From Hypertext User to Hypertext Maker: Reflections on Turning Theory into Practice through the Creation of the “Snow on the Desert” Hypertext

By Sarah Schultz
April 2012 Hamilton College

At the end of the introduction to his book Radiant Textuality, Jerome Mcgann states “the next generation of literary and aesthetic theorists who will most matter are people who will be at least as involved with making things as with writing text” (19). Thus, to fully understand the possibilities and limitations of hypertext simply delving into the theory appears not to be enough; true knowledge is gained by making hypertext. So to supplement my discussion of hypertext theory and practice, I took on the task of creating my own hypertext project. Given I have few technological skills and no knowledge of computer programming, the task seemed daunting; however, my lack of experience made me the ideal test subject for discovering how new digital tools can enhance the traditional methods of literary analysis I have learned thus far. With the help of a diverse team of specialists – possessing skills in computer programming, library references work, and traditional literary scholarship – I was able to transform from user to maker, and in doing so gain invaluable perspective on the world of hypertext.

For my project I wanted to make a tool that would enable critical analysis of an existing print text, rather than creating my own original hypertext fiction. As Hayles says, the power of media-specific analysis “comes from holding one term constant across media and varying the media to explore how medium-specific possibilities and constraints shape text” (31). Thus, it seemed appropriate to take a print text I was familiar with and see how a hypertext system could be used to enhance it. I have chosen to use Agha Shahid Ali’s poem “Snow on the Desert” for a number of reasons. Firstly, I hope that my work can serve as a prototype for the kinds of projects that can meaningfully contribute to the Agha Shadid Ali digital archive that Professor Pat O’Neill is in the process of creating. Secondly, I feel as if Ali’s poetry can be greatly enhanced by a hypertext system. His work is rich with historical and cultural allusions and references that may not be commonplace to many readers. Moreover, thematically, Ali makes cross-cultural connections and fosters a sense of globalism, which suggests that he intended for his poems to reach a wide and diverse network of readers. “Snow on the Desert,” the culminating poem of his third volume published in the United States, A Nostalgist’s Map of America, includes a number of allusions that need explication and themes that run as binding threads throughout the volume Ali’s work.

The most basic theoretical goal of my project is to see how the hypertext system can enrich the reading experience of “Snow on the Desert” by highlighting these undercurrents which proved difficult for me to elucidate when I did traditional analysis of the poem with the print version earlier this year. My difficultly in understanding these undercurrents was twofold. Firstly, many of the references were entirely foreign to me. Secondly, I had no sense of what significance they might hold for Ali as an author or in relation to the wider cultural work his poetry does. For example, I did not know who Begum Akhtar was. While this was remedied by a quick Internet search, at the time I still did not know that Ali had written other poems about Akhar, or that she and Ali shared a love of the ghazal, a traditional Urdu poetic form. Thus, multiple layers of important information eventually emerged from the mention of Akhtar, as they did with many of Ali’s references. Moreover, “Snow on the Desert” features figures and themes that recur in his other poems. Reading many of Ali’s other poems made me think differently about “Snow on the Desert” and gave depth to my understanding of how the recurring themes, such as loss and recuperation, work in that specific poem. Thus I set to the task of seeing how a hypertext representation of the poem might enable a reader to see these connections more quickly and more richly.

The first critical step was identifying what kinds of new information I wanted to provide, what words I wanted to hyperlink, and what kinds of multimedia might enhance the poem. I wanted to provide information about the allusions that may be unfamiliar to most readers. For example I wanted to describe who the Papagos Native Americans are and what a saguaro cactus looks like. I wanted to create a link for Begum Akhtar to provide a picture and to allow a reader to hear her singing, incorporating multimedia. To present all of this information I had to make a critical decision on how I wanted to approach the authorship of my project. One option was to create links from the words of the poem to other existing web pages that pertain to the topics of interest; however, this presented challenges of copyright, the stability and availability of other web pages, and quality control. I decided that I would research and write all of the information layers I wanted to link into the network of my hypertext. By doing so I was able to control the stability and quality of the links; however, my voice as a single author became louder and ever more present given all the information was filtered through me.

Aside from factual information, I wanted to present interpretative information, which I also wrote myself, to draw out how different images and allusions in the poem work together to support over arching themes. For example, A Nostalgist’s Map of America features a number of poems about Native Americans, all of which give the allusion to the Papagos in “Snow on the Desert” more context. Thus I wanted to find a way to reveal the depth of the allusion. Likewise, in “Snow on the Desert” Ali transitions between two moments, one in the desert and one in New Delhi. On the surface the moments seem unrelated, yet the theme of loss draws them together. The theme of loss is driving factor behind much of Ali’s work and thus an interpretive layer adds critical thematic context.

