The Insistence of the Page: Material Textuality and Differential Presentational Forms in the Writing and Collaborations of Amaranth Borsuk and Kate Durbin
It is, has been, a strange time for language. For words and stanzas and sentences that weave together to become material. And, thus, it is a strange time for those of us who help bring that language into being. As writers and readers, we navigate an (often) bifurcated landscape of literature: the physical and the digital. Even if we scribble something onto a physical page initially, at some point in the writing process, we transcribe it into the glowing field of a white and waiting screen. Once composed, where does it settle? Once complete, where do we leave it? When reading, what is the essential experience the writing is asking for?
On the physically-minded side, there is emergent writing that necessitates the objectness that is book, and, thus, propels the conversation of how the printed book can, and will (and does), survive despite a tendency toward readily available digital publishing options. Consideration of how best to publish now, and what publishing will be in the future, is something necessary to discuss as a contemporary writer. While the discussion often falls to which technology, digital or print, is superior, it is perhaps more essential to consider not just the reason and possibilities of both, but the potential, implications, and limitations of what happens when the split between these two formats is rejoined, sutured together, hybridized.
It is in this landscape that we meet the work of Amaranth Borsuk and Kate Durbin. Their writings do not shun digital or print in favor of the other. Rather, both writers create a remarkable repertoire that honors the dynamics possible in digital poetry and simultaneously reveres the necessity of the printed page. Their texts indicate that not only will the printed book continue to flourish with possibility, but in the context of certain projects, it is irreplaceable.
It is intriguing to consider how the boundaries between writing technologies can be broken, how writers can experiment with the union between technologies in order to produce multi-sensory and procreative spaces of text in a manner previously unavailable. How can emerging writing and publishing technologies interact with crucial existing technologies to enact unprecedented texts? Borsuk and Durbin, both in their separate projects and their on-going collaborative work, engage such questions.
When contemplating the book as form, one must not look at it as just a potent object, but also at how that object interacts with its content in a heightened and untranslatable way. Material textuality, also referred to as material poetics, takes this into account. Material textuality is attentive to “the way that material qualities of a text inflect our reading and understanding of it” (Borsuk, MIT lecture). A text written through a lens of material textuality lives in close contact with the material forms of which it is comprised. Form in a material text goes beyond the structure and placement of words on the page. Rather, the ways it is constructed and presented are as integral to the writing as its prosodic features.
Most modern books are created in a codex format, with signatures of paper bound together within a cover. Because of this format, text is inherently fixed and relatively sequential. As a reader, to enter the field of a printed page is to willingly and directly interact with the content in both a physical and an explorative manner. There is a process of “intimate discovery…fundamental to the experience of the book as form” (Drucker 357). Simultaneously, there is an awareness (tangible most directly through the book’s physical construction) of where the writer’s role ends and the reader’s role begins. Renowned book artist and critic Johanna Drucker considers the paradoxical space of the physical book when “The sense of limit which an edge, binding, and spine provide is countered by the infinite space of the page and opening. The page is the primary element of this form—one whose defined edge is its boundary of identity” (359–60). And in this space, exploration into material textuality is made possible.
Material textuality is not solely focused on the materials that construct a book as object, but rather on how those materials combine with the content in order to hold a specific experience for the reader. Material textuality also regards content and physical form in terms of interfaces, a concept that has naturally translated into digital texts.
Looking at the prosodic forms and media in which a text is presented as “non-transparent interfaces which inflect our understanding,” it is entirely possible to apply material textuality to digital writing (Borsuk and Bouse, “Books 2.0”). A book or digital text can exist as a set of dynamic interfaces, and each of these interfaces evokes a specific experience of the text that is not replicable within another media. This is the very definition of material textuality—materiality of language and presentational form coming together to offer a specific experience and interpretation of the writing.
An example of material textuality is that of N. Katherine Hayle’s concept of the “techno text.” In traditional literary studies, there has often “been a sharp line between representations and the technologies producing them” (Hayles 19). A text may be self-conscious of itself as text, but there can still be a rift between the content and the technologies that made that content accessible. Or as Hayles considers (with some exceptions), “literature was widely regarded as not having a body, only speaking a mind” (32).
In a techno text, a dialogue occurs between the technological means of its production (the “body”) and its content (the “mind”). The text is aware of itself as a constructed object and insists that the audience notices it as well (Borsuk and Bouse, “Books 2.0”). The materiality considered in a techno text includes technology’s role in producing materiality, offering “a robust conceptual framework in which to talk about both representation and simulation, as well as the constraints and enablings they entail” (Hayles 6). Once a text begins to consider its technological means of production, it can then open to the possibilities of multiple technologies simultaneously. And in this process, contemporary writers have begun to engage with Marjorie Perloff’s notion of a “differential text.”
Differential texts are those which “exist in different material forms, with no single version being the definitive one” (Perloff, “Screening”). Several forms of one text can exist at one time, and the question of which is the originary version will not be clearly answerable. There is a looming instability in a differential text, as though it is “a text that could at any moment mutate or transform into something else” (Borsuk, MIT lecture). Manifold possibilities for traversing a differential text open for both writer and reader. For the writer, moving over or through presentational forms allows experimentation with temporal and spatial frames (Perloff, “Screening”). There is a radical sense of redefinition that occurs when a writer creates simultaneous versions of a text that are distinguishable from each other but linked in a non-hierarchal relationship.
