Heather McHugh rocks Bits & Bytes today

In a 1999 email-exchange interview with Christine Hume, writer Heather McHugh partially answered a cluster of questions about poetry and technology like this:

Someone of my ilk, whose delight in book arts is greater than her delight in art books, can't help loving the graphic possibilities for the literal, in computer arts. The medium introduces, into the poetic field, tools for coherent motion (the rolling scroll, the running icon, and the catless mouse) and also for uncommon depth (that click-on-the-underline that leads to the opening of yet deeper rooms). To compose a poem, I've always gone into some sort of room: to get away from an immediacy of overseers and reach an ultimacy of understanders. Of course, the word "stanza" itself means "room." (So does the word "camera.") And room online is conceivable as yet another an occasion for containment and capaciousness at once (though I hereby pronounce "chat rooms" to be torture chambers, circles of hell, furnished with precisely that fashion of social accident and verbal fatuousness a hermit labors to avoid). I'm attracted rather to the physical sense of "space" in the medium itself (there is a there there): freedoms from, not for, chatterers.

No new instrument is worth its while in mere imitation of anterior forms: to the delicacies of musical invention, electronic organs aping violins do only violence. And it's a mere truism to say that no computer can replace a good book's wood and leather, nothing replace its feel and smell, its portability and palpability, its literalization of the yellow passages of time, and the decades of delicate dust it bears, from the touches of monks and moths.

But nothing can replace the moving image, either: the mesmerizing power of the cinema's projection, the auras around monitors. We're captivated (from the inside and from out) by some figure of ourselves, that form at once contained and yet unfathomable, persisting yet moving, that representation lit-as-if-by-magic-from-within. And if technology permits us not merely to receive but also to revise these figures, then it proposes to the imagination new instrumentalities, and will attract new instrumentalists.

Again, like Pinsky in an earlier Bits & Bytes, a writer emphasizes the roominess of our desire: we want a multitude of forms. Some forms let us receive, some let us revise, but all engage our imagination.

(And, to give McHugh's final seven words their due: here’s to the old and new instrumentalists!)

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