Monday, March 27, 2006


How can you separate the interviewer from the interview?

Egregiously slack on this front, and I know it. And I don't have a proper blog entry, though maybe some who visit this page will find the following of some interest. Recently, I received an e-mail from an undergraduate student fielding responses to a set of questions regarding poetry on the internet for material for their thesis. So, sure, because I can talk about this stuff, much to some people's annoyance (my wife primary among them, I suspect...), but I asked, would it be okay if I posted my responses to my blog. No problem. So, if you want some sense of the thoughts of someone who kind of has "a foot in both camps," do read on. It's lengthy. It's my favorite subject. But hopefully, there's a few things in there worth reading. At least, I hope his thesis chair thinks so.


What (if any) do you think are the advantages of publishing poetry on the internet as opposed to print?

What are the disadvantages?

These two kind of go together, and can probably be summed up, at least in part, by saying 'Ease of access.' That's both an advantage and a disadvantage, because on the one hand, there are a lot of voices out there we probably wouldn't have ever heard from if they'd been forced through the usual avenues of print publication, but on the other, there are a lot of voices out there that we would probably be as well off without. It's about editorial standards, and an important aspect of any online publication's task is to establish some sense of credibility around their efforts. On a deeper level, I think online interaction differs significantly from the kind of interaction one encounters in other, more traditional media, and I don't think it's always for the better--though I do hold out some hope that some of the voices I think worth listening to will serve to better define what internet interaction has the potential to be. I have to admit, even as the editor of an online magazine, I still very much work with a prejudice for print publication--it has an air of respectability about it that is seductive to me--though I am also excited about what I think online writing can be. But when poetry is presented online, it is, in many ways, trying to compete in an environment that is more receptive to narrative presented in the form of a computer game than it is to straightforward presentation of text that is noteworthy for it's condensation of language. Poets are working against some pretty heavy odds when the reader knows that music and video are just as readily available, and are probably less taxing to engage. That's true in the real world, as well, but I think online, it hits critical mass. Sometimes it really does feel a bit like trying to read passages from Milton in a video arcade: it just gets drowned in noise, and it seems to be rather a fool's errand. But I think that's the appeal for many writers, as well. It's a challenge, and anyone who succeeds in making it work in that environment stands to reap some pretty serious accolades from others interested in seeing it happen. In terms of advantages, also, there is the bare fact that there is much more information made readily available to one. Anyone who is studying poetry these days has, in the internet, access to a pretty serious library, and that's a BIG advantage. But the advantages of that library are countered, somewhat, by the fact that there are no set of standards for including a book within that library. That means there are treasures, and then there's a whole lot of really random material, and while there are ways to filter out the noise, it takes a while to figure out the filing system well enough to know where to look for the good stuff.

How is a group of poets sharing poetry on an internet forum or publishing in the same zines similar and dissimilar to a traditional community of poets?

I'm not entirely sure what you mean by 'a traditional community of poets,' but I think the most obvious difference between what goes on in an internet forum and what would have gone on, in the past, in a gathering of poets is, again, ease of access. Time and space are annihilated by the web, and my own experiences, as an editor of a web-zine, are such that this has readily borne itself out. The zine was founded by myself and a poet who I had worked with, but never met (still haven't, after 3 1/2 years of work on the same project), and I have had the pleasure of talking to poets that I would have had a much more difficult time accessing without the web. There's another aspect of your question that I feel might benefit from a clearer definition as well, and that's the term "internet forum," because there are almost as many different KINDS of internet forums as there are forums themselves. Variables such as "local" personalities (which can dominate a forum as readily as they can a room), extent of moderation (ranging from a completely hands-off approach to downright intrusive), quality of moderation (the mods being human, and all), nature of the forum's mission (with some being devoted to much thinner wedges of the larger term 'poetry,' and aligning themselves in terms of theme, gender, geographic location, 'schools' of poetry, and so on), all have an effect on the particular experience one has when engaging a forum. Also, I would make a big distinction between poets as they engage each other's works on a forum and poets who publish in the same zines. In the case of the forum, the primary aim is to craft their work, and to solicit the feedback of a community of poets they've (one hopes) come to trust. That's quite different from attempting to publish one's work, even if it is 'only' in an online zine. It's a distinction many beginning posters, in forums, fail to make, and it's usually to their detriment that they don't make it. Some print publications argue that a public forum IS publication, which is probably one development that has contributed to the move, on the part of many of the better forums, to more privacy. But I think for most poets, the forum is used primarily for constructive feedback, with the aim being to improve the piece. Publishing in a zine suggests that one considers a piece 'finished,' to whatever extent that description ever fits a poem. An important difference.