The reader of differential texts sits in the presence of shift and expansion. As texts open into different presentational forms, they also make “space for the reader” (Borsuk, MIT lecture). Often, differential texts are imbedded with interactive choices for the reader where no one option is more accurate than the others. Having multiple options of experience gives readers permission to explore and experience a text as they naturally gravitate towards it. Within such a dynamic, “the relation of text to audience is, thus, markedly differential” (Perloff, “Screening”).
Incorporating digital publishing options into differential texts contains its own challenges. While the original form would not be evident between the multiple presentational forms of a differential text, the tendency for text to morph significantly when presented in a digital field can overwhelm the other presentational forms. Perloff recognizes this issue in her article “Screening the Page/Paging the Screen: Digital Poetics and the Differential Text.” She notes that translating poetry into a digital presentational form can be tedious unless that poetry is “changed [that is, re-presented in this digital form] with meaning” (Perloff, “Screening”). While digital technology is now openly available to most writers, it is not a necessary presentational choice for all texts. Just like other presentational forms, the digital presentation must have specific purpose and meaning.
While digitalization seems entwined with (and at times, inescapable from) writing today, according to Perloff, it should be considered an influence and an option, not something that dominates the composition of texts. Even texts that include a digital component in their differential presentations would not, ideally, be written strictly for a computer screen. Rather, they would be written in a way that will succeed in an environment of hyper information (Perloff, Unoriginal xi).
All presentational forms of differential texts may be considered with the same sense of option over requirement. Exploring one’s writing through differential presentations is not strictly a matter of the writer’s personal preferences, nor is it merely a type of gimmick. Perloff succinctly recognizes this when she says, “The artist or poet uses a particular medium not because it is ‘better’ than others, but because it seems the most relevant at his or her moment” (“Screening”). In giving over to the possible self, text, and audience in differential texts, the writer opens to the prospects of “a poetry as visually and sonically formalized as it is semantically charged,” and to a synthesis of the various experiences possible within a single piece of writing (Perloff, Unoriginal xi).
Amaranth Borsuk is a writer who engages with the range of available presentational forms and writing techniques in a highly differential manner. She has fashioned both her artistic and scholarly life around the influence of writing technologies. As a letterpress printer and book artist who invokes the tangible material qualities of the book, Borsuk interacts with the history that has built the page as we know it (and as we now contort and explore it). Her poetics include work with the Concrete idea of blurring the line between image and word, and her fascination and experience with printed matter informs her writing, including her digital poetry. Borsuk’s poetic practices also include erasures, altered books, translation, constraint-based techniques, and collaboration (MIT lecture). In her own words, sometimes her use of constraint works as an “act of trauma” on the text; other times, it gives the text a corporeal quality, since “manipulation is an act that originates in the hand” (MIT lecture).
Her relationship with and study of the digital also strongly informs her poetic work and philosophy. In digital poetry, Borsuk connects with language as a data that can be used and explored to “provide meaningful connections across seemingly dissonant information” (“Upright”). She considers what it means to think and write in “in a world increasingly reliant on databases” and with “the ambient and nomadic aesthetics of a networked and programmable culture” (Borsuk, “Upright”). For Borsuk, interacting with the effects of digital culture is not only unavoidable but also important for the integration of text into the greater culture, as “writers must interconnect with the language that rises all around us” (“Upright”).
In connecting with the language that is coming out of the digital world, Borsuk both investigates and engages with “a redefinition of authorship and lyricism for the networked age” (“Upright”). For writers in a digital age, Borusk believes “a new visual lexicon” must be mastered in texts to cooperate with the “range of permutations” that exist in the data-language of the digital world (“Upright”). Borsuk sees this shift not so much in a relationship to the page but in “our relationship to the text and what constitutes the text…at play in contemporary digital and conceptual writing which is united by its treatment of text as data to be mined, manipulated, and visualized” (interview).
While her work incorporates this theoretical lens, Borsuk is not fully insistent on a digitalization of writing. She sees great possibility in exploring the writing that can come out of digitalization, yet she is still connected to the materiality and history that is present in printed matter. In her work at this juncture, Borsuk attempts to intermesh the two halves of her creative and scholarly life by experimenting with permeating boundaries between a print world and a digital world. Between Page and Screen is an attempt at breaching this third space beginning to show itself.
Borsuk’s Between Page and Screen investigates the correlation between page-based and screen-based reading and writing within the space of an augmented reality (MIT lecture). The text exists in a space between the page and the screen (one of the ways to read the title). Borsuk has curated an interactive experience with text that lives in “neither/nor, yet both” the print world and the digital world (MIT lecture). Presentational form is essential in accessing such a multi-dimensional textual space.
Between Page and Screen was originally published in a letterpress, hand-bound, fine-print edition of twelve, engaging Borsuk’s work with and appreciation of printed matter (MIT lecture). That context still remains in the second edition, a trade edition from Siglio Press. True, the physical materials differ. The original edition featured the rich textures of fine art printing paper, the delicate touch required when turning a hand-bound page, a special binding, which allows the book to lay completely flat.
The reader’s access to the text was also transformed in the publication of the trade edition. The much-smaller original edition was only available to be experienced at Borsuk’s lectures and within the environment of museum exhibitions, whereas the subsequent edition can be experienced in any location the reader prefers, provided she has access to the proper tools. This more accessible second edition “gave us a chance to make the book into the object it is really meant to be — something anyone can interact with in their own home. Since the project is about entering that between-space opened up by the reader, we wanted to put as few barriers as possible between the reader and the text” (Borsuk, interview).
