The Unknown: The Green Line.


Radio Free Unknown

This is a transcript of our self-interview as conducted on community radio in Illinois on Saturday the 16th of October, 1999. It was the morning after the Newspoetry Sweet Betsy Reading and the ensuing celebration so we had little time to prepare our interview.

A few minutes before the show began, while Dirk was in the bathroom, Scott and William hit upon the idea that, during the radio interview, they would discuss the narrative structure of The Unknown in terms of works of literature with more rigorous narrative structures, thinking that this might be funny. They forgot to tell Dirk, and afterward he was mad at them. But it wasn’t the first time.

There’s been a lot of water under the bridge and someday we’re going to bottle it and sell it on the Web. Nevertheless, we all continue to lumber on into The Unknown.



Entry Music: BEN FOLDS FIVE: “Julianne”
(Dedicated to Peter Miller)

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W: Ahhhh. You’re listening to WEFT Champaign 90.1 FM. I’m sitting here with the Unknown.

Scott, what is Alt-X and who is Mark Amerika?

S: Well, Alt-X is an avant-garde literary site on the Web; it’s been a center of hypertext and transgressive literature. It was associated with FC2, a press that was operating out of Normal, Illinois. Mark Amerika spells his name like the country but with a K, also like a Kafka novel. He wrote this thing called Grammatron several years back that was in many ways a precursor to The Unknown.

W: Grammatron. What is that?

S: It’s a massive word beast on the Internet, essentially. It’s an interactive hypertext novel kind of thing. It uses some of that push stuff, some of that video, some of that audio, music kinds of . . . stuff. . . .

W: I like that stuff.

S: It’s good.

W: We’re going to talk a little bit about the writing of The Unknown and interview the writers a little bit about the writing and what it was like to write the writing.

S: Oh—alright, Alt-X is w w w dot alt x dot com.

W: Now would that be hyphenated? Alt-X, any capital letters in that?

S: I believe it’s just a l t x. I’m pretty sure about that but you may want to do a search on a search engine. I don’t know.

W: Maybe we should also indicate that you should first type in on certain browsers H T T P colon slash slash—

S: Slash slash.

W: That stands for “HyperText Transfer Protoco,l” which is a very popular Internet protocol these days. Well, we’re going to talk a little bit about writing.

Dirk, George Perec’s famous novel Life: A User’s Manual takes place in an apartment building. The apartment building has 64 apartments and the novel has 64 chapters, one for each of the apartments, and the way he structured this was to find out the one way in which, using an ordinary chessboard, you can move a knight such that it lands on each square once without returning to any of the other ones. Do you think The Unknown is like that?

D: No. Because frequently hypertext links will take you back to a page that you’ve already read before, and your control is somewhat limited. In the book that you’re describing, which I’ve never read, it seems to me that the linear nature of the product would take you through all the moves one right after the other.

S: Well, maybe we should explain how The Unknown is actually structured.

W: What is The Unknown?

S: The Unknown is a hypertext novel on the World Wide Web. Those of you following on your browsers at home—that’s w w w dot s o a dot u c dot e d u slash user slash unknown. And actually in structuring The Unknown we were thinking, as you recall, quite a bit about the Goldberg Variations.

W: Ah, the Goldberg Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach.

S: Indeed, we were trying to take the structure that Bach used in the Goldberg Variations and mix that with the structure of a double-helix.

W: Ah ha, that’s a brilliant idea. Does that mean there are 32 chapters in The Unknown, one for each of the Goldberg Variations?

S: Indeed it does. With two parts apiece.

W: And how did you guys handle the fugues? I mean, what is the literary analogy of a fugue? That’s a very complicated mathematical and abstract form and I’m not sure how one would translate that into language.

S: I believe Dirk, as the poet, does much of the translation from music into words and vice-versa.

W: Dirk, is that true?

D: (pause) Frankly, I am totally baffled by this conversation because this is the first I’ve heard that we structured The Unknown using the Goldberg Variations. I’m quite glad that we did, but I did it totally unconsciously—

W: Wow. You must really like the piece. I prefer the first recording myself. That Glenn Gould—

S: He could really play that thing.

W: He could tickle those ivories. I’ll tell you what.

Maybe you’re right though, Dirk, I think we should back up and contextualize a little bit for the listener. We are talking about writing, although we will throw a few URLs at you. Perhaps it would help if we had a little bit of writing about The Unknown by other people to help contextualize it. I noticed that you brought in your press kit. Would you—

S: We do carry our press kit with us everywhere.

