Essay: Poetry On the Web
It's hard for me to feel published unless it's on the page. But recently I met this guy at a party who told me he saw a poem of mine on a website. "That's the way I like to read poems, by accident," he said. "Like once I saw a poem by—have you heard of William Carlos Williams? I read it online and then bought this book, Desert Music. I sat down and read it through." I asked if he'd read any other books by Williams. Of course not. Just as he never read another poem of mine. He had to get on with his life. But take heart, poets who stay up nights worrying about audiences for poetry. Clearly, the web disseminates our work more widely than ever before.
I also don't have a sense of how many people actually read poems at websites, but the same question could be asked about print journals. I also don't know how much print and cyber audiences overlap. One thing I've noticed, though, is that gender balance at online zines tends to be much better than at some older print journals. How pleasant it is to read poems online instead of on the page depends on your technology, eyesight, the site itself, how old you were when you first arrived in cyberspace, and whether you prefer reading poetry in the tub or at a desk. If I see a poem online I'm really interested in, I print it out and go lie on the couch to read it. Then maybe I buy the book, to bend and crack and mark up. Can't do that to my Dell Notebook, let alone my mammoth old desktop.
The thing is, I get lost when I go online. How not? Thirty-two million hits come up if you Google "poetry." (Number one is poetry.com, the vanity contest/anthology scam: "Win your share of $74,000 in Prizes. Join us in Walt Disney World—Click for Details.") When I used to procrastinate by mopping the floor, at least it was exercise and things got clean. When I procrastinated by reading People magazine I could quote Whitman: "I loaf and invite my soul." Now my eyes hurt, my knees ache from inactivity, my brain is mush. Worse, I get bored.
Like any addict, I hate and love my drug. What follows is a list of a few sites, from resources to reading to listening material. Some sound duller than others—because they are. But if there wasn't something irresistible in all of them, would I be addicted?
Poems Online: Resource Websites
First, and most established, The Academy of American Poets (poets.org) is an info-clearinghouse with links to awards, conferences, retreats, libraries, and journals. In the middle of an overhaul, the site is finally looking snappier. The March home page shows Marilyn Monroe reading Leaves of Grass in bed. That's still a dead white male being read by a dead white female—but back in January, the site yawned, stretched, and commissioned a series of youngerish poets to write about the burning poetry issues of today: contests, good or bad? MFA programs, ditto. The narrative "I," still possible? The site is justly famous for its encyclopedia of more than five hundred classic, modern, and contemporary poets, not exclusively American (many still living!), with bios and links to their work online. According to the AAP, staff decides on an ongoing basis who to include with input from the chancellors. That means poets who have won national or AAP awards, or published a lot, are here. So are some who have participated in Academy programs or seem representative of American poetic history. Some are determined by requests from site visitors, surveys, and web search pattern analyses (self-Googlers take heart! and get all your friends to request you). The selection is broad and stylistically diverse, and as with any encyclopedic list it's fun to gasp at who's left out. No August Kleinzahler? Albert Goldbarth? Susan Mitchell? Susan Wheeler? James Richardson? Campbell McGrath? Lucia Perillo? Louis Zukofsky?
SUNY Buffalo's Electronic Poetry Center (epc.buffalo.edu) concentrates on poets who get called "experimental." Theoretical and formal innovation characterize this site, along with an unshakeable belief in the traditional avant garde. There are meaty poem-links for big, mid-career, and emerging names, prose writings of poet-critics, links to presses, magazines, and e-poetry sites. Also at the EPC is a page of language "experiments," including many that I recall a gray-haired enthusiast leading my kiddie poetry workshop through, Albany Public Library, circa 1974.
Modern American Poetry (English.uiuc.edu/maps/) is an excellent quick resource for chronologies, poems, and criticism of diverse American poets. What did critics think of Sesshu Foster's 1997 book City Terrace Field Manual? Who was Lucia Trent? What did Marjorie Perloff say about Frank O'Hara's "A Step Away from Them" in 1973; what in 1998? Must hear James Dickey read "The Sheep Child" right this second? There's a link.