In both editions, there exists a physical structure that is unequivocally self-conscious of being a book. Regardless of which edition the reader is holding, when she opens the book, the material textuality of presentational form dialoguing with content, of the technological constructions of the text, comes flooding forth. The shape and structure matches the reader’s idea of what a “book” is or should be. The texture and weight of the cover stock feels as expected. The pages are bound together in a way that requires a standard turning from page to page—a unique muscle memory reserved exclusively for interacting with a book (Borsuk, MIT lecture). Yet when flipping through the pages, the ability to read this “book” is halted. After the title page, the only text that appears hovers somewhere between a request and a command: “To find the words, visit: http://www.betweenpageandscreen.com/.”
Following this blip of language, the remaining pages each hold one bold black square with a geometric white symbol hollowed out of its middle. No two squares seem to hold the same symbols. Yet unlike certain art books, where visual aesthetic stimulation compensates for lack of text, the monotony of the black squares invokes the feeling of incompletion. It is obvious through the material experience of the page that something additional is necessary in order to access and understand the text.
In order to “find the words,” the reader requires additional tools. Here, the reader first encounters how the book’s presentational form impacts her experience of the text itself. Borsuk redefines the presentation of language: text does not necessarily equate to book, nor does book necessarily equate to text. A third interaction is needed to complete the equation.
In visiting the website listed in the front of the book, the reader engages an additional but simultaneous form of the text. Following web access, a webcam is needed to access the visual language. Once the webcam technology has been activated, yet another tool is needed in order for the text to proceed: a human. Each page of the book must be held up to the webcam. The physical structure of the trade edition does not allow it to lie flat, and the Flash animation technology that is used in the “reading” process requires the book to be presented at a specific angle. Therefore, a person is required to hold the physical book upright in order for it to engage the digital technology. Once these elements—book, website, webcam, and human—are combined, the text, at last, appears.
The text itself is presented in a sort of differential sequence. The poems that comprise much of the text are written as epistles between the characters P and S. Within the dynamics of love letters between these two characters (represented as letters), Borsuk plays with the interaction between page and screen in a content complimentary to the form.
P, the page, seems to hold more concern for what is happening in its relationship to the screen. “It’s my character to pin, impinge, a twinge of jealousy,” P writes to S in the first epistle. S, on the other hand, displays the allusiveness of a screen, that holder of ephemeral information written in code. In the responsive epistle, S writes to P, “I didn’t mean to cut, but it’s my stripe my type, I’d rather shear then share” (Borsuk and Bouse, Between epistle 2). Later, the dynamic turns more toward cat and mouse, with S teasing, “You only get a portion of the stuff that makes me up…the rest hides,” and P responding, “A screen is a shield, but also a veil — it’s sheer and can be shorn” (Borsuk and Bouse, Between epistles 4 and 5).
Alternating between epistles are Flash animation poems that reference the history of Concrete Poetry and engage with the materiality of language (Borsuk, MIT lecture). Most of these animations include references to etymological relationships that exist in language (which then carry on throughout the epistles). For example, the root for page (“to fasten”) and the root for screen (“to cut or to shine”) arise in both the word play of the animated pages and in the epistles through word choice and imagery (Borsuk, MIT lecture).
Such play with language evokes some of Borsuk’s favorite material qualities of language: “I am always drawn to the sounds of words — to homophones and trans-lingual puns, to genuine etymologies and false friends. This interest in how words rub up against one another threads throughout my work” (interview). Between these two, the text curates “a shuttling between the fixed and the unfixed, the visual and the sonic” (Borsuk and Bouse, “Books 2.0”).
Despite the dynamic of push and pull, Borsuk works to present a relationship between P and S that is based in sharing and converging rather than antagonism (MIT lecture). The epistles pave a narrative account of this relationship to a certain point. But Between Page and Screen remains an open text in the final pages, as this is a relationship that continues to shift and reshape itself as writers, readers, and publishers continue to investigate how both relate to the experience of text.
The final page’s text comes in the form of a post-script to the previous collection of letters. It reads: “A co-script posthaste postface: there is no post script. Sleep tight.” For Borsuk, it is important not to close the communication between page and screen at the completion of this particular text. As she explains, “There is no post script to writing…we are still invested in the communication of language…. Text itself continues between the page and the screen” (Borsuk, MIT lecture).
As a reader, this text constructs an un-replicable experience both in terms of its form and its content. As mentioned previously, the physical body of the reader is a necessary tool for making the text accessible.
The webcam software is designed in such a way that the reader must visually witness her own form, holding the physical object of the book, as projected onto a computer screen, while reading writing that emerges from a space somewhere between page and screen. The text blocks undulate with any movements of the page, swaying along with the reader’s bodily movements. It is as though the text is an extension not just of the page, but of the body that holds it. The reader is forced to consider, and witness, her role in the process and relationship of these two formats. This presents a unique collaborative experience for the reader in engaging both an object and the ephemeral.
A physical construction of “book” gives a reader the sense of tangibility, yet the text itself exists in the ephemeral space of digital programming. In addition to only arising in an intangible third space, the text’s survival there is also short-lived. When the readable angle of the black and white geographic markers, fiducials, is altered, the text disintegrates, digital letters showering across the screen in an explosion. In this, the reader must engage with the tension of how words and phrases, which feel robust and full, have the ability to disappear in an instant, and even further, of her role within their disappearance (Borsuk and Bouse, “Books 2.0”). While the words can easily and quickly be reassembled into their original form by simply holding the fiducial at the proper angle once again, Between Page and Screen is a text that cannot be sustained permanently.
