Interview by Jen Rajchel
In May, I attended “UNBOUND: Speculations on the Future of the Book,” a symposium held at MIT. One of the symposium organizers, Amaranth Borsuk is a post-doctoral fellow at MIT and has a deep interest in the future of the book, but also in its past. So deep in fact, that she wrote a love story about it. Amaranth’s latest collection of poetry, Between Page and Screen, theorizes the connection between the page and the screen through a series of love letters. Between Page and Screen is more than just a Romeo and Juliet story gone techno. It challenges us to think of the societal dilemmas that are facing us regarding our personal investments in the tools we use, while simultaneously helping us to imagine the creative possibilities of combining them. Denying us the ability to create binary camps through our allegiance, Page asks Screen (and perhaps us), “Be my apport? What are boundaries anyways?”
Amaranth kindly agreed to answer a few questions about the creation of her newest book, the future of publishing, and how undergraduates could get involved.
How did you become interested in this project – had you done anything that as an undergrad or graduate you student that prepped you for this type of work?
At UCLA, I taught myself bookbinding using Keith Smith’s books; and as part of my senior thesis, I hand-bound a collection of my own poems. While in grad school, I took classes in letterpress printing and box making at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, and then began working part time in the Lab Press at Otis College of Art and Design, where I helped students with book-binding and letterpress projects.
The hands on experience prepared me for a class I led with Genevieve Kaplan at USC on chapbooks and artists’ books, which explored how the form and content of the book might be put into dialogue.
Everyone in the class had to do a final project and I had been reading about artists’ books through Johanna Drucker’s work and Katherine Hayles’ work on the technotext. These theories challenged me to think about what I could do with the page and the screen. It bothers me when people decry the death of the book; Between Page and Screen is an attempt to create dialogue between the analog and the digital.
There is something harrowing (at least for me) about watching yourself read on the screen–was making the reader more conscious about her participation something that you set out to accomplish?
The awareness of oneself reading is central. I really wanted the embodied reader to be returned to the equation. Without someone holding the book, the text simply doesn’t exist, and this is the case in print as well as new media works. The reader is the one in whom the text really takes shape. It is not pre-existing. It is a brain-book interface.
How did your poetic process alter as the result of the form? For example, is this like writing a sonnet? Or do you feel as though there is an act of double form translation?
There is a translation one has to make when thinking about the affordances of the tech. For instance, when envisioning the concrete poems, my first ideas were all based on a flat plane. But in talking with my collaborator, Brad Bouse, I realized that something different had to happen in order to take advantage of the three-dimensional space opened up by augmented reality. I needed to think sculpturally and to be highly aware of technology, of what my poems are doing on the “page” and why. This is the case in my print work as well. In my book Handiwork, the poems are connected through etymology and wordplay (much like Between Page and Screen). But that book needs to exist on a page in which there are purposeful blank spaces; gaps that can’t be filled. I would say that whether I am working digitally or in print, ultimately language is my primary medium.
Have you read the Jennifer Egan’s serial tweet piece “Black Box” ? Do you have any thoughts on this piece in particular or the changing nature of publication?
This looks really interesting. I wonder what it would mean to do this piece through text messages instead of Twitter. If you were to receive them in a personal medium instead; something about this feels anonymous as if they are for whoever will catch them.
Major publishing houses are thinking about audience share, but they are still being naive when it comes to using new media. They should be asking how form is central to the work: why is this not a printed book? What does this do differently? The work should need its form and should be dramatically changed by remediation.For example, I love having access to Shakespeare’s sonnets on my iPhone, but it’s not doing something different, not capitalizing on the potential of metadata. I’m excited by those publishers who are creating hybrid work, rather than recreating ebooks.
Do you feel like there is a different type of literacy needed to access/create this type of work? And do you have any advice, especially for undergraduates who want to digitally publish?
Read Katherine Hayle’s MediaWork Pamphlet: Writing Machines for a good sense of the theoretical issues. Then immerse yourself in reading current e-lit and seeing what’s being done.
Some good places to start are:
• The Dreaming Methods website
If you are creating this kind of work, I would suggest focusing on how the writing is working with the technology, rather than the tech being an add-on. There should be a reason this work takes the form it does. That being said, don’t let your level of technological experience get in the way. If you can envision it, find a collaborator who can help. I couldn’t have done Between Page and Screen without Brad, not just because of his skill as a Flash programmer, but because working with another person gave me invaluable outside perspective on the poems and the form.
There are many literacies that current college students have. Hack any digital screen. What excites you about it as platform for literature and why? The writing should be interesting and good. Show that writing to other people and gather feedback: what works and what doesn’t?
What was the biggest challenge for you in creating Between Page and Screen?
Coming up with a way of using Augmented Reality that would not be perceived as gimmicky. Between Page and Screen satisfies for me that it’s not a gimmick. It makes my stake in both print and digital devices clear, and it needs this form in order to make its point. Some people may still see AR as just bells and whistles, but I’m not proposing all books be read this way – that would actually drive me crazy. Without AR, Brad and I could not have put the reader into that “between” space that’s so ripe with possibility right now or provoked the questions we wanted to raise.