Colloquy and Intergrams: Two Interactive Prosodies

Richard Gess

In "Blood on the Cutting Room Floor" Charles Bernstein posits a poetics of reanimation, of "knitting together pieces of deanimated flesh until, like the monster in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, they [come] alive." This is easier to achieve with safe modern alternating current. The Monster's animation and a printed poem's are both virtual. Gene Wilder can dance with the monster and we can dance reading a poem, too; but we can't teach the poem on the page to follow, something conceivable for Peter Boyle and easy for Commander Data. When the Baron's lightning is stepped down into the wall socket and out again tempered through microchips it can make prosody into choreography, reader and poem partnered following each other. Jim Rosenberg's Intergrams is a finished poem-partner, one realization (see the disks in this magazine for others) of Bernstein's stand "that poetry is a technology that makes...a flesh made of words." Judith Kerman and Robert Chiles' Colloquy is a system for creating these creatures. In a time when the hypertext dominant's reanimating potential has mostly been defined in narratology, Rosenberg and Kerman make paths towards a diverse interactive poetics, acting in resistance to a second stepchilding of poetry. For those holding hope for electronic writing as a place of starting over, Kerman/Chiles' and Rosenberg's work is evidence.

Colloquy: Moviola Variations

The constructions possible with Kerman and Chiles' Colloquy qualify as hypertexts akin to those in Storyspace or Hypercard. The opening screen of a poem built in Colloquy shows its title, its author's name, its opening lines, and a question-mark prompt. Here you type any word from the poem so far (or its title) and the next stanza, defined by the authors as any number of lines between prompts, comes onscreen to meet the first. This play can go on as long as you like; "the 'complete poem' consists of all possible versions, and exists only as a potential [Kerman]." Colloquy generates poems from their own concordances. Rosenberg writes in "Openings: The Connection Direct" that "a vocabulary 'composed small' will induce repetition in the works composed from it in a way which is musical but not overt." This is the way Colloquy is performed by Kerman herself. Kerman understands the permitted/forbiddens decreed by her program (and decreed in turn by the laws of MS/DOS) as a verse form, a code like that of a sestina or a Dream Song. She adds extra limits for herself; the poems serving as Colloquy demos have all their words on one screen and each word linked to no more than two other choices of stanzas. This makes poems out of small sets of components built from a small set of words; the ensuing mixing and repetition can have the effect of birdsong or other nonhuman languages where a handful of sounds are recombined to cover a variety of contingencies. As the statement of the poem, like a single speech of a bird, is a delimited statement--nothing needing more or different lines to say is said--the reader's reshufflings become prismatic reexaminations of the same few moments recorded or things seen and felt, with (ideally) all meanings called on. The "complete poem" of Kerman's is a variorum, a collection of heteronymic poems. Two versions of Kerman's "Chiaroscuro:"

In winter
the black trees shiver.
chiaroscuro, white and black
of snow.
winter snowfield's 
blinding sheet
glares with brittle light
black glares
against the shattered rainbow
of the snow
black trees
cut out against
the blinding white of snowfield
shiver, trees against sundazzle,
sharp as shattered glass -
my eyelashes, my tears.
In winter
the black trees shiver.
trees gleam;
the blinding rainbow glares
with edges of light.
snowfield dazzles me
sharp as tears.
gleam at the edge of black trees
cut out of light and snowfield,
black glares
against the shattered rainbow
of the snow
edges sharp as
rainbow, brittle as light.
blinding me, the sun
the shiver of sun on snow
dances in my eyes.

Each underlined word was chosen at a question-mark prompt and marks a stanza. The variants are heteronymic in that they both describe the same compact illumination, black trees on blinding snow seen through tears. Each stanza is an angle of view, each choice the reader makes is an edit. Interacting with Colloquy in Kerman's style is cutting poems down from raw footage, Moviola work, similar to traditional film montage in the way it's circumscribed: the footage for "Chiaroscuro" will not include snippets from "The Windhover." Kerman's radical notion is to deny the final cut. Each reading shakes around trees, snow, and tears, repetitions slowing the moment until it opens for us to fall into; when we reread and begin to accumulate variants, all the same poem and all different, the time in the poem seems to stop, its measure changing from duration to depth. It stops having a beginning or any end; the bottom of the screen breaks our fall but choosing to reread we fall through it and further in.

