A housekeeping post: We realized that unless we highlighted how commenting works on Harriet, she could morph from this….
into this…

Before explaining how commenting works (so that we are completely transparent), let me back up a bit. Harriet, the blog, is an iteration of Harriet Monroe’s Open Door policy:
"The Open Door. will be the policy of this magazine—may the great poet we are looking for never find it shut, or half-shut, against his ample genius! To this end the editors hope to keep free from entangling alliances with any single class or school. They desire to print the best English verse which is being written today, regardless of where, by whom, or under what theory of art it is written. Nor will the magazine promise to limit its editorial comments to one set of opinions."
—Harriet Monroe, 1912
We don’t publish poems on Harriet—the magazine does that. Instead, every three to four months we select a new group of four to five poets to form—we hope—an eclectic group with an interesting mix of perspectives. Harriet is an editorial free-zone. Bloggers can write about any subject as long as it relates to poets or poetry. We don’t edit posts unless we notice a mistake that might embarrass a blogger. To encourage conversation, we ask that bloggers respond to their fellow bloggers as well as to people who comment.
After receiving a few email complaints from readers about some overly combative comments we approved, we polled our current bloggers to find out how they felt. As you might guess, their opinions varied. Some found the comments disconcerting; others were not at all bothered. A few asked that we more publicly state our policy. To date our policy has been to approve all comments except those that are personal attacks, or those that reveal a private matter without another person’s consent. We also require that commenters include a name and email address for several reasons, the primary ones are to help us differentiate comments from SPAM and to let us contact people about why their post hasn’t been approved (this generally leads to constructive conversations). For example, just today one person left a comment asking how to publish poems on Harriet.
In theory our policy seemed simple. Applying it has been thorny. A tongue-in-cheek jab can be off-putting to some bloggers and commenters, and bullying to others. When does a jab or a polemical twist become a personal attack? Some comments are unmistakably personal insults; others border on being so, making the decision to approve them a subjective one. Also we’ve discovered, that if we reject a comment—even if we explain our reasons—Harriet grows more thug-like in the minds of those we’ve rejected. Why? Harriet is exercising her power in private—the antithesis of how to build a public space in which an open, democratic, provocative conversation can take place.
So this week, we’re trying a more personal, more participatory approach. As Harriet’s current ventriloquist—the one in the background who is ultimately responsible for clicking “approve”—I’m joining in more. The basic comment policy will stay the same: If a comment obviously attacks a person rather than his or her ideas, I won’t publish it. But if a comment teeters on being offensive in such a way that I think it stifles debate, or silences those who are less comfortable with talking publicly, then I’ll approve it but chime in to ask the commenter for clarification.
Only a tiny fraction of all comments raises these issues. And Harriet is not the only blog wrestling with how to handle comments. Travis Nichols pointed me to similar debates:
Why Andrew Sullivan doesn’t allow comments on The Dish
Dan Savage asks for feedback on whether “per-post comments are lint traps”
Ideas? Thoughts? Quips?
P.S. Here’s Harriet Monroe as she appeared in Vanity Fair in 1920 sans the "photoshopped" tux:

  1. July 15, 2008
     Lydia Olidea

    Emily, thank you for the clarification. Speaking for myself, I find I'm more aggravated by self-promotional posts than combative ones ("I wrote about this in my book...," "Let me direct you to a conversation I had with...," "Here are some passages written after I met..." – that sort of thing). But of course some degree of civility is also to be maintained.
    The risk, it seems to me, is that Harriet, because of its size and its institutionality (is that even a word?) and the fact that it's a paid enterprise, confronts the inevitable gravity of the center, of a PG-13-ness of affect. Reasoned discourse is desirable and often informative. A let's-not-risk-offense policy leads toward homogenization, which frankly is already what Harriet's doubters suspect is the place's nature. I fear that for Harriet to establish itself as independent of market mores and as something other than a casbah for bland centrism, a certain amount of roiling waters will have to be allowed and even encouraged. Surely poets can take it?

  2. July 15, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    I pretty much agree with Lydia! I think one needs a thick skin, not only on the internet, but in any public forum. People get worked up & they express their intellectual disagreements with vehemence. But they're intellectual disagreements! At the end of the day, I assume we all wish one another well -- disagreeing with someone about some facet of poetry is not, I wish it were needless to say, a reflection of personal animosity. I presume this is something everyone who's ever posted on this site anything snide or harsh or sarcastic or cutting would sign on to.
    But things could be worse! For a serendipitous look at what sort of post moderators have to write on sites dedicated to actually popular culture rather than fusty old poems, check this: http://www.avclub.com/content/blog/why_we_delete_comments_and_how_you

  3. July 16, 2008

    I fear you are rendering Harriet toothless.

  4. July 17, 2008
     Emily Warn

    Dear Lydia, Michael and Jilly,
    Thanks for your thoughts. The discussion on Harriet these past few days, especially the one following Mark Nowak's "Canon Fodder" post, cannot easily be characterized as "toothless" or blandly centrist. To the contrary! But it has made me nervous.
    The simultaneously personal and impersonal nature of the blog leads, I think, to constructing "intellectual disagreements" that can be more cutting than one would make in person. I also think this new form of public debate, invented by a new technology, is still in search of its purpose, much as poetry always is. Insert “blog” in this poem by Stevens, which when published during WWII was “new” but now is “canonical:
    "The 'blog' of the mind in the act of finding
    What will suffice. It has not alwas had
    To find: the scene was set; it repeated what
    Was in the script.
    The theatre was changed
    To something else. Its past was a souvenir.
    It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
    It has to face the men of the time and to meet
    The women of the time. It has to think about war
    And it has to find what will suffice. It has
    To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage
    And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
    With meditation, speak words that in the ear...."
    ("Of Modern Poetry")

  5. August 4, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    Been looking for this, still relevant a decade later, with issues surrounding online "communities" (I use the term very skeptically) still largely unresolved, & functioning parameters still largely inchoate: http://www.flashpointmag.com/skanky0.htm