“I Want My Hand in the Fire”: An Interview with Jon Woodward by Zach Savich

Jon Woodward’s new chapbook, POOLGOER and SPELEOGRAPHER from The Economy Press, is composed of columns that streak down the page 1 or 2 letters at a time. The effect is immensely absorbing, pleasurable, enlivening; each page is rippled with columns. Concrete poetry that directly imitates shapes (e.g., a poem about a flower that looks like a flower) can end up neutralizing its visual effect. One sees the subject, recognizes it, and then stops seeing in the complex ways that language conjures. On the other hand, open field compositions of intuitive indentations, spacings, and gaps can stimulate a sense of seeing that ultimately drifts; the eye starts wandering, and so does the mind. Woodward’s formal approach is different: it requires close attention to comprehend each word (this is not poetry you can skim), at least until you understand the rules of its game, and then there’s a neural flare as the words become clear, open up, connect in their meanings. The systemic playfulness of the mode makes sense: Woodward also designs and thinks closely about video games. We corresponded about poetry, games, and the connections between the imagination, agency, and empathy.

Woodward’s books include Rain and Uncanny Valley, as well as The Amber in Ambrose, which is forthcoming in 2023 from TRNSFR Books. He lives in the Boston area and works at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. His website is jonwoodward.net.

Zach Savich: Could you tell us about your history with poetry and games, poetry as games, and related intersections? 

Jon Woodward: I got into games as a kid, way before I cared about poetry. And I mean “video games” specifically, though I love games of all kinds. I remember watching older kids playing Jupiter Lander and Raid on Bungeling Bay and H.E.R.O. on the Commodore 64, and feeling transfixed. These were the earliest “home” games I remember (as opposed to big arcade cabinets, which I was not tall enough or skilled enough to enjoy) and I think they generate really interesting friction against each other. Each gives an account of flight that is totally different: buoyant and delicate, scrambly and destructive, claustrophobic and surgical, respectively. I’d like to think I felt these qualities as a kid, but I’m 100% sure that I’m able to pinpoint formal features in retrospect as a result of a lot of subsequent time spent with poetry. By the way, do you remember any early encounter with video game(s) and any impressions you were left with?

My first favorite poet was e e cummings: playful to a fault. I learned a lot from loving him and also from falling out of love with him. Like, you can’t read very far into anthology staples William Blake or Emily Dickinson or really anyone before you start wondering what cummings was so smug about. 

I studied poetic forms very intently, and prosody, and I read hymns for stress patterns and that, but I studied recalcitrance and incantation and vertigo too. None of these felt like rules for games, exactly? Easy analogies obscure deeper discrepancies, was my sense, I think? Or something off about the stakes, or the “goal,” in writing? Hard to remember.

So the usual “playful” movements, like Oulipo and its heirs, only ever worked for me in ways that were orthogonal to the formal preconditions. Same with my own writing. The experience I want is mystery and death. I want mercy extended to fellow mortal beings, or withheld; and if withheld, I want to want the reason. I want the intensity-management interface, maybe malfunctioning; I want my hand in the fire. And that’s the beginning and end of intersections between games and poetry that matter to me now. Not “interactivity,” not rules and generative constraints, except to whatever degree they result in specific experience. 

ZS: My first video game encounters that mattered were anarchic. I liked this PC baseball game that let you move the players to different positions. But they’d retain their original sizes. So, the catcher, typically large in the foreground, would become HUGE when you moved him to the outfield. Or I remember cracking myself up in text-based adventure games by typing absurd commands: there’s poetry. A hand in the fire, perhaps—but it doesn’t burn like you expect? Thinking about your new chapbook, POOLGOER and SPELEOGRAPHER, it’s interesting that you say you aren’t that interested in rules and generative constraints. How did the form of these poems develop?

JW: The huge catcher in the outfield! I really love when a game rewards that kind of naive approach, or the gremlinish urge to input the absurd—testing the limits of agency, playing the unplayable parts. 

