The Transmedia Lyric

As a transmedia lyric, American Ghazal is intended to exist and be experienced online. It is not an electronic chapbook or a steppingstone to print but an end in itself. It is transmedia because it moves naturally back and forth across the various media (words, images, video) that comprise the Internet’s World Wide Web.

The online environment is essential to the transmedia lyric. The Web’s native hyperlinking extends poetic diction. Diction, the words the poet chooses, is the most fundamental aspect of the poetic art. Mood and tone as well as style and voice stand on the foundation of diction. In a transmedia lyric, diction also includes whatever media objects the poet comes across or creates online. These objects are not just dressing for the words but essential to the lyric.

The transmedia lyric consists of a matrix of associations and allusions connected by hyperlinks. It offers the reader many paths rather than any set path from start to finish. It is like a labyrinth, or a funhouse. The reader can enter one door, wander about and land on a YouTube video, or a free-verse poem, or an photo slideshow or even another transmedia lyric. Or get popped out entirely into some other place on the Web. Like the wormhole in physics, the transmedia lyric is a portal that shortcuts through vast distances in time and space.

As a transmedia piece, American Ghazal cannot exist as a book or in a journal. Of course, its parts can be sampled in print, but not experienced as it was meant any more than a movie can be fully experienced through its stills. A transmedia lyric needs the whole Web to draw from, just as a poem needs all the words of its language. But this is not new. Modern poetry has always been expansive. For Ezra Pound working in print, it extended to words from many languages, ancient and modern, and to multiple writing systems, from Chinese characters to Sanskrit.

The Transmedia Lyric is Paratactical

The macro aesthetic of the transmedia lyric is paratactical. That is, it juxtaposes objects (words, images, etc.), leaving it up to the reader to discern meaning. Not the meaning, or what the poet means, but what the reader experiences. In parataxis, the poet gives up control and gives to the reader equal authority over meaning. This makes the transmedia lyric highly interactive and risky. The reader and poet “partner” to create the aesthetic experience. The poet provides options; readers take them where they want. Through commenting, readers can even add to the connections and augment the transmedia lyric. It all depends on how interactive the poet wishes to make the piece.

The transmedia lyric is particularly interested in the flotsam and jetsam that make up the bulk of content on the Web: pirated YouTube ads, abandoned Flickr photo streams, obscure blog posts, orphaned social media threads, etc. With so much content hosted for free, little gets removed. Its producers lose interest, move on, go offline or die, but very few bother to remove old stuff. Through the poet’s aesthetic choices, this detritus becomes the stuff of art. What was once banal and meaningless makes meaning as part of a transmedia lyric. This is much the same as poets who use found language and artists who use found objects.

As with any poem, the transmedia lyric can rhyme. One media object — a word, an image, a video, etc. — can echo some aspect of another. The transmedia lyric offers the variety of rhymes and alliteration, though these elements do not yet exist in a well defined prosody. The form is still in development, still experimental. With various degrees of success, American Ghazal attempts to play with this cross-media rhyming.

The Transmedia Lyric is Transmorphic

A transmedia lyric is inherently unstable. Because the work is digital, it has no fixed material existence. Unlike a book, it can be revised and re-published every day with two or three mouse clicks. And every email, Tweet, Facebook post or bookmark that links to it gets the latest edition automatically, immediately and invisibly.

Over time or in an instant, the transmedia lyric can morph into something completely different and new. Each version is ephemeral, and all past versions are lost except as they exist in the poet’s or reader’s memories. Additionally, the Web objects that comprise much of the transmedia lyric’s diction are unstable. They can and will disappear without warning, leaving behind nothing but dead hyperlinks. The poet’s only option is to revise and recreate.

Because online change and revision cost nothing, there is no need for a final version or an authoritative text. The high overhead and capital costs of print production and distribution demand authoritative texts; the minimal fixed overhead of online production (e.g., small fees for domain registration and site hosting) make them unnecessary. I can produce new versions of American Ghazal for free as long as I live. If I wish, I can even bequeath production to my poetic heirs and community and let them take over. As with all digital products, there are advancing versions, but no final product. What I lose in permanence I gain in freedom.

Why the Ghazal for the Transmedia Lyric

Disunity is an inherent quality of the classical ghazal (as opposed to the free verse ghazal practiced by English language poets such as Adrienne Rich, Jim Harrison and John Thompson). In the traditional ghazal, each couplet stands alone as a kind of mini poem. They share a common rhyme and refrain but no central idea or rhetorical point. Each may also manifest a different voice or mood. The reader need not read them in order, or even read them all.

Disunity is also natural to the Web. It too consists of units: Web pages, Web sites, videos, audios, podcasts, posts, etc. The content within these units may be fragmented, but the units themselves must be technically whole and self-contained in order to exist online.

