A Useful Pageant
BETWEEN PAGE AND SCREEN. Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse. xi + 36 pp. Siglio Press, 2012. $24.95.
In most tellings, the relation between print and electronic media is a tense one. Between Page and Screen, by Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse, teases out and tests the space between the two. In a series of letters between “P” and “S,” Borsuk makes page and screen lovers. This ongoing correspondence is interspersed with textual experiments—visual poems, sometimes animated, that play with words and their origins.
The book’s website describes it as a “digital pop-up book.” On each right-hand page sits a matrix barcode (often referred to by the trade name of “QR [quick response] Code”; the authors call them “markers”)—and nothing more. Readers must go to the book’s website, http://betweenpageandscreen.com, and hold the book up to a webcam (after adjusting Flash Player settings to allow website and computer to connect), which allows the site to “read” the marker. On the screen the reader sees herself and the book—and then a poem pops up three-dimensionally from the page. It’s hard to describe what it’s like to watch a poem appear midair, perhaps because Between Page and Screen embodies language in a way that resonates with my own experience of it. The shapes and sounds of words can have a reality equivalent to, or greater than, what exists in the 3D world. To see them moving within that world is deeply exciting.
From one page, the word “pageant” rises in all caps. Its letters slowly disappear and rearrange themselves to form new words. Another animated poem plays with the pararhyme of pale, pawl, peel and pole. The correspondence between P and S is notable for its soundplay and concern with word origins. Here is one particularly nice missive:
You give me space to undulate,
SCHEREN. My best subject was always
division; I like partition. You only
get a portion of the stuff that makes
me up—or anyone. The rest hides. I
own both sword and ploughshare, sure.
I lied—not idle, I’d sidle up to either
side that held me, let slide my I. Oh
We can’t assume that this set of letters is complete. What’s here leaves me wanting more of the conversation, more hints at the nature of this relationship, which in turn hints at the nature of each medium and why we might love it or be troubled by it.
It’s hard to stay in this liminal space. The markers must be held with no bend in the page, or the site will not be able to continue reading them and the letters will fly from the screen. The pages are not numbered, so it’s difficult to find a given spot again. Readers may find themselves in a T. rex pose—arms extended from the elbow—holding the book up to the webcam in something like supplication. This makes it hard to copy down bits of poems to contemplate later. The implication is that they are not intended for such: Read them in this slightly discomfiting interface or not at all. The temperamentality (and temporariness) of the interaction engenders fascination and a kind of productive frustration. Like many on-screen interfaces, Between Page and Screen removes agency from the reader by demanding dependence on an intermediary between reader and page. The book also insists that readers focus solely on each poem, one poem at a time (the procedure occupies eyes and hands, eliminating the potential for flipping back and forth between different online tasks). Thus, paradoxically, the project returns another kind of agency to the reader that many digital environments threaten or discourage: that of focused attention.
The present paperback version is a pleasing object, with a die-cut cover and heavy paper. Its orientation is designed to privilege human readers. Hold it upside down, toward the screen, and a mirror image of the text appears; hold it as you would any book and the text displays directly. Reading it reminded me of manual typesetting, which requires working upside down and in mirror image. In fact, Between Page and Screen was first produced as a limited-edition, letterpress-printed book. Running one’s fingers over the impression made by a plate, I imagine, would be a tactile analog to the way the words expand on the screen.
Earlier books have made bridges between print and digital. Stephanie Strickland’s 2002 WaveSon.nets / Losing L’una employs that favorite trick wherein a book can be begun from either end; at the center of the book readers are sent to an interactive website, still available at http://vniverse.com. The book sparked much discussion about hypertext poetry. The online interface is fun to play with and beautifully designed. It is also marked by the time in which it was made: Things now standardized, such as how fast text should scroll across a screen for comfortable reading, are not quite settled. Similarly, quirks in QR Code– reading software will eventually be smoothed out—and when they are, we will pay less attention to how we interact with the technology. Between Page and Screen will then be even more useful as a tool for contemplating that interaction.
The website lists the software programs that Bouse, a web developer, used to make the project go. One can also download and print a sample marker. Some of us have most of the apparatus required to read the book at our disposal every day (indeed, some of us must exert considerable effort to avoid them). Unfortunately, others will have more difficulty accessing it. But those who are interested in how we read, and those who like a good anagram, should not miss the experience of this book.
Anna Lena Phillips is book review editor of American Scientist and poetry editor of Fringe magazine. Her poems appear in Open Letters Monthly, BlazeVOX, International Poetry Review, the Anthology of Appalachian Writers and other venues; her ongoing project, Endearments, is documented at http://theendearments.wordpress.com.