Library event offers traditional readers a first taste of electronic literature

by: JESSE STOMMEL - Mary is supporting her master, Jesse Stommel, and his Marylhurst University students by promoting their new spine poetry website.Until recently, a pile of books was just a pile of books.

But now they are poetry. Spine poetry.

Kathi Inman Berens and her colleagues from Marylhurst University introduced this new concept with a special event at the Lake Oswego Public Library March 28. It was deceptively simple. They set up a table in the middle of the library and piled books on it. Then they invited browsers to stack the books in any combination and write a poem based on the titles. by: JESSE STOMMEL - Jessica Zisa shows how DVDs can be used to write spine poems. Zisa can even write spine poems from wine labels while shopping.

“You can use two books, three books, four books or 12 books,” said Inman Berens, a resident of Lake Oswego and University of Southern California professor who teamed up with a Marylhurst teacher and students for the project.

Frankly, this might sound crazy at first. By writing spine poetry a reader is introduced to not just reading but creating while they read, something that is demanded by electronic literature. They will never look at books the same way again.

At first, a traditional book lover must overcome the temptation to turn tail and run. However, confusion is normal when first confronted with spine poetry. But Inman Berens is irresistible, and thorough, in explaining it, and teacher Jesse Stommel and his Marylhurst students have such enthusiasm for their project that soon you find yourself catching the fever. They realize they must first convince a newcomer to try it.

Stommel, who had taught such traditional subjects as Shakespeare and famous monsters previously in his career, approached his digital literature class with the bravado of a swimmer plunging into a freezing lake.

“We had no plans,” said Stommel. “We had no syllabus. We discovered everything together. There was no hierarchy between students and faculty. Now we want to present bits and pieces and make it accessible to everyone else.”

Going along with Stommel on this journey were Marylhurst students Ken Schultz, Jessica Zisa and Lans Pacifico.

“The fun part when we started was that no one had any idea what electronic literature was,” Schultz said. “The format was awesome.”

“Electronic literature is booming right now,” said Zisa, who served as public relations coordinator for the project. “It was hard to find one definition for what it is.”

“We feel like we’re an icebreaker ship for a new idea,” said Pacifico, who reached out to high school students, one of multiple community segments the group tried to reach.

“Once people see what we’re doing they understand,” Stommel said. “At first they’re overwhelmed and stunned. They understand by doing this experiment with us.”

Their goal was to preserve the history of traditional reading but push forward into a new direction at the same time. A spine poetry project seemed like a great way to start. The response to their new website,, has shown that hundreds of people are ready to take the spine poetry challenge.

Inman Berens said readers who try spine poetry will never look at a book cover the same way again.

by: JESSE STOMMEL - The many talents of Kathi Inman Berens include balancing a book perfectly on her head. The professor will be taking an electronic literature exhibition to the Library of Congress this week.“Once you’ve pulled a book off a shelf and bought it, the purpose of the cover is over,” Inman Berens said. “With electronic literature, the container of a book can also tell a story.”

Inman Berens uses the example of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, “The Great Gatsby,” to illustrate the power of electronic literature. Berens said that “Gatsby” is traditional literature in the best sense, and Fitzgerald meant it to be read from start to finish. Otherwise, it would be impossible to find out what was going on in the romantic mind of Jay Gatsby. But electronic literature turns that concept inside out.

“In electronic literature you have touch, hearing and mobility,” Inman Berens said. “Your attention is dispersed all around.”

Of course many children, who have no barriers from traditional learning to overcome, dig electronic literature right from the start. They still love to have mom read a storybook to them, but later they use electronic devices and not only read stories but also add their own creativity. That is what Inman Berens’ daughter and son have done: reading, then making parodies and basic animation. Helena Berens, 12, was inspired to write her own horror story, using her little brother and his friend as the main characters (a case of literary typecasting).

Now their mom is planning to introduce location-based literature with a presentation of “Hansel and Gretel” at Tryon Creek State Natural Area by placing recordings in various trees of herself reading the fairy tale. Those attending should be wary if a witch invites them in for gingerbread.

Inman Berens offers excellent advice to people baffled by making the jump from traditional reading to electronic literature.

“You can’t go wrong by clicking and trying,” she said. “You get a sense of play and seeing what is happening.”

In fact, once people start writing spine poems there is the danger they will like it too much.

“It’s hard not to become super philosophical and just expand and expand,” Schultz said.

Zisa found that her spine poetry class was starting to extend outside the classroom.

“I went to shop for some wine and I started writing poetry from the various wine labels,” Zisa said. “Everything I saw went together.”

Inman Berens hopes to inspire a national outbreak of spine poetry and open the door for appreciation of a new kind of reading with her Electronic Literature Showcase that began on Wednesday at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. It will be the first presentation on electronic literature ever staged at the library, which holds 35 million volumes. It will also be different because it will not be under glass, and the public will be encouraged to handle the books on display. She is delighted and super optimistic about this event set through Friday.

“We think the Library of Congress show will raise awareness,” Berens said.

For more information about spine poetry, visit For more information about the Electronic Literature Showcase at the Library of Congress, go to

Fine spine poetry

Dear Zoe

My Lover's Lover

You Had Me At Goodbye

The End of the Story

I Just Want My Pants Back

— Kiira Taylor

Romeo and Juliet




— Jessica Rand

The Tempest


Venetian Navigators

Voyages and Discoveries


The Levelling Sea

— J.R. Alexander

by: JESSE STOMMEL - Getting books ready for the spine poetry event at Lake Oswego Public Library March 28 are, from the left, Kathi Inman Berens, Lans Pacifico and Jessica Zisa.