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A Quick Note on Swift Current: the World's First E-Journal
damian lopes

From OL3: open letter on lines online (2000)

While narrative may not be a literary necessity, it is still one of the keystones of literature, both written and oral. This is not to say that the nature, or definition, of narrative has remained static. In fact recent changes in popular technology — the technology related to the world wide web in particular — now allows several narrative options to be used because they can be accessed by the general population.

It is important to note that these technologies are not new, though their current implementations may be. For example, ‘multimedia’ and ‘hypertext’ have existed for centuries: text and image together on the same page is multimedia, and any table of contents or index is hypertext. Even electronic multimedia and hypertext have been around for decades. What has changed, however, is that the tools for creating and viewing such works are now not only readily available, but used on a daily basis by a substantial portion of the population, at least in the west.

To explore some of the possibilities and implications of using the web as a poetic medium, I will take you through the creation and development of my first online work, Project X 1497-1999 <http://www.bitwalla.com/project_x/>.


Beginning the Journey

Despite the fact that it is one of the places I claim as home, I realized on my first trip to East Africa that my sense of the continent was largely shaped by the accounts of early explorers and by descriptions perpetuated by such books as Heart of Darkness. Western culture is infused with, or perhaps partially based on, such preconceptions of foreign lands, especially those that were colonized by the west. At very least, western culture tends to exoticize the unfamiliar.

What is completely lacking in general western society, both online and off, is the perspective of those who were ‘discovered’. Even here in Canada, we generally have very little sense of the natives’ versions of contact. In effect, the ‘discovered’ are virtually (in both senses) voiceless. The obvious retort is that there are few or no written records. But what I experienced in East Africa was not about history. It is hard to call the early explorers’ accounts of the ‘discovered’, not to mention our popular conceptions of those accounts, accurate and factual. Rather, I was confronted with a mythic account of Africa learned through cultural osmosis, from books, films and even cartoons.

Fascinated by this, I went back to look at some of the actual accounts themselves. In particular, the first voyage of Vasco da Gama from Portugal around Africa to South Asia, a journey that touches on many of the places I claim as home, drew my attention. This voyage of 1497_99 is far less celebrated than that of Columbus in 1492 (especially in the English_speaking world) but its impact was just as profound, because within a few years Portugal established permanent settlements along the coasts of East Africa, Arabia, South Asia and Southeast Asia. This voyage ushered in the ‘age of discovery’ and a new phase of European colonial expansion and exploration in Africa and Asia that lasted well into the twentieth century.

Da Gama's voyage was fitting subject matter, not only because the 500th anniversary was the following year, but because I am linked culturally and genetically to both the explorers and the ‘discovered’, the colonizers and colonized. Further, re-examining the historical voyage would also require re-examining the literary one: the great Portuguese epic poem, Os Lusíadas by Luís Vaz de Camões, is about this journey. The combination of the personal, historical and literary was too much to pass up.


Choosing a Technology: Selecting a Medium

As the site proclaims, Project X 1497-1999 explores ‘discovery, technology, [and] colonialism through Vasco da Gama’s first voyage’. While discovery appears self-evident and of primary interest, it may seem odd that technology is listed before colonialism. But colonialism, in most — if not all — of its forms, relies on technology of one sort or another. It was various technologies, some European and some imported from the East, including new ships and more accurate forms of navigation, that allowed the Portuguese to make their voyage.

This is not to say that technology is the only factor in colonialism, or even that technology leads to colonialism. Having the tools does not make one a colonist: there are many examples of explorers who went to see what was there, not to colonize. Rather, the power comes from adding a new technology to a colonial culture or mindset. In other words, the impact and implications of a new technology are greatly dependent on the culture of the society into which they are introduced. It is the interplay of technology, colonialism and culture that led me to select the web as the best medium for this work.

Until then I had resisted the temptation to use the web as a literary medium on the grounds that to do so, without harnessing its functionality and understanding its implications, would constitute a bad translation at best. I was not interested in creating poetry that was online, but rather online poetry. Changing media is translation, and in a good translation, whether from one language to another or one medium to another, the advantages of the new form must be utilized. In other words, poetry online must incorporate the functionality of the medium into the work to be called online poetry.

The web has become our contemporary mode of exploration. Even the programmes used, with names like ‘Navigator’ and ‘Explorer’, emphasize this. Of course what we find online is not physical space, but knowledge. Further, this knowledge is not new, but known. So any ‘discovery’ we make as we surf is similar in nature to the finds made by da Gama and other Europeans who claimed to discover peoples or inhabited places.

The divide between the explorers and the ‘discovered’, especially the technological one, highlights another similarity between the medium and my subject. The internet, and the web in particular, is dominated by the west, complete with western biases and perspectives. So while we may call it the world wide web, it would be a mistake to think that the knowledge we are exploring is truly international, let alone balanced or complete.

The internet is not the democratic medium that many claim it to be. According to recent surveys only half the population of Canada has access to the internet, and a portion of that number probably does not have access to the web. Given the costs of the infrastructure required by the internet, rates of accessibility in developing nations are extremely low. As a result, the internet is an intellectual and economic divider between those who have access and those who do not, those who can put forth their version and those who are virtually voiceless. This new intellectual colonialism is added to the economic colonialism that has already replaced most the military colonialism in the late twentieth century.

Western culture remains a colonial one. But the culture of the internet need not be. I decided to use the internet in part to examine the colonial nature of the net, but also to try to counteract that nature. The culture of the internet is rapidly evolving, growing and changing, nearly on a daily basis it seems. Art must play its role in shaping that culture, in defining how we will use the technology at our disposal.