I wrote the pieces of POOLGOER and SPELEOGRAPHER on an “Efficiency Data Pad” that I must have found cheap somewhere. It’s a pad of graph paper with cells that are wider than they are tall, so each cell fits two letters more naturally than one. I wasn’t sure what I wanted when I started. I had this album Sunbather by Deafheaven in the back of my mind for a while, and specifically the title and the album cover and only distantly the music (sorry, Deafheaven). The title appears as: 

SUN
BAT
HER

I was struck really forcefully by that standalone designation; apprehending that word felt like mistaking a living being for a statue, or vice versa. So anyway, I started filling in cells with designations, building outwards, chasing a hunch, and fell in love right away with the broken-up parts of words, and with how slow the reading experience was, and how thrilling words could be when spelled in that slow cascading way. I was swinging at my own eephus pitch.

So to be clear, I am absolutely interested in “constraints” broadly speaking and I use them close to 100% of the time. But I’m not interested in them for their own sake: I want the experiences they create. Poets can deploy game structures in the service of poetry, and poems can be playful, but I genuinely think that poetry is a different beast than games. If what games inscribe is agency (see below), poetry inscribes experience, I think. Poetry binds an experience of language to an experience of time; this binding pulls experience itself into relief, or this is my theory lately. And thinking about it this way probably bespeaks a degree of unexamined privilege, as though experience was just an abstract thing and not a (for example) political reality, contingent on race and class and other factors. Or as though the shared nightmares of climate change and species loss and habitat destruction weren’t ongoing. For whatever it’s worth, I’m optimistic that we’re more willing to make sacrifices and help others when we see their situation from inside … I’m not sure if poetry does that for anyone or not, but it seems like the mechanism is there.

ZS: I’ve been thinking that some poems that seem “gamey” or “playful” rely on a two-part experience. A reader reads them and thinks, “How playful!” Or, “The poet really made and solved a complex formal puzzle!” The sense of “game” comes in thinking about or responding to what one has read. But there are also poems in which the “game” is the reading itself. The act of reading requires you to understand and abide by particular rules, and you level up along the way. The game is for the reader, rather than having been for the poet, whether in their composition or their playful attitude or whatever. How does that idea seem to you? Are there poems by others that you’d put in that second category?

JW: This reminds me of an excellent book called The Aesthetic of Play, by Brian Upton. His model of play (and reading for that matter, he erases the distinction) is the navigation of an ever-changing field of possibilities via internal interpretive moves. In his words: “As we play a game, read a book, watch a movie, or listen to a symphony, we are continually engaging in interpretive play. We construct new internal constraints that agree with what has come before, and we use those internal constraints to anticipate what will come after.” That’s your second category, unless I’ve missed something in your question. Most poems I love read that way. I think that Rae Armantrout’s offspeed triangularity makes those constant internal adjustments really noticeable. Graham Foust too. Renee Gladman’s work seems to require major reorientations right off the bat, which continue to propagate the longer you look. 

ZS: I’ve played your game Golf of Squirrels of Champions several times. In it, the player maneuvers a squirrel to an acorn in as few leaps as possible. What I love is that—at least for me—the hardest levels seem to ask a player to move with numerous scampering, scurrying clicks, not by calculated efficiency. You become more squirrel-like in your movements. That wrecks your score. I like how this asks a player to leave behind their score-oriented mindset for a goal-oriented one. It goes from a puzzle I’m trying to solve to an appetite—get that nut!—that I’m hopping to fulfill. Do you have examples of games (or poetry, or poetry-as-games) that tune your mental experience in interesting ways?

JW: Okay, first of all, when you say “your game” you make it sound like it’s not a largely unfinished prototype. Thank you (again) for playing it. I should work on it some more. I really love that you had a squirrely experience! And I love your question, which cuts to the heart of both the promise and the problem of games for me; so my answer is “oh I have examples” but I’ll get to them in a second. The best exploration of this and related topics that I’ve found is a new book, Games: Agency as Art, by C. Thi Nguyen. As one might infer, his position is that just as (for example) music makes art out of sound and hearing, games make art out of agency; games tell you who to be and what to care about (for better and worse). And gameplay teaches us that agency can nest, and layer! In your brief time as a squirrel, the exigencies of squirreliness overtook the explicit objective of the game, which I totally love.

