Tag Archives: Catherine Woodward

Highlights and best bits from the Twitter fiction festival according to Bad Robot

 

Now that the day job has released me into this lovely holly bowered cafe I can finally recap on the Twitter Fiction Festival which I’d been so excited about over the last couple of weeks.

There were a few total crackers and a number of disappointments. First off, my favourite segment of the festival was Lauren Beuke’s literary mashup, the untimely sadly missed a treat. Lauren took suggestions for literary mashups, chose three per session and Tweeted on the theme. (Session #1 can be read here) Some of the most enjoyable including My Little Pony gritty detective drama and Poe vs Dr Suess.

Not only did Lauren emerge with some very creative and captivating flash fiction and serialisations, but her account was inundated with the writing of other tweeters, suggestion after suggestion and examples of those suggestions: Casablanca Lovecraft and Last Exit To Sesame Street, Muppet Prison Drama, Cold War Fairy Tale. Lauren gets points for audience involvement; the social aspect of Twitter was well used to create a community driven creative event which will no doubt expand beyond the bounds of its organised time slot. Lauren’s piece is a living literary fabric to which no book can compare. All those involved in the piece also get points for meta. If to name is to give being (as with the meta narrative of hash tags themselves) then all those as unyet realised suggestions are floating about on Twitter, referring to themselves without an actual referent. I find the thought pleasing. If anything embodied the festival concept it was this piece, being a live conflagration of ugly and inexorable creativity. The collected tweets just don’t capture the electricity of the live event but any of the #litmash ideas can be picked up and continued at any time, improved or added to.

Many of the pieces were, as expected, just your usual story broken up into tweet sized chunks with some irritating conceit thrown in to justify their dissemination on Twitter. Which doesn’t constitute Twitter literature to me as it has only used the 140 characters limit which can exist entirely independent of Twitter. Worse still when the tweets just occur one after the other with no sense of breaking up, no serialisation in individual tweets, no live development or audience interaction. This barely develops from the classic book but it thinks it does. Having said that, of the stories which fell into this category some were much better than others and I want to share them because as stories they’re bloody worth reading.

My favourite was the autobiography of Ulysses McGraw, the 19th century gentleman frozen and defrosted in modern times to tweet his tale (there’s the conceit). The autobiography of Ulysses McGraw comes courtesy of Brian O’Connor writing from South Korea and apparently existed before the festival, in instalments from @UlyssesMcGraw. The story is extremely well written, the 140 character limit informing the diction of Ulysses into a taciturn, cultivated and patiently exciting narrator. Narrative tweets are interspersed with definitions from the mouth of Ulysses embracing the Kunderan principle of a personal dictionary, these were enlightened and thought provoking. Reading it made me feel as though the long lost American version of my soul was being coaxed out of its shell like a history laden and regrettable snail. If that image may hold together for longer than a second. The best of these –  ‘Fiction: a series of lies which tell the truth’ which seemed to capture the essence of much of the ‘Twitter fiction’ on at the festival. In fact, many of the tweets, isolated, are in themselves poetically interesting, especially viewed in the context of a life and the memory “Yes, for biscuits.” And many constitute astute observations on the world without pithiness “Small wonder, I suppose. Men have misjudged the size of greater disasters, because of the small-sized newsprint they are announced in.” Anyway I’m trying to say that it’s a bloody excellent story and you’ll enjoy it immensely so please read it if you have time.

 

Of a similar kind were Anatomy of a Break Up by @AlinaSimone (which you can read in full here) and Ifeoluwapo Odedere’s (@hypoxia13) satire in the style of the King James Bible. The latter was amusing for a while before it came boring in style wherein the importance of its subject was sabotaged and ultimately betrayed and the former was better, a more enjoyable style and punctuated with art by the writer herself. That said with handles and links the former story gets interesting in places. Both worth reading but nothing to get particularly excited about.

 

At this point I’d like to say that I wish I could comment on any of the foreign language pieces, of which there were many. But sadly I’m a poor excuse for a human being or robot and I can only speak one language, something which I’m currently trying to change. I was greatly impressed however, by the fact that there were so many foreign language pieces involved in the festival (although it was mainly Franco-centric). I’d have been fairly underwhelmed if Twitter decided to limit such a push for the arts to Anglo only and limited the whole damn thing. As it is it nodded to the search for a universal literature, it included those who could read it, providing greater depth, and was an experiment in the alienage of the internet in literature for those who could not. Which is to say, I approve.

The most interesting of these stories in my opinion was the crime drama by @eliottholt (readable here). Three character accounts were created, tweeting from the same fictional event, action occurring in the triangulation of the tweets. This was interesting as a critique of what we tweet and why and an excellent experiment in characterisation through the Twitter medium. Extremely engaging with only occasional breaks in the suspension of disbelief. I recommend reading it to reignite any lost hope you might have in actual and effective experimentation with digital media.