Such ephemerality is a fact of digital publishing that must be acknowledged. A physical book, while still an impermanent object, contains information in an artifact that takes up tangible space; it can be grasped in a literal sense. Digital literature, on the other hand, holds its information in an indefinable, intangible, and, thus, somewhat volatile, space. Yet rather than treat this as a concern for the survival of her writing, Borsuk engages with the ephemeral as a way to further it. She is interested in working with “emphemerality as it relates to spatiality,” in attempting to capture “the ghostliness of a text” (Borsuk, MIT lecture). Whereas printed text is more fixed in its form and content, digital texts are able to continue opening and evolving (Borsuk and Bouse, “Books 2.0”).
Yet along with engaging the more theoretical sides of her project, Borsuk also imbues Between Page and Screen with an important sense of play. For Borsuk, this project is about creating an environment where readers can see the page “behave in an unexpected and beautiful way” (Borsuk and Bouse, “Books 2.0”). While creating a text that nudges boundaries between writing technologies, she also presents the reader with an opportunity to read a page in an unexpected way. While indeed these are “poems that are meant to be read,” she gives the reader a playful way to interact with the poems that still incorporates important subtexts of materiality and technology (Borsuk, MIT lecture).
Between Page and Screen is, thus, an example of a writing project that equally inhabits textual materiality and Perloff’s notion of a differential text. Borsuk redefines the technology or device that is a book (as material object) by placing it in procreative conversation with the intangible field where digital text suspends. Materiality is explored in regards to the language used (via the Flash animations), as well as within the techno text self-consciousness of how the technological means of production are in dialogue with the content. Materiality can also apply to the tools necessary to enliven/access the text: the physical codex book form, website, webcam, Flash animation technology, and human body compound onto each other to provide comprehension and accessibility of the text.
One might say, then, that Borsuk’s work exists as a post-differential text. While differential texts exist in several forms simultaneously, yet separately, Between Page and Screen is a rare example of that simultaneity being interdependent between the different formats. The originary text is impossible to identify because it only surfaces through a compounding of two presentational forms together. There is no origination; rather, these are poems that exist continuously and nebulously and that can be temporarily resurrected at will with the proper technologies.
The poems of Between Page and Screen exist in a third plane that occurs beyond the presented forms. It is as though Borsuk is tapping into a possible proliferation that extends beyond the separated borders within which differential texts currently exist. Through materiality and differential presentation, Borsuk creates “a meta-textual encounter at the juncture of print and digital” that raises the question of where differential texts can go in the future (Perloff, “Screening”).
Whereas Amaranth Borsuk’s work is a meeting space of her appreciation for the possibilities of digital and print, Kate Durbin’s writing exists in an environment where the two grow into each other, where they cancerously exist within each other. In Durbin’s work, media are but variant versions, translations or mutations of ideas that appeal to the reader’s senses differently.
Kate Durbin’s digital presence is prolific, spanning a variety of internet identities. Most notably, she has been fundamental in a poetics that has arisen around social media platforms, including blogging and her Tumblr page, Women as Objects. Here, Durbin investigates the visual/poetic possibilities of social networking sites, with particular focus on the sub-culture of teenage girls. The Tumblr page acts as a space where Durbin “re-blogs notes and images from real girls in real time in order to create an archive gallery” (Women). Through this project, Durbin is compiling a collection that concurrently emphasizes the influence of the immediate within digital social communities and makes notations of a more lasting cultural shift that is accessible through the teenage girls enacting it.
In “PARDONMYWHOREMOANS,” originally presented live at the 2011 &Now conference, Durbin notes how the computer screen in this sense is working to re-shape an imposed commercialization of the body: “The teenage girl loves teenage girls in a culture that tells her girls are objects to be looked at not read.” Within the context of her Tumblr page, Durbin extracts images of girls that can be looked at and read. She views these digital spaces as breeding grounds for a post-feminist self-objectification In an interview about her work, Durbin observed how “These mediums and technologies—they allow the girls to push back, and, I’d argue, objectify themselves in ways that culture cannot read sometimes, where they are free in their own space to exist as they truly want to be” (Durbin, interview).
Rather than submitting passively to a male gaze, Durbin assembles images from teenage girls’ Tumblr accounts that showcase a willing, active, re-definition of objectification (Jones). And her fascination with the possibilities in transformation and objectification seep out of her digital work and onto her printed page. This is perhaps most evident in her chapbook E! Entertainment.
E! Entertainment transposes the physical, visual movements of television onto a printed page. The book is divided into sections derived from television shows and entertainment news features: “The Hills,” “Dynasty,” “Lindsay Lohan Arrives at Court,” and “Anna Nicole Show.” Throughout the text, Durbin uses detached, observational language to transcribe the physical actions of television pop culture personas.
By translating visual clues (without imposing biased or elaborate descriptions) in meticulous detail, Durbin allows the actions that animate a screen to fall into a void that lacks urgency on the page: “Lauren shakes her head. Whitney shakes her head. Lauren looks at the inspiration board. ‘I just could never understand hating someone so much that you wanna do something like that to them,’ says Lauren. Whitney looks at her desk. She clicks the mouse next to her computer. She swallows” (Durbin, E! 6).
As the text of E! Entertainment progresses, what emerges is characteristic of Durbin’s work—a page that is self-objectified. In her re-writing of visual scenes, Durbin erases what an audience may perceive as emotional or logical cues. The above example, taken from “The Hills,” renders an interaction between two women disjointed from the context and subtlety that would usually be present in their physical actions. Through detailing their bodily gestures, a subtext quietly bubbles around the question of artificiality or choreographed nature of the televised image.
