Mind Games Sidebar: The Digital Poet
By Paul Sterman
Published Jul 1, 2009 10:00 AM
English Professor Brian Kim Stefans makes his mark in electronic writing.
Like any great art form, poetry has had many experimental movements in its history — from the Romantic poets of 18th- and 19th-century England to the Beats spinning out verse in the coffeehouses and jazz clubs of 1950s San Francisco. Another in this avant-garde tradition is a genre born of our computer-centric age: digital poetry. And one of its bright young stars is UCLA's Brian Kim Stefans.
The assistant English professor, who came to Westwood earlier this year, adds a bold new voice to UCLA's thriving digital-arts community. He's an artist who has set letters and words dancing on film; has created a series of e-books (electronic books); uses Photoshop in his new media projects; and has taught a course on "video-game narrative studies."
"There are so many possibilities," he says.
Digital poetry is part of the larger field of electronic literature, which has only been around for the last couple of decades. It's a broad, multi-layered genre, but essentially it refers to writing that draws on digital technology in its creation — tapping into tools such as the Internet, animation, graphics, audio and video. As Stefans explains over lunch recently at the Pig 'n' Whistle in Hollywood, it's all about the excitement of stretching artistic boundaries and bridging different creative mediums, of marrying the magic of literary work with the dazzle of the electronic realm.
For more on creativity, read these related articles:
Mind Games: How art and science combine in a world transformed by technology — and how the digital age is testing the essence of creativity.
Sidebar: Digital Humanities: UCLA professors are combining science, art and technology in mysterious ways, from an in-depth look at ancient cities to a unique and progressive way to learn more about meth addictions. Visit each online project for yourself.
Flights of Fancy: Bruin faculty from North and South campus offer their unique visual perspectives on creativity.
Visions of Creativity: We asked three artists to share their visions of creativity, which appear in small scale throughout the Mind Games article. Visit Visions to see the images as they were meant to be seen, big and bold.
Stefans' best-known work is The Dreamlife of Letters. It's an animated film created using Adobe Flash animation. In this 11-minute piece you can watch on your computer, Stefans appropriates an essay by the prominent feminist writer Rachel Blau DuPlessis. He wrote a poem in response to her text, which he then used as a springboard for visual experimentation and whimsy. He radically re-arranges the order of the poem — alphabetizing each word by first letter — and animates them in such a way that the letters become characters of their own; they jump about the screen, twirling, twisting and meandering to music.
The letters bounce into all sorts of strange combinations and collisions, looking in one frame like a long string of black ants sliding down a cocktail glass, and in the process the reader/viewer sees the poem in a new way — literally. It's video verse, Internet art, the transformation of text into an entertaining treatment that at the same time probes the shifting nature of language.
"There's a small canon forming in electronic literature, and The Dreamlife of Letters is part of that canon," says Jessica Pressman Ph.D. '07, an assistant English professor at Yale who teaches digital literature.
Stefans, who has an M.F.A. in electronic literature from Brown University, has expanded into a dizzying array of genres, including software studies, algorithmically generated film and narrative, interactive texts, digital-based photography and book publishing, "hacktivism" and experimental blogs. Oh, and he's written several short plays and two full-length screenplays as well. (Hey, he's in L.A. now.)
"I think I'm just always afraid of being bored," Stefans says with a chuckle.