First Screening – Computer Poems by bpNichol

A project to recover some of the earliest computer-based poetry by one of Canada’s finest poets has just been completed by Jim Andrews, Geof Huth, Lionel Kearns, Marko Niemi and Dan Waber. It is a fine example of how to recover and return lost work, and they offer a variety of original and emulated versions. As the intro text makes clear, the business of archiving electronic writing is still terribly underdiscussed, despite this being an issue that most digital writers will face… “O ye digital poets: the past of the art is in your hands and it is you who must recover and maintain it.”


Computer Poems
by bpNichol

In 1983 and 1984, bpNichol used an Apple IIe computer and the Apple BASIC programming language to create First Screening, a suite of a dozen programmed, kinetic poems. He distributed First Screening through Underwhich, an imprint he started in 1979 with a small group of poets. The Underwhich edition of First Screening consisted of 100 numbered and signed copies distributed on 5.25″ floppies along with printed matter.

However, the Apple IIe soon became obsolete and the poems became essentially inaccessible. But in 1992, four years after the death of bpNichol, J. B. Hohm, a student at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, began creating a HyperCard version of First Screening with the approval of Ellie Nichol, bp’s widow, and with assistance from Dennis Johnson and Fred Wah. In 1993, Red Deer College Press published this version on a 3.5″ floppy disk for the Macintosh computer.

This HyperCard version of First Screening was a careful re-creation and recoding of the original, and it extended the life of the poems of First Screening a few more years. Still, HyperCard eventually died, leaving the poems unavailable to all but the few who owned a functioning old Mac or an even older Apple IIe and a readable diskette (unlikely, since the usual lifetime of a diskette is approximately five years). In 2004, Apple stopped selling HyperCard, and OSX’s Classic mode was the last Mac operating system on which it was possible to view HyperCard works.

So we are very happy to present to you four different versions of First Screening.

1. The original DSK file of the Underwhich edition with a freely downloadable Apple IIe emulator (available for PCs and (maybe) Macs), along with scanned images of the printed matter distributed with the Underwhich edition. This version is closest to the original.
2. An online JavaScript version of First Screening created by Marko Niemi and Jim Andrews.
3. A streaming Quicktime movie of the emulated version.
4. The original HyperCard version, which may, perhaps, become easier to view in the future via a HyperCard Player emulator or some other means. We’ve also posted scans of the printed matter of this version.

This project has taken us almost three years. We’ve learned much about bpNichol’s First Screening and how the destiny of digital writing usually remains the responsibility of the digital writers themselves. As a group and individually. This project illustrates that work can indeed survive the obsolescence of technologies if others are still interested in the work and the artist has provided what is required to implement the work using later technologies. bpNichol originally created 100 copies of First Screening and distributed them widely, which was important to the propagation of the bitstream. Fortunately, the source code was relatively easy to extract and fairly simple to understand. First Screening is some of the earliest programmed, kinetic poetry. This historical significance, together with the quality of the work itself and bpNichol’s literary stature (he was awarded Canada’s highest literary honour in 1970), have also motivated us to complete this project.

The recovery started in 2004 when Lionel Kearns showed Jim Andrews the HyperCard version on an old Mac. Lionel also had three 5.25″ floppy disks bpNichol had given him. Jim took those floppies to Information Services at the University of Victoria, Canada, where Jeff Rivett, a data analyst, recovered the data using his own functioning Apple IIe at home.

That version of First Screening turned out to be incomplete; Barrie Nichol must have given Lionel these disks while still writing the piece. Geof recognized that the disk was missing some of the poems in the published version and that Lionel’s disk presented the remaining poems in a different order. In an attempt to preserve these poems, Geof had stored his 5.25″ floppy of the Underwhich edition carefully, made a silent videotape of the poems as they played on the Apple IIe, and printed out the source code. He could no longer view his floppy, since he no longer had an Apple II series computer, but the printout and the video indicated that three poems were missing from Lionel’s draft copy: “Reverie,” “Any of Your Lip,” and “Off-Screen Romance,” along with some initial and final bibliographic matter.

Following unsuccessful efforts by the University of Albany to recover the data from Geof’s 5.25″ floppy of the Underwhich edition, Geof shipped the floppy from New York to Dan Waber and Jason Pimble in Pennsylvania. Dan and Jason were able to recover the full version from Geof’s 22-year-old floppy using a functioning Apple IIe computer and a range of open source software.

O ye digital poets: the past of the art is in your hands and it is you who must recover and maintain it. Although the history of digital archiving is more than two decades old, most professional archivists have little interest or training in the process of preserving and ensuring functional access to digital materials. For instance, although bpNichol’s work is archived at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, no one there had or could copy the data from the Underwhich edition floppy to contemporary media. They were not uninterested, however, and many thanks to Tony Power for trying.

The secret to this project has been a combination of passion and knowledge. None of us understood the entirety of the situation facing us at the outset. Each of us brought a different set of skills to the task, and all of us brought our love of Nichol’s work and our desire to make sure that others could once again see these early digital poems. We hope our efforts prove worth it for those who visit now and into the future.

Jim Andrews
Geof Huth
Lionel Kearns
Marko Niemi
Dan Waber