When the body that gestures is edited into a prescribed characterization and narrative arc, the actual, meaningful, human qualities of those gestures are wiped away. And when the moving television image is transcribed into language on a static page, a beautiful tension around the meaning of the body and weight of the image is illuminated.
Durbin accomplishes such by both highlighting and negating the physicality of the televised woman. Whereas “The Hills” includes decontextualized physical dynamics, in “Anna Nicole Show,” Durbin diligently transcribes a woman’s incoherent ramblings without any notation of her physical actions: “No. My baby’s over there. Don’t open her skin. She might die. Can’t do that. Stop it. Hu huh. Yes. I’m your mama. Hehehe. I think she peed on me. Hold her head up!” (Durbin, E! 36). In counterbalance to “The Hills,” here Durbin creates an equally unsettling ambiguity. The reader is not given the context clues of Anna Nicole’s actions; it is unclear what physical details are occurring, and, thus, are meaningfully connected to the words being spoken.
In both circumstances, what the reader is left with are the movements, actions, and words of bodies separated from their motivations. On her Tumblr site, Durbin constructs connections between a detached, objectified image and the greater implications beneath it. Conversely, E! Entertainment deconstructs the layers of human interaction in order to highlight the intrinsic and inescapable objectification within popular culture.
Her full-length book of poems, The Ravenous Audience, includes similar renditions of visual media as presented on the printed page. Several of the poems are inspired by, in response to, or taken directly from the dialogue of Catherine Breillat’s films. “36 Fillette,” for example, consists entirely of the male characters’ lines spoken to or about the 14-year-old female protagonist.
Within this poem, Durbin captures how multiple characters assimilate into a single, dominant voice that interpolates the girl in terms of sexuality, naivety, and object: “how old are you?/ it’s a crime to treat a man that way/ inhuman/ how old are you?/ here, I can touch you/ it’s allowed/ sit down!/ why aren’t you undressing?/ I could have killed you then!/ you think you know it all/ you know nothing/ how old are you?” (Durbin, Ravenous 29).
Particularly in her work with Breillat’s films, Durbin plays with the notion of the needs and responsibilities of an audience. She attempts to deconstruct (primarily female) characters as they are represented in film in a way that places responsibility for how they are viewed on both the women and the audience simultaneously (Durbin, Splinter interview). This is similar to her work with Anna Nicole and The Hills characters: Durbin puts language to watched bodily actions in a way that allows the question of controlled visual image to press against the audience’s awareness of the greater meaning and repercussions behind it. As with E! Entertainment, taking these portraits outside of their visual context heightens the experience of them as objectified forms.
A second component to the poems in The Ravenous Audience focuses on female cultural archetypes and historical figures. Unlike the film (and E! Entertainment) characters, whose voices are disjointed from their bodies, Durbin’s historical characters are given space to merge with a voice that they have previously not been afforded. Within the text, she presents historical women such as Mary Magdalene, Marilyn Monroe, and Amelia Earhart, using “information that may or may not be ‘true’…yet speak[ing] volumes to the cultural body” each woman has become (Durbin, “A Teenage Girl”).
In “Amelia Earhart: Fragments Found in a 1937 Aviator’s Boot,” Durbin uses evidence and theory on what possibly happened to Earhart to construct a portrait that hovers between the determination and strength she has been culturally associated with and the fragile disappointment she perhaps privately felt from her decisions. In earlier sections of the poem, Earhart’s voice echoes the familiar characterization history has provided: “Tonight, the air outside is inky black and windless. I remain ever affirmative, affirming. This woman’s thing not to get in the way of The Journey to come” (Durbin, Ravenous 77). Yet as the piece continues, Durbin conjures a voice more human than iconic: “G, could you find these words and forgive? Don’t destroy our nest, but also don’t try to preserve it…. I’m tucking these papers in my shoe. Might some small grace still arrive for the woman who fell from the sky, vanishing between sea and firmament?” (Durbin, Ravenous 104).
In sections like this, The Ravenous Audience reframes the historical and cultural woman both in terms of object and participant through a process of “traversing the terrain of cultural myth…. I wanted to draw attention,” Durbin says, “to the fact that we ‘act out’ these same myths over and over again, as if on a stage, but the world itself is, as Shakespeare said, but a stage. So it’s time we started examining the backdrop a little more closely” (interview).
Similarly, the text includes several poems that attempt to find a voice and story behind selected works of visual art (classic subjects of the traditional male gaze). “New Creature” is a poem inspired by Antonin Hudecek’s painting Psyche. The painting features a nude girl, blond and nymph-like, looking out from the canvas like a mystical being who has been apprehended by the observer. Durbin recontextualizes this female image by giving her a history, an existence beyond the viewer’s gaze.
Durbin’s girl is raped by her father, who then banishes her to the woods for being on her period at the time of the attack. Exiled by patriarchal power, Durbin’s girl transforms from human into wood creature, hunting and eating rats, crawling “spider-like” on all fours, lapping “like a deer from pools of fetid water in the forest’s heart” (Durbin, Ravenous 116-117). Rather than remaining content with the frozen girl of Hudecek’s painting, nameless and voiceless, Durbin opens possibilities of narrative, character, and history through the presentation of the page.
In her work with reconfiguring this collection of women, Durbin is more concerned with the potential that arises from transformation than with the necessity to redefine things. This comes through as a driving force of her writing, as she sees that “historically limits are always being changed. As much as progress is not linear, there are advancements and improvements and potentials being enacted every day. And so I try and do that in my own work, if only to show the way, to prove we can. We can” (Durbin, interview).