You have to subscribe to the print version of The Atlantic Monthly (theatlantic.com) to access some of its online content. Well, it's a tax write-off. The emphasis of the dozen or so short lyric/lyric-narratives, by well-published poets, all (I think) Caucasian, slightly more men than women, is on the quiet, plain-spoken, and domestic. Over the six weeks I checked in, content was hardly updated at all—maybe because long-time Atlantic poetry editor Peter Davison died recently. Best is "Soundings," in which three or four contemporary poets read aloud the same classic poem. Pound's Lament of the Frontier Guard is read by Robert Pinsky (conversational, but consonantally precise), Wen Stephenson (Midwestern vowels, whispery presentation) and Charles Wright (poetical, hoarse, slightly southern). None sound Poundian, which is what makes them interesting. Also at atlantic.com, Dana Gioia's glum 1991 assessment of American poetry, Can Poetry Matter?, and a recent interview with Gioia in which he announces poetry's renewed popularity and discovers "rap, poetry slams, cowboy poetry" all over again.
The admirable mission at Foetry (foetry.com) is "exposing the fraudulent 'contests.' Tracking the sycophants. Naming names." Foetry wants contests that charge entry fees to publish guidelines forbidding judges from choosing students or pals, and to be transparent about judging procedures. If Foetry is correct when it alleges that one university press awarded its four poetry and fiction book prizes this year to people who have worked for or studied at that university, I'd think twice before submitting a manuscript to that contest. If it's true that one judge repeatedly awarded prizes to students and once to a future spouse, well, ick, and watch out for that name too. The problem with Foetry is that its anonymity encouraged irresponsibility. (The book contest I won is on Foetry's list of suspect contests. I didn't know my judge or anyone else at my press.) Foetry says it fears reprisal from the poetry powers it attacks. This is understandable—there are some real nasties in the poetry world. But should we take seriously an allegation of cheating based on the fact that a judge and winner both appeared in the same magazine? Some of the convoluted conspiracy theories posted at the site remind me of those poor paranoid logorrheics outside Federal Courthouses with their garbage-filled shopping carts and their eight cardboard placards covered in intricate magic-markered explanations of how the law done them wrong. Foetry is a little like bitterwaitress.com, an entertaining site where servers rant about evil clientele and low-tipping celebrities. It's easy to sympathize—but putting bodily fluids in someone's soup because he forgot to say please is going a little far.
Lists.topica.com/lists/crwropps/read is a useful clearinghouse for poetry (and fiction, non-fiction, etc.) contest information. Browse the archives and sign up to receive free email notifications, or simply send a blank email to email@example.com. CRWROPPS sends plenty of notices of big fellowships and book competitions, but doesn't edit out the kinds of contests that ask for a twenty-five dollar entry fee in return for which the winning author receives ten copies of his chapbook.
Jefferybahr.com/Publications/RptSubTimes.asp is a table of average response times of various literary journals to poetry submissions. Color-coded and user-friendly, the reports, of journals big and small, mainstream and not, are based on anywhere from one to twenty-seven submissions, so some of the data is more anecdotal than others.
Poems Online: Anthology Sites
Recently Clive James wrote in the New York Times, "My own prescription for making poetry popular in the schools would be to ban it—with possession treated as a serious misdemeanor, and dealing as a felony." I tend to think he's right. Still, the promo-projects of our poet laureates make appealing web places. Billy Collins's Poetry 180 (loc.gov/poetry/180) displays 180 poems Collins chose to be read aloud one-a-day in high schools. The smart thing about this project is that it only suggests reading aloud, not earnest teacherly explanations that turn poetry into something to be "gotten," "figured out," or "decoded." Given Poetry 180's intended audience, the poems at this website are reasonably accessible.
My new Dell Notebook and DSL upgrade mean I can now watch videos at Robert Pinsky's Favorite Poem Project (favoritepoem.org): dozens of non-poets read and talk about a favorite poem. A Seattle glassblower is good on Frank O'Hara's Lana Turner "Poem." A wooden Hillary Clinton reads Nemerov as if she never did before and hopes never to again. The videos vary, artistically speaking. One segment starts melodramatically with helicopter/jungle video footage and gunfire/chopper/electric guitar sound effects. Yusef Komunyakaa's wonderful "Facing It," about the Vietnam War Memorial, doesn't need that, and neither does the Vietnam vet who reads and talks about the poem. "I had not been able to face the wall," the Vet says, quietly. "That poem helped me...unlock my emotions." He reads the poem in a voice almost angry at times, and chokes up at the end. It's quite a moment.