As a Web-based publication, the transmedia lyric lives in disunity. Its readers can and will follow the hyperlinks where impulse and interest lead. They might come right back, or return days later, or leave forever. The poet has no control over this. Nor does the reader have any obligation to return and finish, an anachronistic notion given the transmorphic nature of transmedia lyric.

This does not mean that the transmedia lyric is antithetical to other poetry forms, or to free verse, or even to prose poems. But the poet must recognize that it is not read in the same linear fashion as one would read a poem in a book. There is, however, a good chance that some readers will return to the piece over and over, especially if it is always changing in interesting ways.

The Tranmedia Lyric Platform

The natural platform for the transmedia lyric is the mobile device, which ranges from the smartphone to the tablet. The unique qualities of the mobile device make it optimal for the transmedia lyric:

  • Mobile. Unlike the desktop computer, the mobile device goes everywhere its owner goes. It turns any Starbucks, subway car, bus seat or bathroom stall into a virtual theater or library. This mobility makes the transmedia lyric available not only where the people are but when they’re ready for it. And the people are reading their mobile devices everywhere all day long.
  • Connected. The mobile device’s constant connectivity supports the transmedia lyric’s need for live links to other Web objects. Again, the transmedia lyric draws its diction not just from language but also from the Web.
  • Interactive. Because of its native hyperlinking, the transmedia lyric demands reader interaction. Readers interact with their mobile devices physically, as evidenced by the finger smudges typical to touchscreens. By letting readers literally get their hands on it, the touchscreen compels greater interaction. The lack of this kind of physical intimacy makes interaction on the desktop much less compelling.
  • Unbound. No brand, corporate of governmental, binds the mobile device. Despite what Apple, Microsoft and Amazon would like, the mobile device is brand agnostic when it comes to content. The transmedia lyric needs this freedom in order to maximize its diction possibilities.

The transmedia lyric belongs on the mobile device just as the movie belongs in the theater. It can, of course, be experienced on any desktop browser just as a movie can be viewed on television, but the larger, fixed form factor diminishes the experience.

Early twenty-first century digital technology in terms of both hardware and software is still quite crude. The transmedia lyric is where the movie was in the early twentieth century, when movie cameras were powered by hand cranks, images were only black and white, and movies were silent. But it was during this time that most cinematic techniques were discovered, techniques that are still in use today.

The Economics of the Transmedia Lyric

The transmedia lyric wants to be free. It needs its audience to be able to come and go at will. Paywalls and registrations are anathema to the transmedia lyric. Thus, it stands in radical opposition to the mercenary culture that dominates the Web.

There is no monetizing the transmedia lyric. However, the cost of online production and distribution are mostly nominal and often free. The transmedia lyric requires no capital investment. Given the increasing prevalence of fees for journal submissions and contest entries, it cost no more than getting published by a conventional journal (online or in print) or a book publisher. Maybe even less.

Freedom from commercial interests liberates the poet. Like a blogger, I retain total control. I need not answer to the authority of publisher, advertiser, editor, critic or even reader. I am only beholden to my muse and the poetic tradition that taught me. (After all, if you foot the bill, you should get to call the shots, no?) Besides, true poets have always operated this way, regardless of the medium. So while online digital media is new, the independence and iconoclasm of the artist remains the same.

The transmedia lyric is not a mass media product. And the Web is not really a mass media platform. Movie studios, television networks, record companies and publishers may try to make it one, but the Web has a way of subverting their attempts. Whereas television homogenizes audiences, the Web fragments them, often down to the atomic level of the individual. Despite all the attention going viral gets, the Web is about one blogger or Tweeter easily and naturally reaching and interacting with one person at a time, immediately and asynchronously over time, anywhere in the world (there is no such thing as long distance on the Internet).

This one-to-one aspect of the Web is good for poetry, which has never been comfortable as a mass media product. Inherent in poetry’s DNA is oral recitation, as in a lover to a beloved, or within a small group where everyone sits within earshot of the human voice. Poetry needs an intimacy that mass media can never offer. In How to Read a Poem, Edward Hirsch illustrates poetry’s one-to-one intimacy by comparing the poem to a message in a bottle. To explain, he quotes Paul Celan:

A poem, as a manifestation of language and thus essentially dialogue, can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the — not always hopeful — belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps. Poems in this sense, too, are under way: they are making toward something.

Celan’s words could just as well apply to a poem on the Web, which is as vast as an ocean. It gets tossed into this electronic sea as a message to some unknown reader somewhere across time and space. The reader comes across the poem serendipitously, like a beach walker who happens upon a bottle washed up in the sand. It could have been tossed a week ago or a century ago. It could have come from a few miles up-shore or across the ocean. The beach walker need not pay anything or sign up for anything. Chance and fate give the poem to this reader, whether the poem exists in a bottle or as a transmedia lyric.

The image is a frame from “Man with a Movie Camera” by Dziga Vertov (1929). The work is in the Public Domain.