The book’s epigraph echoes its content’s sentiments of progression, of breaking apart certain visual subjects while re-assembling others, when it remarks, “A person, scattered in space and time, is no longer a woman but a series of events on which we can throw no light, a series of insoluble problems” (Durbin, Ravenous 12). The Ravenous Audience seems to be Kate Durbin’s attempt to present this series of problems not with proposed answers, but rather with openness to further consideration of them through presentational form (and through the resultant experience of that form). And these concepts reverberate and echo in the digital work she curates—another scattering across space and time.
Like Borsuk, Durbin does not necessarily treat the page with a more revered attitude than other presentational forms. As with her online and digital technologies, the printed page is yet another space to explore and redraw the shapes and bodies with which she is working. Rather than treat the page as a separate, privileged space, she recognizes the potential of the page for specific work just as with any other technology. She asserts the following:
I see the page as magic and powerful, potent as any witches spell. And dangerous, certainly. But I think it’s meant to be touched, messed with, screwed up, just as much as it’s meant to be honored, uplifted, cherished. But it’s very, very foolish to underestimate its power…, It’s also foolish to overestimate its import…. I think the truth of both these ideas can be felt. In the end, the page comes from us, and it is as sacred as we are. (Durbin, interview)
For Durbin’s writing, the page is necessary to convey certain material experiences. For example, in her work recontextualizing different types of objectification, it seems impossible not to present the content within a form that is inherently an object. And in this way, Durbin involves material textuality through the self-conscious presentation of her work.
Durbin engages with the idea of techno text in a pre-writing way. Even in her composing process, she seems to recognize that there is an inseparable relationship between digital technologies and printed matter. As noted previously, despite the presentational form she works in, Durbin attempts to capture the subversive and reactionary power given to individuals through digital publishing and social technologies. Similarly, she views technologically-induced texts as having made
reading more tactile, not less so, because we take ‘the page’ less for granted now. We are aware of the medium, I mean. We realize the page can do so many things. We are aware, when we read a Kindle, of how the page feels, even as it’s more ‘ephemeral.’ This in turn makes us more appreciative of how our hardback books feel, when we want to read those. One is not superior to the other—we are simply choosing an experience. (Durbin, interview)
And it is the experience of digital emphemerality that Durbin attempts to capture in her printed texts. The ephemeral is inherent and acknowledged in Borsuk’s work; Durbin tries to heighten how it is naturally a part of her writing by being self-conscious of it.
Like Borsuk, Durbin is sensitive to the fact that printed text is more fixed, whereas digital text can constantly be updated, never needs to find a space of imposed completion (Durbin, Splinter interview). Rather than require fixation of her printed work, Durbin instead prefers to create work that, post-publishing, can be collaged. She asks, “Why does the book have to be finished once it is published?” (Durbin, Splinter interview). It is from this post-writing collage project that Durbin’s writing engages questions of differential texts.
Most of Kate Durbin’s writing can be found in multiple spaces and iterations. What is published in her book and chapbooks is excerpted in online journals and featured as posts on her blog. There are multiple videos available that depict one of her performance-readings. In the final page of notes for The Ravenous Audience, Durbin openly states, “The Ravenous Audience is an evolving project, which has a web-based element” (135). Like Between Page and Screen, the reader is directed to a website in order to access additional content and potential of what the book proposes.
To read a poem in her book feels different than clicking a link to it on her blog, which in turn affects the reader differently than if she is watching a video of its performance. As Perloff suggests, no one form gives the impression of being sovereign to the others. Rather, each new variant of the text feels like an extension from where the previous version left off.
In addition to differential versions of her own creations, Durbin fashions variant differentials of others’ work. In The Ravenous Audience, she reshapes Breillat’s films and a collection of paintings into independent, yet connected, works of poetry. In E! Entertainment, she pulls out moving visual images and repurposes them for a more stationary, experiential page. Durbin finds the text that is hidden within film and the film that is buried within text. The same is true as she unearths a lengthened poetic narrative from a singular painted tableau or encapsulates the dissociative bodies of reality television by translating them into language. While these projects do have recognizable “originary” forms, Durbin responds with and to them in terms of differential presentations. It is not that she wants to replace or compete with the work of others. Rather, Durbin succeeds at giving these works companion presentational forms, different options for the audience’s experience.
And Durbin does not separate herself from the “ever-hungry audience” (Durbin, Splinter interview). Her role of reader is incorporated into her writing, and Durbin is indeed a differential reader:
For me the notion of reading means a sort of rapt, engaged attention—looking at something from every angle possible, then tearing it open and spilling its glitter contents on the desk, then eating them and wearing them…. You can read anything, not just books—it’s a way of interacting with life very intensely and perhaps even innocently, but not naively. It is a way of loving life and believing life wants your participation. I read movies, images, and texts similarly—I drink them in and gobble them up and leave some of me in them and them in me. (interview)
Likewise, Amaranth Borsuk sees the act of writing through something as an act of reading, of engaging deeply with other texts (Borsuk and Bouse, “Books 2.0”). As both writers have interest in the possibilities of writing and presenting a text, it is intriguing to consider their collaborative projects within the same framework.
In consideration of the digitalization of literature and culture, Marjorie Perloff recognizes how contemporary technologies affect relationships between writers. Communication is now based less on geographic or social proximity and more on shared allegiances and interests; the idea of community is redefined by and relocated into the digital realm (Perloff, Unoriginal 4). The collaborative processes of Amaranth Borsuk and Kate Durbin reflect this.
