360⁰ poetry

Virtual Storytelling

Even if they’re hawking something worthy, ads generally annoy me, but all last week I couldn’t get enough of the promo for the most recent episode of “The Big Listen,” a “broadcast about podcasts” that can be heard on WAMU, the DC metro area’s public radio station.

In it, we hear host Lauren Ober ask Starlee Kine of the popular podcast “Mystery Show about her favorite TV programs, and she mentions several — though only one, Law and Order, fetches an irrepressible “I love it” from Ober’s guest.

Unfortunately, the “I love it” part was cut from Kine’s segment (35:39), which is sad because just reading those three words here will not give you any understanding about why it was such a wonderful, and wonderfully nuanced, moment for listeners. Or at least for this listener.

Somehow, you see, that three-word sound bite managed to convey Kine’s passion for great storytelling, and it captivated me because I share that passion to my very bones. I also share her love of Law and Order, but you are the first to know this.

I wasn’t sure how I would write about my almost childlike reaction to this sound morsel until I heard “Virtual Reality: The Wearable Movie?” on The New Yorker Radio Hour. In this most recent episode, staff writer Andrew Marantz focuses on how artists and technologists are working together to create an interactive, “immersive” narrative.

One innovative narrative project Marantz features is Blackout, which uses a “computer-rendered environment” and also uses real actors to tell a story about a New York subway that breaks down and leaves its passengers in darkness. Especially compelling is the fact that DepthKit, a new software and film-making technique used in this project, enables participants to walk around inside the story, to see actors from different angles, and to hear the thoughts of people on the train simply by turning their heads and looking at them.

In an interview with Marantz, Justin Cone, creator of Motionographer, says, “People are searching for some kind of Holy Grail that unites the best of passive storytelling with the best of interactivity,” and it appears the team involved in developing Blackout may well be on the right path.

Still, I find myself wondering whether passive storytelling would always pair well with immersive, interactive technology. It is clear that sound, for example, can add a layer of richness to a story, as was the case with my being able to hear Kine say “I love it” in her very particular way. In fact, I might not have remembered anything about her interview, a portion of which is now indelibly etched into my memory, had I only read a transcript of it.

Yet, while it is true that great storytelling engages all of the senses, it is also true that great storytelling must maintain a certain air of mystery if it is to be successful. I remember, for instance, how downhearted I felt when, after having become completely mesmerized by the performance of a lead actor in a production of South Pacific, I saw him change his costume in the wings. I saw, too, that he was out of breath. And therefore human.

Granted, I was only ten. But the memory of that shock has stayed with me all these years, and I can’t help but think that dropping someone inside, say, a narrative poem could be equally shocking and could destroy the fragile world a poet seeks to create. While the very best of this kind of poetry invites us to participate in the storytelling by, for example, parsing an image, contemplating the meaning of a line, or studying the form itself, it loses something ineffably essential when we are told (or shown) how, exactly, we are meant to understand it. Even here, when I post a poem I have written, I pause over whether or not to include a visual image with it for fear I will be giving you too much direction about how to interpret its meaning.

Perhaps I am old-fashioned about wanting to maintain the ethereal in my own work and about fearing that immersive technologies could threaten the delicate mystery poets work to weave. Or perhaps the fear is simply a failure of my limited imagination. Or perhaps it is both.

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2 comments

  1. For me, I do not want anyone to direct my thoughts regarding story or poetry. My personal discovery process is mysterious in its own way and may even differ from its author’s. There are many uses for high tech that enrich our lives, but even though I was unaware of this “immersive” use, I am not at all sure poetry is the place for it. Thanks for educating me!.

    Melody Graham Port Orchard, WA 98366

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