Making sets of stanzas that lock up seamlessly, like Legos, in any combination is a lofty rigor. "In principle [this from the manual], every word must call up a stanza, so there is an incentive to limit the set of words; an optimum length appears to be between 48 and 100 words." Although in Colloquy the reader is responsible for building the poem, the results can still sound computer-written, with the sprung and loopy feeling of paragraphs from Racter or other programs that, like Colloquy, generate writings from limited preloaded vocabularies. What could we make with Colloquy if we set aside its inventors' particular esthetic of restrictions? If choosing a word brought up a stanza that didn't contain that word and had no apparent resonance from it? If choosing another word brought up one of the 80 Flowers or a clip from the Times of India or a prose description of a tricolor Rothko (choose a color at the prompt for three different next stops)? What if we--a group of collaborators--patiently entered a 2000-word vocabulary, linked each word to two or three stanzas, and maintained the 17-line default length for each variant? Colloquy's potential is very large.

Intergrams: Mystery Syntax

Jim Rosenberg ("Openings: The Connection Direct): "Hypertext does not go nearly far enough. The non-linearity should be extended all the way down into the fine structure of language. Syntax itself can operate through the same kinds of operations as the hypertext link." Rosenberg's realization of this statement of principle is his Intergrams, a dense and formidable HyperCard stack whose project seems to be nothing less than the creation of an alternative language. The words are taken from English, but an English word in Intergrams cannot be read as its usual self. All meaning here is a function of a multiple syntax derived from the shifting sums of its layers. In a individual Intergram (Intergrams is a set of nine poems which may interrelate subliminally) this is achieved in three processes: individual "phrases" (verses or stanzas) in a disrupted syntax:

a found verse
with no more fugitive side path
through the song membrane
than the burying zeal
for toning up the stagger that reads
star distortion as some kind of radiance
stacked 4 deep in card-within-a-card spaces, presenting as overwriting, disembedded by slowly sliding the HyperCard finger beneath them to pop up the individual phrases; so we have to read the single phrase above as the second from the left per the cursor, part of the carpet made overwriting it with three other phrases:

such callow eyes infinitesimally disfigured
for knowing how the stoop caller
got his laughing manikin disease
from the amputation of a dangerously visible grief [1st from left]

the great informing peril glide to the mind feast
holds its resonance intensity to absolute rehearsal
one initiation short of driving
a single eclipse lens through the slotted pastime
at the point reserved for proving the calling flame
walks joyfully to its crime [3rd from left]

every last eruption of the wrung exchange
classically warping the borrowed frail groan skeleton
to how the song names its bent gravel life
claims a false flashy station armature
for the ringing mad sign language of drowning out
the head tossing useful parts of childishness [4th from left]
Rosenberg calls the resulting palimpsests "word clusters," and says they are "meant to be read as the juxtaposition of all of [their] phrases." Each word cluster is also a part of a grammatical diagram, linked with other clusters (including nested clusters-within clusters) by connecting bars locked together with symbols that stand as analog verbs and adjectives (not words that are those parts of speech but those kinds of parts of speech): graphic sentences (see illustration).

Intergrams' romance is with an ideal syntax, a kind of mathematical grammar, language understood at grammar's base of swappable terms in the equations of sentences. The gnomic verses won't yield without a reading of their cluster, and the clusters can only be read in a reading of the linked complex of clusters. In terms of the regulations governing a sentence in this essay, Intergrams is unknowable. It is a mystery, in the sense of a religious mystery; like illustrations of the Trinity in catechisms, Intergrams' diagrams are visualizations of unrepresentable things. The triune Godhead and the meaning of a word are both matters of belief; Intergrams is read by believing in it, in having faith that the words frail groan skeleton in one phrase define, and are defined by, the words predator totem emptied constellation a linking bar, a verb symbol, another bar, two cards, a verb symbol, another bar, and three phrases away. Taken as mystery, believed in, Intergrams opens out under the reader in a vertiginous efflorescence. It speaks in new tongues, each word--here is the computer's spark--in motion, physically and metaphysically.

Works consulted

Racter. The Policeman's Beard is Half-Constructed: Computer Prose and Poetry. New York: Warner Software/Warner Books, 1984.

Bernstein, Charles. "Blood on the Cutting Room Floor." In: Content's Dream: Essays 1975-1984. Los Angeles: Sun and Moon Press, 1986. 351-362.

Chiles, Robert, and Judith Kerman. "Colloquy, the Interactive Poem Authoring System." Draft software manual, 1991.

Kerman, Judith. "An Introduction to Interactive Poetry and Colloquy: the Interactive Poem Authoring System." Prospectus for software, 1989.

Rosenberg, Jim. Intergrams. HyperCard stack, 1988 [Introduction]

Rosenberg, Jim. "Openings: the Connection Direct." Unpublished essay, 1991.

For Colloquy information write:
Judith Kerman
PO Box 5473
Saginaw MI  48603-0473

For Intergrams information write:
Jim Rosenberg
RD #1 Box 236
Grindstone PA  15442