Robert recommends these online hypertext sites:

The Eastgate Web Workshop

Alt-X's Hyper-X

The New River


In addition Mr. Kendall's own site, Word Circuits
also publishes hypertext, and the Word Circuits Directory is a good way to find hypertext on the Web.


You can order a copy of A Life Set for Two from Eastgate's catalogue.


Other essays by Robert Kendall about A Life Set for Two:

The Mind as Poem: A Life Set for Two

Words and Mirrors: Confessions of an Electronic Poet

Hypertextual Dynamics in A Life Set for Two

A Life Set for Two
   Hypertext by Robert Kendall

   Review and Interview by C.K. Tower and Jennifer Ley

What one immediately notices about Robert Kendall's hypertext piece, A Life Set for Two, recently released by Eastgate Systems, is that, unlike many of the hypertext projects on the Internet, which are often written in a distinct form of conceptualized wired hipness, A Life Set for Two is very human. In a medium that already inserts enough distance between words and the reader through its glass and pixel presentation, this is a definite advantage.

Using the leitmotif of a dinner between two lovers, a his and hers menu, and other unique conceptual design features (which we won't detail in full, so as to leave something for new readers to discover,) A Life Set for Two takes the reader on a journey into the inner workings of a relationship -- where the reader's choices seem able to intimately effect the outcome of the relationship when it's time to "Settle the bill."

All the poems in A Life Set for Two appear on the screen in timed rhythm, which the reader can adjust. What the reader can't adjust is the juxtapositions that occur as Kendall deftly supplies "next lines" quite other than what one would expect. An example:

First line scrolls onto screen:

__________"I offered to buy her a jumbo-sized cup

second line arrives: __________________of my own

third line follows: ____________________________thirst"

The amount of subtext contained within the poetic narrative is striking -- not just in the menu selections the reader can choose from, and the way one can alter the emotional tone of the piece by choosing specific "aftertastes," but also in the alternate, homophonic word associations offered in some of the poems themselves. The nimbleness of thought and word play necessary to create this construction is an elegant counterpoint to the weight and sheer sadness of a love affair gone wrong.

Another way that Mr. Kendall's work stands apart from many other hypertext pieces we've seen is that he has taken the time to make sure that what may appear to be random choices can alter the plot line progression of the piece itself. Hypertext has always been touted as a means to give the reader more control over the development of what he/she is reading -- but often the choices offered give little clue to what will happen to the piece if they are made. Here, it's rather clear that choosing to add 'another man' or change the tonal characteristics of the setting from blue to black is going to alter the emotional content of the piece. And we encountered very few loops -- the real bane of hypertext construction, when readers find themselves caught in the same poems over and over again.

Thus Kendall gives us a piece that shifts perception on many levels -- one by supplying sentences in timed fragments that often do not continue the orginal thought in a way our mind circuitry might think they would -- another through the multidimensional aspect provided by layers of emotion, plot additions, and our own choices. We wonder what a vegetarian would make of this dining experience? Or someone who never orders dessert? We don't suppose it's possible to run out without paying the check ....


Perihelion Verbatim: At what point did you first perceive that hypertext might be a good medium for your poetry? What benefits do you gain by the marriage of poetry with hypertext?

Robert Kendall: I first started putting poetry and computers together around 1990. I began experimenting with animation and multimedia software in an effort to turn written poetry into an on-screen visual performance. I was also very interested in exploring the archetypes of mass media and popular culture through poetry. I think there's a Cultural Unconscious waiting to be tapped through those archetypes. What better way to get at it than by actually incorporating the poetry itself into that great primal archetype of our culture, the TV/computer screen?

The more I worked with computers, the more fascinated I became with the potential of electronic text. Computers and poetry were two of my biggest loves, and I guess I wanted a menage a trois. Interactivity is at the heart of computing, and this soon became the most seductive element for me. The more I thought about interactive software and poetry, the more closely related they seemed, since both were surrogates, of a sort, for thought processes and memory. So I set out to find ways in which the computer could enhance the understanding of our mental lives that we achieve through poetry. I designed A Life Set for Two so that the nonlinear presentation of material would emulate the random access nature of memory. Reading the poem is meant to evoke the nonlinear, associative processes of reminiscence. The reader can explore the effects of different states of mind, different juxtapositions of thoughts, and so on.

