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Over the past few years, I’ve read well over fifty books of poetry (and countless individual poems) and played nearly as many games. I’ve never thought deeply about the relationship the two media share, but upon reflection this relationship seems almost obvious. When I teach poetry, I find myself talking about construction, rhyme, rhythm—all these aspects of form before relating them to content, the images or narrative a poem contains. This approach is not unlike a game review or critical article that discusses how gameplay works alongside narrative to build a meaningful experience. Elucidating the similarities between the two arts reveal that they have much to learn from each other, and could foster appreciation for each among gamers and readers.
Such is the goal of Sidekick Books’ latest project, Coin Opera 2: Fulminare's Revenge, a new collection of poetry inspired by or about video games. Founded in 2009, Sidekick Books is a small press based in London committed to collaborative work in poetry and cross-media disciplines. I recently spoke with John Stone—editor, poet, and gamer—about the small but passionate press and its place at the intersection of game design and poetics.
The idea for the first Coin Opera, a small collection of computer games poems, came about when he pitched the concept to friends and fellow poets. “The poetry scene in London,” Stone explained, “is a small but enthusiastic audience. When I first began asking people for poems about computer games, I was surprised to learn that a lot of them had already written similar poems.” The influence of video game stories and designs, it seems, had already begun to seep into the poetics of many contemporary artists.
And why wouldn’t poets look for inspiration in the code behind the game? Gertrude Stein’s Cubist poetry toys with language and structure in ways that entice the reader to play in its delightful, frustrating madness. Ezra Pound forcefully sets up complex systems of meaning in his Cantos that intimidate as often as they enlighten, and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land insists on reader interaction by way of footnotes and references—which often necessitates even more research and elucidation. I’ve even made a certain amount of noise about the similarities between careful construction of digital environments and its relationship to other media whether it’s a child’s storybook, a colonial Victorian adventure novel, or a work of Machine Age cinema, not to mention my own attempts to bring a bit of poetry to the video game world (with whisky, limericks, and fair amount of snark).
For Stone, poetry and games have so much in common that it’s “a shame that [such commonality] is not well understood.” He explained, “They both exercise an idea of resistance. A poem is not just conveying information straightforward.” He likened the reader to a player “going through the poem like a puzzle game” and the poet acting as a game designer or architect. We talked further about the formal restrictions of both media—the boundaries of the page, the confines of line and rhythm, the limits of processing power and finite amounts of code—and how poets and game designers acknowledge and subvert such constraints.
The main draw to video games, though, that Stone mentioned is the most basic: the concept of play. “In a game,” he said, “you have the opportunity where you can go into a world and do things and experience consequences without severity. You can test out identities, do really stupid things, and explore all these imaginative conceits much like the worlds and ideas accessed through poetry.”
The methods by which these poets access these worlds and ideas related to digital games are as varied as the talented people behind them. “You’ll see poems that grow out of a game’s mechanics, and you’ll see some written about emotions felt during particular playthroughs,” Stone said. Braid, for instance, inspires a poem by Claire Trevien (whose debut collection The Shipwrecked House has been longlisted for the Guardian first Book Award) that toys with the perception of time. Well-known poet and performer Ross Sutherland contributes work from his sequence of sonnets about Street Fighter II. One of the more experimental poems invokes a two-player fighting game in which Niall Campbell and Abigail Parry (winners of the first and second prizes, respectively, at the Poetry London competition) verbally spar against each other. There’s even a visual poem by Nathan Penlington written with controller inputs. From the small sampling I’ve read, it looks to be a complex amalgam of genres, modes, and experiments yielding strange and wonderful results.
Given my fascination with textuality, I couldn’t help but ask Jon about the merits of hypertext in his poetry project. “It’s certainly something we’re always considering,” he responded. “I’ve thought about a hypertext Portal poem in which every other letter ‘o’ is either blue or orange and clicking each one would ‘teleport’ the reader to its corresponding link.” I continued to ask how a poem could simulate something like glitch or error, and while he didn’t have any concrete examples, he responded with enthusiasm at the prospect. Other aspects of game criticism and development from player agency and affordance to dissonance and ludology all seem ripe for poetic exploration.
“We‘re really hoping Coin Opera 2 takes off. I hope that people who enjoy poetry will read the book and decide to play a few computer games, and I hope that the book will entice people used to playing video games to read more poetry,” Stone said. I hope so, as there's much to appreciate at the intersection of poetics and gameplay.
Look for Coin Opera 2: Fulminare's Revenge this September in both digital and physical formats from Sidekick Books.
Anyone else a fan of poetry? Would you be interested in poems about or inspired by video games? Let me know, and we'll get to talking.
David is working on his PhD and currently writes for awesomeoutof10.com, where this article was originally published. Follow his hilarious acts of academic vigilantism on twitter and please feel free to ask questions and offer criticism!