Poetry Daily (poems.com) and Verse Daily (versedaily.org) are the two big poem-a-day websites. It's hard to characterize the poems at either site. Formalists complain there's too much free verse and vice versa; experimentalists complain they get short shrift, as do traditionalists. In fact, Poetry Daily and Verse Daily cover a lot of ground, taking their content from recent journals and poetry books. Verse Daily may be somewhat more committed to the brief lyric while Poetry Daily may be the more eclectic of the two, but I say this tentatively (and with the disclosure that Poetry Daily has featured my poems on four occasions and paid me to write a prose feature for them.) A particular gift of both sites is publicity. Sometimes you can watch a poet's Amazon ranking jump hundreds of thousands of points after a poem from her new book has been featured! (This probably means she sold three books.) Poetry Daily's links to poetry-related news and reviews in on-line, print and radio-media sources are extremely useful.
Aural/oral poetry goes well with the web. UbuWeb (ubu.com) is a splendid audiofile jumble of linguistic apocrypha and performance, from Abbie Hoffman reading "Wake Up America!" to Raymond Queneau's "Exercises de style" to a collection of Dial-A-Poem recordings from the seventies and eighties. The site contains a certain amount of gobble. "Poems performed are poems sounded, where the sounding by the voice or by instruments acting as surrogate voices can bring a new sense of power/empowerment to performers and auditors" begins Ubu on "ethnopoetics" (Ella Fitzgerald, Tuvan Throat Singing). But try, for example, Canadian poet Christian Bök's ingenious "Eunoia." The performance is made up of segments using only one vowel. "Chapter E (for Rene Crevel)" begins "unfettered these sentences repress free speech...the plebes resent newer verse." Would I find "Eunoia" a bit of a bore on the page? You bet. As sound, it's impressive, entertaining—entrancing.
Other sites for listening to poetry, including classic poets reading their work, are factoryschool.org/content/sounds/havanaglen.html and laurable.com, with its links to many more.
Poems Online: Zines
This article isn't concerned with the hundreds of off-line journals with online presences. Being online has probably increased these journals' visibility, giving them a chance to provide sample poems as teasers and making it easier for writers to get up-to-date submission guidelines and contacts. The Poetry Society of America (poetrysociety.org) has links to a number of these sites, as does Web Del Sol (webdelsol.com) if you can deal with that site's horror vacui graphics.
The online-only journal of greatest stature is probably Slate.com's poetry section, for which Robert Pinsky picks a new poem each week. Pinsky's taste is toward narrative and spiky narrative-lyric with real-world settings. Sporadic articles on poetry are generally smart and well-written. Slate's "Fray" discussion forums include a poetry board; this forum is extraordinarily lame, even in the lame world of chatrooms and listservs. One not particularly difficult Slate poem-of-the-week elicited this comment: "A riddle it certainly is. You need a shrink to decipher all the forced metaphors." This is high-level discourse for the Slate poetry fray. There's a certain amount of self-promotion here ("I'm doing a one-woman show March 12") and quite a bit of own-poem-posting, virtually all abysmal, followed by much mutual bucking up.
"Like this poem very much! We wonder whether we have made a difference in the world," writes reader to poem-poster.
"You grasped what the poem tries to convey very well," the poet preens back.
Jacketmagazine.com, Australian in origin, worldwide (but somewhat US-centric) in scope, is impressive in general. Very little stylistic axe-grinding here. Recent editions include a translation into Norwegian of a famous O'Hara poem ("Den dagen Lady døde"), an article on poetry in Moscow under the Soviets, poems by and reviews of diverse contemporaries and variable special features on recently-dead poets and some still living.
A number of formerly off-line magazines have gone online-only, like Pemmican (Pemmicanpress.com), the lefty journal from the Pacific Northwest. Print-only from 1992 to 1999, Pemmican went online-only several years later, explaining at its website, "It's much cheaper...Going online is one way the independents will be able to continue to follow their visions." This must be true for many other new zines which have sprung up online in the last half-decade or so. Paper's expensive; so is mailing. Cyberpublishing only needs some hardware, software, and occasional upgrades. E-zines are often fashion-forward showcases for emerging writers, and tend to be do-it-yourself, community-oriented, energetic, and engaging. Selbyslist.com links a bunch of them, as does the Electronic Poetry Center (see above). Here are a few which caught my eye:
Does Electronic Poetry Review (poetry.org) still exist? The most recent edition is dated September 2003; my email asking if they're still adding new content came back undeliverable. However, the site announces a poetry contest with a recent deadline. Even if they're gone, the archives are worth checking out. Most of the poetry is by emerging to mid-career writers, with some big names from a variety of poetic styles, and a certain, but not decisive, slant towards academic experimentalism.
