Form and Content
By Rachel Pulfer
Go to a computer that’s equipped with high-speed Internet access. Launch a Web browser, and type in “www.apostropheengine.ca.”
A page loads that resembles an on-line bookseller’s Web site. To the left is the cover of Apostrophe, a book of poetry by Bill Kennedy and Darren Wershler-Henry, published this past April, by ECW Press. The remainder of the screen is filled with a long, list-like poem that addresses the reader directly in the second person, ascribing to them an extraordinarily cool variety of ideas, all of which could potentially reflect back an experience they once had or a nuance of their personality. Scroll down, and you’ll be told that, among many other things, “you are”: “a deftly turned phrase,” “an onion ring with an identity crisis on the Korona Restaurant’s ‘Transylvanian Meat Platter,’” “a piece of performance art that deep down inside wants to be a bust of Beethoven sitting on a Steinway grand piano,” “the lusts of your father,” and “an unceremonious exit.”
Wave the cursor over the list and you’ll see each line is a hyperlink. Click on a line that interests you. (The line I chose said I was “having paranoid delusions that a figure much like Henri Matisse’s ‘Blue Nude’ is following you around trying to get you to join the Jehovah’s Witnesses”—which appealed because I paint part time, love Matisse, and my scientist father recently chucked in biochemistry to become a United Church minister.) The screen goes blank as the Apostrophe Engine searches the Web for results matching the line chosen, then refills with a unique new catalogue poem whose lines often echo the idea in the original line picked. (My poem told me I was, variously, “being welcomed by many lovers of Jehovah,” “beyond help,” “not alone,” and “the one who is angry that I am exposing the error in your religion.”) Net effect? A weird sense of déjà vu, reflected through cyberspace.
Hyperlinking the lines of a poem to a search engine, and enabling readers to generate their own poems riffing off one of those lines, takes a pretty creative brain—in this case, the brain of the writer, poet, editor, and media professor Darren Wershler-Henry.
“What Apostrophe is, essentially, is a Romantic ‘address’ poem,” explains Wershler-Henry over brunch at Insomnia, an Internet café–turned–hipster joint on Bloor Street West. A compact man of thirty-nine, Wershler-Henry’s shock of brown hair and open, animated face belie his fashionably minimalist all-black attire. “Bill [Kennedy] wrote the poem, I came up with the idea to put it on-line,” he says. “He wrote the code for the search engine, I came up with the book. We edited the book together. I did the design; he did the cover. It’s true it came from a conversation in a bar about Bill’s poem, way back in 2001. But if it had been left up to either one of us, it probably never would have happened.”
Like so much of what makes Wershler-Henry interesting, Apostrophe illustrates his fascination with how the mechanics of a medium can completely transform writing, both in form and content. It is also the fruit of a collaboration with a writer whose talents complement, but don’t cancel out, Wershler-Henry’s own. Essentially the end point of one conversation between collaborators, it is also, quite literally, the beginning point of a million new poems that don’t yet exist.
Back in the restaurant, Wershler-Henry is putting his paradigm-busting method of digital poetry production into literary context. “An apostrophe”—the punctuation mark itself—“is the trope of address, which is right at the heart of the Romantic lyric,” he explains. In other words, seeing an apostrophe followed by an address in the second person indicates you are reading a style of poetry in which the poet addresses an object directly. What the poet says becomes a metaphor for the poet’s thoughts about his or her reader.
“If you read [Percy Bysshe] Shelley’s ‘Defense of Poetry,’ which we quote in the afterword, Shelley asks, how do you write a poem that adequately reflects the condition of everyday life? We live in the age of the Internet, an age of endless streams of text, navigated by search engines. How do you write a poem that reflects the lived conditions of right now?” Apostrophe—a poem that, Wershler-Henry points out, is “actually written by [a search engine] and everyone on the Internet who has ever written in the second person”—gets pretty close.
Wershler-Henry first hit the Canadian literary scene in 1997, with Nicholodeon, a slim volume of poems whose exquisitely structured lines are intended to enhance the theme in a very literal sense. In “Solar Eclipse,” the word “sun” is repeated down a column; the whited-out word “moon” slowly passes through the column line by line, literally eclipsing the meaning of the original word. Since that time, Wershler-Henry has published everything from non-fiction treatises on the economic value of file-sharing software to a humorous almanac aimed at helping alienated Canucks navigate the tricky waters of urban living, co-authored with Hal Niedzviecki, the founder of Broken Pencil magazine. The Tapeworm Foundry, his 2000 follow-up to Nicholodeon, was short-listed for the Trillium Book Award.
“He’s got so much going on, it’s hard to describe what he actually does,” says the editor and writer Alana Wilcox, “but his ability to make connections between things that seem really incongruous and bring them together in a way that is very coherent—that, I find, is really wild.”
