Playing music, finding light

In a case of life imitating art imitating life imitating art imitating life (or something like that), Fox Adoption has published the virtually true story (in sonnet form) of “the band that i’m in.”  I am indeed in a band (I play banjo, mandolin, dulcimer, accordion, and whatever else they tell me to play), and we indeed have a song about William Henry Harrison.  In fact, you can listen to a live version of the song right here!  We’ll throw in a kazoo solo for free.

Also, Roanoke Review was kind to interview me on the basis of one sonnet I wrote about Legos (and, to be fair, growing up and cancer and my son and healing and stuff).  I say, “I get tired very quickly of poetry that’s all broken. I want poetry about being whole,” and I think that accurately reflects my feelings about a lot of poetry today.


Roundup: Legos and Homecoming Queens and apps and Yes and everything

Well, the blog has fallen into a bit of disrepair lately, but I’m happy to have had an active online presence recently, with a variety of cool projects.

  • I published a chapbook, Yes, through Parallel Press.  It’s a collection of poems about family life and/or the weather, and, as the title suggests, is perhaps more optimistic than a lot of today’s glum verse.
  • I made a video of a “code poem” for Alaska Quarterly Review.  The code itself was published in a special genre-bending section of the hard-copy issue.  But it was cool to show how the program, written in BASIC, actually looks on a screen, with an awesome soundtrack by Steev Baker.
  • I made an app!  It’s called More Than 25 Million Poems about the Midwest, based on the project that appeared in Verse Wisconsin a few years back.  Again, the soundtrack was done by Steev and you can listen to much of it (and Steev’s other awesome music) here.  The app is free to download to your iDevice.  There are at least 23 million poems left to be written!

I’ve also published my first flash fictions over the past several months.  They’re all driven by the same concept:  I’m writing about jobs that don’t exist.  A few of them are online:

And of course, I’m happy to continue to publish poetry.

I’ve chosen to abandon my clunky, circa-2005 website, so I’ll be updating this more frequently in the future.  My novella-in-verse I got off the train at Ash Lake is forthcoming soon from sunnyoutside!

on ________, on the classics

Cartridge Lit is a wonderful new lit mag that’s devoted exclusively to publishing new literature about video games.  Back in June, they published three of my poems that didn’t make it into But Our Princess, largely because they were (heaven forefend) lineated, not in prose.  They also explore characteristics common to many games, rather than any particular title:  invincibility, extra lives, and levels.

It’s great to see video game lit starting to attract a larger audience, and more legitimacy as a subgenre of sorts.  There have been others before us, though, and while it’s weird to think there are “classics” in video game lit, it seems important to recognize some key literary texts that choose video games as their theme.  As I worked on But Our Princess, I kept returning to two:

Blue Wizard is about to Die! by Seth Flynn Barkan (2004).  Notable for being the first book of video game poetry.  Blue Wizard has a strong small-press vibe to it.  The poems are uneven and are often carried by the author’s energy than any literary merit.  Still, there’s something genuine about the ethos here.  “No matter what, my premise while writing this book was to portray these games as being something other than the insipid and pointless rot-your-brain-ruin-your-eyes-waste-your-life-away-whydontcha entertainments that many of the adults of my youth saw them as, but as the works of art that they truly are,” Barkan writes in the introduction, and he’s committed to that premise throughout.

Lucky Wander Boy by D.B. Weiss (2003).  A novel about the protagonist’s quest to track down the titular video game which allegedly has hallucinogenic, psychoseizural properties.  I’m not sure the book has aged well, as it’s firmly set in the late ’90s dot-com boom era.  (Hey, remember ICQ?  Anyone?  Anyone?)  But the protagonist’s nostalgia for the early days of the arcade,  as well as home systems like Atari and Intellivision, is well-rendered, as are the dangers of such nostalgia.

Obviously there are others out there, but these two served as my vade mecums for Princess, which I begin writing in late 2004.

And the subject continues to grow.  I’m excited to read Leave Luck to Heaven by Brian Oliu, a collection of lyric essays about a range of NES games.  And Cartridge Lit has just released its first digital chapbook:  Prepare to Die by Jess Jenkins.

To end on a personal note, Princess received a recognition of legitimacy of sorts as well.  I’m honored to have it chosen by the Wisconsin Library Association as an Outstanding Achievement in Poetry award for 2014.

Memento Mori

brogue screenshot

I’m pleased to announce the release of my first-ever video game, Memento Mori.  You can play it right here.

By virtue of writing But Our Princess, I played a lot of video games and read plenty of books and articles about them.  And I teach an annual course about the culture and theory of video games, so I guess I get paid for thinking and talking about them, too.  But analyzing and playing others’ games is very different from creating one of your own.