While the interpretive information is essential to making the project do more than simply draw up related information, I was fearful of taking on an overly instructive role as the author. Ultimately, the interpretation I provide is only one of several possible interpretations. To relieve this concern I relied on design elements of the website by having the layout and navigational paths of the site reflect the clear distinction I wanted to make between factual information and interpretive information. Clicking on a hyperlinked word in the poem draws up a pop-up box with factual information, the first layer. To see my interpretation, a reader must click yet again to draw up another box, a second layer. Even in the case of the word “moment” (line 57) two clicks are necessary to see the interpretive layer, though there is no informational layer. The purpose of this design is to ensure that a reader makes a conscious decision to see my interpretation but not to stifle the possible conclusions the reader may draw independently.

My research informed me that the design of the hypertext, specifically the interface, played a critical role in making projects successful. Though the text may be “decentered,” it does not mean it should be disorienting. To prevent the reader from getting lost or feeling confused, I elected to keep the poem in the background of the screen as much as possible. When a user clicks a link, a pop up box appears on the screen while the poem is still visible on the left-hand side. The pop up boxes can easily be closed using the X button on the top right corner. If a reader decides to click on an interpretation link, he or she will be brought to a new page, to reinforce the idea that the interpretation is independent from the poem and should be considered one way of interpreting the poem. From the new page a reader can easily return to the poem through the link provided at the bottom of every page – “Back to ‘Snow on the Desert’.”

While the pop-up boxes contain the information layers and are the gateway to the interpretation layers, the network of associations created around the poem are situated at the bottom of the page. Again, this design intends to make all resources available but not in a way that clouds the poem itself. Through my research I determined that the hypertext system’s paramount value lies in the network of related texts and media it provides. For the “Snow on the Desert” hypertext, I attempt to provide a number of types of representative associations that would enrich a basic reading of the poem.

One goal is to show the many contexts in which the poem has appeared. To do so I provide a link to a video of Ali reading “Snow on the Desert” at Hamilton College in 1992. To make the video compatible with the site I used Final Cut to digitize the VHS recording. The video is critical in allowing the reader to hear how Ali reads the poem himself, as well as the interesting introductory remarks he makes about writing the poem. I also provided a link to a manuscript copy of the poem. I scanned the original manuscript and displayed the images on the page, again to show the poem’s history. Lastly, the publication history timeline puts the poem in temporal context by showing all the publications in which the poem has appeared. These materials attempt to give context to the poem by presenting how it has appeared in other forms in the past. By providing these materials, the hypertext system reminds the reader that we must recognize the historical importance of print technology but also free the poem from print conventions to allow it to continue to circulate widely, in different forms, and with new associations and contexts.

The second major goal I attempt to achieve through the supplementary resources is to draw in surrounding texts that are relevant to analyzing the poem. The first set of texts consists of poems by Ali himself. Available on his biography page (which is accessible by clicking on Ali’s name below the title of the poem) is list of all other works Ali has published. On the interpretation page titled “The Significance of Allusions to Native Americans,” I listed other poems by Ali that help support the interpretative claims I make. They appear in a circular diagram in order not to privilege one poem over another. Clicking on the links brings the reader to a new page on which the desired poem appears. By including these poems, I hope to enable readers to see broader themes within Ali’s collection of work and to have a deeper understanding of his poetic perspective.

Moreover, the “Bibliography of Critical Essays” allows readers to easily find other sources that provide interpretations. The list is particularly useful for students of Ali’s work. It is intended to be a collection of many scholarly voices, some of which agree and some of which disagree. It is also intended to be an open document, which readers and scholars can add to with new scholarship.

The last fundamental tenet of hypertext theory that I needed to include in my project was interactivity. Hypertext systems are intended to facilitate open, rapid and widely disseminated dialogue about texts. To allow for user comments I created a comment pop-up box feature, which appears at the bottom of the home page as well as on all of the interpretative pages. I hope that users will provide their own interpretations, add new essays to the bibliography page, ask questions, and start conversations about both Ali’s work and the value of hypertext.

What I have produced is just a start; however, no matter what gets added, changed and moved, it will always remain just a start because hypertext documents remain open to infinite changes in design and content as well as in how they reflect the changing mediascape. As the field of digital humanities continues to grow and be refined, the hypertext system will come to serve new functions and take on new aesthetic qualities. Though the technology of hypertext systems and my project are still in the early stages of development, their value is apparent. The kind of scholarship that is enabled by the “Snow on the Desert” project is precisely what I struggled to do when I did my own literary analysis with the print version earlier this year. Though I eventually made the necessary connections using print, the process was arduous and frustrating. My time and energy was used to hunt through materials rather than to think critically. As my thesis research suggested to me, a hypertext system can expedite the process of making connections and draw to light thematic and historical undercurrents that do not easily surface in print. I hope that the “Snow on the Desert” hypertext project achieves these goals and lays a foundation for future student engagement with digital humanities.

Works Cited

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