From: Chronicle of Higher Education
Thursday, November 6, 2003
Lines Online: Poetry Journals on the Web
By LISA RUSS SPAAR
It was only about a decade ago that my students and I began talking about the fate of poetry in the electronic age. Would the celerity of information-age technologies so fragment time that we'd lose the reverie and concentration we associated with the "deep reading" of poems? Would it be possible to learn to love the feel of the mouse and the flickering motility of the screen the way we loved books and journals, with their dust mites, their histories, their tangibilities? Could we relinquish existing ideas of authorial possession, especially about our own work? Language itself was our most revolutionary, protean, and crucial human development, far more miraculous than any technology, so why should we worry about its flourishing in a new medium? Yet worry we did.
By now, most poets probably have a feel for how the Web affects their work and their lives. For my part, I've decided that some of our agonizing was a little overwrought. The Web has increased my appreciation for poetry as an interactive process, making cerebral play, in some cases, a more tangible thing, and it has increased my sense of the poetry world as diverse, global, and lively. But as with most things online, the noise-to-signal ratio of poetry sites can be high, and there are relatively few online poetry pages that draw me. The connections that stir me most remain those to the unfathomably thoughtful, heartfelt word. And the sites that I most relish are those that continue to find that connection more dazzling than the exotic electron displays at their disposal.
In 1991, the poet and critic Dana Gioia, now head of the National Endowment for the Arts, wrote in The Atlantic Monthly about the enervated "intellectual ghetto" of academic writing programs locking American poetry into a kind of exhausted establishment of stale conventions, and admonished the culture at large to discover fresh ways of writing, experiencing, and presenting poetry to a wider audience. As though in response to his "modest proposals," the past decade has seen a popular resurgence of the genre. Type the word "poetry" into the search engine Google, and references to some 9,320,000 sites appear. As a point of cultural comparison, a recent Google advanced search for "Jennifer Lopez" called up 700,000 sites, "Nascar Racing" some 862,000, with "Sigmund Freud" running a distant 154,000. Grass-roots poetry festivals of near-Woodstock dimensions, like the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Stanhope, N.J., proliferate, and it's hard to attend a funeral service or wedding ceremony that doesn't include a reading of a poem by Mary Oliver. The Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines estimates that there are 600 active print literary magazines in the United States and suggests that perhaps another 400 to 700 publish irregularly or in small quantities. Ten thousand people a day visit Poetry Daily (http://www.poems.com), which posts poems, as well as news about poetry publications and contests. Even my dentist has heard of the celebrity former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins (she loves his hangover poems), and who hasn't gotten wind of Ruth Lilly's astonishing gift of $100-million dollars to Poetry magazine?
Surely the burgeoning cosmos of the Internet has contributed in significant measure, for better or worse, to the new wave of poetry consciousness. In particular, online poetry journals are helping to vastly change the ways in which poems are published, disseminated, written, and read. Even those poetry journals most steadfastly committed to remaining in print-only format now have Web sites that announce their philosophies, contests, and submission and subscription guidelines, and often feature work from current and archived hard-copy issues. Other poetry magazines exist solely online, publishing not only poems but poetry reviews, artwork, film, and audio and video clips of showcased writers as well. Still other online journals feature work written expressly for the Web, such as interactive and hypertextual pieces that rely on computer technology and the involvement of the reader. That material challenges traditional notions of what a poem can be and how it can be engaged.
A decade ago, many of my fellow poets and I were suspicious about publishing anything online. I don't know what we feared, exactly: that these sites were too evanescent, too new, too intangible, too lacking in a track record, a context, and a proven history to count as "real" publications, perhaps. Would our poems merely evaporate if committed to the flux of cyberspace? Worse yet, could these poems be pirated -- as though a poem had that kind of currency -- and appear transformed or attributed to someone else? And what if we gave a poem to a site that within a year or so collapsed? If our ultimate goal was to publish a print book, what did it mean if our publication credits were all online? Would it be possible to preserve the published form of our work when we didn't know if our poems would still be online years from now?
A quick glance at the current contents page of any of the better-known online journals suggests that both established, prize-winning poets and newcomers are now willing and even eager to publish on the Web. The current online issue of Smartish Pace, for example, features work by and interviews with well-known poets, like Maxine Kumin, Stephen Cushman, and Bin Ramke, as well as poems by emerging writers. In a relatively short time, then, and amid a plethora of cyberdross, more than a handful of Web poetry publications have earned the respect of both traditional and experimental writers, readers, and editors. Even the most avowed lovers of print books and journals among us now spend time at our computer screens, exploring new work on the Net.
Michael Neff is considered by many to be a visionary in literary Web publishing. His award-winning site, Web del Sol (http://www.webdelsol.com), has served since 1994 as a showcase for contemporary literature in the electronic media. Neff recently told me that he thinks the move to publishing poetry online was inevitable. He cites Doug Lawson, a graduate of our M.F.A. program at the University of Virginia, at The Blue Moon Review (http://www.thebluemoon.com), Frederick Barthelme at Mississippi Review (http://mississippireview.com), and David Hunter Sutherland at Recursive Angel as other pioneers, and he contends that in the decade since its earliest manifestations, Net publishing has already surpassed print in terms of originality and quality.