Since I was young, I always thought it’d be cool to make my own games.  I knew how to do some programming in BASIC, but how to create a complete game experience was beyond me.  So I grew out of programming, and forgot about the possibilities until very recently.  Unfortunately, my programming knowledge remained stuck in the 1980s–BASIC and a bit of Pascal.  I certainly wasn’t going to learn something new just to throw what would likely be a dinky game together.  Fortunately, since I last set about trying to program a game (from what I remember, a maze game strangely reminiscent of Memento Mori), there have been a lot of game creation tools made that target people just like me.

I used Stencyl.  It claims to allow you to make games without knowing code, which is technically true.  Instead of typing in code, you snap together preconfigured blocks.  But you still need to know and understand computer logic, such as if-then statements and loops.  Fortunately, BASIC served me well for that.  It’s intimidating to start a blank project, but once I got some of the basics down, the game progressed well.  Stencyl was a great tool for me to build a Flash game with zero knowledge of ActionScript.

I had no idea how to create a random maze.  The irony is that I actually wrote a BASIC program to first test that I understood what was going on.  The maze was created via an algorithm charmingly named the Drunkard’s Walk.  The below screenshot is from that BASIC program, and the maze looks remarkably similar to the final product.


But just building a little maze game didn’t seem worthwhile.  I’ve been very interested in the rise of art games–video games that purport to do something other than “merely” entertain.  (The linked Wikipedia article has a huge list at the bottom, but the archetypal example is Passage.)  Since there’s no way to win Memento Mori–the enemies get progressively nastier, until they will literally break down walls at the end to destroy you–a theme of death seemed appropriate.  I’ve also always been intrigued by simplistic aphorisms for ways to live (“Live each day to its fullest!” et al.), so I figured they might be a nice counterpoint in a game where the only outcome is death.  I culled many from online, then wrote a bunch more of my own, often with dubious or impractical advice.  When I was testing the game, I frequently caught myself mentally arguing with an aphorism that I myself had written expressly as bad counsel.

The brief description I wrote is “A game about affirmations, mazes, ASCII graphics, and death. Mostly death.”  And that seems about right.  I’m pretty pleased with how things turned out, and happy to have finally achieved my goal of making a game:  I figured out the programming to make a maze and five different types of enemy behavior, I wrote the little square-wave soundtrack in A minor, and I figured out how to make 2014 technology look and behave like 1984 technology (which was more challenging at times than I had hoped it would be).  And now you can play the game on Kongregate (again, right here!), alongside a bunch of other games by people who know far more about what they’re doing.

So give it a try!  What better way than to live today to its fullest?

Roundup: Splinters, picnic tables, and ninja turtles

Happy to have a few new things online:

  • Clarion published a short little poem I’ve always liked about splinters.
  • Stoneboat published a longer but still wood-themed poem about picnic tables (scroll toward the bottom of the page).
  • And I’m grateful for a review of But Our Princess up at Alternating Current, where Eric Shonkwiler says:

While it’s impressive to have this collection structured as it is around video games, its greatest victory, its highest score, lies in Best’s ability to make the reader positioned as the player, the poems the games, and to convey still the fullness of life in that 2D format.

More than 25 Million Poems about the Midwest

Now part of my bio can say “He has published more than 25 million poems …”

Verse Wisconsin  launched its final issue over the weekend with the theme of “Midwest Remix.”  This seemed like the perfect time to dust off an old project and polish it up.  I’m very pleased with the results, in terms of the writing but also in terms of the online presentation–the piece functions in a way such that it demands interactivity without being overbearing.  So, why not write one of the poems yourself:  More than 25 Million Poems about the Midwest.

Here’s one of the 25 million:

daffodils invade wisconsin
(poem #17104646)

fargo has signs, but merely mathematical ones, seeking to
explain something. an arithmetic can’t be based on inequalities.
the eggshell moon had cracked over a blanket woven
of crows. cawing to the bone. scratching.
anything else that’s roughly comparable. a lutheran cross hangs where
the power lines in rapid city trace inextricable knots of thought.

But Our Princess reviewed in Pleiades

But Our Princess has been out for almost a year, and I’m grateful for every person who’s chosen to review the book or interview me to see whatever semi-thoughtful things I have to say about the intersection of video games, poetry, and/or art.  I remain grateful for the most recent review in Pleiades by Kay Cosgrove:

The move between ages, between worlds, is as seam­less as it is in our lives and because of this the collection comes across as sincere. So much about this collection has the texture of a real life lived, but ironically, a real life lived through video games. … It is surprising how deftly Best manages to weave the particular human world into the popular video games of days gone by.

Pleiades also first published “Ms. and Super Pac-Man,” which was then picked up by Verse Daily here.