January 27, 2013


Lately I have been considering methods of preserving digital literature post-apocalypse. Not in a grim, Afternow kind of way (okay, maybe a little), but in a more realistically inevitable way. That is to say, at some point in the future of Earth, I imagine electrical power will be gone, and as such, so will the entire history of digital literature and all gained from its corpus.

To anticipate the permanent unreadability of e-lit (electronic literature), I have been toying with what I'll call EMP-lit (literature born after the great theoretical electromagnetic pulse that takes down our servers permanently). EMP-lit takes contemporary methods of digital storytelling such as hypertext, random text generation, audio and video presentation in conjunction with text, and translates them into a context that holds more longevity: that of tried-and-true ink on paper. One early example which I've completed is the poem Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg.

For those who are not aware, Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg, also known as Lake Webster, is a lake in Massachusetts that was once a gathering place for the Nipmuc Indians. At 45 letters long, Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg is one of the world's longest words. According to the Olde Webster website, the word is most accurately translated as: "Englishmen at Manchaug at the Fishing Place at the Boundary." Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg is not only the title of this particular poem, but also serves as a constraint, in that the letters found in the title are the only letters used within the body of the poem, which I will now discuss in more detail.

This poem, which exists on paper and can be reproduced without the aid of a computer, uses concepts such as random map generation as well as visual animation. More precisely, there are 45 maps cards, each representing a portion of a fictitious river system, and each using one letter from the title to represent the area around the river, through which the reader is navigating. Using rules I created for Cimmerian Cell, the deck is shuffled and each card is picked from a deck and placed around each other as the boundaries of each card dictates. For example, if the first card drawn has three sides open, a card may be drawn and lain adjacent to the first card as long as that new card has an open side facing that of the original. For more detailed instructions for this, look HERE.

Sample Map card - 4 open sides

Sample Map card - 3 open sides

Sample Map card - 3 open sides

In addition to the map cards, there are 5 "occur" cards. When one of these cards is drawn, the reader sees a scene unfold from within his/her boat. These scenes are found in one of 7 flipbooks, each unmarked and shuffled like the map cards. When an "occur" card is drawn, the reader randomly takes one of the flipbooks and views the scene. Each scene is represented by text, which as mentioned above, is constrained by the letters found within the title. Be aware, however, that one of the flipbooks will bring death to the reader. This poem is meant to be experienced and re-experienced, and much like a video game, will produce different endings in each play.

Sample occur card

Sample Scene animation

If you die, the poem is over. If you can no longer place a new map card, the poem is over. If you play all of your map cards successfully, then the poem is considered read in its entirety, though because the reader has only experienced 5 of the 7 flipbooks, still has not seen the entire poem. So, experience it again.

All of the cards necessary for this poem can be found HERE. Rudimentary instructions for experience and construction can be found HERE. You may print and cut these cards out on regular paper, or print them on business card stock. More importantly, however, these cards may be reproduced by hand or by typewriter, and you have my absolute permission to use whatever reproduction methods as you see fit. The scenes for the flipbooks are all numbered, so that scene 1 will have its first animation cell labeled "1a" and the final cell labeled "1t." There are 20 cells in each flipbook. I used a stapler to bind the ones I produced; use a better method if you can.