In their collaborative work, Borsuk and Durbin bring their sensibilities about material textuality and differential texts into a joint space. In the process, the flowering of possibilities seems to increase exponentially as they combine their poetics. The result, as they eloquently explain, is a text where “fusion and beautifully monstrous multiplication come into being, and what we once believed were the limits of art and collaboration itself are collapsed and ecstatically surpassed in limitless recombinant potentiality” (Borsuk and Durbin, “Kaleidoscope”).
Arising from their shared fascination with themes of excess, mutation, and growth, Borsuk and Durbin embarked upon their collaboration as “a chance to try on the other person’s poetics” (Borsuk, MIT lecture). The (still-continuing) composition, construction, and formatting of their main project, Abra, has been, as Borsuk describes, “a very digital process” (MIT lecture).The majority of the project has taken place when the writers were geographically separate, sometimes by entire continents. This type of quickly generative yet long-distance collaboration is something only made possible through the accessibility of email, shared documents, and video communication programs.
In first creating the text, each writer took turns writing lines with specific formulaic constraints applied, crafting an “exquisite corpse” style of composition. In the revision process, the constraints and buffers that lined the text were edited out (Borsuk, MIT lecture). What results is a text that exceeds the notion of authorship by expanding beyond two individuals (Borsuk, Taiga interview). Whereas other collaborations can tend toward a synthesis or composite of two writers, in Abra a type of “third text” and “third voice” emerges that proceeds from the two separate writers (and their interaction). “In Abra,” Borsuk explains, “Kate and I are trying to extend the text beyond our Burroughs/Gysin-esque ‘third mind’” (interview). What results is a text of “conjoined” poems that “blur the line…between self and non-self…escaping the self for a hybrid persona” (Borsuk, Taiga interview).
The speaker of this project, the now-titular Abra, is a “posthumanimal hybrid who gleefully violates boundaries of gender and culture and language” (Borsuk and Durbin, “Kaleidoscope”). The poetic structures of the text are continuously in flux, merging and then dispersing as the poems proceed. This further act of literary mutation results in “an ecstatic helix of language” that weaves throughout the piece.
To accompany the writing process, Borsuk and Durbin curate a more visual, physical manifestation of the text through the use of their own bodies. The two writers created an on-going series of photographs where they use costumes and make-up to give their hybrid, conjoined speaker a shape. Each photograph has a thematic costume and informal title given by the authors. Some examples are “Siamese Cake Twins Maypole” (where their faces are covered in clown-like frosting make-up and their bodies are conjoined by a wrapping of multicolored ribbons) and “Marie-Antoinette Mermaid Cholas” (which features pirate-ship neck tattoos, heart-shaped lipstick, and Rococo white wigs adorned with seashells and red and blue stars) (Borsuk and Durbin, “Kaleidoscope”; Borusk, MIT lecture).
Similarly, for performative, in-person readings from this text, Borsuk and Durbin again embody their evolving hybrid speaker. They often perform using props or costumes that physically connect them, such as large jackets that they slip into together or crowns of flowers and intertwined antlers. In this, the audience is able to experience the physicality of their text’s overgrowth and conjoinment. To incorporate an oracular aspect to their performances, they alternate reading lines back and forth. Eventually, what occurs on the page happens sonically: the two voices merge into an indistinguishable third space.
Their performances invoke the ephemerality that influences their separate, individual writing. As Borsuk notes, “When it’s a performance, it is limited,” that is, it is different every time (MIT lecture). The impossibility of creating consistent performances enhances the characteristics of evolution and transformation that is present in the actual text. As with their individual writing, their collaborations, thus, engage with materiality and self-conscious reflection to influence the experience of the writing for their audience.
In an attempt to capture the ever-shifting dynamic of this collaboration in book form, Borsuk and Durbin again turn to differential presentational forms that engage multiple materials simultaneously. Bringing digital artist and software developer Ian Hatcher into the project, the text of Abra has recently been integrated into an interactive iOS application.
The app is anchored in the reader’s ability to engage with, mutate, grow, and alter the text in a continuously-changing manner, further increasing the intention to proceed past the third mind space. Readers can physically move words around the screen and add language of their own lexicon to be integrated within the original poems. In this way, the collaboration continues to expand, encompassing not only an additional member of the project, but then putting agency in audience to interact with the text in a more generative, less restrictive sense than many texts tend to allow. The poems break apart and re-assemble, coagulating in new, unexpected, and sometimes volatile ways. The app also utilizes a controllable dial navigation system (rather than the more standard page-turning design, which mimics the codex book) to highlight the circularity and prolific nature of the project. Color serves as a tool for mapping and navigation, with words and phrases changing colors in reference to how far from their origins points the reader has traversed. Abra, as a differential text, continues to expand, creating additional iterations of the poems with each reader’s interaction.
Recently, a paperback trade edition of Abra was released by 1913 Press, which features the original text in conversation with illustrations by visual artist Zach Kleyn. Initially, the text and the illustrations are presented adjacent on opposite sides of the page spread. As the reader moves through the poems, the illustrations begin to move, stretch “across the gutter” of the book’s midline to grow into and over the text; “ultimately, the drawings and poems merge, collapsing yet another boundary” (Borsuk and Durbin, “Kaleidoscope”).
The experience for the reader of such growth and mutation is both material and differential. The printed book format of this work takes the shape of a flipbook. In its printed iteration, the merging of text and image is palpable by a sort of animation of the process induced by quickly flipping through the pages (Borsuk, interview).
