Electronic Literature,  History,  Updates

Treasures from the Rubenstein

by Dene Grigar

After Triangle SCI 2022 ended on Thursday, I stay an additional day in Durham so that I could visit the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University again. This was my third visit to the library to do archival research into the Stephanie Strickland, Rob Kendall, and Judy Malloy Papers that the library holds. No matter how many times, though, I visit, I discover new treasures that I somehow overlooked before. 

Yesterday was no different. After researching information about Kendall’s hypertext poem, “Penetration,” which along with “Dispossession” is part of his The Seasons collection (and that we are adding to the Rob Kendall Collection at The NEXT), I stumbled upon his Oulipian experiment à la Raymond Queneau’s “Cent mille milliards de poémes” (1961). As you can see from the image, Kendall had typed a poem on a page of paper and overlaid it with another poem. He then cut the overlaid poem into strips so that the reader can read the poem from a multitude of perspectives by peeling back one or more strip at a time, reading a line of the base poem along with the line on the strip. I could just as easily read multiple lines at a time by peeling back more than one strip. I did not calculate the many possible combinations of poems that can be experienced with Kendall’s poem, but for those of you unfamiliar with Queneau’s experiment, Queneau determined––with the help mathematician Francois Le Lionnais––that his poem amounted to 100, 000, 000, 000 different possibilities–hence, the poem’s title.

The discoveries from the Strickland Papers were no less exciting. While I had planned originally to focus on the archives from her poems “slippingglimpse,” “The Errand Upon Which We Came,” and “True North,” I was gifted with the opportunity to be the first scholar to see the contents of the most recent box of papers Strickland donated to the library. “Box 5” was still taped up from the transport from NY where Strickland lives to the library. The library staff, when discovering that I had ordered and was approved to see this box, kindly opened it for me. Inside are notebooks Strickland produced from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s that chronicles her intellectual journey through the many themes she addresses in her hypertext poems. Very specifically, we see her handwritten note on one of the papers, dated 1979, that reads “Women’s Work Writing.” Those familiar with her long-form poems, True  North (1997) and  Vniverse  (2002) know that she continued to explore this topic decades later.

Finally, in that same box I came across her collection of notecards neatly organized in a catalog card box. The container for this artifact had the name “Simone” hand-written on the top. Once again, we can see Strickland’s interest in Weil’s work influenced her poetry throughout her career, to works of print poetry, like The Red Virgin: A Poem for Simone Weil (1993) and her born-digital poem, Vniverse (2002). 

At the end of the day, I felt exhilarated and ready to return to the lab and work on The NEXT. I thank the library staff for their generosity for allowing me to experience this not-yet-cataloged material. What a treat.

Dene Grigar is Director and Professor of the CMDC Program. She specializes in electronic literature, emerging technologies and cognition, and ephemera.