Über-wired poetry is light years from where Wershler-Henry grew up, in a small town ten hours north of Winnipeg. “My dad was an R.C.M.P. officer, and we were posted up there,” he says. “It was a horrible place—a northern logging town.” Wershler-Henry eventually escaped to Winnipeg, where he earned a degree in literature at the University of Manitoba, followed by a master’s at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, where he studied the cyberpunk novels of William Gibson. On graduation, he knew he wanted to attend York University, in Toronto: “For some reason, the English department there had lots of poets,” he said. “Chris Dewdney, Michael Ondaatje, bpNichol—they all taught there.”
By 1990, the year Wershler-Henry arrived in town, a new generation of poets had descended upon York, including Christian Bök, who became one of Wershler-Henry’s long-time friends, and someone with whom Wershler-Henry, as editor, would eventually publish one of the most popular books of contemporary Canadian poetry in recent memory, the 2002 Griffin Poetry Prize–winning Eunoia. “We decided the poetry community was more interesting, so we spent less time in [class] and more time going to [the editor and poet] Michael Holmes’ reading series, at the Cafe May, on Roncesvalles.”
Wershler-Henry did enroll in a Ph.D. program, intending to pursue his interest in Gibson and the point where “cyberspace and body inscription collide.” But, as it happened, “there was a glut of proposals like that,” he laughs, “so I switched focus.”
Instead, Wershler-Henry returned to an earlier interest: the mechanics of writing, specifically typewriting. His obsession with writing as a technological process, and what the mechanics of that form of writing do to the writing itself, can be traced to an early fascination with the Canadian concrete poet bpNichol. “The first poem I ever read and liked instinctively, without anyone telling me I had to like it, was this poem by Nichol called ‘Blues,’” he explains. As with all concrete poetry, the way in which “Blues” is laid out on the page and formatted is as intrinsic to communicating the theme of the poem as the meaning of the words themselves: an early example of Marshall McLuhan’s old saw, “The medium is the message.”
Nichol’s work owed a great deal to typesetting and the typewriter. So Wershler-Henry decided to focus his dissertation on the relationship between concrete poetry and typewriting. Although it would be fifteen years until he defended, in the spring of 2005, McClelland & Stewart published his dissertation last fall, in a much-modified book form, as The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting, and Wershler-Henry is now teaching in the department of communication studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. But as with many things in Wershler-Henry’s life, what he did in the ensuing years is as important as, if not more important than, the academic bookends.
When Wershler-Henry left school, in 1996, to ensconce himself in Toronto’s literary community, he first supported his poetry habit with a series of odd jobs as a technical writer and an Internet hack. In 1997, he became the senior editor of Coach House Books, which, he says, “was kind of like being handed the keys to the candy store,” given that he could now go after and publish anyone he wanted. He devoted considerable energy to publishing a gigantic two-volume set of the experimental poet Steve McCaffery’s work, and then worked with Bök on Eunoia, a book consisting of five chapters, in which Bök used only one vowel per chapter. He also put considerable energy into Web publishing. “We put seventy full-length books on-line in the time I was there,” he says. “We were the only publisher in the world to do that.”
Wershler-Henry was instrumental, says Wilcox, the current senior editor of Coach House Books, in focusing the sensibility of the press into one that was both experimental and avant-garde, yet also accessible, even fun. His approach paid off with the popular success of Eunoia, a critical smash that to date has sold seventeen thousand copies. Wershler-Henry modestly deflects credit for Eunoia onto Bök and Wilcox, saying he was “on the way out the door” as it was coming together. He left Coach House in 2002 when a teaching opportunity at York presented itself. “They asked me to teach one of my books,” he says. “Who wouldn’t jump at that?”
Academic job and esoteric publishing aside, it’s definitely not all high art with Wershler-Henry. He describes his attitude toward writing as one where there needs to be “as many conceptual handles as possible”; access points where people can derive different meanings from a piece of work, depending on their own experiences. As in art, so with life: Wershler-Henry’s writing goes far beyond the esoteric, as the variety of his published works shows.
With so many collaborations, and more to come, Darren Wershler-Henry, the writer, is hard to define. It’s interesting to note the original work that inspired Apostrophe was not in fact Wershler-Henry’s—his contribution was his fascination with how technology can reform the poem in a million different ways. This innovation makes the poem a mind-blowing experiment in Web publishing, but also replaces the organic process of writing inspired by a muse with one in which the muse becomes a menu of options written by someone else, and machines and software do the thinking for both the writer and the reader. Much like our everyday lived reality, the process is both profoundly interactive, and disturbingly passive.
Such concerns aside, there’s no question Wershler-Henry has contributed both new forms of publishing and brilliant work from new writers to the Canadian literary landscape. With Apostrophe, he’s not just thinking outside the box of what poetry can be, he’s completely exploding it. And though he may have landed a tenure-track job, he’s certainly not retreating to the ivory tower. Currently working on Art Mob, an effort to get local poets and writers published and archived on-line, he’s also planning numerous other projects. “The more that is going on, the more I have energy to do things,” he says, as he finishes his sixth cup of coffee and wraps up brunch by simultaneously calling for the check and dialing for a cab. “And one thing I’ve learned the hard way: if you want anything to happen in Canadian literature, you have to go out there and do it yourself.”
Clearly, he’s just getting started.
(Originally published summer, 2006.)