Just Get the Poems Out There
Do you remember Before the Web? I do. Barely.
I'm pretty sure I first encountered the word blog in 1998, flipping through an issue of Wired, which I wouldn’t have been reading at all except that a few months earlier I’d received a complimentary subscription with the purchase of my (adorable! Internet ready! email-capable!) Bondi Blue iMac.
Toward the back of the issue, in a diminutive sidebar, ran a brief definition of the “weblog, or blog” and a list of sites next to summaries of their (very narrowly focused, mostly technological) content. To quote a recent blog post by Bruce Sterling, “the original online practice of Jorn Barger style ‘web-logs’ [was] logging one’s web-surfing for the edification of others.” Honestly, I didn’t get it.
I’d been thinking about publishing something online, though. My new iMac came with GoLive CyberStudio (a WYSIWYG web design application) in its software bundle, and my ISP happened to offer some free server space with my dial-up contract. Suddenly I found myself with everything I needed to build a personal website. Cool. But what should I put on it? Some of my freelance work? Nah. Poems? The handful of print journals I’d appeared in had each arrived on the newsstand or bookstore shelf with a meager fwipple, then promptly vanished, like a half-stifled sneeze.
I put up my few previously published poems and figured I’d just add more as they appeared in print. Too slow. (No patience. Hate waiting.) I started writing short essay-reviews I called “enthusiasms” just to have something else to post. After creating each page in GoLive, I uploaded it patiently over my dial-up connection. In college I’d run a lit zine and produced a couple of DIY chapbooks, but designing a website was an entirely new challenge. I had no idea what I was doing, but it was addictively fun. Unlike producing zines or chapbooks, the coolest part was that it required no tedious (and expensive) duplicating, no trips to the post office. No begging stores to carry it on consignment. No falling out of print, or damaged or stolen copies. And anybody, anywhere, with an Internet connection could read it.
In theory. Nobody was reading mine. But that wasn't the point, then. I’d made a simple space to archive poems, post informal essays, and stake a claim as a poet (since I didn’t yet have a book or other “proof”) by planting a little flag on the World Wide Web. I wasn't yet thinking about what it meant to put myself and my writing out there, online, and I certainly wasn't thinking about making the site my main publishing outlet. I was too distracted by the learning curve and the series of steps each page took to design, debug, and upload.
Around the same time, newspapers were moving online, as were wire services such as AP and Reuters. Salon and Bold Type were two of the earliest web publications I read regularly, a requirement of my job at a major trade publisher. As news, entertainment, and retail sites (and don’t forget the porn pioneers) proliferated, a few wacky prognosticators predicted the death of the print culture in the not-too-distant future. Is it all coming back to you now?
Journal and magazine editors teamed up with designers to supplement and sometimes supplant their print periodicals with web counterparts, no doubt attracted to the same economic and distribution benefits that had first excited DIY-me. First there were a few, and then there were hundreds of fresh and free sites to read every day on my lunch breaks—conveniently located right there on my desk.
Later came Blogger—and Greymatter and Movable Type and LiveJournal and WordPress and the rest. I don’t know in what order. More and more people were getting connected, and the connections were faster. Tappity tap-click click-refresh: publishing online became extremely user-friendly.
OK, we’re all caught up.
The first poetry blogger I ever read till my eyes swam was Ron Silliman. I knew him rather vaguely as the critic behind The New Sentence and the editor of the major anthology In the American Tree, despite his having published nearly 30 books of poems. By the time I found his blogspot in 2003, Silliman had been posting for almost a year. Picture me instantly hooked, not so much by Silliman himself as by the concept: a poet writing about poetry, in a personal, erudite but not necessarily scholarly manner, on pretty much a daily basis. I went back and read the year’s worth of archives, including his debut post from August 29, 2002 (which strikes me as funny now, given how popular his blog has become):
Blogs have been around for awhile now, but to date I haven’t seen a genuinely good one devoted to contemporary poetry, so it may prove that there is no audience for such an endeavor. But this project isn’t about audience. The fact that the blog has the potential to carry forward the best elements of a journal and seems inherently prone to digressive, if not absolutely plotless, prose gives me hope that this form might prove amenable to critical thinking.