In addition to the app and paperback versions, Borsuk, Durbin, and Hatcher received an Expanded Artist’s Book grant, enabling yet another layer of collaboration with the Center for Book and Paper Arts. With the grant funding, the trio worked with letterpress printers to create a hybrid, letterpress printed artist’s book, which further interacts with the text, the app, and the reader. The book – gorgeously printed using high-caliber materials, metallic inks, and visual image—begins much like most fine-printed book objects: codex format, hand binding, and the text printed on the page itself. Yet even in the early pages emerges a necessity for and encouragement of human interaction with the writing.
Certain sections of the text are printed in thermochromic inks that change color when warmed by the human heat of the reader’s hand. The act of reading Abra turns more embodied, the reader pressing into the page, affecting the page, in a way, fusing with the page. Borsuk describes it as a book “that comes alive in your hands, and your hands are required” (“Teaching Writing”).
As the book proceeds, small laser-cut shapes seem to open the page beyond its own confines. Suddenly, the book becomes alive, words changing and moving in real time in the windows created by the laser cut-outs. This is because the artist’s book includes an iPad tablet built into the back that runs the app continuously. The laser cuts begin to reveal more and more of the digital screen integrated within the printed text. Aperture of the page’s field is used as a tool to engage another, simultaneous version. Similar to Between Page and Screen, this presentation of Abra starts to behave in an almost post-differential manner, with multiple formats becoming interdependent in the functioning of the text as a whole.
The reader’s experience of encountering both the app and the artist’s book is inclusive in a way that certain non-differential texts may not offer. Not only can she meet the writing as an audience member/consumer, but she is also given the chance to incorporate herself into it, to take on the role of collaborator. However, allowing such openness to the content of a work via its presentational forms has certain implications that should be acknowledged.
In a panel talk given at the Kerouac School’s [Dis]Embodied Poetics conference, Borsuk, Durbin, and Hatcher discussed some potentially complicated results from and constraints of producing such a text. The issue of maintaining meaning and agency of the original intention seems to be a key point. Hatcher admits that when a text is opened so fully to readers, there very quickly resides a danger of it becoming something he does not advocate (“Teaching Writing”). This particular work illuminates greater, complex ideas around authorship and ownership of art within interactive digital presentations that will need to be considered as writers and artists push further into new conceptual territories. How does one allow a work to grow and proliferate through presentational form without losing control over the intent of the project?
Borsuk also navigates the complications of how certain forms of Abra can encourage play over reading and comprehension, and the frustration of encountering that as a writer while developing variant forms of the work (“Teaching Writing”). At what point does a writer accept comprehension of her written work in exchange for a dynamic audience experience? Or should she? This is but one example of the poignant and essential questions likely to become part of the poetics and discourse of differential texts (as we begin seeing more that include an interactive digital form). What is the effect of the human hand, literally, on a written language? Again, the notion of bodily gesture comes up. A gesture can be an innocent action or an act of manipulation. How can interactive differential texts encounter this tension? (“Teaching Writing”). It is these questions, and their subsequent discussions, that make the differential work of Amaranth Borsuk and Kate Durbin so pertinent to emerging poetic conversations.
By looking at their work, and that of similar writers who experiment with presentational modes and forms previously unavailable, yet who still hold respect and purpose for the book, perhaps the debate between digital and print will start to shift into a space of evolution. Like the speaker of Abra, might the book become a creature that gleefully steps over or onto the boundaries of presentational form? For as much developing potential as there is in digital publishing, there is still a grand amount of unexplored potential in the printed page.
As Johanna Drucker observes, “A book is a received form endlessly reconceived to serve the vision and function of its new author, a form in which we all participate, reshaping its identity in the search for our own, experiencing its specificity in our desire for communicative exchange, working through its finitude in our need for a mortal expression of our own bid for immortality” (363). Perhaps by differentially sewing together this lasting finitude that is the book-object with the ephemerality capable in digital or performance presentational forms, the printed page (and, thus, the reader) can find an identity in the shape of an unfathomable potential, exponentially opening. And further, perhaps works of writing that engage simultaneous presentations in an interdependent manner shall be the next reshaping we all so eagerly participate in—fusing hands and keyboards and voices and ink together to revise the identity of book, of writing, of writer, of reader, and of collaboration.
Borsuk, Amaranth. Between Page and Screen: Digital, Visual, and Material Poetics. MIT, Cambridge, MA. 14 April 2011. Lecture.
—. Personal interview. 10 Mar. 2011.
—. Interview. Taiga Again!, n.d. Web. 13 April 2012.
—. “The Upright Script: Words and Space on the Page.” The Journal of Electronic Publishing 14.2 (2011): n. pag. Web. 13 April 2011.
Borsuk, Amaranth and Brad Bouse. Between Page and Screen. Los Angeles: Siglio, 2012. Print.
—. “Books 2.0, #1: Between Page and Screen. Molossus, 22 Jan. 2011. Web. 13 April 2012.
Borsuk, Amaranth and Kate Durbin. Abra. 1913 Press, 2016. Print.
—. Abra: An Excess Exhibit. MS.
—. “Excess Exhibit — Our Kaleidoscopic Poetics.” Specs. WordPress, n.d. Web. 13 April 2012.
Borsuk, Amaranth, Kate Durbin, and Ian Hatcher. Abra: A Living Text. Version 1.2, 2016. iOS app.
—.“Teaching Writing, Haptic Thinking: Embodiment, Performance, and Touch-Screen Literature.” [Dis]Embodied Poetics Conference, 12 Oct. 2014, Jack Kerouac School, Boulder, CO. Panel discussion.
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Durbin, Kate. Interview by Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo. The Splinter Generation, 10 Dec. 2009. Web. 13 Apr. 2012.
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—. Personal interview. 27 Mar. 2012.
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