Stories to Tell

As I said, I am both colonized and colonizer. But scratch the surface and no one is innocent. So I began by reading the Roteiro da Viagem de Vasco da Gama, believed to be an anonymous journal kept on that first voyage. What surprised me most was that the altitudes and reactions of the Portuguese, at least as they are given in this ‘journal’, were very different from those of the Spanish, British and French explorers and colonists. It is these three nations that largely shape our conception of colonialism in the west, especially in the Americas. But the Portuguese were relatively open minded (at least at first), and accepted that some of the cultures they encountered were sophisticated. Of course the Portuguese were also very misguided and naive. In any case, it quickly became clear that their story was one that needed to be told as well, because their perspective is generally not known. This meant that I needed to tell at least two stories.

The result was two collections of poetry (about 150 poems in total). The first collection was edited out of the Roteiro da Viagem, thus allowing the Portuguese to speak for themselves, more or less. The second collection, entitled Project X 1497_1999, draws on several sources, with poems attributed to various people. The result is a mix of poems from various cultural, religious, economic and class perspectives.

These poems, set 500 years ago, halfway around the world, presented another problem that I had faced with my first book of poetry: the use of regional English words, and distant place names. Simply put, glossing regional English terms (whether they be Canadian-English, South Asian-English, Australian-English, etc) suggests that those terms are not ‘proper’ or real English, that they are something other, foreign. Because all regions are not treated equally — the British use of lorry isn’t generally glossed — glossaries become linguistic ghettos.

To deal with this issue, I decided to include glosses for as many terms as possible in Project X, but to be selective about the sources. The majority of the glosses are from Hobson_Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo_Indian Words and Phrases and of Kindred Terms, a Victorian dictionary of words that had come into common usage among Britons in India, and Lendas da Índia by Gaspar Correa, a highly fanciful and inaccurate account of the early history of the Portuguese in India. By glossing from historical texts, replete with their own biases, errors, and unfamilar terms, I could not only make a point or two about glossing, but at the same time explore multiple aspects of colonial attitude by juxtaposing different texts.


The Art of Navigation: Putting It All Together

The combination of multiple voices and juxtaposition suggested the adoption of a musical form: counterpoint. With two frames displaying different texts from various sources, and some automation thrown in, the effect is of multiple voices speaking simultaneously, just as the multiple versions of events (the Roterio and Project X 1497_1999) are contrapuntal themselves. And given that the subject is a journey, based on a travel log, the narrative would appear to be linear.

But going from point A to point B, especially when the exact location of B is uncertain and the mode of transport inexact, isn’t always a straight line. And history seldom reveals the whole story all at once. So to reflect the nature of fifteenth century navigation and fragmentary nature of history, as well as to combine all of these texts without forcing the reader to wade through each version of events, some selectivity and randomization was in order. Ultimately this entails taking a good part of the control out of the hands of the reader, something that print simply can’t do (how many shuffle texts have you actually shuffled?)

When you start to read the text of Project X 1497-1999, a second browser window opens, minus the menu, tool bar, location (or address) bar, and status bar. Without the normal browser menu (except on the Mac) and bars, the website navigation tools most surfers expect are denied. And without the location (or address) bar along the top and status bar along the bottom, the reader doesn’t know where she is or where any given link will taker her. She is in the unknown. The window contains a simple menu across the top, and two frames side by side. The odds are even as to whether it will start in the Roteiro da Viagem or in Project X 1497-1999.

The menu offers three main options at first: Astern, Ahead, and Chart. The first two purport to function as linear back and forward buttons, but the Chart provides a map in the right hand frame, complete with outbound and inbound routes marked. The map is of course an imagemap — that is, it is clickable in many places. It is the first obvious alternative to reading the text linearly. But really it’s no alternative at all, because the Astern and Ahead buttons are not actually linear. Moving Ahead may take the reader to the next poem, or it may jump ahead. Likewise, if the reader attempts to retrace her steps, she may find that the wind blows her off course into unknown or partially known territory.

There are two other ways to navigate this work. First, taking hypertext to its logical extreme, every word or phrase in the poems is a link. The reader may ignore the menu options and follow associations throughout the work. The other option is to let the wind take the ship where it may: once past the title page, the site will travel through the poems on its own if the reader does not interact with it, does not take what control remains.

The randomization, various navigation options, and lack of normal browser buttons, all work to reflect the nature of history and navigation, two forms of narrative. Given the number of poems and links, the odds of being able to read the same set of poems twice, without reading more, is rather small. In essence, each journey through the work is a distinct narrative because it is a unique text


Plotting a Course

On its own, the internet is a controlled environment: the technologies that make up the net and those that allow us to access it both limit control. By further controlling the reading environment, Project X 1497-1999 attempts to make the issue of control more apparent. But it is not only the technology that is developing: the culture of the net is changing very quickly as well. Increased access, content and functionality are altering who and what is online, how we are able to access that content and what we are able to do with it.

I’m not deluded enough to think online poetry will radically change this new developing culture. But these technologies offer writers new possibilities, different ways of telling stories and exploring language. At the same time, the old responsibilities of holding up a mirror to society and questioning culture not only remain, but are more pressing because the culture of the internet is new. The internet could be the most powerful colonial tool yet, if the culture of the internet remains a colonial one. Alternative courses exist, and must be explored.

damian lopes
May 2000

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