@lucycoats summarised 100 Greek myths in a 100 tweets. Which I thought was wonderfully creative, but Hector Tobar from the LA Times missed the point completely. To quote his blog post ‘Lucy Coats “Telling stories in 140 characters has proved an intellectual challenge for me, as well as stretching my writing skills….” Actually, I think that “squeezing” rather than “stretching” is the proper analogy, Ms. Coats.’ The ‘Miss Coats’ addition makes me shudder as I’d shudder at the touch of a creepy uncle, and Hector’s mistake ‘A Greek myth in 100 tweets’ makes me want to thump my head on the table with wounded reflected pride. Someone ought to remind this guy that, like Paul Legault’s English to English Translation of Emily Dickinson, a work like this is a concentrated labour of love, and that like any work of the Oulipo, it is more creative and difficult then any of the usual mechanical, habitual operations that we tend to call creative writing. Clearly the usual literature crowd has a long way to go.

 

In  #WLRNStory a line was initially tweeted and added to by various tweeters, a classic parlour game conducted through Twitter and what better use for it. The experiment was particularly interesting when remixed by @dw_toy who was thankfully active  through the whole festival. Follow the link, read and enjoy. If there is only one DW Toy and this is the DW Toy I’m thinking of, then DW Toy is the author of this excellent free ebook which is a must read for any delicate soul trapped in a capitalist world (which is to say, I love this book) DW Toy made a wonderful contribution to the festival hashtagging in his Missed Connections series, readable on his Twitter account. The time signatures capture the real time immediacy of Twitter, the meta dimension of tweets and ground the story. I’d say that Toy’s #Twitterfiction belongs to the class of broken up pieces of story which are excellent none the less and a must read.

 

To end on a lower note, I was annoyed by the time restrictions on each piece. Each was scheduled, as though this were IRL and not the internet, as though we didn’t have a vast and immediate archival capacity. This stifled the real time and disorientating elements that I thought would make Twitter Literature truly adventurous and dynamic and which Exeunt criticised as ‘frustrating’. Oh well, it made it easier to follow, to be fair. But I personally would have relished the individual-lead exploration, the conjunction of random elements and personalised, interrupted interaction with literary pieces that a continuous, simultaneous feed would have given. Perhaps someone did propose that at the Twitter board meeting months ago, but I’m not surprised that it was shut down immediately, it’s not a sensible way to run a festival after all.

 

A more interesting and conceptual recap of the festival is available here from the undeniable Exeunt magazine.

 

Tagged , , , , , ,

Reading Alt Lit: Oblivion and/or Total Communication – A small(ish) Essay by Catherine Woodward

A little while ago Steve Roggenbuck posted an email from a hater, just one of many he frequently receives I’m sure. Thinking back to it I’m compelled to explain why haters are wrong about Steve and many of the writers associated with the kind of poetry Steve writes, but as that would require a thesis I’m going to cover it a little bit in brief.

Where haters go wrong isn’t a matter of opinion. Opinion is all well and good, no one should read Milton if they’d honestly prefer Charlie Brown, that’s just common sense. The problem with haters is that they don’t know how to read writers like Steve; try forming an opinion on a steak dinner while applying the standards for a soufflé. But it’s not all the hater’s fault, Alt Lit in general seems to project an aura of irreproachability that puts itself beyond literary criticism, which is a misunderstanding of criticism. To critique a work is not to criticise it (judge it negatively), but is more often than not to express a love of the work by engrossing oneself in its heart and soul. With a general lack of criticism it can be hard learning to love Alt Lit.

Anyway, it hardly needs saying that not all Alt Lit is the same; Alt Lit is like The Game, it doesn’t really exist, it’s just a term without content that we invented to have fun and annoy critics with. The literature it’s associated with could be anything and everything and more refers to names and personalities then any consistent generic markers (but of course, as time goes on, we backwards engineer Alt Lit until it’s actually a thing, like The Necronomicon).

As such you can’t read all Alt Lit with the same expectations, obvious really. Where the New Sincerty/New Childishness often drives young writers to sculpt the perfect realistic ‘I’ communicating an authentic message to an equally authentic and realistic ‘you’, in other cases the basis of the poem is not the writing subject, the receiving subject and message but is instead oblivion (which is ecstasy) and/or total communication. If you read a poem of Steve’s looking for authority, identifiable subjects and intended meanings, you’re probably going to have a low opinion of the work. But if you understand what you’re looking at, then you can really begin to enjoy it.

The poetry that we’re interested in here is poetry of indeterminacy. What we are more used to reading is poetry based on authoritative and definitive masculine principles, which frequently manifest as the unique ‘I’ and his unmistakable communication. Bracketed under Alt Lit is writing which refuses this manifestation. Take for example poems based on memes: an instance of mimetic behaviour is not the exclusive creation of the person who used the meme form. Memes are modes of expression, not possessions, any instance of meme contains the absent ‘other’ and there can be no single author. Any instance of mimetic behaviour recalls all other instances of that behaviour and also anticipates future uses. A poem based on meme is ultimately a collaboration, expressing not one meaning but a potentially infinite possibility for meaning, leaving room for and implying a multitude of subjects.