W: Let’s see what some of the major metropolitan newspapers and extremely minor, poorly-done college newspapers have to say.

S: This is from the Chicago Tribune by Julia Keller—a fabulous writer there—October 4th, 1999. This is a report on The Unknown reading at the Chicago Public library. Which by the way was falsely published in the newspapers to begin at two o’clock. It actually began at noon. Thus ensuring us a very small but dedicated audience. This is a description of our voices:

The authors took turns reading aloud from their rollicking, devilishly eloquent novel. Gillespie, a webmaster at the University of Illinois who lives in Champaign, had a self-mockingly authoritative tenor. Rettberg, a Chicago resident, had the grizzly tone of a wisdom-spouting fry cook; you could imagine the cigarette bobbing on his lip as he muttered aphorisms and called out, “Tuna melt’s up!” Stratton, a graduate student in creative writing at the University of Cincinnati, was the best vocal performer; he sounded like an old-time radio announcer, with an oaky baritone that rose and fell in dramatic scallops as his narrative pace accelerated.

W: We’re going to be hearing a little bit of that oaky baritone later, so stay tuned. Ahhhh.

Dirk, how would you compare the process of writing a hypertext collaboratively over email to the process of writing a one-page poem by yourself?

D: The processes are completely different. A one-page poem by myself is a very lonely operation whereas when you use email and you’re communicating with other collaborators who may or may not accept what you’ve written, who may or may not like what you’ve written, who may or may not edit what you have written, puts you in a three-dimensional space, whereas writing a poem by yourself is a two-dimensional act. Just you and the paper.

S: And you’ve never actually written a poem that was only one page long.

D: That’s untrue. Usually, my poems are either two lines long, or several lines long.

S: Oh, I’d only read the epics.

D: Well, the epics are . . . it’s best not to speak of the epics. Frankly, none of them have worked out.

S: I thought that Pilgrim’s Progress piece was brilliant.

D: Thank you.

W: I’m going to read an excerpt from the Coe College Cosmos, a little writing about the Unknown when they toured Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa:

This hypertext novel won trAce/AltX, a challenging international hypertext competition. The contest, judged by Robert Coover, was incredibly intense. In the end, a tie was called between The Unknown and an Australian poet.

Hypertext is a developing field. Hundreds of articles announce and hail the ‘phenomena’ of hypertext, a system of non-sequential writing. Because most humans learn associatively, hypertext is an effective means of acquiring information. It’s more experimental in the subject of technical writing. Rather than reading or learning in the order that an author sets out for us, readers of hypertext can follow their own path and create their own order or meaning of the material. This, in essence, explains how poetry is interpreted. Not everyone agrees on the meaning of the poem. This modern, effective technological writing is the language that links different pages or web sites together. Peter Muller states, “Authors of hypertext documents must cope with additional expression techniques than those available (cracks up) for traditional sequential material.” Creativity is a large determiner of the best work. Poetry continues to be a large part of literary work, even in different forms.

Remember: A poem is insight to the soul.

S: A poem truly is insight to the soul. And I think that those of you driving around in your cars, listening to the radio, should take a little time to think about that—maybe recite a Robert Frost poem from memory. Dirk?

D: Well, William and Scott, frankly I feel like I’ve been thrown into the deep dark ocean without a life preserver and I’m sure if I feel that way, I’m certain that our listeners must be a little confused as well. So I thought that maybe I should read a brief description of The Unknown that comes from the Real Time newspaper, a publication from Australia

S: Sydney.

D: Pardon?

S: Sydney.

D: And it is a review of the trAce/AltX international hypertext winners, which included Rice, which is an Australian hypertext, which explains why an Australian newspaper—

S: Shout out to our friends in Australia!

D: Kirsten Krauth says the following about The Unknown:

The Unknown, in typical United States fashion, looks deep within, into the bowels and beyond. We’re all going on a—another road trip folks and we’ll take up where Kerouac and DeLillo left off—to frontier fiction with a special travel itinerary, with 3 academics who can’t change a tyre, on a book tour to flog The Anthology of the Unknown. (Who says that Americans don’t understand irony?). Starting from write-about-what-ya-know. . . . The Unknown is a satire on publishing and promotion as well as a tough and funny look at the nature of creating hypertext: “the reader becomes a sort of satellite taking photographs of a huge and varied terrain.”

