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The Medium and The Message

Justin Sirois' New Book Embraces The Ways Technology Influences What and How We Say The Things We Say


By Darcelle Bleau | Posted 3/19/2008

Baltimore poet Justin Sirois has no interest in being Maryland's poet laureate. Absolutely none. But if by some strange fate twist he ended up in that seat, he knows exactly what he'd do. "I'd go to as many local readings as possible--in the city, because that's where the stuff is happening," he says, sitting at a small table in the murky back-room bar of a Hampden café. He pauses and takes a sip from a dark draught. "I would promote experimentation and failure. A lot of poetry doesn't want to fail--it has a very strict thing that it wants to be, and that's not a poem. It might look like a poem, but it's not going to be a poem. You can't go into it with a specific agenda, saying, This is going to change the reader. Communication doesn't work like that."

Communication--in language and ideas--is the medium and the message of Sirois' recently published book, Secondary Sound. In it, the narrator creates two peculiar lists. One includes "text, pictures, sound, video, liberation"; the other "development, marketing, immersion, adaptation, obsolescence, art." Sirois says these lists are stages in the development of new media and technology, and he admits to being fascinated by the paths they trace.

The 28-year-old could describe his own evolution as an artist in a similar way: printmaker, poet, publisher, provocateur. Since he earned his degree in printmaking from Maryland Institute College of Art in 2001, he has received two Maryland Arts Council grants in poetry and started the spoken-word and publishing venture Narrow House. Sirois is unassuming but has strong opinions about art. Throughout his adult career, he has been a social reformer and agitator, promoting serious discussion and sustainable change.

In Secondary Sound, Sirois explores the topic of digital piracy. "Copyright reform has been a big thing for me during the past couple years," he says. "I've read a lot of [Stanford law professor and advocate for reduced legal restrictions on intellectual property] Lawrence Lessig. I've followed the evolution of Napster and the opinions of the public regarding the theft and ownership of ideas. Piracy, digital piracy, is a crime. Mothers and kids are being prosecuted for downloading music. It's a social problem that needs to be solved quickly before we stifle the creative people who are making the interesting work."

For Sirois, this is a huge and pressing concern, as many art forms are available free of charge as soon as they enter the worldwide marketplace. "You write a book, you want to control the content," he says. "You want to make a profit because it took you three or four years to create the work. But the rules have changed. People need to realize that technology is moving so fast now, and we're losing control of the content. Once it's out there, it's scanned or turned into a PDF or an MP3. There's nothing you can do. The more you try to control it, the more you strangle the creative energy."

Fueling the momentum of artistic exchange is paramount to Sirois. He advocates for an open-source world. Though he doesn't condone digital piracy, he prioritizes sharing ideas over upholding dubious legalities. In Secondary Sound, he formulates and fictionalizes his views on piracy. The three-part series of poems is narrated by a contemporary, cell-phone-carrying pirate.

"I thought it would be interesting to introduce a character who messes up my work, so that I become a secondary voice," Sirois says. "Even though I'm not collaborating with anyone, I'm giving up a certain amount of control so that this character can dance around in my poems."

And in the poem "The Bootleg Shuffle," Sirois almost means that literally:

here's something we do to liven up the party--it's called

the Bootleg Shuffle!

I'm sure if I ever saw myself dance on video

I'd never dance again

like a man falling from a building

or a building falling on a man

As the narrative advances, Secondary Sound reveals itself as a commentary on control and the loss of control. The author begins to write, but the pirate often redirects him. Though most of the content of this book is crafted as poetry, Sirois also includes a variety of prose sections. "I wanted there to be a genre mesh," he says. "The book is about sampling, mixing, DJ culture, and that stuff. I thought it would be appropriate if I had a short story, then a monologue, then a poem, then a text message. I was cognizant of the genres butting up to each other."

"The Bootleg Shuffle" is followed by a six-page prose section titled "kill the death tax," and two text messages are embedded as part of the dialogue. After another prose section that describes a nightclub scene comes a poem titled "seven inch." It opens with the salvo "blame the mixtape" and then goes on to confess: "Grew/ up recording the sounds of ourselves, then traded each other/ inside cassettes decorated with highlighter, glitter, Sharpie."

Though serious in subject matter and often in tone, Secondary Sound is also playful. By inserting text messages, modernizing traditional themes, and coining or "pirating" phrases, Sirois creates a flexible forum for advancing both creativity and cause. The book is a philosophical and emotional journey defined by the quest for the perfect song and the perfect form--achieved in the woman who shows up at the end or in the perfect means of communication.

In this last effort, Sirois has many colleagues, and each one of those colleagues has a different voice. Sirois respects Lessig for his activism--and even supported Lessig's recent exploratory bid for Congress (Lessig ended up not running)--but he doesn't see a public-service role in his own future. He sounds content advancing issues through his art. Inspired by Marshall McLuhan's 1967 book The Medium Is the Massage and the philosophies that gave rise to it, Sirois molds Secondary Sound into a unique study of form and function. It is a media montage, wherein all types of communication, real and fictional, collide.

Sirois' lists--mentioned above--are an example of this. On one level, they are just strings of words. On another, they are an evolutionary arc reducing narrative to its most basic information. In short, a text message.

"It's something that really interests me: how technology evolves," Sirois says. "As a culture becomes familiar with a medium, people learn how to make art with it. The text message is slowly being incorporated into novel-writing in Japan. Before it was just a means of communication, just getting the acronym across. Now people are writing short stories in text messages. It happens with every single medium that I can imagine."

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