About four years ago, I was sitting on the corner of Madison and Washington, waiting for the blue route. It was raining and cold, and I had an idea*. I rolled up my sleeve and wrote "thought process=link" on my left arm. I thought I was being original. I had been using the web since about 1994, and it seemed to work in a very organic way, akin to the way my ideas seemed to connect to each other. After doing a bit more research on the subject of cognitive theory (a paper on the book "Descartes' Error" by Antonio Damassio); and a paper on law and freedom of speech on the Internet, for a journalism class, I discovered that the originator of the ideas behind the web, Vannevar Bush, had wanted to create a textual system in tune with the cognitive process.
So, of course, my idea wasn't original. But I continued to be intrigued by the possibility of a system of writing which allowed a person to connect their ideas in a networked fashion. This was only natural, it turned out, because I had been interested in computers and networks since 1984, when I first got to use the original IBM PC and Macintosh computers. Around the same time, perhaps slightly later, in third grade, I wrote my first real poem. It was about the balsam firs at my Grandmother's house in upstate New York. The result of these two continuing passions, computers and poetry, is that I have become split right down the middle, artistically and technologically, as a person.
Shortly after I scrawled my (un)original notions about hypertext and cognitive theory on my arm, actually, later in November at my roommate's birthday party, I took a computerized test to discover where my personality lay. It asked about fifty questions, half on logic and half on aesthetics, each evenly distributed between emotional and reason-based answers. After you've finished, the computer shows a picture of your brain in two dimensions, and moves a dot left or right, front or back, depending on whether you're a scientific, artistic, emotional or rational person. My dot moved about a millimeter left and back of center. Most peoples' dots move much farther than that. So I am stuck in the middle, struggling to make some sense out of this perpetual balancing act. In darker times, I thought of the old saying "Jack of all trades, master of none." This was a depressing notion, and I chose to overcome it. I chose to make this divided mind of mine into my own best ally. As such, I began thinking of ways to make hypertext and the web into powerful tools for self expression.
In combining poetry with hypertext, I felt I could introduce a degree of randomness to my writing, an extra bit of uncertainty on my part and freedom for the reader. This was important, I thought, because in poetry it is necessary for the reader to interpret the text in a new way each time. This is what makes poetry a vital force. I began to publish some of my poetry on my web site, in a fashion quite similar to Beth Houston's Ars Poetica. This was disappointing, mostly because the way I had laid out the poems in relation to each other was very linear. If you look at the web site for the Iowa Review, there are a lot of very interesting ways of arranging the text. Michael Joyce's hyperfiction, "Reach," is one of these. As the reader navigates through the text, she can choose to follow one of three symbols at the bottom of the page, X, &, and < . These are explained by Joyce: "X links cross the span of the now gone storyspace which provided the compositional field. & links move forward in actual compositional time. < links move likewise but backward. Each page has indexical links to its neighboring clusters and in all other spaces after this one all text is linked as well."
This nonlinear, somewhat randomizing effect, rather than the linear approach suggested by Thomas Swiss' "City of Bits," is the way I intended to go in the further development of my hypertext poetry. The project started off ambitiously. I consulted with my adviser, Brooks Landon, at the beginning of spring semester, 2000. Brooks gave me one stipulation: the project had to bring something new to the field of hypertext. I thought I had this nailed down well. My original idea was that the reader would be presented with a four-by-four grid of images, photos I had taken. Moving the mouse cursor over the images would result in a poem appearing at the intersection of the vertical and horizontal grid suggested by that photo. Clicking on either the poem or the photo would change that poem or that photo slightly, to reflect the interaction of the reader.
I had taken several computer science courses, mostly programming in C and Java. The topic of recursion was frequently discussed and was an important and difficult concept. If one wants to do a complex sorting of an array of values, for instance, it is only practical to use a nested loop which spawns a new instance for every new case it encounters in the array. When the furthest sort from the beginning of the loop is completed, each instance of the loop folds back into the predecessor, until the final result is achieved. This can go on indefinitely, depending on the dimensions of the array to be sorted. Recursion and looping seemed like very good models for my project. I began to write my poetry, keeping careful track of important words in each poem which could be used as links to other poems. Eventually, the four-by-four grid of my original idea gave way to a four layer-four link approach which I adopted. In this system, there would be four initial poems, each with four links to four other poems. There would be four such layers, with the final number of poems being 4^4+3^4+2^4+1^4, or 340. This was a lot of poetry to explore, in essence a virtually unending text. It was also such a huge volume of poetry that I would never get it all done. What was worse, I began to get the feeling that some explanation of this system was in order.
I began to write extended annotations on some of the more important texts I had discovered during the spring semester. These eventually turned into extended essays or essay segments which threatened to overtake my project. Certainly, some theoretical background was necessary, but the main reason for doing the project remained the poetry. I decided to implement my website as a dual-path approach to my project. On one path, the reader would find the critical material underlying the poetry. On the other path, the reader would find the poetry which illustrated the ideas I had gleaned from the texts. What this turned out to be was the physical reflection of my divided mind. One path for the reasoning mind, one path for the emotional mind. The result was that in developing this site, I had come to terms with my strengths and weaknesses, and made them into textual embodiments of my own thought process. As Dorothy Allison suggests at the end of her book "Two or Three Things I Know for Sure," I had "put myself in hypertext."
I feel that this is my real contribution to hypertext. There is no other "me" out there, and I feel that this site gives you a real insight into my cognitive process, on multiple levels. Read the poetry. Read the essays. Look at the way I have linked ideas to one another, and the way my poems are linked and looped. In the end, you will gain an understanding of me that was not possible before. This is what this project is all about. More than the issues of readerly or writerly control, more than those of unending plurality, I present you with me. Feel free to explore. Each time you do so, you are re-making me, giving the living text that force it needs to survive, a human understanding of the human mind.