zimZalla object 014: ‘A never ending poem’ by Stephen Emmerson

“This isn’t poetry – it’s mean!”;


a cut-throat adventure in interactive poetics

-Reviewed by Anthony Adler

I knew that something strange was going on when one of my companions left the room, opened the front door, and screamed as loudly as she could before sitting back down. It’s not the kind of thing that I associate with reading poetry – but then A never ending poem read with dice that goes on to explore the possibilities of human intervention within the context & illusion of chance, ‘a fully playable board game which generates multiple aleatory readings of poem text fragments’, is probably quite far from most people’s idea of a poem. In physical terms, it comprises a screen-printed playing surface slightly smaller than a sheet of A4 paper, three translucent plastic playing counters, a small laser-printed booklet, two sets of blank cards to which printed texts and symbols have been carefully glued, two dice (with six and twelve faces respectively), and a box folded out of corrugated cardboard and labelled with playing instructions in which the game may be stored when not in use. The physical components of the game are workmanlike and unprepossessing, but by no means tacky. They are thoroughly ordinary objects, and together they make something altogether different from any other poem I’ve ever read.

A never ending poem comes with two sets of instructions, and I first attempted to play by myself, rolling the twelve-sided die to determine which page of the booklet of texts to read next in sequence. ‘The ACT of reading is also an ACT of construction’, declares point four of the instructions earnestly; ‘There is no resolution’, it states as the final rule for solo play: somehow it’s both sincere and tongue-in-cheek. Stephen Emmenson’s prose poetry oscillates between charming and gnomic, and the randomly ordered sequence is diverting enough in its own way, if eventually frustrating. After a little while I read through the booklet in order, considering briefly whether this fell within or stood in breach of the spirit of the rules, and concluded that the game had yielded all it would.

It was only when I roped in some sturdy companions that A never ending poem came into its own.  Players must travel around the board (on which playing spaces are arranged in an unbroken circle) and pick up poemcards or disaster cards when they arrive at the correct symbols: ‘the first player to collect 12 poemcards and recite the poem in the order collected is the winner’. The apparently innocent rules of the multi-player game, however, lend themselves to a viciously competitive style of play – and while patience initially appeared to be the virtue rewarded by the rules, we swiftly discovered that the disaster cards provided instructions so varied, unlikely, and subversive that they became the greater prize.  We thwarted and baited one another, marvelling at the emotive sting of competition (“This isn’t poetry,” one of my companions exclaimed – “it’s mean!”) whilst wondering whether the victory conditions would be reached before we lost interest. Somehow two of us acquired twelve cards simultaneously (I harbour lingering suspicions of prestidigitation), and we raced through our performances in a breathless jumble of overlapping fragments and full stops.

I’m not entirely sure what impact, if any, A never ending poem has had on my understanding of the possibility of human intervention, nor on my attitudes towards composition and construction. Considered simply as poetry, or as a poetry object, or as a generator of texts, it’s a charming diversion and no more. This isn’t particularly meant as a critique: I suspect that the game’s playful exploration of the ways in which readers construct meaning (or, more precisely, the aleatory processes that it initiates to facilitate this exploration) necessarily render any attempt to read the generated texts for sense and meaning somewhat pointless. Emmenson’s fragments were eminently suited to the task to which they were put, although I did find myself contemplating the practicability of homemade booster-sets to vary the range of poetics available.

Perhaps more interesting were the transformations that the game wrought on its players. A set of simple rules temporarily transformed my family’s relationship with poetry and encouraged an entirely new form of engagement with text – one that was competitive and vigorous. I can’t help but remember the thicket of blogposts published after Casagrande’s Rain of Poems on the 28th of June this year, and Tom Moyser’s piece in particular. Both A never ending poem and the Chilean art collective’s surreal poetry bombing play on and manipulate the ways in which we find value in poetry, encouraging readers – if that’s the right word – to view the texts themselves as prizes instead of the meaning that they may communicate. While the Rain of Poems was in many ways a celebration of shared value, A never ending poem seems more reflective, encouraging us to re-examine how we view success within poetry and how reading and writing help us get our kicks – a project actively served by the basic nature of the game’s props. Emmerson’s texts become a pack of MacGuffins, objects of desire that induce motivation regardless of their content; by so doing they simultaneously efface themselves and bring players to consider poetry as a good that is comparable to any other in the peculiar behaviours the pursuit of it provokes.

I’m not an expert on game design, so I’m not sure how well qualified I am to criticise the mechanics of A never ending poem; and while the game may have been less frustrating had it been quicker to play, I’m not sure that that wasn’t the point. I feel more confident suggesting that it might have been improved by a greater variety of text fragments and more numerous disaster cards, which would certainly make A never ending poem more repeatable – although again I’m not particularly bothered by this failing. Stephen Emmerson’s game is powerful, bizarre, engaging, baffling, frustrating, entertaining, and, above all, fascinating. If you’re intrigued, I can only recommend that you try it for yourself.

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