How (if at all) do you think the internet as a venue for poetry affects the work itself?

In many ways, some of which we've probably not even realized, yet. I think it basic enough that I often argue for a view that regards writing for the page and writing for the internet to be different media altogether--in much the same sense that writing poetry that is meant to be read from the stage and writing poetry that is designed for the page might be viewed as different media. There is no doubt, to my mind, at least, that a poet who is crafting work with the stage in mind will approach that work in a very different manner than will a poet who is primarily interested in being read. I think there's a similar distinction to be made between print and online publication, simply because there is such enormous potential for experimentation online: linearity can and has certainly been played with in ways that simply are not possible on the page; hyperlinks have been used to great effect to enhance poetry (though the primary examples I have encountered involve 'footnoting' poems by providing links to further information behind allusions within a given work--I know this has been done with "The Wasteland" and some of Browning's work, and there is probably much left for me to discover along these lines)--and there is great potential, I think, for an able mind to further use hyperlinks to break down some of the barriers between author and reader. Along those same lines, there is the simple matter of interactivity, something that I feel some posters, on the less regulated poetry forums, do make use of, though it usually just ends up in online shenanegins. But there is that quiet part of me that hopes one day to read quality work that makes fuller use of the particular form of exchange characteristic of online forums to somehow incorporate a sort of hyper version of the old 'call and response' form. Aside from these considerations, there is also the matter of context that I brought up earlier. In an important sense, poetry seems terribly out of place on the web, but that hasn't stopped it from spawning a breathtaking number of forums, zines, and blogs dedicated to exploring it. Unfortunately, at least so far as I've been able to read it to date, it seems this gathering has done more to expose the fragmented nature of the discipline than to pull poets together. But I think your question reads differently depending upon whether one has a single poem in mind, or the more general 'poetry'.

How significant do you think the internet is as a venue for new poetry?

I still very much think of it in terms of potential. I don't think anyone's cracked the nut to the extent necessary to really make use of everything at one's disposal, though there are many who are engaged in exploring the possibilities. I also don't think the internet is any panacea by which the giants of po-biz are going to be unseated. Put simply, maintaining a website takes a lot of one's time, and it's easier to draw premium talent if you can provide them with a means to earn a daily crust. Poetry is an undertaking that attracts its fair share of devotees, many of whom do understand that the hourly wage of even the most successful among our poets tends to be somewhat less than they could earn extending far less effort in an office cubicle, so there are plenty of people out there who will continue to work on venues out of love of the art itself. But when you take questions like staffing, server space, web design, and ball that all up and ask yourself how much effort goes into a well-presented forum or zine, you know the giants like Poetry magazine, or Poets and Writers, or the Academy of American Poets, are still going to be able to offer more, in terms of resources and well executed design, than most. Take into further consideration the fact that many who engage poetry ARE concerned with how the venue affects the work itself, and advertising--another source of revenue--either has to be targeted to a much smaller set of potential buyers, or disappears altogether. The prize of course goes to that poet--or that venue--that can find the right way forward to either counter the distractions that surround them, or better, to my mind, incorporate them in such a way as to draw attention to the work itself. I don't think I have the answer to that puzzle, yet. I don't think anyone does.

It strikes me, though, that there is a second set of considerations, as regards the question, that spring from considering, not 'new poetry', but individual voices that have yet to be heard. In this respect, I think some inroads have already been made, but those voices are struggling, in terms of a sense of 'credentials', against an enormous prejudice toward the printed page. I have this prejudice, and I'm engaged enough by online poetry to devote the better portion of my free time to it. In those few publications I have been able to secure, I know that there's just something enormously satisfying in seeing your work on a page, something that just isn't there when you see it go up on a website. Both are exciting, but the book form is solid: it sits there, in your hand, like a tool--like something that has potential to physically alter one's surroundings. In a more outrageous mood, I might suggest that the difference is basically the same difference as exists between sex and cyber-sex. But that could change. Especially if one were to find a way to make use of some of the features available, via the internet, to bring MORE focus on the words, rather than simply having to craft them in such a way as to try to be heard, somehow, over the sound of virtual gunfire. Again, I think there's enormous potential, and I think some poets will eventually work their way into the popular imagination via the internet, but I think, for the present, if that happens, the person's arrival will be heralded by a book release, not by a new website. And that says something about the regard in which most poetry readers still hold the physical book. Maybe that changes in the future. It certainly will if we ever produce a poet whose work proves to be untranslatable to the traditional page.

