Three years after first presenting Sleep when exhausted, I was invited back to the University of Victoria to give a short talk about it in David Leach’s WRIT 324 class.1 It turns out that giving a talk is the best possible excuse to revisit old work, especially when you’re a little embarrassed about it.

This post is based on that talk. It also attempts to extrapolate on the jokey, cryptic stuff that appears in the essay that accompanied the project.

What is this thing?

Sleep when exhausted is a looping visual poem.2 That means that it begs to be read over and over again. If you choose to go through it more than once, you’ll notice that the poem changes depending on the lines you pick out. But the premise of Sleep when exhausted, at its simplest, is that it’s a poem.

For me, re-reading poetry is a necessary part of reading poetry. Every time I read a poem, I’ll linger on slightly different details, or the same singular detail with some other cadence. This project formalizes that re-reading process. Unless you’re mapping out the lines that you’re picking, you probably won’t go through Sleep when exhausted the same way twice.

Even now, as I’ve been going through it again, I get surprised by certain things that I don’t even remember writing. Like the clock that reads 99:99 on the piano in the living room.

Why make a poem out of a website?

I received something that the University of Victoria calls a Jamie Cassels Undergraduate Research Award. It’s given to two students from every department each year.

In addition to $1,500 toward tuition, recipients get a $50 stipend to spend on poster materials for the eventual JCURA year-end fair. If you’ve ever been to a high school science fair or a college job fair, just picture that, but with a wider array of disciplines represented.

Because I was not required to use my $50 stipend on printing materials specifically, I didn’t. My favourite science fair projects, as a kid, were the ones where you didn’t just read a poster. I figured I’d make something a little more interactive for my visitors to deal with. So, “Why make a poem out of a website?” That’s why.

What’s with the accompanying essay?

It’s a poemy, tongue-in-cheek window into the nature of my research. While I think there’s overlap between “creative research” and “academic research,” creative research doesn’t follow the same rules.

The academic research that I’m most familiar with as a university graduate feigns uncontaminatedness and objectivity toward its subject. Although academics might start research out of a place of curiousity or passion, they may need to squelch some enthusiasm, or their research may stay unpublished. Rightly so. There’s value to that system.

Meanwhile, creative search can start in the same place—a place of passion—but sprawl across disciplines and styles and remain unsquelched. See Jordan Abel’s book Un/inhabited, which documents the colonialist language used in copyright-lapsed (read: very old) western novels about land and land ownership.

The “creative thesis” is getting more and more popular, but it still doesn’t have the same clout that an “academic” thesis has. I don’t want to say that a creative thesis is less legitimate, than a “non-creative” thesis, but they do have a way of making uninteresting subject matter more interesting.

My own creative research here, and the way I present that research, has less to do with deep dives into external materials or studies and more to do with sleepy reflections on the loss of personal motivation, focus, and feeling like life sure is boring. I don’t want to say that my research is less legitimate, but I’d agree with you that it’s less interesting.

Are you one of those “video games aren’t art” people?

It sounds like you’re referring to the section in the essay about “gameness.” In it, I say that Sleep when exhausted falls outside of what I’d normally consider a game.

I’m not a “video games aren’t art” person. I just don’t think this is a video game. You can’t really win, and the poem’s mechanics aren’t skill-based in any way. The mechanics—clicking through a line to get a new set of lines—are barely even narrative. I see the forward motion of the poem the same way that I see my own thought process: not focused, only somewhat linear, and attention-averse.

Is this work scrappy?

Yeah. When I started this, I had no idea how to build a branching narrative for the web, and I had no idea what the poem’s content would be. I did outline some of it, to gauge the general trajectory, but as I was implementing the trees I veered quickly into doing whatever I felt like at that moment.

I experimented with doing the whole thing in Twine, but I had a hard time getting the non-linear, wrap-around, lost feeling using that system.

Please, please, please don’t look at the source code for this effing thing.

Does this thing have a structure?

I guess so, but I’m still not able to parse it completely. Or, making a perfect map of this poem (by hand) would be quite difficult. There are a lot of “potential poems” in here, and while I’d love to see them all extracted into a series of separated poems—there would be a lot of them.

However, this thing does have a system. There are three types of states:

  • Observation trees (I went to the kitchen / I went to the bathroom / etc.)
  • Streams of consciousness (I / love / Maria)
  • Clarities (I was bored / /)

It’s nice to have system language for what this thing is, but I don’t think it makes the work any more interesting. Just jump in and see how it makes you feel.

Where’s this source code I’m not supposed to look at?

You can find the source code at this GitHub repository.

  1. The class is called Writing Interactive Narrative: “A workshop/seminar in writing for digital media, hyper-literature, video games, interactive installations and experiences.” 

  2. I call it a “visual poem” because the white space, three-column layout, and the nature of content-forking are very central to the piece. Although I can see why someone would argue that it’s not visual poetry according to the definition