Nested Folders: On Birds in Digital Poetry

Abstract (in English): 

Digital poets have long explored the representation of birds’ physical presence and their mediation through visual and sonic technologies. Noah Wardrip-Fruin attributes the “first experiment with digital literature and digital art of any kind” to Christopher Strachey (302). The word “duck” appears in Strachey’s Love Letter generator, programmed on the Manchester University Computer in 1952. The word is used as a term of endearment; it does not refer to a specific bird. Birds and bugs intermingle in Jörg Piringer’s early iOS app, abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz (2010). In this piece, the winged creatures are not represented pictorially, but rather, by behaviour. The user selects letter forms from the edges of the screen, which then soar, in the case of birds, or jitter, in the case of crickets. Maria Mencia’s earlier work, Birds Singing Other Birds' Songs, was first exhibited at the Medway Gallery in 2001. As is the case in Piringer’s app, the birds are composed of letter forms.

As I revisit my own early digital poetry in this article, I do so as a practice-led researcher with a media archaeologically inflected methodology. I am “thinking the new and the old in parallel lines” (Parikka, 2). I am applying this critical lens retroactively. I am re-searching through files in nested folders accumulated over twenty-six years of practice. This process raises the question of what it means to be a literal bird in a digital poem. Or in a print poem, for that matter. By representing letters in digital formats, Mencia and Piringer draw attention to the arbitrary nature of sign and signified. For are not the birds in print poems also formed of letters?

In this article, I chart a shift in the representation of birds in my own work, from general, stylized, ideas of birds, to birds which, if not literally living breathing flying within the poems in questions, were once actual, factual, observed birds. Re-configuring texts from the early modern and Victorian period, my work deepens its exploration of the physical expression of birds captured in print or digital forms and queries what might be lost or gained in the process.

Pull Quotes: 

Here the phrase “nested folders” takes on a new connotation: instead of file folders, we can now picture a nested structure of birds in drawers in cabinets in climate-controlled storage units in museums around the world. The term “tag” also takes on a double meaning. The digital usage, HTML tag, comes from the earlier variety of paper tags we see affixed to the legs of the embalmed specimens of birds scrolling up the screen. Those tags contain data about the name and species of bird, and where and when it was collected. In the digital sense, an HTML tag may contain meta-data pertaining to naming and identification.

Platforms referenced:

Title Developers Year initiated
JavaScript 1995

Organizations referenced:

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Record posted by: 
J. R. Carpenter