Online Edition: Fall 2007

 Apostrophe

 Bill Kennedy and Darren Wershler-Henry

 ECW Press ($15.95)

 by Holly Dupej

Designed by Bill Kennedy and Darren Wershler-Henry, Apostrophe offers an absorbing, almost hypnotic, expanse of found sentences from the Internet, all of which begin with “you are.” The sentences were selected and assembled by an automated computer program created by the authors for this purpose. The program starts with an original poem written by Kennedy, in which every line is an apostrophe (an utterance directly addressing a person or figure, either present or absent). Each line of the poem is entered into a commercial search engine; the search results are then mined for sentences beginning with the phrase “you are,” which are retrieved and placed side by side in the text. The result has all the elements of classic catalogue poem, but with distinctly contemporary echoes of the jumbled and often recognizable voices on the Net.

Because of its haphazard assembly, the text greatly varies in its effects. The voice ranges from the shallow chatter of adolescents to the deep emotional confessions of bloggers. Some sections read like a second person narrative while others are more lyrical (and may in fact be song lyrics). Disconnects between ideas frequently offer a surprising sense of humor: “you are stealing the content, making you a thief · you are ‘breaking your contract with the network’ · you are ringing up my Slurpee.”

Other recurring impressions include the uncanny feeling that you’ve read this somewhere before (“you are a redneck if…”); the outrage upon suspecting the computer has intentionally insulted you (“you have the ugliest dork I’ve ever laid eyes upon”); and the eerie moments of self-recognition when the text unknowingly speaks to your current situation (“you are probably wondering what exactly is going on”).

The over 280 pages of successive “you are” sentences are by no means a passive reading experience, and require the right mindset (and time) to appreciate this celebration of excess. The work does not go unrewarded, however, as the text slowly unveils the inescapable urge to see continuity, humor, and sensitive human insight connecting these sentences, where in fact there is only random chance.

A “live” version of the program is also available online (www.apostropheengine.ca). At the site, each line of the original text is embedded with a hyperlink that generates a new “you are” poem using current search results. Each line in the resulting poem leads to another poem as well, and so on. Begging to be read non-linearly, the Apostrophe Engine mimics the meanderings of Web surfing inside a constantly shifting digital information flow.

Blurring the lines between author and machine, page and screen, and writing and coding, Apostrophe successfully embodies the topical transformations of writing in the digital age. As technology increasingly infuses into our daily routines, it seems appropriate that we turn to it to expound the psyche of our culture. Apostrophe suggests we may begin to ask the machines we build to tell us who “we are.”

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