I think back to @Lazzzyandoh’s ‘the letter t in 1000 pt helvetica’ which appeared in IP this summer; it would seem quaint to ask whether a giant letter t was original or authentic, and more redundant still to ask what it itself meant. Who has intellectual rights to the letter t? A writer’s insistence on a predefined range of meaning is the expression of a misguided desire to dominate, why care if anyone ‘gets it’? Who are you? God?

Anyway, a move away from masculine authority and towards indeterminacy generally invokes wider systems and elegant wholes, as in meme. The cultivation of failure is one such move; Steve’s spelling mistakes, mashups of weird, apposite or pointless material are all non-authoritative (how could they be taken as canonical and finalised in the same way we regard the complete Shakespeare?) but after the style of Dada they create a meaningless space where anything becomes acceptable and/or possible. The cultivation of failure implies the possibility of everything whereas a direct communication of meaning implies that only a limited range of meaning is legitimate in the context of the poem.

Even on a stylistic level we can see indeterminacy that refers to huge unities rather than singularities. To see it where ‘I’ and ‘you’ are still present we just have to ask, who are they? For example this poem by Amy Saul-Zerby, which also appeared in IP.

 

 

Who are they? The speaker and addressees alike are not unique, original beings, they recall a triad of prehistoric archetypes, a creation myth or family romance. While unspecific they are all-encompassing. Similarly, who is the you who Steve is constantly kissing in ever more novel ways? You rarely develops through characterisation or is distinguished from any other you, where it is characterised this characterisation is later undermined by you’s future appearances, rendering you indeterminate. This you is not a unique subject but is slipped in where necessary and acts as an interpellation device. All readers alike assume the position of you, the possibilities of you are endless, you does not refer to a single you but a unity of you-ness, of subjectivity.

This kind of thing is much more obvious in Google auto complete poems, where the poem is a result of content producers, searchers, SEO and censorship. In this case we may read a few lines of writing, even in the first person, but these don’t refer to singularities, rather a hive mind, a microcosm which reflects the macrocosm of wider culture. The subject is not a person but the subject of culture.

In these cases the poet obliterates the conventional literary subject, rather than defines it. But this doesn’t result in nothingness; the poem is an experience, not a direct communication, an experience which, in transcending the singular aims toward a connection with a kind of unity or total communication. As an archetype is everybody yet nobody, the oblivion poem represents no one in particular, allowing it to imply the whole.

Instead of expecting an encoded meaning from an authority and placing their potential pleasure upon them both, the reader would do well to accept the poem as an ephemeral playground. You enjoy the instance of the poem and what you get out of it is tantamount to the amount of your own personal thought and experience you put into the reading of it, these poems are the Rorschach tests of the literary world. Reading in this way isn’t difficult or unusual either, this is the way we must approach all the arbitrary, fleeting and mystifying material we encounter on the internet every day, we just don’t tend to apply it to poetry.

I foresee an objection to this style of reading. Whatever will happen to the concept of value? Whatever will happen to the classics? In my opinion this would be a hysterical over reaction. The classics are the great classics, they will look after themselves. What little faith must you have in the classics, or what a high opinion you must have of yourself to believe that the classics need your help to survive? Secondly, just because anything may be accorded any degree of value, doesn’t mean that you have to regard everything equally, is anybody really that weak? Opinions, as I said, are all well and good; no matter what happens, you reserve your right of judgement. But in general, understanding ought to come before judgement, otherwise how would you know what you were missing out on?

I wouldn’t panic over the idea that these oblivion poems are vicious and anarchic attacks on the poetic tradition either (although there is no doubt a certain amount of healthy ribbing going on for the sake of progress), and I wouldn’t dismiss them as worthless because of their methods, that being the kind of complaint that is levelled at Flarf. Aggression may be part of Flarf’s critique, but its critique is valid and critique is not all of Flarf. Anyway, I think the strange stance of these poems ought to be considered in terms of a new optimism prevalent in the work of young writers; the oblivion poem, if not an attempt at transcendence, is the recognition of its possibility and the expression of desire for that transcendence. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this was a religious occurrence but perhaps spiritual, oblivion poems are charged with positivity independent of their semantic or ideographic content and one of its hopes seems to be for mystic union (for want of a  better phrase). It makes me think of speaking in tongues or druidic bardery, there is instantaneous gratification (sometimes) in what is said but the communication isn’t the real joy, it’s the experience of, or knowledge of the attempt to experience, everything.

 

– Catherine Woodward

Tagged , , , , ,