For a long time, this aspect of games (the ability to “be” someone else, to feel and choose by prosthesis) seemed like not just a net positive to me, but a feature with revolutionary potential. I touched on this above with respect to poetry. My assumption was that a player who routinely experiences what it’s like to occupy another agency is going to be a more compassionate person. A furtive glance in the direction of gamer culture reveals how misguided that assumption is! The default restructuring of consciousness in games today, and by far the most profitable mode, is a murderous or extractive nihilism that asks nothing of the player. 

I play games that treat me like that, sometimes! I’m not immune to stupid fun. And my squirrel game obviously isn’t “Asphodel” or anything. But play is how we learn—so what are we learning, if no internal adjustments are required of us? What does one do with a self that becomes accustomed to vast power and spoonfed purpose? Nothing good, I think.

Even some quite beautiful games which attempt to give the player true insight into other lives are still prioritizing the experience for that player. The game centers them and revolves around them. Games as a whole have not yet had their Copernican moment. 

Anyway, circling back to your actual question: Baba Is You is the most obvious answer, a totally brilliant puzzle game. You physically push and realign the words that constitute the rules of the world to arrive at solutions. Every poet should take a look through this game’s lens. 

Less obvious but maybe more important, I have to mention Rain World, which smuggles a world’s worth of empathy into what looks like a lush but straightforward adventure-platformer. This GDC talk by the creators gives a good overview of the game, and drills down on how they equate creature animation and behavior—absolutely check it out if that sounds interesting. I think Rain World begins to de-center the player by populating its spaces with autonomous creatures who form an ecosystem together, into which the player character is dropped with almost no guidance. You often don’t know what to do. This was considered “bad design” by a lot of players, and it can result in a punishing play experience. I won’t soon forget the feeling of meeting a non-hostile creature, a friend, and hurting them out of an instinctive fear I’d learned from everything else. I was playing it during the thick of the COVID lockdown, and I still haven’t finished it, because I couldn’t really handle the emotional load—the tedium, finally, of dying repeatedly while re-traversing difficult terrain for what would probably turn out to be no reason. (If that sounds like damnation or faint praise, it’s not.)

I also want to highlight the work of Loren Schmidt, an amazing gamedev whose work sits a lot closer to poetry. I found her first through her very strange little game STRAWBERRY CUBES. Schmidt is fascinated by process, and tends to make slow experiences that are rich in pattern, material, and incremental change. Following her on Twitter is a great way to see these projects take shape little by little. And like me, sometimes she doesn’t finish things, which I appreciate!

ZS: The mention of “pattern, material, and incremental change” reminds me of your spooling, looping, 40-foot long poem “Mockingbird,” which was written on adding machine tape. Poems from across your publications often foreground iteration and refrains that mutate (or don’t). In POOLGOER and SPELEOGRAPHER, some repeated words (such as “poolgoer”) start to ring with distinct tones for me. That’s partly because the book’s form requires some very engaging deciphering. Words that offer an easy landing can give a charge of relief. That description suggests a quality of puzzle, but the experience hasn’t felt like “puzzling” out a riddle or straining to solve a calculation. It’s more like staring at the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and suddenly noticing patterns. It invites that kind of intent yet open focus. 

JW: That’s a really fascinating thing about jigsaw puzzles, isn’t it? They’re so underrated, because they seem so pointless and suburban, but they always give me that experience of “intent yet open focus.” You really can cede most of your awareness to pattern recognition, you can feel it happening! Birdwatching scritches the same itch for me, and listening to minimalist music. All of these activities flirt with boredom, which is also underrated. And maybe they can turn to paranoia, if the sensorium overflows and starts reporting on what isn’t there. 

I don’t know. I’m glad you felt relief in POOLGOER and SPELEOGRAPHER. I don’t think it’s very difficult, compared to other stuff I’ve written. “Mockingbird,” which you mentioned, I don’t know how many people have read that entirely; probably none. We never did a performance of “Uncanny Valley” (the musical setting of my poem, music by John Gibson, co-performed with Oni Buchanan) without someone walking out. I think the rewards of endurance aesthetics are unique, which probably means not for everyone. 

But I also think that with sustained attention comes some knowledge of ourselves and our limits and our variability, and some degree of quietness too, maybe the kind of quietness we’d need in order to let each other in. 

Zach Savich’s latest book of poetry is Daybed (Black Ocean, 2018). He teaches at the Cleveland Institute of Art.

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