Does that somewhat explain a little bit about what’s going on? The somewhat—the nature of the plot, if we could call it that.

S: Yes—which is that we started out with one particular day in Dirk’s youth which was the day that he met his beloved. And he wanted to start out with that point in history and then write an encyclopedic narrative about that single day that meant so much to him. And that’s really where we began with June 5, 1998, and we tried to pack the whole world that was occurring on that day into this novel, and in the process use many different prose styles, and writing about the evolution of the English language.

W: (stunned) The evolution of the English language.

S: That’s correct.

W: (sighs) Well, maybe we should get to the writing. Dirk pointed out earlier that there are listeners and I tend to forget that—stay tuned for some spoken arts, here on From Bard to Verse. Here’s Camper Van Beethoven.


After the song, the Unknown perform:

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Waiting For the Unknown
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Unknown on Unknown  

W: You’re listening to WEFT Champaign. What was it Amerika wanted us to do for this Alt-X thing again?

S: He wanted us talk in terms of what the theory and application of the theory of The Unknown was. Maybe you can talk about how your experiences as a junior tennis player shaped this massive hypertext novel, The Unknown.

W: Well, The Unknown does employ some structural devices. The scene you just heard uses a structural device, a narrative technique, a trope if you will, that we employed, called “ripping off.” We ripped off Samuel Beckett and took his style as our own. And this strategy is employed throughout The Unknown. There are scenes which are clearly derivative of H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley, Julio Cortazar, Cormac McCarthy. John Barth?

D: John Barth and Edgar Allan Poe.

W: That sounds agreeable.

S: Have we have it here?

W: Another structural device employed by The Unknown is its using as a frame the failure to tell the story of a book tour which was gone on by three supposedly rich and famous writers.

S: And the whole point of this thing was to get us to write a book together which we then wrote and were gonna publish. Regardless:

The Unknown perform:

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Fall at the House of John Barth
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Unknown on Unknown on Unknown  

S: So, I guess that was kind of a tribute to Nathaniel Hawthorne. We were trying to write a novel about the Puritan spirit in America and so we started out with a small town in New England and wrote about them basically ostracizing a woman who had done something that, by our cultural standards, I don’t think is really anything wrong.

W: What we had intended to do was to sort of create a satire of a historical novel involving Richard Nixon and the Rosenbergs. We wanted to make it a little bit, um, graphically obscene as well as a farce; that’s really the only way we could really express our disgust with Watergate Scandal and the Red Scare.

S: That’s true, and there is much that you can do if you just focus on one small fictional county and you focus on the characters within that county. Which I think is essentially what we were trying to do with The Unknown, to take postage-stamp-sized chunk of the world, and explain how that chunk really encompasses everything. And, of course, using a lot of dialect—

W: And here is an example of that:

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Up North
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Unknown on That Not Known

S: Dirk, I had a question for you. Joe Tabbi, who’s a scholar, says that what’s interesting about hypertext in general, and The Unknown in specific, is what he calls self-reflexive autopoiesis, or the narrative creation of selves. What are your thoughts on that? And also what became of you. In The Unknown, of course, you become essentially a cult leader, a messiah, a resurrected messiah, a leader to many—indeed whenever we do live readings and you’re not with us, the kids are frankly disappointed. So how do you think that Joe Tabbi’s idea fits in with what you’ve become via The Unknown?

D: Well, it’s interesting that, your talk about autopoiesis, or self, what’s it, self?

S: Self-reflexive autopoiesis.

D: Because, uh, interestingly enough I had absolutely no choice at all in my transformation into a messiah since that was done for me by my three coauthors. I had to accept the role at that point, and occasionally act the role, which was painful, since most messiahs end up hurt, badly. And of course that is exactly what happens in The Unknown. My body gets bludgeoned by thousands of knives—

S: You can’t get bludgeoned by a knife, Dirk.

D: It was a disconcerting experience, frankly, Scott, because, as much as I would like to be a messiah, it’s not a role that I think I would actively choose, but—

S: But you certainly have the most charisma of any of the Unknown.

D: Well, I thank you for that kind remark, however—it was difficult, it was difficult.

W: Scott, I was reading in—recently, of course, The Review of Contemporary Fiction had an issue devoted to The Unknown—I was reading some criticism which described the process of writing The Unknown—they said that what you had done was to map out that Proust novel A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu—oh, excuse me, I thought I was in Paris—In Remembrance of Things Past and sort of put it on a grid, using certain narratological aspects, I think also you employed Barthes’ five codes from S/Z.

