Lori Emerson: Digital poet

Lori Emerson said it’s getting easier to explain what she does, but still struggles explaining it to her own mother. Simply put, the CU professor is a poet and archeologist who has a unique relationship with technology and digital media.

She is the creator of the Archaeological Media Lab on campus, a place where she collects old, working computers (dating back to 1979), software and original works of electronic-literature and digital art as a way of archiving and preserving them and presenting them to the public. She also accepts donations of old, working computers.

Emerson’s driving passion is e-lit and digital poetry, which she describes as “literature that’s born on the computer, makes the most of the computer and is meant to be read on the computer.”

When Emerson was an undergraduate, digital media wasn’t exactly her first choice. At first, she thought she’d follow in her father’s footsteps as an economics major. Then, she thought she wanted to think about life as a philosophy major.

“Then I realized I really love poetry,” Emerson said, “and I thought I wanted to be a poet in that cute, little 18-year-old way, so that’s why I became an English major.”

From there, Emerson started pursuing more specific interests. She received her master’s degree in English at the University of Victoria in Vancouver, and became extremely interested in the experimental work of e-poet bpNichol. She cites his “First Screening,” a slow, methodical digital poem created in 1983 on an Apple IIe, as one of her biggest inspirations.

Emerson became interested in how digital poems push the limits of language by changing how we think of its form or materiality. “First Screening,” with its seemingly random white words flashing and dancing on a black background, is an example of how e-poets use the sounds, shape and texture of letters and words to their benefit.

When Emerson started working on her Ph.D. at the State University of New York at Buffalo, she really found her niche in digital poetry.

After living in Atlanta for two years, Emerson came to Boulder. She said English professors often take jobs wherever they can, but she happened to get one at a great place.

During her first semester at CU in 2008, ATLAS Institute director John Bennett approached her about a $20,000 project to create a lab for English majors and ATLAS students.

Since most students have laptops and there are many other computer labs on campus, Emerson was inspired to create the first Archeological Media Lab in North America.

Emerson said early works of e-lit were disappearing since we no longer have the equipment or software on which they run.

“I started to become really obsessed with the fact that our culture may be disappearing irrevocably,” Emerson said. “It’s not like it’s buried in the ground and we can dig it up and recover it. It’s actually disappearing for good.”

In addition to preserving old computers and software for the lab, Emerson teaches and is working on three book projects.

Emerson said her digital poetry class surprises most of her students because digital poetry’s form shows that there are many different meanings that don’t always come through words.

“These works that we call digital poetry are so often weird and changing and mutable that they defy interpretation,” Emerson said. “Usually what ends up happening at the end of the class is that students realize that there may not be such a thing as digital poetry.”

Emerson believes that genre distinctions within the digital field are breaking up, an idea she tries to tackle in her book “Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Bookbound to the Digital.” She said the platforms on which things are written frame what you can say and how you say it.

Perhaps Emerson’s biggest project is working on the possible Information, Communication, Media, Journalism, Technology School with many colleagues including Mark Amerika.

Emerson and Amerika have been collaborating for years, and Amerika said Emerson’s work is helping put CU on the digital humanities map.

“CU is ideally positioned to create new research and curriculum opportunities at the interface of digital art, writing and technology,” Amerika said, “and we think it’s really important that CU embrace interdisciplinary learning in the information age.”

The two believe more collaboration between departments and practice-based research (meshing critical thinking and actual doing) are essential pieces for a new school.

“Digital media is inherently interdisciplinary,” Emerson said. “Digital media is for artists, it’s for musicians, it’s for mathematicians and computer scientists, engineers. It doesn’t make sense anymore to make those fields separated in the way that they research and the way that they teach digital media.”

By Marlee Horn for the Colorado Daily