Approaching the Poetics of Play, Part 2

[TW: This piece discusses depression, anxiety and suicidality.] 

When poetry is performed, the audience is invited into the spectacle and becomes instrumental in the making of meaning. In most cases, this is a passive, private exercise on the part of the reader, but it can be transformed into an active, playful one for every soul in its presence. As I examined in my previous piece, a more active, improvisational, Boalian approach to audience participation can help us understand some of the more playful dimensions of poetry as a form, in terms of performativity, dialogue, exploration of semiotic devices and of text as a kind of architecture, fluid roleplaying (as reader or poet, for instance), and the creation and transformation of meaning on personal and collective levels. I used Charles Olson’s ideas about “composition by field” to talk about poetry as something of a dynamic system in which meaning is shaped and reshaped by body language, where the human breath is living grammar.

I talked a little bit about how the substance of audience participation changes in virtual spaces, like Twitter. How the materiality and physicality of poetry-making are removed or altered, and how performance and roleplaying are influenced by the constraints placed upon participants in virtual environments. There are a few things I didn’t get around to discussing, however, that I’d like to address here. I’d also like to use this as a springboard to talk a little bit about the field of digital poetry, using examples representing both interactive and non-interactive representations of the form.

Previously, I talked a little bit about Patricia Lockwood’s live poetry game, Live Nude Dads Read the Sunday Paper, in which she had her Twitter followers tweet lines of their own using the hashtag, #NYTPoems, and which she curated into one unified poem. I wrote, with regard to Olson’s description of the transfer of “energy” across the field between poets and readers,

“Since fields are usually dynamic, multidimensional spaces, I think it’s also important to recognize that neither poet nor reader occupies a static or absolute role, that the two are constantly in dialogue with one another, and take constantly shifting interpretive and communicative roles. This shifting manifests in writing, delivery, feedback, emulation, accidental or deliberate distraction, invitation to participate, long-form essay, and on and on.”

There are a number of very practical design elements that influence audience participation on Twitter: the character limit; the way the timeline moves upward chronologically, pushing down older tweets; the way tweets can be coordinated in lists and hashtags; and the time delay between tweets being sent and received all come to mind. This changes some of the dynamics compared to live, physical spaces, where there’s a more obvious split between performers and audience members. The context of Twitter is at once more equalizing, but also more ethereal and isolating. It allows the rise of the persona and yet it’s often less personal. It still does this in a very standardized, sanitized way that removes physicality and the vulnerability of chance in a way that being in a room with someone does not. And so making a successful game using the tools of Twitter and the tools of poetry means, largely, playing with ideas of authorship, temporality, distance, the performativity of the online persona, and the formal predictability of Twitter.

Digital poems share a lot in common with Lockwood’s experiment, but they also demonstrate some overall different formal and aesthetic preoccupations. This is again the case dependant upon whether the poems are interactive to varying extents, and the tools they’re made in.

A couple of my examples here come from Twine, which is more generally understood as a platform for Choose Your Own Adventure-type stories but one, given it being free and having a low barrier to entry, which is often taken into personal or experimental realms by a huge diversity of creators. Because Twine has strong roots in the text adventure, and because its basic layout is so stark and simple, it lends itself quite well to hypertext poetry. The form uses hyperlinkstypically clickable text, but images are sometimes usedto connect “passages” of text together, and the text itself is presented on a static webpage with aesthetics built from CSS, HTML and Javascript macros. What you end up with is a poem which branches out like a spider, offering the reader-player various facets of the text to explore and provides them with the possibility of coming away with a different reading each time they play, eventually making up a whole picture.

Maddox Pratt’s moving Anhedonia makes exemplary use of the ‘branching path’ structure, and of the multimedia elements of Twine in general while still retaining an elegant subtlety. The piece is a meditation on the symptoms of depression and the upward battle of self-care, the title specifically referring to a condition in which a person becomes unable to experience pleasure. The piece illustrates these themes by relying on hypertext highlighted a dark red as opposed to the plain text’s navy blue and which cycle or lead to dead ends as much as they branch to new passages. In one passage, for instance, the reader-player is given what looks like a numbered psychiatric survey listing nine common symptoms of depression. Clicking each symptom reveals a new phrase hidden beneath the clinical description on the same passage. This line is more impassioned, giving more visceral, empathetic texture to those descriptions by manifesting them as a confession of raw emotionmaybe self-loathing or uncertaintyas if a thought written in a diary. Clicking on these lines multiple times reveals the same word: LIE.


Click on LIE, and beneath that is revealed the true depth of the feeling behind the symptom itselfwhat the symptom means but also how it behaves. The destructive lies the symptom tells the sufferer to make them blame and hate themselves, and the ways that drains them. At the bottom, clicking “check all” moves us to a new passage.