S: Yes. The image equals text. And, of course, they touched on in the—wasn’t it in Bérubé’s piece on Melville and The Unknown in The Review of Contemporary Fiction?—

W: That’s the one.

D: Absolutely. Your memory is astounding, Scott.

S: The cetology chapters of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, of course, and what he was trying to do using the whale as a metaphor for American society and the things that they were going through back around the turn of the last century, a little bit before that—twenty thirty years, something like that, anyway, as Bérubé noted, The Unknown is the great white whale of early 21st Century American literature.

W: Precisely. It is the Howl of hypertext novels. It has liberated hypertext from the arduous formal constraints imposed by the Eastgate school.

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Recording Studio
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Unknown Undead

D: In fact, I was not dead. Which was one of the joys of The Unknown is that after I was killed by my corrupt and sometimes authoritarian coauthors—

S: So Dirk—Derrida would call that the “Slippage of the Signifier”—is that correct?

D: Absolutely. Because I no longer signified what you hoped I would signify, but had changed.

W: Well, Derrida, of course, would have said that in French, which has higher standards of linguistic purity.

S: How do you talk in French, William?

W: I heard some people do it in a café. It doesn’t look that hard.

S: I think “Je ne sais pas” means “I have great knowledge of the subject.”

W: There is a certain je NE sais pas.

W: We’re sitting here with Dirk Stratton, poet, Cincinnati, one of America’s leading Ronald Johnson scholars. We understand that in addition to all your serious work, pages and pages, years accumulated of high-quality poetry, you tossed off a silly hypertext novel over the last year and we were interested in that and we were wondering if you could read a scene from that for us.

D: Well, indeed I will. Fortunately, once I was killed in the hypertext novel, that was not the end of me, otherwise I would have been sort of bored, because no longer would the hypertext have been concerned with me—

S: Sorry about that.

D: But in fact, this scene appeared, unbeknownst to me, from one of my generous coauthors.

Dirk performs:

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Dirk Spirit
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Meet the Unknown

W: You’re listening to WEFT Champaign noncommercial radio shining out from your radio dial at 90.1 FM like a shaft of gold when all around is dark.

S: That passage was very interesting. That was the passage that Michael Joyce cited in his Atlantic Monthly article on the Heideggerian interpretation of The Unknown—“Being and The Unknown”—that I believe was in the February 1999 issue.

W: I’m glad that he decided to give up his hypertext career and devote the rest of his life to Unknown scholarship. But I have a confession to make—that famous hypertext—Afternoon, a Story—? I actually wrote that.

D: You did?

W: I let him have it.

S: Oh, you wrote it—but he did the coding.

W: Exactly. We got into a little disagreement, and I decided to let him just take over the project.

S: He did a pretty good job—he’s got that tone. Tone is important. Wouldn’t you agree, Dirk? As a poet?

D: That’s true. But you know I was not convinced, after reading that Atlantic Monthly article, that Joyce had actually read the whole Unknown. I think that he was picking and choosing, and just pretending to be well-versed.

S: I think he was lying about not being related to James Joyce.

D: I believe that’s true.

W: No relation.

William reads the end of The Unknown:

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Unknown Leave the Building  

S: Dirk, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how your experiences in the legal world, as a public defender on the mean streets of Philadelphia, shaped The Unknown.

W: You were a tenant lawyer, weren’t you?

D: How much time do we have, William?

W: We have about 30 seconds.

D: Hmmm—that’s not enough time for me to answer that long and complicated question, Scott, so instead I’d like to read this quotation from The Conversation News, January 15, 1975:

Investigators for the Texas Highway Department claim that a cow burp has valuable energy potential. For whatever reason, a department publication announced that the nation’s cows belch an estimated 50 million tons of hydrocarbons into the air each year. Reportedly, ten cows burp enough gas in a year to satisfy the annual space heating, water heating, and cooking requirements for a small house.

And to me, that, I feel, is a fitting metaphor for The Unknown. It’s excessive, it’s gaseous, it’s waste product that we’ve turned into art.

S: w w w dot s o a dot u c dot e d u slash user slash unknown

W: w w w e f t ninety dot one f m. Stay tuned for the next show. This has been From Bard to Verse. Carl Estabrook will return next week so tune in then.

Recessional: CAMPER VAN BEETHOVEN: “Shut Us Down”


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