Finally, on a much shorter, but no less important note, it should be said that the significance of the internet as a venue for poetry is partially contingent upon how universal internet access is in the future. In well developed countries, that access is pretty wide. In terms of global population, the vast majority of humans will probably never see your work, even in a medium as accessible as the internet. It strikes me that, at base, within the discipline of poetry, significance is probably not best measured by how big your audience is, but by how well your poetry communicates (and yes, I'm traditionalist enough to think poetry does--and (horrors) should--communicate). But communication involves, besides the message and the channel, a sender and a receiver, and if either sender and receiver is incapable of making some form of sense of the message, the message isn't going to get through. In the end, it's as much about the audience as it is about the poet. It doesn't matter how clear the signal is, if it doesn't mean anything to the person for whom it's intended, it isn't going to be significant at all. And when you're publishing on the internet, you're making a decision about who you see your audience as. You just have to ask yourself if that's really the audience you want to be engaging, and how receptive that audience is likely to be to what you have to say. Considering what else is on offer on the internet, it's probably safe to say that internet poetry is aimed at a relatively thin slice of the online community--which is, in its turn, a relatively thin slice of human life as a whole.

How do you predict the internet will change as a venue for poetry in the next decade?

Based on what's happened so far, I think zines will come to understand that design is much more central to poetry than some would like to admit. I think forums will probably eventually give up the notion that an absolutely unregulated exchange of ideas is a good in itself, with, hopefully, an attendant commitment to thoughtful moderation. I think it's inevitable that sooner or later, a poet who got their start on the internet will publish a book that soars to the 'heights' of the print poetry publication world, and that the attention they receive as a result will be, at the very least, an enormous distraction from the work itself. I also expect there will be even more attention given to multi-media capabilities, with the incorporation (already present, in some venues) of audio and video files. I think there's a reasonable chance that spoken word poetry will begin to look even more legitimate for what it has to offer to ventures of this sort, and I think there may be a re-consideration, to come, of the commitment to the rather modernist principle of keeping the poet and the poem separate, in light of our present ability to record the poet. Print publication shook this up in the past: audio and video publication is in the process of shaking it up again, and given the real possibility of airing 'poetry radio' or even 'poetry television' via the net, I think it's pretty much a given that these principles will have to be rethought in future assessments of contemporary poetry. From a purist's perspective, that may not be good for poetry, but it is the environment we're working in, and the words that manage to crack the big media picture far enough apart to enter the popular imagination in any enduring way will have to engage that environment. I'm not unqualifiedly optimistic, by any means, because I think this means significant shifts in what we call 'poetry', and I'm not convinced all those changes are good ones, but I also think there's wiggle room enough in that big picture to allow for quality poetry to sneak in under the radar.

What do you feel is the affect of relative anonymity on poetry? How do people write and review poems differently knowing that they will likely never meet the writer or reader?

I don't think this is all that different from the conditions of the past, because I am, in the broader sense, much MORE likely to 'meet' the writer or the reader than I would have been in the past. It's a matter of how much emphasis you put on that flesh and bone meeting. And anonymity is a myth, basically. It's more the perception of anonymity, but most people are readily trackable if they're on the net. Having said that, I am rather amazed, sometimes amused, sometimes affronted, by some of the things that get done as a result of that perception of anonymity. In terms of forums, I used to be a very regular user, and poster, and find that, of late, my time's generally better spent lurking. There's too much of the trickster, in most who are engaged in any art that takes language as its medium, to allow for any completely unregulated venue to really function--the temptation is just too great, for many, to try on different persona, to test the boundaries of the community at hand. Additionally, I think the idea of poetry is probably better conveyed by pluralizing it--poetries--given the fact that most discussions of it as a monolithic 'thing' are generally most noteworthy for the wide disagreement that almost invariably results. And every proponent of every view seems to not only hold those views with the passion they deem fitting a poet, but can amass countless links that appear to back up their views, thus, to many minds, legitimizing what they have to say. That's all fine, if the discussion aims to build, but in most of my online wanderings, I find such discussions tend more to devolve into free-for-alls in which everyone seeks to triumph, as if it were a debate that could be 'won' in that sense. That perceived sense of anonymity, that idea that one will never meet their interlocutor, further creates an atmosphere in which things--often remarkably personal things--get said that would not be said if those engaged in the debate were sitting at the same bar. In terms of those discussions, I find that the primary value I've taken from engaging them has to do with being able to get what I think down in words--it's a form of writing that is transferred, easily enough, into other forms of writing. That's a good thing, so far as it goes, but if that's the real thrust of the individual contributor's efforts, one has to wonder if anyone is doing any listening. There are of course better and worse discussions, but I think some of the bad ones have placed me, certainly, and probably many others, in a position where they get really selective with the venues they're willing to engage--sometimes to the point of ignoring forums altogether. I'm sure it's like everything else that contributes to one's poetry: it works for some, and not for others. It just doesn't work particularly well for me. Having said that, my pet project, an online zine, was the result of participation on a forum, so I'm hardly in a position where I'd feel comfortable saying that all forum exchanges are necessarily negative.