A tiny cranberry-haired model with a lollipop welcomes you to lapetitezine.org, with its taste for jazzy urban-glam-grrl-and-boy poetry, all syncopations and surrealisms. Good-looking octopusmagazine.com often publishes poems by writers with a book or two under their belts. A nice feature here is "Recovery Project" in which the editors choose books that have been neglected or forgotten. Try slope.org for whimsy and linguistic trickery, and interesting features, like one on American Sign Language poetry. Canwehaveourballback.com (the name is from a line in the movie A Hard Day's Night) is pleasing in its text-only simplicity. Click through nineteen editions of several dozen poets each. Taste here is catholic but leans toward urban grit. Poet bios seem to compete for cleverness; no c.v.-style publication or job listing allowed. The multimedia zine drunkenboat.com's poetry selections range from formalist cleverness to an excerpt from Ron Silliman's Zyxt, which begins with a graphic, characteristically well-written description of a pornographic photo. Bornmagazine.org offers poem/visual arts collaborations. Notellmotel.org, with its pastel retro-fifties/sixties Jersey Shore motel look, emphasizes the ironically breezy or breezily ironic. Mipoesias.com is glossy, with fashion-style photos of women in strange makeup. Scads of emerging poets; interviews with some big names. A comments section invites remarks like " I think [poet's name removed] is one of the brightest minds of my generation; I would love to take a tablet of E with him then smoke a joint and hang out for a week in a cabin, not talking, not touching, just watching the trees for days." Tarpaulinsky.com also has a homepage with a painted face girl. Click on it and get re-welcomed with a quote: "After atrocities, forms emerge, often called avant garde forms." Sigh if you must, but click on the current issue or the archives for an interesting poem-mix, including lots of prose-poems.
Poems Online: Blogs
Poets also talk to each other, or at least hear each other talk, via weblogs. The love of poetry, writing about it, self-promo, procrastinating in order not to write poetry, or at least of getting attention any old way you can, has prompted hundreds of poets to blog. Leaving to sociologists the question of why so many would write so much prose for no pay, or keep diaries in public, I'll admit there's entertainment and some learning to be had visiting po-blog-world—and a danger of feeling like you're in a corner looking at the wall while the rest of the world happens without you.
Ron Silliman's (ronsilliman.blogspot.com) is among the best-written and best-read, and was among the earliest, beginning in 2002, an aeon ago in cyber terms. Silliman periodically announces the number of visits to his blog the way McDonalds used to announce customers served on its golden arches (250,000 and counting). He also counts the money spent so far on the Iraq War: constant rapid uptick. Blogging is a serious project for Silliman, the prolific Language poet who's stayed largely outside of academe, supporting himself by working in the computer field. His output is prodigious. No scant asides here like "Rewrote poem A today, got poem B accepted"; rather, near-daily quality essays on diverse poetry topics. What's the difference between prose poetry and prose that's not poetry? What does Silliman think about Jack Gilbert, or Robert Duncan, or Poetry magazine? Silliman is a born opiner and categorizer, and uses Edgar Allan Poe's phrase 'School of Quietude' to criticize certain tendencies in American poetry. "That tendency within American letters," Silliman explains, "that envisions poetry in the United States as continuous with (& mostly derivative from) verse in the British Isles, and especially from the most conservative elements there...[and has a] grotesque sense of heroism, even when it's a heroism of everyday objects. A trowel is not a trope." Silliman's too smart, even as he puts poets and poetries into boxes, to tape the edges too securely or tie the bows too neatly. He looks around, tests his ideas, sometimes changes his mind.
Silliman also lists hundreds of other poetry blogs in highly democratic fashion. These take various approaches. Some, perhaps following Silliman's example, produce extended disquisitions on poems and poetics. Some comment on their reading or on current poetic brouhahas (there's always one going on somewhere). Some are by current or recent graduate students, with all the enthusiasms, certainties, and confusions of their honors papers. Some are poets interested in politics, mostly left wing or liberal, and write more about that than about poetry. Some post their own poems as a daily project, with mixed results.