Perhaps Silliman was one of the earliest adopters thanks to his familiarity with the computer industry, where he happens to work as a market analyst. He wasn’t the only one inspired by the possibilities of the rapidly evolving medium. The same month I bookmarked his eponymous URL, Silliman posted his first blogroll—a list of several dozen other poetry-focused bloggers. I’d never heard of most of them, even the handful who lived in Brooklyn, practically in my backyard. I clicked them all.
Totally thrilling. Within the month I was thinking, damn it. Could I have skipped my MFA program (which I’d delayed for years after my BA, unsure and wary) if the blogs had arrived sooner? (I was already working as a writer and had no plans to teach.) On these emerging blogs, as well as on e-mail lists and forums, I’d finally found what I’d been looking for working in publishing, hanging around at readings, and going to grad school: other poets. Not famous ones, elder ones, teaching ones, laureate ones, or the ones with books from Knopf stocked at Barnes & Noble. The other ones. Ones like me.
Whatever subset of POET you’re looking for, the Internet’s got them. Like the mimeograph and the photocopier in their day, blogging software and hosting services allow anybody to hang out a shingle and start publishing—without buying apps or renting server space, without registering a domain, and without knowing how to code a single tag. The key word there is anybody. Academic credentials are optional, no pitching articles to editors, no need to have three books out and another on the way. Fast, cheap-to-free, low tech-threshold publishing quickly has become as simple and ubiquitous as e-mail, and much more effective, in practical terms, than a letter to the editor when it comes to telling William Logan what you think of his latest review.
Which is to say, along with changing the speed and focus of aesthetic debates, blogs have also changed the participants. Reb Livingston, publisher of No Tell Books and the online journal No Tell Motel, agrees. She’s pleased to see outsiders infiltrate:
Poets who were never in the center (often these were women, but not limited to women), who weren’t getting attention, are now getting attention and readers—often more than the so-called mainstreamers. The old way of getting an MFA, winning a contest, publishing with university presses, and getting a job teaching has been shown not to be a particularly good measure of anything—if anything, the many flaws and shortcomings [of that older route] have been exposed.
Poets have hacked the template—both literally, as they edited the HTML behind their blogs, and figuratively, creating alternatives to once-dominant modes and traditional publishing platforms. Frustrated that the established systems weren’t as user-friendly as they’d like, they’ve approached poetry publishing and poetic discourse in the manner of open-source programmers, improvising workarounds and frankensteining new hybrids.
Systemically and technically, there’s not much left to prevent any American poet from pronouncing, announcing, and renouncing whatever she likes from her own online soapbox, distribution included. She writes it, she posts it, she links it, and it’s instantly available online, crawled by search engine bots, archived by the Wayback Machine. That’s some reach, when you think about it.
I love listening to poets think aloud on their blogs. Watching them wrestle with a manuscript in real time. Being surprised at how hard they are on themselves—or sometimes too easy. Reading over their shoulders as they get good news and bad news about their submissions, fellowships, and teaching jobs. I like to know what they’re reading and what they’re having for breakfast, what their lovers look like, what they saw on their commute, and where they go on vacation. I’m even fond of their children. But what most engrosses me are the more disputatious conversations, I’ll admit it. I’m not talking about blogwars or exercises in flaming. (File those under Personality, not Poetry.) I mean those times when poets really engage, discuss, argue, propose, question, or plead.
These debates are truly new, if not always in substance then in accessibility. Certainly poets have discussed poetics, aesthetics, and who’s pathetic forever. But the exchanges were necessarily more intimate—we weren’t there to hear them. We had to wait for poets to polish their opinions for print mags or books, or to die so their correspondence or biographies could finally be released. Lucky us—every day in the poetry blogosphere, we can find any number of useful, thought-provoking posts on poetry. (See below for a few recent highlights.)
Online magazines and print/web hybrids are getting in on the act as well, using blogs and comment features to fill in the gaps between issues, keep content fresher, and encourage reader feedback. The concept of the literary journal has undergone some pretty radical mods in the last 10 years, not only in content—such as podcasts and other audio features, animation and visual poetries, and YouTubed performances—but also in terms of scheduling frequency: biweeklies, weeklies, dailies, guest-hosted carnivals, and so on. These experimental formats are more responsive and interactive than their old-school print counterparts, and they’re working in tandem with the chatter of the blogs and each other to push the boundaries of aesthetic debates and critical inquiries.
