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An Interview with Dan Waber on “five by five ”
By Rita Raley

RR: How would you characterize your current work in three dimensional text and/or spatial poetry?

DW: Toe-in-the-water. The possibilities are staggeringly vast, obviously, if you think of what a difference one extra dimension means in other contexts. In two dimensions there is nothing with volume, in three dimensions there is no motion through time.  It’s that same kind of orthogonal movement that just takes everything that existed and opens it all up to a new perspective. I have in my imagination constructions that are far more elaborate, but they are hazy still, and I can’t quite fully grasp them yet because I need some measure of working knowledge, I need a tool set of basic understandings with which to build these other conceptions. My current work is very simple, but, in that simpleness, is as complex as I am able to work with without being crippled by vertigo.

RRThis is a general question, but would you be willing to speculate about the significance of the word or letter’s becoming three-dimensional? About what difference it might make for poetry, current paradigms of reading, our understanding of text?

DW:  It’s interesting you’d mention the letter here, because I’ve also recently been working with the three-dimensionality of letterforms (lettrism3d), and I’ve also been doing some work that uses something other than the z-axis as the added dimension (The Cantoos) – by which I mean that instead of a physical depth I’ve been working with lexical shifts in time, with presenting a traditional-looking static poem and having its words change in place, so I’ve been thinking in these terms for a while and trying to wok out their ramifications in a lot of different ways.

I think the word and the letter have been three dimensional in many ways for a very long time. As long as there has been language there has been a way of looking at its materiality, and that way of looking at it adds a dimension automagically. So I don’t think the three-dimensionality of the letter, the word, or the poem, is an exceptionally new thing. What is new, and exciting to me, is the profound effect that computer technology has had on the ability to represent and distribute the meme. The general trend in media consumption is undeniably towards the wireless, the mobile, the on-demand, and the three-dimensional. It is inevitable – and imperative, in my view – for poetry to adjust accordingly.

What difference that will make for poetry I don’t know how to articulate in any way other than by making my poetry.

Current paradigms of reading are lagging behind the technology already, so it’s a crapshoot as to whether the move towards three dimensionality will shift that paradigm instantaneously (as paradigm shifts are wont to do), or just force the laggards to take one step up to stay one step behind. It will depend on how vital, how necessary, the developments into dimensionality are. If by using three or more dimensions writers can improve the reading experience, then there will be no shortage of readers.

As our understanding of text changes from two dimensional to three dimensional our understanding of semantics must needs change as well. One task which poetry is often put to is naming the unnameable, and one good strategy to employ for that task is describing the area around the unnameable. I say “area” deliberately, as that’s a two-dimensional concept. When poetry is able to describe the volume around the unnameable then we will know the space it occupies, and that is a far, far richer understanding.

RR: What do you find yourself able to achieve that was not possible with previous reading and writing technologies, at the time of Strings, for example?

DW: I wrote all of the original Strings in one evening. I wrote all of Strings Mark II in another evening. They are presented in Flash, but they weren’t really created in Flash, they were created in another, now defunct, software that exported to Flash (among other formats). I’d gotten this Wacom tablet and was nosing around looking for softwares I could use with it and while testing out a feature on one of them I noticed that it had a sort of sloppy overshoot happening as it rendered the animations between frames, and I thought it was funny – it’s the classic slapstick shtick, you know, where you bobble something too far left then it goes too far right and then pretty soon Ricky is saying “Lucy, you got some splaining to do!” And I started noodling/doodling and making words and one thing led to another and I ended up with this suite of pieces. At that point in my programming life I was just learning Flash (early early Flash) and was grasping it, and probably could have built them in Flash, but, I doubt I would have thought to make them as rubber bandy as they are as a result of that other program’s overshoot.

Then I went through a divorce and ended up taking a few years off from all things computer/creative.

When I got back into things the technology had advanced so far so fast and I had gotten so much older and slower that I thought to myself, “Ruh roh, I’m doomed. I’ll never be able to get back to that level of programming fluency where I can be creative with the tools.” Too old to start from scratch. Then, through a very propitious series of events (spidertangle, bpNichol, mail art, love of my life), my creative world really opened up to the world of collaboration. And I realized that I had enough knowledge of technology to grasp what was possible, if I could partner with some people with programming skills I could realize works that I was myself unable to code. The result of those collaborations has been terrific, I’ve been lucky enough to work with people who see the process as a joint venture in creativity and every piece I’ve done in a poet+programmer collaboration has resulted in work that I feel is superior to what I would have ended up with if I had been both poet and programmer. Which is not to say that it’s automatically a better equation, I know of many people who do their best work when they are, themselves, both poet and programmer.