How coded is that : reading Susan Wheeler

Pam Brown

Now that no one can remember how they lived before computers came into their homes almost a quarter of a century ago, I thought I’d say something here about Susan Wheeler’s Source Codes. It’s a collection of poetry, drafts, code and photo-collages published back in 2001. At first these poems can seem discordant but if you stick with them you’ll find that they’re firmly congruent with their sources, and are, in fact, assiduously organised.

A ‘source code’ is a written instruction in a list of textual commands that programmers compile and translate into ‘machine code’ that a computer reads and executes to make programmes and web pages. The source code is the permanent element in the process. (It’s also the title of a recent techno-science fiction movie; a thriller made in 2011 by David Bowie’s son Duncan Jones).

Susan Wheeler’s website with source code

In May this year, even though I knew my answer before I got there, I went to hear a panel at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on the topic ‘Is Code Poetry?’  Since Susan Wheeler published Source Codes code has moved further into our writing lives via innovations like computer text generators, cascading style sheet blogs, QR (Quick Response) scan poems and so on. These days there’s much discussion about code and how it has reconfigured many aspects of our lives and society at large. In Melbourne, in late November, Swinburne University of Technology is hosting a conference called ‘CODE – A Media, Games & Art Conference’. In the U.S. in February 2012, Ishac Bertran invited submissions of poetry written in any coding language. He received around 200 works from thirty countries. He selected fifty-five poems and published them in what became a rapidly out-of-print limited edition book called code {poems}.

In ‘Appendix II’ in her book Susan Wheeler has published eleven pages of source code in hyper text markup language (html). It doesn’t actually make anything more happen than an empty web page with a heading. I think it’s very funny. It’s part of a confluence of ironies in Source Codes. In spite of the on-the-page resemblance to poetry – the verticality, punctuation marks and indentation – I don’t think Susan Wheeler’s suggesting that these strings of html tags can be read as poetry; I think she’s adding to an overall sardonic joke about archiving and composition that involves the entire book, as well as asking the reader to think about the method that makes the poems.

Appendix II

Source Codes comprises forty-eight poems with numbers for titles and three appendices. In the table of contents those forty-eight number-titles acknowledge their sources. The collages in the book are carefully placed, each with a numbered title, as poems-in-themselves and as witty juxtapositions. Susan Wheeler’s intention seems to be to examine rules, both compositional and societal. The poetry shifts beyond the literary by means of the references and a concoction of technological terms with everyday language. She blends appropriation, imbalance, topical diversion and social concern – this poetry, for all its post-modern surreal experimentation, is very much ‘in the world’. And process has a tempered privilege over product.

In the poem ‘Thirty-six’ she cuts up and reorganises an audio tape recording, interestingly dated ‘1984’. ‘Forty-five’ is a series of eight sonnets dated May through August written “after portrait studies by Eric Fischl”. In  the long-lined, cinematic poem ‘Sixteen’ she intersperses Barry Lyndon by Stanley Kubrick, King Lear and Weekend by Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Bresson’s L’Argent, two well-known John Cassavetes’ films and California Split by Robert Altman –

His date is black via her hipster brother – or with the Engels recitation beside
A heap of junk, back then, yea, we cut some real corners. Cold Mountain’s

Incline rolls rocks big as words; Maya; a bloom; and a forehead. A cold
Bucket dipper in a cold high stream. Juncos light on the air conditioner

Shell of the room where the molls are powdering. How can gills really propel
Them past a pate or two holding forth at the rum punch? His interjected Gills?

Propel? stole the thunder. The trees stirring their sharp twigs ice up in the spot,
Like fingers on currency, or chips. In the 70s, power counted for rocks –

‘Nineteen’ samples bits of “Benny the Beaver” from a 1950’s 78 revs-per-minute children’s recording as a lyrical re-reading –

Benny slapped his tail to bang

A beat on hollow logs,
Keen for external analogs

To the hums within his head.
Benny’s folks despaired. Hey

Weisenheimer shape up or else
Else he chose and so was helped

Clean off to military camp.
Would it cure his cooking

Beat from manifesting in-
Appropriately? …

‘Twenty-four’ is, even now, a decade later, a poem of the times. The first line suggests an effect computers have on human attention spans. At night urban emergency sirens are a ‘phat beat’ that, in hip hop music, is a very fast beat that makes dancers jerk their heads rapidly. After realising that the TV screen is not enough, the poem longs for ‘something more‘ and ends up with ‘clicking’ – the universal modus operandi that enables this computerised century –

The mind fails to get full round. Watching

the blowsy curtains billowing aft and fore,
the columbine creeping toward the door –

or listening to the siren mark the dark,
its phat beat keening through the streets –

the mind knows the local not. In the TV light,
the mind’s not – well, right or wrong, it’s

fraught for something more. The revelries
on screen – the fireflies out doors – cling

to light in form. Salut. A century clicks to.

Other source material includes feminist hip-hop Queen Latifah, Robert Burton, Cicero, Bill Viola, Cassius Clay (Mohammed Ali), Daniel Day Lewis, Robert Frost and more. Many of the twenty-two collages are altered images from The Economist, the influential weekly business, finance and politics magazine. The collages are not slick and retain a kind of handmade, photocopied look. Appendices I and III are typed and handwritten notebook drafts or ‘sources’ of some of the poems and notes for other poems that render this book a back-and-forth reading experience; from the titles back to contents pages, from the poems to the appendices with the chunk of code dividing them. It keeps the reader interactive.

Source Codes

Susan Wheeler’s other collections are Bag o’ Diamonds (University of Georgia Press, 1993),  Smokes (Four Way Books, 1998), Ledger (Iowa, 2005), a novel Record Palace (Graywolf, 2005), and Assorted Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009) which includes poems from her first four books. From 2005, she was a member of a group of fifteen North American poets who assembled on a website to address mediated culture as ‘New Media Poets‘. In part, their manifesto read “We are dedicated to be present now. We see beauty in nouns and names, proper and otherwise: Tiger Woods. We want, to paraphrase Robert Duncan, every part of our actual worlds involved in our escape. We write from inside the recording. ”

Susan Wheeler’s most recent book, Meme, was published this year by University of Iowa Press.A ‘meme’ is a unit or element of thought or culture replicated or passed on via imitation. Some examples are lines from songs, catch-phrases, images, internet videos and so on. Susan Wheeler’s memes are those passed down by her mother. I’ve ordered a copy.

1 thought on “How coded is that : reading Susan Wheeler

  1. Here are a couple of useful notes from John Tranter :

    “‘Code is Poetry’ is the official motto of WordPress”.

    And I wrote – “In ‘Appendix II’ in her book Susan Wheeler has published eleven pages of source code in hyper text markup language (html).”
    John says –
    “The examples you show are actually not HTML; more like JavaScript or some deeper-level code. There’s a mismatch between what nerds call “source code” (the source for the computer program) and what Netscape originally called “source code” (and other browsers have followed in this mis-naming): the HTML code underlying the appearance of the web page in the browser window, which is (kind-of) the source for the pictured page. They’re almost but not quite the same. Never mind: such fine distinctions are really nerd talk.”

    Thanks John.

    Pam Brown

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