I love these ripples. I love watching the ideas develop and the attitudes change and the positions soften or harden over time. Unlike the buzz my colleagues and I stirred up from the phones at the big publishing house where I used to work, the blogosphere’s trends aren’t manufactured. The debates may be deliberately entered, but they’re not staged. When poets grapple with each other or themselves online, they’re invested in their own opinions about the art they practice, not company profitability. They don’t hold strategy meetings beforehand, deciding which trends to fluff and flatter in which season. (What? You didn’t realize that the magazines running the book features which big-house publicists are “following up on” are sometimes owned by the same Humongous Media Conglomerate as the press itself? Or that their companies pay thousands in ad revenues to the most prominent review outlets?) In this way, the poetry blogs can be seen to function a little like the political blogs, watchdogging and correcting the larger, more official, and more mainstream outlets.
Eileen Tabios, publisher of Meritage Press and editor/publisher of the review Galatea Resurrects, finds the openness, spontaneity, and relative accessibility of blogs and online journals to be corrective:
One of the healthiest elements about poetry blogging is how poetry blogland more accurately mirrors the nature of Poetry than has traditional canon-making poetic machinery. There have always been more poets and poems than those marble-ized in Norton anthologies, “best of” anthologies, et al. . . . There is no center—or there are many centers—in poetry.
Lest you think I’m some kind of starry-eyed idealist, lemme be clear. Blogging definitely has its drawbacks and dangers—from minor annoyances to more serious concerns about addiction and abuse, complicated by the disinhibiting effects of virtual anonymity, among other things. The vulnerability inherent in blogging can occasionally be as excruciating as it is generally fulfilling. Saying what you think can be intensely embarrassing. It can also tick people off. But none of that is unique to poetry’s corner of the blogosphere, and these same vulnerabilities are what makes the medium so compelling for its audience too.
Even when tempers flare, the results can be transformative. As Danielle Pafunda points out,
. . . it’s in these moments of greatest discord that we find a discourse’s Achilles’ heel. It stands to reason that if we want to change the dominant literary discourse, then we’d better develop and practice new models. One way to do this is to exploit what might be conventionally considered failures to communicate. We agree to disagree, and acknowledge that individual parties are committed to the same goals for different reasons. We identify the areas in which consensus is most necessary, and leave other bramble bushes as they are.
Like Pafunda, I think of the poetry blogosphere as a collective effort, one that may fail over here but succeed over there. It’s a social sphere and cooperative artistic enterprise that’s as rewarding and challenging as a collaboration of any other kind.
There’s been plenty of complaining that all the noise is too much, that there’s already too much to pay attention to and procrastinate over. Don’t we have anything better to do? Shouldn’t we be writing poems? I don’t completely disagree. It’s easy to overdo it, and difficult sometimes to find the right filter, maintain enough distance. But I have to laugh at the absurdity: detractors using their own poetry blogs to complain about poetry blogs. Between poems, I plan to keep reading.
• Readers, contributors, and the editor discuss questions of ethnicity, aesthetics, and publishing strategies in response to a themed issue of an online journal. Link.
•Editors reveal what goes on behind the scenes—what’s in their slush piles, what makes a great anthology, the difficulties of rejections, and the various abuses they take from frustrated writers. Link 1. Link 2. Link 3. Link 4.
• Poets talk to each other about process, inspirations, peeves, putting a first book out, or the sociopolitical role of the poet. Link 1. Link 2. Link 3.
• Poets plan an alternative to the annual AWP conference, picking each other’s brains about ways to secure funding, provide child care and housing, and keep everything focused and affordable. Link.
• A poet responds to a review of his own work and draws the critic into a longer, two-way conversation. Link 1. Link 2.
Illustrations by Marianne Goldin.
Shanna Compton is the author of Down Spooky and the editor of GAMERS: Artists, Writers & Programmers on the Pleasures of Pixels. Her second collection of poems, For Girls, will published in the fall by Bloof Books. She blogs at shannacompton.com/blog.html and diypublishing.blogspot.com.