For my final project at Davidson College, I wanted to write a poem that would address a number of lingering concerns and questions I had concerning my undergraduate education and experiences. First, I wanted to address my gratitude to others—professors, peers, and friends— for their part in my academic and personal development. I wanted to explore the ways in which I could implicate the people who have guided me through my undergraduate studies in my final project, both recognizing and thanking them for their generosity. Second, I wanted to examine my growth as a writer and scholar over the past four years.
In order to address these concerns, I felt that I must write a poem; my interest in poetry began in high school, but became a passion during my first year at Davidson. While creative nonfiction might seem a better vehicle for the kind of self-exploration I was aiming for in this project, I feel that, since my education has been so influenced by poetry, it would be more honest—and more productive—to write a poem. In our first Reading Endings seminar, Dr. Ingram asked each student how they would group their English courses at Davidson. I found that I would separate them into two groups: poetry and not-poetry. Upon further reflection, I realized that the texts which have resonated with me the most over the course of my Davidson career have almost all been poetic texts. Poetry, therefore, seemed the answer to the second of my concerns. I still needed to find a way to figure out the first. The answer came to me while I was thinking about the texts that have so influenced me—in terms of my writing and in terms of my personal outlook.
I decided to write a poem taking lines from authors whose work changed me, as a way of showing respect to them. The way I conceive of a good work of art (and this is not a completely thought-out formula) is that it gives the reader/viewer something new to think about every time they come to the work—that it sparks a connection or idea in the person experiencing it. Therefore, in reusing these artists’ lines, I was showing how their work had provoked something in me, and in that way, paying respect to their work. While I had figured out a way to give thanks to those artists who have had a great impact on me these last four years, I did not yet know how to thank my professors, peers, and friends.
Finally, I remembered a digital interface I had used in a different final project my sophomore year at Davidson: Twine. Twine is a digital storytelling tool that allows the user to create an interactive story, game, or poem in the “Choose Your Own Adventure” style. This seemed a good way to acknowledge the people I wanted to thank—by literally rehearsing their part in the development of my education through an interactive poem. Furthermore, an interactive poem would allow me to revisit the subject on which I wrote my first college essay—Reception Theory. What follows is a critical component to the project, in which I examine Reception Theory through digital interactive stories as well as through literature and art at-large.
In their study on the cognitive effects of interactive storytelling on the reader, Melanie C. Green and Keenan M. Jenkins define an interactive story as one in which “interactivity is both a component of the story and the way in which the reader engages with the narrative” (Green & Jenkins, 481). Rather than allowing readers to decide the direction of the plot at key points, the poem in this project allows the reader to, at times, choose the next line. While the poem is not plot-driven, the reader’s choice of line does affect the plot. The poem deals with memory as a socially-constructed phenomenon, so certain choices in the poem circumnavigate certain memories in the poem. However, I have taken care to make sure that the poem remains harmonious and seemingly whole no matter which decisions the reader makes.
Green and Jenkins also define the notion of transportation, which is akin to an empathetic reading experience. The authors write, “Often a reader will feel as if the characters are real and the situations in the story are actually occurring. This experience is called transportation into a narrative world. Transportation into narratives is broadly defined as cognitive and emotional immersion in a story, accompanied by vivid mental imagery” (Gerrig qtd in Green & Jenkins, 485). They go on to specify that “transportation refers to immersion in the narrative world as a whole, whereas identification is specific to characters in the narrative” (Green & Jenkins, 485). While the reader may identify with the speaker in the poem—especially because the poem is written in first-person singular—the goal of the poem is to achieve transportation for the reader into the narrative world of the poem.
Whether or not the reader undergoes transportation is out of my control, but it is my hope to allow the reader to feel they are taking an active part in the meaning-making process by choosing lines according to what they would do as an artist or to the way they feel the speaker’s story must unfold. Indeed, these are essentially the two ways that Green and Jenkins found readers will respond to interactive narratives. The authors remark, “the reader may attempt to understand the character as presented in the story and make the decision based on what the character would do,” or “alternatively, the reader might also project [themself] into the story, and make a decision based on what [they] would do in that situation” (Green & Jenkins, 485). Both options speak to transportation into the narrative. The reaction the reader has to transportation seems more related to their desire as a reader than it does to a type of transportation.
