Jon Gracey's

Games That Rocked My World – Poetry Interlude: Coin Opera II

In Poetry on November 27, 2013 at 12:44 pm

This is a very special post on Games That Rocked, because there’s a freakin’ book of video game poetry out, and Kirsten Irving, one of the editors and contributors to it, is going to tell you all about it. (It’s the second in a series, and if you want to buy the original – as I have – go here ASAP)

Title: Coin Opera II

Format: Paper and ink. Book, innit

Released: September, 2013

coinopera 2 Small

Many Levels: The Making of Coin Opera II

Thanks to Jon for letting me hijack GTR and deviate from the normal format to talk about a strange and exhausting adventure I’ve only just emerged from. Coin Opera II: Fulminare’s Revenge is an anthology marrying games, one of the world’s biggest and fastest creative industries, with poetry, an artform so low in sales even the biggest publishers make no money from it.

Since 2005, I’ve co-run a hand-made arts journal called Fuselit, in which all poetry, prose, artwork and sound submissions take the form of reactions to the issue’s theme word. For our ‘Tilt’ issue, my co-editor Jon Stone and I ran with the pinball interpretation, producing a bonus booklet called Bard Games, which was full of poems created using the rules of games like Cluedo, dominoes, Jenga and Trivial Pursuit as formal inspiration. Some worked well, others less so, but this little exercise made us wonder whether mining the structure and tropes of video games would also yield interesting poetry. Such financially foolhardy thoughts led us to start our own press, Sidekick Books, and release as our opening salvo a micro-anthology of computer game poetry called Coin Opera.

Coin Opera was great fun to edit, with results ranging from visual poetry mimicking the shifting shapes of Tetris to a ‘Dear John’ letter in the voice of Portal’s GLaDOS. Each poet was represented by a Streetfighter II-style portrait, and the cover bore our fictional boss, Dr. Fulminare, as a Final Fantasy VI-style sprite. After such a strange start to a poetry press, perhaps now would be a good time to get back to villanelles about rural Gloucestershire.

But no, drunk on our own alchemical doings, we plotted to take the game poetry idea further, to put together a gigantic follow-up, packed with experiments, Easter eggs and ludic wordplay. It was excitement at the creative potential of the mixture that drove us to start a sequel, but an important secondary consideration was the crossover in audiences. Not only in terms of sales (I already mentioned poetry’s poor rate of return), but as a way of taking poetry out of its perceived dusty corner and the grim memories of GCSE anthologies, and colliding it with a very young artform that deserved to be taken more seriously by non-gamers.

That was 2010, and in true game sequel style, it’s been a maddeningly long gestation, with the project occasionally threatening to fade into vapourware as work priorities overtook us, but finally, after three years, Coin Opera 2 has emerged.

CO2 Front Cover

Variety and richness are the watchwords for this anthology, as befits any attempt to address the whole span of gaming history, from Space Invaders up to Robot Unicorn Attack via Grim Fandango and Team Fortress 2. The book features new writing by award-winning writers alongside newer poets. Most contributors are already gamers, but some have approached their subjects from an outsider’s perspective, with an interesting Verfremdungseffekt (‘Ico’ by Gabrielle Nolan being a great example, conjuring a feeling of flight, abandonment and loss throughout). One poet even bought a copy of Tomb Raider, her chosen game, expressly for the project, and had good fun researching her eventual poem, ‘Hot Pursuit’.

Inevitably, given the subject matter, there was going to be a gender sway towards male contributors, though we definitely had some eager female gamers on the initial roster. A thorough headhunt and the split ended up at nearly 50/50, with a heady range of writing styles, from collage to two-player ‘fight’ poems (I have a war of words with Abigail Parry at one point, involving nouns ‘blocking’ verb ‘attacks’). Mix in sections headed ‘Dust-Up Forest’, ‘Pluck & Plunder Island’ and ‘Brainthunder Mountain’, separate black and white versions of the cover a la Pokemon, three massive end-of-level ‘boss’ poems, about 40 sprites, one for every one of the poets (cue images of Jon gamely squinting into the abyss of Photoshop for hours) and a foreword by games journalist and Uncanny X-Men writer, Kieron Gillen, and, well, you can see why it all took so long.

Kieron Gillen

Finishing the anthology has been difficult because there was never any defined completion mark. We could have tinkered with the look and content of the book till Hell froze over, and indeed, this can be true of poetry too. Free verse is somewhat similar to games like Terraria and Minecraft. No fixed mission, so you could just keep going and going, accumulating, smelting and building. But thanks to a successful Kickstarter (for which I am currently penning poems on Fallen London, GTA: Vice City, Shenmue and Civilisation V for generous backers), the lovechild of games and poetry, in all its restrictive, frustrating, intricate beauty, is here at last. And hey – we even beat Half-Life: Episode 3 to the finish line.

Mirror, Okami, Stardust
by Chrissy Williams

I have never enjoyed running so much
as when I have my white wolf’s paws under me
drumming the earth, showering blossom.

I have never enjoyed swimming so much
as when I kick stardust in my wake,
creating waves of stars to light the sky.

I have never enjoyed nature so much
as when pollen flies to mark the delight
of cats and canine warriors I have fed.

I have never enjoyed dying so much
as when a mirror of stone, bone and wood
returns me to my purest state, offers a second chance.


Excited, and want to buy a copy of this gorgeous-sounding-and-looking book? Go here.

Check out Fuselit and Sidekick Books, too. Go on.

  1. Oh my God… I don’t even… I don’t know where to start! I must have this thing now!!!


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