There are a few things in this particular passage that I think reveal how theme is informed by structure throughout the piece. Repetition comes into play not just with certain words (one passage in particular repeats the word “DEPRESSION” over and over in order to achieve semantic saturation) but through the use of links that cycle through words or whole phrases, or perhaps reveal new ones, but don’t actually move the piece into a new passage. This has an effect on both space and time in Anhedonia, since the longer a page doesn’t seem to move, the more stuck you feel. This isn’t moving forward, this isn’t progressing. You get the frustrating sense you’re in a rut.

The piece ends on a tercet reading:

surviving myself

feels like it should be


It offers no clean answers by its end, only a kind of exasperated plea that’s exemplified by a recurring use of loops and dead ends. There’s a feeling of permanence to this situation, of constancy, and even the choice of which words are hypertexted suggest this. Checking all implies that you must accept these nine symptoms as part of the experience. The game doesn’t give you the choice not to have them, it just gives you the choice not to read them. It gives you a slight choice between willful ignorance and painful knowledge, both of which are stifling in their own way. The passage of time isn’t just in the subtext of the piece’s structure: a passage in which the word “tic” repeats while the sound of a clock ticking loops explicitly places focus on how much time is wasted waiting, or just sort of idly allowed to pass by. You don’t have any idea when the loop of “tics” will endthat’s controlled by the system. Visually, however, things are clean in contrast to messy emotions. Pratt decorates certain passages with their beautiful illustrations, and has chosen a font that’s thin, sans-serif, and delicate like careful print handwriting. All of this juxtaposed with the themes presented through the highly-mediated play of Twine, sharpens the idea that while the voice in this poem is surrounded by beauty, they move through the world unable to fully get a hold of it. Playing through this piece can actually be rather unpleasant, in fact, and so we pine for that beauty as relief. But we’re not given a choice. The piece doesn’t end on a picture of lilacs or the sea. It ends on a simple, three-line declaration that the reader-player can only accept. There is no adventure to choose.

The false choice as a poetic device isn’t restricted to Anhedonia. It springs up quite a bit in Twine poems (I’ve even made use of it myself in The Happy Scorched Earth Incident and other works), in part I think as a way to interrogate the pretense in games of player agency and of challenging ideas about who controls the narrative within dynamic spaces. False choice works especially well when applied to play under poetic principles, where mediation of theme, content, pacing and authorship is much more controlled and condensed. What these hypertext poems can do, then, is use play within controlled spaces as a way for the player-reader to converse with the piece and tease out particular ideas in the absence of a poet able to control the parameters of the experience live and in person.

This is the fundamental difference between a digital poem like a hypertext Twine piece and a live reading featuring audience participation or a Twitter hashtag game. The author is not present, only the dynamic work is your interlocutor. This way, poetic play becomes less about things like roleplaying and performance across fields populated with people and retreats into something more personal, more mediated (chance is much more constricted to preset design choices or just removed entirely), more privately exploratory spaces and comes to feel more like active close reading than theatrical, Boalian audience participation. This means that pace is more tightly controlled as well, both in terms of the player-reader’s own speed and the time the piece takes to play out, and embodiment of space becomes less of a material, tactile thing and becomes more cyborgian, the player touching and seeing and hearing what comes out of a machine, interfacing with it. It’s more machinic, but it’s not less sensual.

Merritt Kopas’s Empathy Machine engages with this well. Visually, the piece is much simpler than Anhedonia, just a black background with some grey, thin unlinked text and white, emboldened hypertext. It’s monochromatic and silent, no bells or whistles, but that’s kind of the point. Empathy Machine interrogates the pretense of ‘videogames’ in particular as having this kind of special power to instill a sense of empathy and create an outgrowth of human compassion in players any more than other forms of art. It also takes to task the idea that the Twine game in particular has this peculiar advantage, or that one necessitates a well-built piece of technology in order to create bonds with people any more than one needs, say, a conversation.

In a sense, Empathy Machine is a meditation on the whole practice of art toward the ends of revealing emotional truth, especially when the piece’s voicethe computer, the system is speaking and not Kopas in her own rightmuses that these empathy machines used to be less effective, passive. Books, for instance, were less perfect empathy machines.


As an interrogation of games, the bareness of Empathy Machine’s aesthetics can be said to represent a stripping away of the ‘window dressing’ of videogame visuals, to get down only to the mechanical and dynamic, cyborgian relationships between player and machine that are supposed to constitute digital play. But I would also argue that Empathy Machine’s sparseness and brevity (it takes maybe 10 minutes to play), as well as its particular reliance on text-only visuals and word economy, make it very poem-like. The tendency of its passages to be pithy, unpunctuated and surrounded by negative space give them a free-verse sensibility. These qualities subvert many of the ludic expectations about player agency by placing such strong parameters around that agency.