The goal of this project is for the reader to achieve transportation and to recognize their role in the meaning-making process, so either reaction would be useful to the poem. However, Green and Jenkins note that the second option is more common: “our findings suggest that interactive narrative readers most often make decisions based on what they would actually do (with an average score above 5 on a 1 [not at all] to a 7 [very much] scale” (Green & Jenkins, 485). In a way the second, more common, option of reader-response seems more desirable for this project, since it shows evidence that the reader sees some parallel in the poem to experiences in their own life, or at least projects the speaker’s experiences into their own life in a meaningful way; it may even be a productive exercise for the reader’s own self-reflection. As a final point, Green and Jenkins remark, “Interactive narratives could create even greater self-referencing because readers might think about similar situations in their own lives as part of making decisions for the character” (Green & Jenkins, 487). Interactive poetry is useful in a study of reception theory because it shows a reader with structural agency over the poem, rather than secondary meaning-making agency. That is, while one reader may interpret a Yeats poem differently than another reader, the actual text of the poem remains the same for both readers. In interactive poetry, it is possible to track the effect of reception theory on the reader through their interactive choices in the poem. In this poem, for example, the goal is for the reader to feel that they are taking part in the process of meaning-making, and for the reader to see how memories are socially-constructed (through their participation in the form as well as through the content). Therefore, it is useful for the reader to react to the poem given their own personal experiences—both Green and Jenkins’ study and the tenets of Reception Theory conjecture that the reader will react in this way.
Reception theory is complicated because it draws on art and literary criticism in addition to cognitive theory and psychology, and therefore exists between disciplines, or in multiple disciplines at once. Therefore this section of the critical component to the project will draw on theories from each discipline. Art historian Wolfgang Kemp states, the “most important premise of reception aesthetics” is that “the function of beholding has already been incorporated into the work itself” (Kemp, 181). That is, every work of art, literary or visual, is meant to be received by a reader/viewer. Kemp elaborates, “Along with the aesthetics of reception, perception psychology shares the conviction that the work of art is based upon active completion by its beholder (see Gombrich’s ‘beholder’s share,’ for example)—that is to say that a dialogue occurs between the partners” (Kemp, 182). The “beholder’s share” in this example is that which the beholder of a work of art brings to the work of art—their personal ideologies and experiences—which informs the way they interpret the work.
Reception theorist and literary critic Wolfgang Iser attends to the same phenomenon through the notion of “literary work.” In their review of Iser’s more important texts, Craig A. Hamilton and Ralf Schneider explain, “Iser argues that there are ‘two poles’ in any text: ‘the artistic refers to the text created by the author, and the aesthetic to the realization accomplished by the reader. ’Somewhere between the poles is ‘the literary work,’ which readers create by reading or ‘realizing’ a text” (Iser, qtd in Hamilton & Schneider, 642). The idea that the work of art needs a reader to “realize” it is common to both the Art Historical and Literary disciplines. Some have argued that the idea that a work of art needs a reader/viewer to “realize” it is problematic because it strips the work of art of its autonomy. For example, a musical score needs a performer to make the music, but does the music not still exist on the page as well? In the same vein, Hamilton and Schneider discuss Iser’s notion of the aesthetic as only created by the reader and text in tandem: “The aesthetic is another of Iser’s problems. In general, he sees the aesthetic as that which is created only when a reader reads a text; it has no prior existence” (Hamilton & Schneider, 643). Perhaps a more productive way of talking about “realizing” a text is through positive, rather than negative, language. Instead of speaking about the “loss” of autonomy a work of art experiences in reception, one might speak of the “potential” for meaning.
