V: X

Don’t look this up it may lead to spoilers to the best show ever (Twin Peaks).

Jessica Barnes’ work here is pretty cool in that it, in itself within this Electronic Literature collection that we are diving into throughout this course, is a compilation itself. There is something very inviting about diving into letters written by people that we don’t know. There really are no stakes to be had in doing so, not like the personal truths and self-world building that may arise in reading, say, your parents, lovers, or best friends private letters. Perhaps they will write some juicy tidbit on our mutual friend Terry,  or they will reveal some secret hobby that they have, or better yet, maybe they will have something bad to write about… me! In this case reading letters has stakes, it has consequences, but in Letters to X, the consequences are not directly related to our own individual journey’s.

Impactful, though, they are. And a great deal of them are wonderfully and sincerely written. Which makes the option to fill in certain blanks throughout FEEL as if there were consequences. As if I were defiling a strangers work, while though (I’m keeping kayfabe here for anyone who has been following all of my professional wrestling musings) they may not ever come into contact with me, there is still a tangible influence in how I serve to a tiny moment within this world, within this existence, as I can play a hand in a creation of another.

It is a fun little gimmick, that would be just so if these were some silly letters, the kinds that my friends and I would pass around in school to confuse someone – completely void of sincerity or truthfulness. What also really intrigues me is that some of the letters cannot be altered as a means of reminding us that though our actions will always be done, their traces can cease to remain.

Letters to X and forgotten nights

Letters to X. vol/1, an e-lit piece by Jessica Barnes, is sort of a digital adaptation of a handful of written letters. The author’s statement explains that she asked friends to handwrite letters to ‘x’ (the recipient could be whoever they wanted) on a subject they would not typically post online. The letters were then used for the e-literature piece, with names and certain other words redacted out, available in their original forms and in editable templates in a “mad-libs” style. The templates can be filled in and edited completely, can be dragged around the screen, overlaid with each other and with the original scans of the letters, and saved to your computer or printed. It is interacted with primarily by clicking, typing, and dragging.

The piece is, according to the author’s statement, meant to make the reader think about social media, but that’s not really what I was thinking about as I explored the piece. Instead, I was thinking about how fun writing letters is, even though I rarely do so, and how I’d love to do it more. Now that everything is digitized and it’s so easy to quickly text, call, email, or DM, there’s something special about sending and receiving a letter. It’s an indication that someone really took the extra time to communicate with you, that they wanted to send you something special. When my girlfriend was still in undergrad in Savannah, Georgia, we would sometimes write each other letters. It’s not like we didn’t text every day and call frequently, but the letters were fun and special.

Because each letter is fully customizable in this e-lit piece, not just the blank spaces, it really presents some unique opportunities for storytelling. You can get an idea from a letter template, fill it in, and then switch around and change whatever words you want in order to create a new meaning. You can turn the letters into anything you want, giving you limitless possibilities even with only 16 templates. This, then, is where it becomes literary, at least to my mind, because it allows you to create stories, and/or to imagine what stories the original letters told prior to being redacted. I had fun with the piece, using some letter templates to get out thoughts in my head and to tell some tiny stories. One of the letters even reminded me of the character Snufkin from The Moomins, so I filled it in and edited it to reflect that further!

forgotten nights by Peter Hebden is one of the pieces that I began to explore on my own while I was trying to pick a piece to focus on for my presentation. I cannot express enough how much I love this piece. It is an audio poem that you can alter by adding or removing stars from the night sky by clicking. The interface is simple, really. Click around on the sky to add stars where available. Hover over the moon to reveal a play button, then click it to hear a version of the poem read aloud.

The poem is not randomly generated, with each change you make to the night sky changing one or more lines of poetry. It may be tempting to think that selecting every star will reveal one final, “true” poem, but there are so many stars available to click that it would be difficult to reveal them all, not to mention that that’s not the point. Now that we’ve seen more and more examples of e-lit and hopefully gotten more comfortable with the idea that there’s no single, correct meaning to be found in these pieces, I think that forgotten nights is a beautiful exploration of poetry and of user-driven change within a piece. To really experience forgotten nights, I think it is essential that you play around with it multiple times, seeing how additions and subtractions in the night sky alter the poem being read.

In a way, I think that the unique story that gets told depending on the different number of stars in the sky reflects how each human being has a different experience with the night sky. One rendition of the poem states that the narrators father taught them to look up to the stars when they have questions. Another rendition speaks of a person who enjoys laying in the grass in the dark, looking up whenver they have questions. One person was taught about the stars by their father. One came across them more organically, seeking an answer in the sky. It makes me think about how everyone has a different relationship with the stars and the night sky. Some people are enraptured by it, others hardly notice it, and many of us fall somewhere in between. There’s no doubt, though, that stars have captured human attention for ages; just look at all the constellation myths we have.