A made place: Interactive fiction and “location-based poetry”

The “space” inhabited by a poem has been conceptualized in terms of music or sound (e.g., Tracie Morris, John Cage), in terms of painting (e.g., Gertrude Stein, John Yau, John Ashbery), in terms of ritual (e.g., Bhanu Kapil, CAConrad). But what about in terms of, well, space? 

I was at the No Fair/Fair at AWP this spring, where I was fortunate to hear Dara Wier read her poem “The Dream.” It begins 

We all know about the classic dream

the one in which you see a door or some other

hithertobefore unknown ingress or egress,

your own private dream annex,

It continues:

So you open the door.

And beyond the door

as the light comes up a little

there is a cave

you’d never known

was there before.

What fun! I really love this poem because of the way it seems to meander and nearly lose the plot before coming, out of nowhere, to moments of devastating clarity. 

Another reason it fascinates me, though, is because it reminds me of interactive fiction–not just because it’s set in a cave, but because of the way that it constructs and delineates space. Wier uses prepositions almost like legos: to relate spaces to each other, to relate spaces to the reader, to describe movement through space:

The cave is “beyond the door”

The stream is “right under your nose”

The stream is “just at your feet, right there”

The river extends “beyond the horizon that is the cave’s far end”

A drive-in movie theater is “up ahead”

You could easily draw a map of this world. The language of the poem establishes a relatively stable geography against which the “action” of the poem occurs. This is right in line with Nick Montfort’s definition of an interactive fiction room, from the IF Theory Reader: “A room is a simulated place from which a certain set of elements in the IF world can be sensed, manipulated, or otherwise acted upon.”

Alice Notley’s feminist epic The Descent of Alette similarly foregrounds rooms, thresholds, and passing from one space into the next, thereby establishing its own imagined geography:

“I stepped through” “the archway” “& there was” “another door”

“immediately” “before me,” “another round entrance” “It led”

“into a cavern” (48)

“In front of me” “lay the next door” “I must pass through” (59)

“I opened” “a door to” “a dark desert” (65)

Robert Duncan’s “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow” achieves the same effect, but through repetition and a kind of encircling or enfolding. In this case, the language generates the imagined location by circumscribing it:

“that is not mine, but is a made place…

“that is mine…

“that is a made place…   

“that is a field folded…

“that is a place of first permission…”   

What these poems have in common, and what makes them enjoyable for me to read, is their allusion to a persistent world, a world independent of the poem’s speaker or narrator. In “The Dream,” you could hypothetically retrace your steps: back from the drive-in theater, back over the hillsides and meadows, back through the cavern, back through the door. Same with Alette. You could visit Duncan’s field whenever. You could hypothetically ditch Virgil and explore Hell on your own (at your own peril, obviously). 

Whether intentionally or not, these poems make possible two modes of reading. In one, you are the reader, proceeding linearly through the work, led by the poem’s speaker or narrator. In the second, you are the “interactor,” actively exploring the imagined geography on your own. 

The following essays helped me think through these ideas:

Emily Short, Patchwork Girl (Shelley Jackson) and Spatial Hypertext

Reed Underwood, Twinescapes, or the Rise of Spatial Hypertext

Nick Montfort, Toward a Theory of Interactive Fiction, in the IF Theory Reader

“The Dream” appears in Dara Wier’s collection In the Still of the Night.