Kemp argues that this potential comes from the creator of a work of art in the form of “offers of reception,” where the artist or author creates an opportunity for the implicit beholder/implied reader of a work of art to engage in meaning-making (Kemp, 190). The implicit beholder and implied reader are those for whom a work of art has been created, and signify no actual person. These figures do not, for example, complete “literary work” with a poem because they cannot actually engage with a work of art. The implicit beholder/implied reader figure is a theoretical figure used only to explain reception theory and reception aesthetics. It should be noted that only a real beholder or reader can do “literary work” and participate in meaning-making. Offers of reception, then, are created with an implicit beholder/implied reader in mind, who will then become a real beholder/reader with real experiences and ideologies to bring to the work of art in order to create meaning.
In an interactive text such as the poem in this project, offers of reception are much more obvious than, for example, an allusion to another text within a non-interactive poem. Twine allows the reader to literally choose where the narrative in the poem will go, so offers of reception hold, arguably, more import than typical offers of reception in a non-interactive poem. It should be noted here that there is no correct way to read the poem in this project; there is no correct answer to the question of which line should follow at a given point in the text. While I personally may like certain lines better and may have a preferred way to read the poem, my authority as author is completely undermined by the interactive nature of the poem. Though I wrote (some of the) words of the text, the reader ultimately gets to decide where the poem goes and how to interpret it. Though any offers of reception I present to the reader do lead to specific places in the text, I cannot tell the reader which to choose, so I lose authorial autonomy over the pace, length, and to some extent, meaning of the poem—there is even an option at the end to go back to the beginning of the poem if the reader would like to begin again, or if they are not satisfied with the ending on the first reading. That is, offers of reception in this poem are just that—offers, which the reader may take, leave, or make into something new.
While offers of reception in terms of “Choose Your Own Adventure” choices are important, other offers of reception in the poem are also important to the meaning-making process. Kemp writes,
“In communicating with us, [a work of art] speaks about its place and its potential effects in society, and it speaks about itself. Therefore the aesthetics of reception has (at least) three tasks: (1) it has to discern the signs and means by which the work establishes contact with us; and it has to read them with regard to (2) their sociohistorical and (3) their actual aesthetic statements” (Kemp, 183).
The poem in this project is bound up in sociohistorical and aesthetic statements by way of its nature as part of a lineage of poetry, specifically through the allusions, quotations, and borrowed lines. For example, where I have taken a line from one of Terrence Hayes’ sonnets, “American Sonnet for my Past and Future Assassin,” I, too, have written the rest of the lines on the page in the free-verse sonnet form. Where Claudia Rankine’s influence appears, I use a prose poem with empirical data as well as personal experience as evidence for a political argument. Where I quote Cathy Park Hong, I have written lines relying on certain vowels or consonants as a way of reappropriating her style for my own purposes as an offer of reception toward the larger point that 1) others have been involved in the making of my education, and 2) that memories are socially constructed. These are only three examples, but they show how the poem uses typical non-interactive offers of reception alongside interactive choices to create a potential for meaning.
This project uses traditional and interactive offers of reception to implicate the reader in the meaning-making process of reading/rewriting the poem in service of its intended meaning, which, of course, holds little sway—I can only attempt to guide the reader to a certain meaning through offers of reception, though I cannot guarantee they reach the same conclusions that I do. For example, a large part of this poem deals with my memory of the 2016 election—a fraught memory for many. However, depending on the choices the reader makes early on in the poem, they may circumnavigate this memory entirely. Even if the reader comes to this section of the poem, I cannot guarantee they will agree with the speaker’s politics. It is entirely possible that the reader will exit the poem at this point and never look at it again, which would be very interesting and would speak to the power of a the “reader/beholder’s share” on the meaning of a work of art.
The goal of the poem component of this project was to meld form and content and to relinquish control of the poem to the reader, who will hopefully experience transportation, and therefore, an empathetic response. It is my belief that the study of literature is an approximation of empathy—perhaps as close as we can reasonably come to it. It was also to acknowledge the fact that, though the poem is largely self-exploratory, it necessarily encompasses the time and attentiveness of others and their actions that made these memories possible. In this way, the poem points toward itself, and its meaning is reified each time a reader engages with it.