BY Meg Miller in Opinion | 10 MAY 23

The Online Publications Bridging Poetry and Code

A new wave of digital literary magazines are engaging with the internet as both medium and material

BY Meg Miller in Opinion | 10 MAY 23

Around this time last year, a new literary magazine was published somewhat quietly to the web. The inaugural issue of the html review, created by publisher Maxwell Neely-Cohen and artistic director Shelby Wilson, reached me via social media, where it circulated among friends in web design and literature: two worlds to which I pay a lot of attention but rarely see intersect. Part of the buzz was Wilson’s digital advent calendar of a table of contents, where a grid of windows flap open, part or roll up on scrolling, revealing interactive works of literature by writers and new media artists. The pieces vary in their aesthetic, tone and functionality, but the common thread throughout is how inventively they use the browser as their medium, playing with duration, mutation and possibility.


Todd Anderson’s ‘A Small Memorial’ (2022), for example, starts by asking the reader to hold down two keys on the keyboard then sit back and watch the story unfold – a eulogy to his late pet frog made unexpectedly moving by the way Anderson controls its pacing. In another example, lines in Katy Ilonka Gero’s poem ‘Accumulation’ (2022) float serenely down screen, landing in a pile of verse at the bottom, calling to mind the title of Robert Smithson’s ‘A heap of Language’ (1966). Both of these pieces use code and words to play with pace and duration, demanding a sustained attention I seldom feel online.

Accumulation gif

Last month, the second issue of the html review launched with a new design and contributors list. Expressive, hand coded pieces – such as Chia Amisola’s fill-in-the-form concrete poem and Katherine Yang’s build-your-own-poem interface (both 2023) – continue to break the templated monotony of an internet that has become less intimate and human as it grows more complex and financialized. Html review is an attempt to give people a space for a different way the web can work, says Neely-Cohen, who also mentions a backdrop of AI generated text and ‘disruptive’ publishing startups in this issue’s editor’s letter. Neely-Cohen also sees the html review as a response to a more immediate issue: writers experimenting with interactive work don’t have a lot of places to publish.

Katherine Yang

This is the primary condition that has led to a small, growing and interconnected ecosystem of literary magazines dedicated to publishing web-based work. Author Matthew Baker, who also has a piece in the html review, started the magazine Code Lit to publish text-only pieces that are rearranged or manipulated by actions like scrolling or clicking. In an essay by poet Tiana Clark (‘Mediations on a Line’, 2022), lines appear and disappear based on the fullness of the moon and the time of sunset in Sewanee, Tennessee. There’s also New Session, which can be read over telnet, a network protocol that allows you to access another computer virtually and communicate collaboratively via text between two machines. Gero, author of ‘Accumulation’ in the first issue of the html review, as well as ‘Blank Page with Machine’ (2023) in the second, is also part of the editorial collective that runs taper, a poetry magazine founded by Nick Montfort that imposes a two kilobyte file size on contributors.

Crawlspace’s editorial, 2023, screenshot. Courtesy: Crawlspace

While New Session and taper require a certain level of technical knowledge, Crawlspace’s Rory Green and Hannah Jenkins wanted to make artistic exploration with digital tools more accessible, so they designed and developed a backend customized for digital and multimedia work. This points toward one reason why traditional literary magazines don’t publish much interactive work: their content management systems don’t support it. Baker, whose short stories have run in The New York Times Magazine and The Paris Review, has come up against this problem when trying to place his digital fictions in established publications. ‘Many were encouraging and interested in the idea, but they would say “We use WordPress, I don't think we can do something like that.”’ 

Simon Han

There’s also the fact that even longstanding literary magazines are struggling to stay afloat. After the closure of beloved publications like Bookforum and Believer – where Neely-Cohen was an editor – putting resources toward building an infrastructure to support web-based pieces may not be a priority for the ones that remain. It’s also true that people engaging in computational literature are still a small subsect of the overall writing community. Tiger Dingsun, publisher of Reading Machines, points out that there’s still a gap between people who are interested in creating new forms of literature, and the people who have the programming skills to be able to implement it. 

Emma Kemp, GUSHGUSHGUSH, undated, website screenshot. Courtesy: the writer and Reading Machines

Indeed, everyone I’ve spoken to for this article is part of a rarefied group who are just as interested in code as they are in literature. Like Baker, Dingsun accepts text submissions for Reading Machines, then works with the writer to create a distinct website, with sound and a particular pacing – something that might be watched just as much as read. The publication’s ‘about statement’ explains that it wants to publish pieces that ‘fully utilize the affordances the web offers in the presentation of text.’ It’s a sentiment echoed by the founders of html review and Code Lit as well. Put simply, they want to publish work that’s made specifically for the web. 

Justine Nguyễn-Nguyễn, 7 Poems, undated, website screenshot. Courtesy: the writer and Reading Machines

It feels odd to me that this is still such untrodden territory, given how much reading we all do on the internet. Even predominantly print publications also publish online now, and yet so little of that work engages with the medium on which it’s published in any meaningful way. Neely-Cohen sees a parallel between why traditional literary magazines don’t engage more with digital work and the larger state of the internet today, which is that code is no longer as empowering or inviting a medium as it was with an earlier internet. Websites are more complex to build, and social media platforms offer easy uploading but little agency. This nascent but growing scene of digital publishers are bridging those worlds, making poetic use of both words and code.

Main image: Spencer Chang, HTML Garden, undated, website screenshot. Courtesy: the writer and The HTML Review

Thumbnail: Esther Bouquet, whispers from a soft garden, undated, website screenshot. Courtesy: the writer and The HTML Review

Meg Miller a writer and editor focused on the ways design, art, language and technology shape culture and society. They are based in Berlin.