Recovering Paul Zelevanksy’s literary game “SWALLOWS” (Apple //e, 1985-86)

In 1986 – a year after creating a literary videogame called “SWALLOWS” for Apple //e and Apple //+ – writer Paul Zelevansky published the second volume of his by-now rare artist book trilogy THE CASE FOR THE BURIAL OF ANCESTORS: Book Two, Genealogy. Book Two is supposedly the third edition (which is also a fiction since there was only one edition) of a fictional translation of an equally fictional ancient text that is itself a translation of an oral account of the “Hegemonians” from the 12th-13th BCE that was “attributed to a score of mystics, religionists and scholars, none of whom has ever stepped forward.” (ix) The text focuses particularly on the stories of four priests, each of whom is identified throughout the book with a different typeface which Zelevansky claims makes it possible “to build a reading of the text around a typographical sequence.” (xi) Also included in Book Two is a sheet of 16 stamps – a miniature, layered collage of letters and found objects – as Zelevansky puts it in the “Preface to the Third Edition,” “each stamp has a particular part to play in the narrative. It is left to the Reader to attach them, where indicated, in the spaces provided throughout the text.” (xii) And, finally, enclosed in an envelope on the inside of the back cover, the book also comes with “SWALLOWS,” a 5.25″ floppy disk that is a videogame forming the first of three parts in the book. Programmed in Forth-79 for the Apple IIe or II+ (Forth was a popular programming language for home computers with limited memory), “SWALLOWS” was also integrated into the first section of Book Two through a short text/image version.

Since learning about Zelevansky’s work, I have been working through and writing on “SWALLOWS” as a very early, and important, instance of media poetics. And given what a remarkable work it is, and in an effort to contribute to the effort to preserve our digital past, I have made available the original file for “SWALLOWS” that you can run via an Apple // emulator. The existence of this file is entirely due to the work of Matthew Kirschenbaum and the generosity of Paul Zelevanksy. Matthew Kirschenbaum in fact recently made an argument in The Chronicle for the importance of digital preservation by detailing how he accessed “SWALLOWS” via an Apple // emulator and then provided Zelevanksy with the original .dsk file from which he then created a new version of “SWALLOWS” (with audio and video clips mixed in) called “G R E A T . B L A N K N E S S.”

Below are the directions to download the .dsk file and then run it on an emulator. Enjoy!

  1. download an Apple //e emulator. I found Virtual ][ works well.
  2. download an Apple // system ROM image. This zip file also works well.
  3. download the .dsk file for “SWALLOWS” (via Dropbox) and open the file using your Apple //e emulator
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E-Poetry Festival: May 17-21st, Buffalo NY

I’ve just received a copy of the preliminary program (pdf) for the upcoming 10 year anniversary E-Poetry Festival in Buffalo, New York and it’s little short of astonishing. With critics, poets, and performers from Canada, the U.S.A., Scandinavia, the U.K., France, and Australia (among others), it promises to be yet another field-defining event. (And you can get some sense of how far the field has come in just ten years by looking at the program from 2001 – clearly, a much broader and even more resolutely international group of writers are beginning to identify as digital workers now.) My first time participating in E-Poetry was in 2003 when it was held in Morgantown, West Virginia. I had been a PhD student at SUNY Buffalo for two years at that point and I presented my first conference paper whose title was far more intriguing than the paper itself – “Computer Kiss: Mechanical Love and the Digital Poem.” And while my paper was nothing to write home about, as the expression goes, I will always value that first defining experience as it didn’t introduce me to the mores of conference-going so much as it introduced me to a lively, intense, cutting-edge creative and critical community of like-minded people. And it’s this community that I identify as one of my homes.

This year I’ll be presenting a paper on the Archeological Media Lab – a paper which I expect will approach the pressing issue of preserving and maintaining access to early works of e-literature through a discussion of the challenges and opportunities presented by the creation of this lab at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I expect I will discuss how the AML is propelled equally by the need to maintain access to early works of electronic literature (and note too that, given how quickly technology changes, sometimes an “early work of electronic literature” may have been created as recent as 2001 and is similarly no longer viewable on current platforms) and by the need to archive and maintain the computers these works were created on.

Here is an example I often use to illustrate what I mean: from the perspective of a literary scholar, Canadian poet bpNichol’s First Screening – created in 1983-1984 using an Apple IIe and the Apple BASIC programming language – cannot be understood if we view it with an emulator, with Hypercard, or via a Quicktime movie version of the twelve programmed poems. First Screening is a series of poems whose meaning is actually activated through the writer/programmer’s invitation to the reader/view to type in commands; for example, in line 110 of the code for First Screening, Nichol writes: “REM   FOR THE CURIOUS VIEWER/READER THERE’S AN ‘OFF-SCREEN ROMANCE’ AT 1748. YOU JUST HAVE TO TUNE IN THE PROGRAMME.” Furthermore, even though First Screening has been preserved via emulator, hypercard and Quicktime movie on the Electronic Literature Directory, there is simply no substitute for the unique interface and physical structure of the Apple II computer; as Matthew Kirschenbaum points out in his groundbreaking 2008 book Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination, the Apple II computer has no hard drive; instead, “a program is loaded by inserting the disk in the external drive and booting the machine. In practical terms, this meant first retrieving the program by going to one’s collection of disks and rummaging through them…Consider the contrast in affordances to a file system mounted on a hard drive: here you located the program you wanted by reading a printed or handwritten label, browsing like you would record albums or manila file folders, not by clicking on an icon” (33). Everything about the Apple II system offers both writer and reader an utterly different set of experiences than when they read or write on, say, a MacBook or a PC or when they read/write a poem such as First Screening by way of Windows.

I will post the entirety of my e-poetry paper here sometime in mid-May. I hope to see many of you there!