At Herecomeseverybody.blogspot.com, various poets answer identical questions, like "What is the first poem you ever loved?" "What is someone /something non-literary you read?" and "What is something which your peers/colleagues may assume you've read but haven't?" One interviewee first loved Ginsberg's "A Supermarket in California." Another likes books about WWII and hasn't read Milton, Byron, or "whoever that guy was who wrote The Faerie Queen." A MacArthur Fellow gets testy: "I don't know why anyone should have any assumptions about my reading habits." This is interesting in an idle-gossip, sedate-party-game sort of way.
The best blog moments can happen when the blogger stops talking poetry and talks about life instead. Poet and editor C. Dale Young (avoidmuse.blogspot.com), also a doctor by profession, recently left off his po-anecdotes and publishing advice for the underpublished, to rant:
I will never understand why certain doctors tell patients how much time they have left to live...Today, one of my patients came in for her treatment and she was freaking out because her primary care doctor told her she only has a few months to live. Well, this is bullshit... What is it with some doctors thinking they are God. Only God knows when we will die...I am so annoyed.At minoramerican.blogspot.com, co-written by Ange Mlinko and Magdalena Zurawski, Mlinko writes about the difficulty of being a poet and mother in Brooklyn. Mlinko wants a copy of John Ashbery's new Selected Prose "stacked high at [Manhattan's] St. Mark's Bookshop. My quandary is this—do I pack my twenty-five pound boy in his eight pound stroller and brave the stairwells of the subway to buy this book today? It's like running an obstacle course. Having a child in New York City is punishing, and the subway is only one of many reasons. Park Slope is one of the few habitable neighborhoods of New York. But none of [its]...bookstores seem to have Ashbery's Selected Prose. It is a neighborhood renowned for its literariness, but it is the literariness of novelists, not poets. Or is it the literariness of the New York Review of Books, where real poets are certified by British or Irish accents."
Meanwhile co-blogger Zurawski was having epiphanies of her own. "I'm about halfway through Williams' Paterson and it makes me think over and over again that Post-Modernism is a sham. Everything I thought LANGUAGE poetry invented Williams already did...Reading this book is like learning your grandparents had kinky sex and loved it at a moment when you still believe that you invented the missionary position."
Nick Carbo (carbonator.blogspot.com) hardly posts anything, but that's one of the site's attractions, along with the installation-like interaction of the items he posts. In January, five entries: 1) he discovers that 2% of visitors to his blog had military or government e-mail addresses. 2) he asks which was more generous: Bush giving $10,000 of his own money for tsunami relief, or an American nursing home resident giving ten dollars, all he could afford since the price of his prescriptions went up? 3) a poem in memory of a friend dead in the tsunami. 4 & 5) photos of the sea, sand, and palm trees near Carbo's Florida home.
Probably the funniest poetry blog around is Jim Behrle's. I recently heard he's going to be on a VH-1 dating reality show. Does that have anything to do with his keeping an ever-revolving top-ten crush list at thejimside.blog-city.com? No sober disquisitions here. Behrle posts primitive cartoons drawn on lined paper which poke fun at, among others, Foetry, Ron Silliman and "John Ashbunny" ("You won another one of those 'Thanks-for-Not-Dying-Yet' Awards, Sir!" says a sycophant-bunny). Best is his "WHAT THE HELL IS UP WITH YOUR AUTHOR PHOTO?" series:
Is Marie Ponsot wearing a lab coat? If so, why is Marie Ponsot wearing a lab coat? Is Marie Ponsot a poet/mad scientist? Is that a kravat [sic]? Is it from the Robert Bly collection? Is that a spit curl hanging down across the forehead of the poet Marie Ponsot?...What is Marie Ponsot listening to in her Princess Leia earphones? Shostakovich? Kool Moe Dee? The latest Harry Potter audiobook?... Marie Ponsot, we love you. But WHAT THE HELL IS UP WITH YOUR AUTHOR PHOTO?
He's so light hearted about it, it's hard to think anyone he goes after could be offended, but who knows? If they are, and you care, you'll probably hear about it online.