In terms of anonymity, aside from the fact that forum members are in fact readily trackable (and many are quite upfront in leaving footprints by which they can be traced), I find that most forums do tend to assume a culture, over time, and that there will be heirarchies within that culture. It is, perhaps, feasible that a high-profile poet might post to a forum and receive feedback at wide variance from that received when in their more public persona, and that would certainly be an interesting development. I'm guessing, though, that the deep prejudice around online publication, and the fact that many journals do consider a poem posted on a blog or in a public forum to be published, pretty much precludes this from happening. And for the most part, I think the notion that one's poetry is being critiqued or read in any objective sense is pretty much fallacious from the onset. Poetry reading is a very human activity, it's a very subjective human activity, and I'm not even sure objectivity is to be desired. In practical terms, participation in a forum is voluntary--the poet chooses it, and no doubt takes several cues from the design, the layout, the tone of criticism, etc. in making the decision to contribute to one forum over another. Then, having made that decision, there is a natural enough heirarchy between veterans and newcomers, and among the veterans there arises a culture specific to that forum. The whole process is far from anonymous, even given that an individual can't be traced. In fact, I'd argue that my work as an editor comes far closer to being an 'anonymous' process than any of my contributions to poetry forums ever have been, simply because I have to engage all the poetry that comes my way, and I have to make a decision regarding what gets included, and what doesn't. Yes, there are attached bios, and I'm of the mind that those bios are not irrelevant in decision making (though I think often in ways at wide variance from what was intended by the contributor), but when push comes to shove, the work either stands up well enough on its own to make the cut, or it doesn't. And there's not a whole lot of room for apologies in deciding to include one poet, and exclude another. By comparison, forums can be downright incestuous. Though, as with all such venues, there are those that offend more, and those that offend less.

How does one read a poem by an unkown author on the internet differently from a poem by a new poet in print?

I'd argue that the level of 'knownness' is actually pretty irrelevant, in the above cases, as they're both new to me. More important are issues of context--the environment in which the poem occurs, a set of considerations that entails assessing questions of design, presentation, relative merit of surrounding material, etc., plus the aforementioned issues surrounding poetry on the internet in general--and form, specifically, how the work takes advantage of the particular medium it is working with and the particular venue in which it occurs. Then there's the abovementioned prejudice toward books, and that's either just a symptom of age, or a question of how well internet presentation serves as an effective medium for the written word. Having said that, I have a couple of books less than 10 feet away from me that occupy a distant--we're talking parsecs, here--second to any number of sites I have ready access to via the web. It's not all about having a page between one's fingers. Good writing is good writing. It's more a matter of reaching the right audience, and the fact that I'm online, and that most of my time online is spent engaging poetry, suggests that there are a LOT of other people online engaged in much the same work. In fact, I know there are. So there's room for it amidst the bells and whistles. Having said that, I also know how readily one can succumb to the distractions available online, and something makes me think I'm not the only one who has ever succumbed to them. I mean, Comedy Central gets more hits than my zine does from somewhere.

Hey Gene,

A friend of mine has re-inspired me to write - but I feel so out of touch with things that I think I need to do a lot of reading first - just to remind me what good poetry is/isn't.

I've given this a quick read through and found it quite interesting. Thanks for giving me something to look forward to tomorrow; I printed it out so I can take it with - I should have some time to really sink my teeth into it.

Thanks a bunch
Yay! Lae. Good to hear you're writing again, and I'd love to hear what you make of the above 'observations.' The great heavens knows you'd be reading a lot more *behind* the above words than someone who'd accidentally stumbled upon these sites...because you're privy to a fair slice of the history behind what I've said above.

It's good to see you around, and even better to know you're playing with words again. Do drop in with words if you've a chance.

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