“Too much river, and/too much of me
Too much river/and not enough sea
Let’s not leave/everything to chance
I’m not sure/this is happenstance”
–Jason Edward Lewis, “The Great Migration”
These four lines from Jason Edward Lewis’s mobile poem, “The Great Migration” from The P.o.E.M.M. Cycle, about the arduous journey involved in procreation, resonates with those of us who have been watching the great migration of electronic literary works from desktop computing environments to mobile media for the last seven years. The shift to iPhones and, later, Android phones and tablets, has proven a mighty draw for the daring who wish to strike gold in the unexplored territory of haptic, locative, and sensor-based narratives and poetry. However, for Lewis, coming from complex large-scale installation work that already was exploring touch and sensor technologies, the journey to mobile media suggests something different—a desire to investigate an intimate space one can hold in one’s own hand or slip into one’s own pocket. Lewis’s poetry, which speaks of conception and child-bearing (“The Great Migration,”), road trips with friends (“When the World Was White”), identity (“Smooth Second Bastard,” “What They Speak When They Speak to Me”), and childhood memories (“The Summer the Rattlesnakes Came”) involve personal subjects that fit snugly into the landscape of a small screen and demand private contemplation rather than large public viewings.
In the last three years I have exhibited some or all of Lewis’s poetry from The P.o.E.M.M. Cycle five times, starting with shows for the Modern Language Association in Seattle, WA (2012) and later in Boston, MA (2013); at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. (2013), at Illuminations Gallery at the National University of Ireland in Maynooth, Ireland (2014); and at my own gallery, Nouspace Gallery, in Vancouver, WA (2012). Each venue provided a different experience in regards to interacting with and engaging with Lewis’s poetry. The Library of Congress exhibit, for example, saw 750 visitors in fifteen hours with everyone crowded around five computer stations tapping and clicking at the works displayed, while the Modern Language Association 2013 exhibit managed a small but steady stream of academics who sat at ten round tables and quietly examined the works. At Nouspace Gallery I put one of Lewis’s works on one large screen mounted on the wall and another on a desktop computer with a large monitor that could both accommodate numerous viewers at one time. In addition, five iPads stations were distributed around the room that could host one or three viewers at a time. Curating Lewis’s work in these different venues has provided me the opportunity to think deeply about the connection between the message of a work and the platform on which this message is instantiated and conclude that mobile media can provide an environment that makes the presentation of works, like Lewis’s, more intimate and accessible for close study than do desktop or large-scale installation work.
Consider “The Great Migration,” the work mentioned at the beginning of this essay. After tapping the launcher icon, the screen loads, and we see strange opaque projectiles moving across a blue background. Words make up the tails of these creatures, but the undulating motion of the tails makes reading the words challenging. Touching the screen reveals white dots that resemble bubbles—a clue that the blue background may relate to water, and the creatures to denizens of the sea. Touching the creatures and holding them in place, or “tamping” them, causes them to spin at your fingertip. The spinning causes words to spill out of the creatures into the sea, “spawning”, as Lewis says, “the words from that line” (“Info”). The words then drift and disappear. We find we have some level of control over the creatures—sometimes we can make them change direction, deter them from their action, or keep them from their task of moving across the sea; other times; however, we cannot really stop them at all. They squirm out of our fingers and swim on and on, doggedly determined to complete their mission.
Lewis calls “The Great Migration” a myster[y] to even himself (“Info”). Certainly, the reader has to spend a lot of time with the work just to read the words of the poem. The back and forth motion of the creatures’ tails, as mentioned previously, contributes to the challenge, but even when the words spill out into the sea, they are often obfuscated by the creatures or disappear before we can move the creatures out of the way. We can, over time, make out words and, if we are quick about it, write them down for reference. “Too much river/and not enough sea,” for example, suggests the location the creatures inhabit, while “Up tap tap tap/tamp it/turn it around” refers to the action we take to interact with them. Together with the creatures’ motion and their shape we realize that we can read “The Great Migration” as the journey toward the creation of life. And, yes, Lewis verifies that interpretation for us in his information about the work. But he also reveals a second reading: his own journey to Canada where he now teaches at Concordia University. A young man of Cherokee-Hawaiian-Samoan heritage raised in Northern California by a white family but now living in Montreal constitutes a great geographical and cultural migration from the U.S. to Canada, from the West to the East, from agrarian to city life—a personal narrative about change and growth that began at that cataclysmic moment of his own conception.
Such an intimate tale it is, and one that requires much time and privacy to consider its weighty message. Lewis’s poetry uses the smart phone environment as a personal viewing space, forcing us to stop and consider the work closely. The irony is that his work fits so well on a device generally criticized for its invasion of private space with its messaging, phone, and camera features, yet ultimately is re-conceptualized so well for the purpose of exploring high art.