Toward the end, Empathy Machine finally gives you a binary choice. Interestingly, Empathy Machine frames empathy as something a game does to the reader-player rather than something that emerges out of an engaged dialogue between the reader-player and the game. The piece can only produce empathy by powering up and buzzing and whirring, and then it asks you, yes or no, whether or not you felt anything. But it doesn’t matter whether you press ‘y’ or ‘n’: pressing the affirmative will lead to a passage expressing utter surprise that the thing even worked, and pressing the negative will lead to a passage expressing blasé disappointment. Either way, the two options converge on the same penultimate passage, which ruminates on the possibility that reliance upon some external mechanism other than basic human interaction is not a sound method of achieving emotional awareness. It asks if our conviction that gamesthat the whole practice of art, evenare magically vested with this ability removes the importance of the human touch in the creation of these “machines.” These machines must not just be functional tools; they can’t sate our need for human connection like a car fulfills our desire for quickish transport.

It is of particular note that that last insight comes from a form of digital poetry which is interactive but in which the poet is implicitly absent. In these styles of digital poetry where interactivity is expected, what we’re finding is a deliberate restriction or breakdown of the player agency and a questioning of its primacy. In the case of Empathy Machine, we find a demonstration of the tension of passive reassurance from the system that many games offer to players while conferring them with a faulty sense of power in a world that’s very strongly mediated. By using these subversive techniques, Empathy Machine makes a statement about the power of art, and particularly interactive art, to be able to say anything on its own. It’s out of this questioning where meaning arises, and play within those confines means exploring and uncovering a metacommentary, and confronting the ironic artificiality of their interaction. Do I feel more empathetic at the end? I don’t know. But I definitely feel more self-aware as the finger of the machine points back at me and asks me what I even expected.

Many digital poetry works eschew the interactivity schtick entirely or almost entirely and just become dynamic machines in themselves of poetry generation. Here, with pieces like The Mutable Stanzas, which reorganizes Spenser’s poetry based on rhyme and stanza structure, or the Pentametron which algorithmically produces poems made of Tweets inadvertently written in iambic pentameter, the concern is not with using interactive tools to direct an experience and encourage player exploration nor is it to produce meaning out of a direct, active relationship between the audience and the poet.

Instead, the focus is placed upon the fascination of humans with technological accident, or with technology which seems to exist for no functional purpose but to create (which can be said to be symbolic of all artistic endeavour). Here, a chance couplet from a poem spun from Pentametron or Mutable Stanza or @JustToSayBot (a Twitter bot by Mark Sample that algorithmically creates versions of the famous William Carlos Williams poem) or @GooglePoetics (which Tweets poems created by the dropdown options in Google searches) can catch us as particularly affecting. Accident creates a crack where human sensibility can leak in. These bots inspire within us a fascination with text that glitch art does with visuals, where the possibility of mistake, beautiful accident, chance, are not only reinserted into the creation of art but occupy a central role in its production. And the message is the same at heart: error is human. We identify with flaw. We look for it as proof we existed.


If there were a unifying principle at work here (and I haven’t even begun to do justice to the huge diversity of digital poetry that’s out there) it might be the death of the author. I don’t believe, however, that it’s enough to simply default to comparing these works to unperformed static text and calling it a day. They aren’t static, and they each respond to dynamism and interactivity in their own way. The more interactive pieces I discussed each make use of limited agency in media where agency is celebrated and a strict and deliberate use of aesthetics in order to mediate play. The resulting play is performative but intimate: the reader-player is performing and embodying the tone and voice and repetition and theme and symbolism of these works with the conscious but nonetheless absent hand of the work’s creator.

The controlled nature of the pieces means player can have some freedom to explore, arrange, and interpret their connective parts, like putting together a puzzle (or taking it apart and investigating its pieces), but they can’t add anything new to what’s there. The experiences are exploratory but constricted, like skulking down a narrow tunnel. Compare this with the forum style of live audience participation, in which the author being present means they can always keep the reins on the piece’s context and basic parameters while still giving the audience considerable leeway to make the experience transformative. But these digital works determine what’s possible in the space as opposed to what’s permissible. They much more forcefully determine what’s allowed in the works and what they are saying; they’re less a ritual performed by many and more a secret whispered closely between two people.

With pieces where the machine is left more or less in perpetual motion by its creator, the role of chance we see in live performance is reinstated, but that chance is the art as much as it is a part of some communal experience. The play arises out of seeing the ways in which human record leaves its mark on everything it touches, in finding meaning in a jumble of numbers and somewhat random juxtapositions of things. One might even say that the fun comes from vicariously enjoying machines play with us. We observe these uncaring systems function as authors, obliviously cobbling together thoughtful and artful works by recycling remnants of human endeavour.

These pieces, while far less explicitly interactive than more of those game-like pieces I mentioned, have that quality of bonding over universal experiences while appreciating human idiosyncrasy. Here, we imprint ourselves on the machine, become one with it, subvert it, pervert it, make it sensitive, but the machine also has these effects on us. These particular empathy machines aren’t built to instruct us or coerce behaviour, I don’t think; they are made to reflect the ways in which we’re already embracing technology and making it our own (for better or worse), finding joy in it, treating it like a tool we can use to express and create instead of something we must submit to. The cyborg lives, and she has eaten the plums

that were in

the icebox.