So I felt that hypertext let me build a window into some of the actual processes underlying emotional ambivalence and inner conflict, rather than just presenting the finished products of such inner activity. An unexpected benefit was that it allowed my poetry to really broaden out. My linear poems intended for print tended to be very directed and self-contained and usually not more than a page or two in length. When I worked with hypertext, however, the text began to grow organically in many different directions at once. Every stanza became a seed bed for many other stanzas. I could explore many different variations of a single idea. I set out to write a relatively short poem and ended up with one of book length, just as a natural outgrowth of the medium.

A Life Set for Two seems to operate on a very human level, quite different from the conceptual/intelli-speak utilized by some hypertext writers. Is this typical of your work or an evolution?

When I began A Life, I made a conscious decision to focus the work on very human elements and to give it as much emotional depth as possible. I wanted to prove that computer-based writing wasn't incompatible with deeply human expression. A number of people have noted that this work is more direct and less cerebral than many of the poems in my previous printed book, A Wandering City. Postmodern writers often tend to work against their medium, and I think to some extent I was working against the perceived coldness and impersonality of the computer.

How much does the viewer's first choice in menu selection ordain the ending of the poem as a whole? His/her subsequent choices?

There are a number of different alternative endings for the poem. Once you get a certain ways into the poem, you can choose to end it, and the program decides which ending to give you. The choices you make at the beginning of the poem don't have any direct effect on the ending. It's the choices you make when you read the last five or six nodes (text sections) that will determine how the poem ends. The reader can shift the poem through different moods and can engage or disengage particular themes, and this affects the ending. The node that you're currently reading when you decide to end also influences the ending to some degree.

You have said about your piece, ALSFT, that it makes use of an "unusual system of dynamic hypertext in an effort to make the interface more immediately and transparently responsive to the reader's needs..." How do you go about judging the reader's needs when you set out on a project like this? Does the hypertext medium call for you to think more about your reader than if you were working in a more conventional medium?

Hypertext does make me think more about the reader, in the sense that there is a more complex set of responses I have to take into consideration. With a printed poem, I have to consider how the reader will respond to my words and the way they are laid out on the page. With a hypertext, the reader reacts not only to the words themselves, but also to the interactive choices that are available and to the interface that presents those choices. It's much harder to predict how people will respond to the interactive elements. Any given point in a reading represents the cumulative results of all the reader's interactions up to that point. To really gauge what a reader is likely to be thinking or is likely to want to do there, I need to know a lot about what has transpired between the reader and the poem up to that point. Obviously a tall order.

To figure out how readers will probably negotiate one of my hypertexts, the first thing I do is read through it myself many times, choosing a different route each time, trying to put myself in the shoes of as many different types of readers as I can. Then I give it to other people and ask for feedback, or where possible watch over their shoulders as they read. After working with hypertext for a long time, you develop a sense for what readers are likely to want in their interactions and you learn how to accommodate (or play with) these desires. You also learn how to anticipate likely reading patterns. This isn't enough, though. I make my software aware of where the reader has been in the poem. The program then tries to use this information to make sure that the choices presented to the reader are as meaningful as possible.

A Life Set for Two, clearly inhabits the realm of figurative language. But can the term figurative be applied to other aspects of the piece as well as for instance, the programming?

Yes, I think that writing program code is a type of figurative writing. I wrote the program for A Life myself in Visual BASIC, and as I was doing the programming I was struck by the similarity of the process to writing poetry. Computer programs are highly metaphorical on many different levels. On the highest level, the software interface is loaded with symbols and icons. On the lower levels, under the hood, we use the names of functions and variables to represent all sorts of complex procedures and behaviors. It's the same voodoo the poet uses, really. The words of a poem conjure up all sorts of images and emotions in the reader's brain. The lines of code in the program conjure up the illusion of things and places and behaviors there on the computer screen, which in reality is just a bunch of phosphors illuminated by cathode rays. A lot of artistry has to go into the programming itself to make the illusion work -- the illusion that the computer is really creating a consistent little world for the reader to enter. The software designer has to avoid breaking the spell just as much as the poet.

As you wrote your own code for A Life Set for Two, was there a parallel in the construction of the code to the construction of the lines and stanzas within the verse? Is this a chicken and the egg question? Did one come first -- or did they influence each other?

