."

Higgins' colleague, poet Lia Purpura, was not as sanguine about Samet's proposal. An award-winning poet and essayist who writes with pencil and pad, she feared that a poem, once removed from the page, would become sullied by special effects and over-analysis. "I was actually the one most resistant to doing this project," Purpura says. "I [didn't] feel particularly comfortable [creating] a kind of `how to' primer on poetry."

But Samet, Higgins and Purpura, as well as poets Jane Satterfield and Ned Balbo, also members of Loyola's department of writing and media, worked through their differences at occasionally "bumpy" meetings.

At first, Samet, who had purchased the necessary software through a Loyola Humanities Center grant, had envisioned a text that demonstrated how a poet could write with software capabilities in mind, composing a poem that shimmied, changed shape, or employed sound effects. She first looked upon the group foray as a way to "maybe open [the writers] to further possibilities that's where we're going to move."

Teacher's aid

As a teacher, Samet was also concerned with engaging students, for whose attention she vied with computer and video games. These students are "perhaps learning in a different way and you have to engage them in a different way."

At the same time, Samet reassured the poets that she had no intention of replacing traditional writing methods with cyber sorcery. "I was suggesting that this is just another genre," Samet says. It didn't mean "books are going to fade away and die. I love books. When I'm not on the computer, I am reading a book. But you have to look at this as an opportunity for another way of teaching."

The writers were not ready to relinquish their singular way of working. "I pulled back," Samet says, "more due to them than me."

What emerged was "Installations & Conversations," an electronic book that suited each member of the project while providing a multi-dimensional look at how poetry is created.

In the book, the "reader is given a great deal of power at the click of the mouse to range among the words in the poem and to range among the different poets more confidently and independently, and even playfully," Balbo says.

Using Macromedia Director, Samet incorporated visual motifs for each poem. Higgins' "The Cottage," for example, is illustrated by a rowboat and conch shells (which denote hyperlinks to words in her poem.)

The hyperlinks allow students to further explore the underlying intentions and history of each poem, as well as why the writer decided to take a poem in a certain direction. For instance, by hyperlinking the word "memory" in his poem "Apollo," a recollection of the moon landing, Balbo is able to elaborate on the notion of meter, both as a mnemonic device and as a rhythmic constant pleasing to the ear.

In Satterfield's "Late Letter, Tidmarsh Mill, 19--," a poem written in the voice of artist Dora Carrington, the word "letter" is linked to the author's thoughts on all letters penned by women: " sometimes letters are written by women in place of literature, other times they're an accompaniment, a way of sketching out plans for future work, fulfilling a domestic need while reassuring themselves they had a voice and a craft."

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