Amaranth Borsuk’s hand traces a serpentine path across the screen of her iPad, scattering text beneath her fingers like a rake rowing sand in a Zen garden. She’s using a new app called Abra that she co-created with fellow poet Kate Durbin and poet/designer Ian Hatcher. It’s a beautiful, tactile toy, inviting touch and collaboration with text.
Abra began years ago as a cooperative poetry project between Borsuk and Los Angeles-based Durbin. Both poets would respond to images of overabundance and overgrowth, write poems separately, then come together to create new ones.
As they worked, they wanted to make their process visually apparent to the reader. On one page you’d see a poem; on the next the words of that poem were fractured to create spaces in which a new poem formed. On the next page, the new poem appeared by itself. And so on. Line drawings by artist Zach Kleyn followed the same patterns of growth and mutation.
As they searched for a publisher (1913 Press will release the book this year), Borsuk and her collaborators applied for an Expanded Artists’ Book grant from the Center for Book and Paper Arts at Columbia College in Chicago, designed for creating works that have both a physical and digital component. “That’s when the light bulb went off for us that this is a text that wants to move,” Borsuk says. “It wants to escape the idea that either of us is the controlling author and allow the reader to enter into the text.”
With the grant, they enlisted poet and iOS artist-developer Hatcher to help create the app. Borsuk and Durbin created a glorious artists’ book, the type set in a mutating fashion similar to the original book they’d traded back and forth. The hardcover book is augmented with elements that invite touch, like a foil-stamped cover, gold-printed lettering reminiscent of illuminated manuscripts and thermochromic ink that vanishes with the heat of human touch. Right now there are only 25 copies.
“In terms of the content of the book, a little erotic interactivity is not a bad thing,” Borsuk says.
The book and app can be used independently, but the book is also designed to hold an iPad inside the back cover. As you flip pages the many-shaped laser-cutouts—another tactile element—coalesce into a larger opening, the printed word making way for digital. In the digital version, the text is the same as in the book, but users are invited to mutate words, erase them, multiply them, even add words. A built-in function lets you take screen caps of your new poems and share them via social media, which Borsuk and Durbin can then curate and share (with permission) on the Abra website, a-b-r-a.com.
Borsuk and Durbin have done readings as Abra, the conjoined, post-human being of their imagination. After the app is published this month (look for Abra: A Living Text in the app store), Borsuk hopes they can create performances that will be audience collaborative. “We’d love an interactive dress that would have illumination and potentially also be controlled from within the audience,” she says. None of these elements is meant to be the authoritative form of the book.
“Too often literature gets thought of as overly intellectual, particularly weird experimental literature,” Borsuk says. “Why can’t experimental literature also be engaging and fun? The ‘abracadabra’ implicit in Abra isn’t lip service; we want it to feel magical.”