The programming and the writing of the text went hand-in-hand and influenced one another greatly. In everything I wrote I had an eye toward how I wanted readers to be able to manipulate the material. As I conceived new variable elements I had to come up with ways of implementing them in the program. Then as I wrote the program code I discovered that some ideas for interaction were prohibitively difficult to realize and I had to give up on them. Conversely, some of the capabilities I built into my program sparked new ideas in the poetry. The programming and the writing were particularly closely integrated in creating the movement of the text. All of the text in the poem is kinetic -- the lines slide onto the screen in various ways. I envisioned particular ways in which I wanted the text to move and then wrote the code to achieve this. When I actually saw the text moving around on the screen, however, things often looked different than they appeared in my mind's eye. I found myself constantly adjusting the layout and the wording of the text to accommodate the kinetic affects that were possible. It's sort of like writing music for a specific instrument. You have to take the peculiarities of the instrument into account as you compose -- but in my case, I was building the instrument at the same time I was composing the music for it.

Are you at all concerned that some readers might be turned off or cut off from your work, due to the "prerequisites" it requires -- a certain kind of hardware and basic operating knowledge -- or are you more focused on new innovations in technology that will reduce the possible barriers?

The technical barriers are always a big concern and I do whatever I can to smooth them over for readers. I tried hard to minimize the hardware requirements and make the poem's interface as transparent and self-explanatory as possible.

I wish A Life would run on a Mac, but there's no viable way to port a Visual BASIC program over to that platform. If I had used a cross-platform authoring system, which would have let the poem run on both Mac and Windows, I would have had to sacrifice of lot of functionality. I had to make a trade-off, reducing the accessibility of the poem in order not to compromise my artistic goals.

It's frustrating, of course, that some people can't read the poem simply because they don't have a computer, or the right kind of computer. But then this problem will eventually disappear. To put it in perspective, consider that at one time the percentage of the European population that knew how to read was probably much smaller than the percentage of Americans who currently own computers.

Would it be possible to use standard JavaScript and Dynamic HTML to design a piece like this which would be viewable on the Internet?

In my latest hypertext -- a poem called "Dispossession," which will be published on the Eastgate Web site -- I've used JavaScript and HTML to replicate some of the dynamic hypertext elements found in A Life. The program tracks the reader's progress and makes changes to individual nodes depending upon what the reader has read. There are limits to what you can do with JavaScript, however. In theory, I could probably recreate most of A Life in Java, perhaps with some help from Dynamic HTML or ShockWave. Java is still pretty unstable, though, so I'm not sure it would be a very practical vehicle for something so complex. Eventually, of course, we will be able to do just about anything on the Internet. Then things will get really interesting.

What does interactivity mean for poetry? Do you believe introducing interactivity into poetry helps strengthen the poet's vision? Does it clarify or mystify his/her intent?

I think of poetry as a lens that lets us see in a new way. It may let us see things more clearly or glimpse otherwise inaccessible regions. It can reveal things we didn't know were there or put what we thought we knew into a different focus. Interactivity definitely extends the range of the lens in ways that were never before possible. For one thing, it lets us view processes from the inside, from the viewpoint of active participants. Interactivity can bring one closer to the actual unfolding of experience or thought or feeling. It also makes us more aware of the processes of reading that we take for granted -- the processes of shaping meaning -- so the lens can become a mirror that language holds up to itself.

Interactive poetry gives us a more accurate bead on the multiplicity of life. All the seemingly contradictory or incompatible elements of a situation or subject can be equally represented in a hypertext in a way that's impossible with linear work. Hypertext extends the metaphorical range of the poem as well. Images can be juxtaposed much more freely in a nonlinear text, since the same passage can effectively be in several different textual places at once. This can bring out relationships that would lie dormant in print. Of course, this doesn't mean that all poetry would be appropriate for hypertextual treatment. But hypertext is a door into rich territory for those who wish to enter.

What are you working on now? In what new directions is your work heading?

Currently I'm focusing on the Web -- mostly miscellaneous shorter pieces that experiment with different interactive techniques. These include a set of hypertexts called "The Seasons," of which "Dispossession" (mentioned above) will be the first installment. I'm developing dynamic hypertext techniques that will make the poems more responsive to the reader -- make them pay better attention to what the reader is doing so they can respond more "intelligently." I'm also interested in breaking the rules of hypertext -- disrupting some of the conventions that have already arisen in the new medium.

I've been having some trouble with repetitive strain injury, which has forced me to limit my time at the computer. During my "down time" I've gone back to writing poems for print. It's sort of nice to get away from the computer completely once and while. Just me and my pencil -- sort of like a camping trip that lets you get back to nature. But it's funny -- sometimes when I'm alone with my pad and pencil, I just can't get a poem to work on the page, and I have to take it to the computer and put it into hypertext. It seems that the digital muse has forever altered the literary wiring of my brain.


Back to Perihelion