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EDITORS: KIRSTEN IRVING AND JON STONE | PUBLISHER: SIDEKICK BOOKS | RELEASE: PHYSICAL AND DIGITAL COPIES
A few years ago, a friend and I were discussing poetry when he defined a poem in the most succinct way possible. “A poem,” he told me, quite matter-of-factly, “is just the perfect words in the perfect order.” It’s a direct definition, but not a simple one. “Perfection” invites an incredible degree of practiced calculation and execution, keeping in mind rhythm, stanza and line length, timing, narrative, punctuation, negative space, and a host of other elements. Great poetry is a product of precision and calculation as much as it is emotion. The pursuit of perfection in verse is not an endeavor for the faint-hearted.
After I spoke to Sidekick Books’ editor Jon Stone about Coin Opera 2: Fulminare’s Revenge, a volume of computer game poems, I reflected on the idea of poetic perfection and how it could be configured to reflect the aesthetics of game design. Could the definition of a game be so distilled to the perfect algorithms in perfect sequence, or something similar? Coin Opera 2: Fulminare’s Revenge navigates such interpretive straits with an overall approach that falls somewhere between careful trepidation and reckless abandon. At times it is brilliantly insightful while at others its indulgence obscures its central prospect, as is often the case with collaborative efforts. The book is, nevertheless, an absolute treat and an ambitious work, and the poems contained therein as varied as the games that inspired them.
Edited by Jon Stone and Kristen Irving (both poets whose work features in the book), Coin Opera 2 begins with a forward by prominent video game journalist and comic book author Kieron Gillen. This brief primer is followed by a proper introduction, a manifesto of sorts by Jon Stone that outlines four major thematic links between poetry and video games: resistance, formal restriction, speed of change, and, of course, play. Stone’s introduction provides a solid foundation before proceeding to the books proper, but I found myself wanting more elaboration. Aside from “play,” Stone’s discussion of these formal commonalities moves too quickly, and, while I understand the impetus to get to the poems, the points raised in the introduction warrant more exposition.
The major draws, of course, are the poems themselves, and these are split into three “Stages,” each complete with a “Multiplayer” section and an “End of Level Boss” poem. This format gives the book an implied structure as reading the book from cover to cover reflects the linear progression of a game. But like most games, we can play it or play with it, and an anthology affords readers multiple avenues to engage with the poetry within. It’s a clever bit of bibliographic coding befitting of its subject, even if skipping to the boss fight may forfeit some experience points.
It would really be a shame to gloss over any extensive section, though, especially given the volume’s commitment to experimentation. The aforementioned “Multiplayer” poems differ in each stage, either representing competitive or co-operative play. The “Boss” poems are similarly unique in that they’re much longer and structurally different (a prose poem, a cento, and a series of vignettes) than the other poems in their respective stages.
The boss poems work quite well within this structure. Coin Opera 2 is not the only poetry book that emphasizes the importance of active reading, but positing a sense of accomplishment at “vanquishing” a large body of complicated text is a fun prospect. The multiplayer poems, however, are less elegantly implemented. Reading through each stage builds a momentum that halts when a multiplayer poem pops up and asks the reader to note a set of instructions before proceeding. Though the poems themselves present clever plays on interaction, especially the strategy game-based poems in the final stage, they would fit better into their own separate category rather than within the more “linear” stages of the book.
The multiplayer and boss poems are hardly the only examples of poetic experimentation, and here lies the true value of the book. In his introduction, Stone briefly highlights how poetry constantly tests the structural binds of the old guard by embracing the facets of new media and technologies—an Ezra Poundian “Make it new” dictum for the digital age. This tension between old and new manifests in fascinating ways. Ross Sutherland composes sonnets about Street Fighter characters. Matt Haigh writes a wonderful elegy about killing a giant in “The Thirteenth Colossus.” Chrissy Williams’ “Mirror, Okami Stardust” gives textual life to the beautiful images and exhilarating movement of Okami.
A handful of poems come with visual flare as well, a few along the lines of George Herbert’s concrete poems mixed with an almost Futurist type of anarchy. The lines of Chelsea Cargill’s “Manic Miner, 48 Kilobytes” form a textual drill. Cliff Hammet’s “Snake” moves like the titular cellphone game until it crashes wonderfully against the boundaries of the page. My favorite of these is Nathan Penlington’s “Tekken Love Poem” composed of DualShock controller inputs. It’s a visual joke, sure, but it’s also one of the clearest examples of what happens when video mechanics are used to inform poetry as more than metaphor. The talent on display bends, breaks, and celebrates those strange commonalities between poetic form and video game aesthetic, and, though the results are sometimes jarring, they’re always captivating. They move from light-hearted musings to anecdotal epiphanies, all the while toying with what the reader can expect not only what poetry is but also what poetry does.
In that same conversation I had with my friend about what makes a “good” poem, I compared good poetry to a glass of Scotch. A poem should be complex and elusive, something to be savored and appreciated rather than just consumed. Sometimes it takes a while to appreciate, and it can often knock you right on your ass if you’re not prepared for it. Coin Opera 2 contains all of these qualities, offering much more than just a few poems about video games. The book surprises and challenges and much as it delights and amuses, and, perhaps most importantly, it poses questions about what the intersection where poetry and game design meet can potentially offer if further explored in either medium.
Anyone interested in picking up this book or in computer game poetry at all? Let me know!
--DavidDavid 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!