Stephen Reichert is the editor of the much admired, relatively new poetry journal Smartish Pace. (I should mention, in the spirit of full disclosure, that my work has been published there, as well as in Drunken Boat, which I discuss below.) The first print version of Smartish Pace appeared in 1999. In charting a course for the magazine, Reichert and fellow staff members felt that establishing a strong tandem presence on the Internet would allow the fledgling magazine not only to survive, but to become a publication people would read out of desire and not just because they knew the editors or because an issue contained one of their published poems, as is often the case with small publications. By the spring of 2000, Reichert and his Web designer had a site (http://www.smartishpace.com), and Reichert firmly believes that the print version of the magazine would not be enjoying its early success without its online incarnation.
"My guess is that our presence on the Internet has more than tripled the growth speed of the magazine," Reichert says. Not all of the poems that appear in the print magazine are published in the online version, but the Web site does supplement its hard-copy issues, which contain poetry only, with book reviews and interviews with contributing poets. The site is also home to "Poets Q&A," the first of its kind on the Internet. At Poets Q&A, visitors can ask questions of a poet and come back to the site later to read the poet's answers. "I got this idea from the sports site ESPN.com," Reichert explains, "which hosted a weekly 'chat' with Maryland's basketball coach Gary Williams." So far, the magazine has held interviews with former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, as well as Stephen Dunn, Carl Dennis, and Eavan Boland.
Another intrepid online poetry editor is Ravi Shankar, also a former poetry-writing student from Virginia's creative-writing program, and co-editor of the acclaimed online literary/art journal Drunken Boat (http://www.drunkenboat.com). This kinetic site brings into provocative juxtaposition emerging and established voices, traditional forms of representation and works of art endemic to the Web, and international and domestic artists. The journal is committed to a global mix, bringing together, for example, in recent issues, graffiti artists, the poet laureate of Eritrea, and writers like Yael Kanerek, Mark Rudman, and Alice Fulton. One issue included the provocatively titled "An Apology for Poetry, or Why Bother With Billy Collins?," an essay which generated heated dialogue. For just this sort of dedication to eradicating boundaries between entrenched schools of poetics and their sworn enemies, Drunken Boat has garnered serious attention since its launch in the summer of 2000.
Shankar agrees with Reichert that access is the Web's chief asset. "Even the most salable print literary journal has perhaps a print run of 5,000," Shankar says. "That's how many hits we sometimes get in a week." It's also a cost-effective medium -- there are no pages to set or bind, no printing costs, no envelopes to address, no mailing expenses, and the relatively inexpensive cost of Internet fees allows editors to save money on overhead that can then be used to enhance their sites and publish a wider range of emerging and established writers. E-mail correspondence among editors, contributors, and readers also allows for an affordable, fluent, and international virtual conversation.
Apart from the Web's inherent democratization, Shankar cites other clear advantages: "Because it is not print, the Web represents dynamism instead of stasis. ... Instead of merely reading a poem, you can listen to and perhaps even view a video clip of the author reading it as well." The Cortland Review (http://www.cortlandreview.com) was the first online journal to use audio clips of writers reading their work. I recently visited its archived Issue 6 and heard Henry Taylor reading from his own clerihews and explaining how he won Virginia Poet Laureate George Garrett's wristwatch in a wager with the poet David Slavitt, who offered the timepiece if Taylor could write a clerihew for each of the twelve apostles.
Notions of structure also come into play in Internet publishing: Whole new models of poetry can be realized on the Web -- hypertextual ones, for example, in which the reader need not begin at the first word of the first line and end at the last word, but can enter the text at any point, exit at any time, and thread a unique path through the text each time it is visited. Shankar cites the Electronic Poetry Center at the State University of New York at Buffalo (http://epc.buffalo.edu), Riding the Meridian (http://www.heelstone.com), Click Poetry (http://www.clickpoetry.com), and Poems That Go (http://www.poemsthatgo.com) as particularly exciting sites specializing in poetry written expressly for the Web. Those locations allow contributing poets to append moving images, sounds, photographs, links, and other poems to their own work, creating, as Shankar says, "a new kind of poet, a multimedia bard who splices verse with audio landscapes, with the juxtaposition of visual clips, and with the interaction and full participation of the reader." Readers who visit these experimental and media-poetry sites can look forward to engaging with dynamic work that capitalizes on video, hyperlinks, digital animation, gaming, and even mathematical algorithms.
These interactive, hypertextual sites might challenge readers accustomed to print formats, or in some cases even make them a little seasick. On recent visits to Click Poetry and Poems That Go, I found an exuberant range of experiential poems, some of which I could appreciate easily and others of which challenged me technologically -- pieces whose dissolving and surfacing texts and images, and whose opening, closing, flashing, and disappearing and reappearing windows and prompts made me wish for a better computer, sexier monitor, faster modem, and less balky mouse. Some of David Knoebel's click poems are pure fun, however, and put me in mind of surrealist games -- an important reminder that notions of chance, coincidence, serendipity, and irrationality are not unique byproducts of interactive, cyberbased poetry, but have always been crucial to the sensibilities of a great many poets such as Breton and Mallarmé. Deena Larsen's hypertextual video-poetry piece "Firefly" in a recent issue of Poems That Go is a remarkably luminous, lyrical, and haunting example of ways in which multidimensional uses of reader-interactive text and subtext can create a new kind of poem.
In contrast, Jon Thompson, editor of the impressive and more-traditional Web poetry journal Free Verse (http://english.chass.ncsu.edu/freeverse), takes a restrained approach to format. "Beyond the design of the home page and the journal's logo," Thompson says, "I prefer not to use too many visuals. For me, a lot of images detract from the power of poetry itself -- its form on the page and its voice. I prefer not to drown that out."
The space Free Verse creates for each poem is uncluttered and intimate, and though Thompson may choose a cleaner, quieter format for his presentation than do other, busier sites, the work he publishes is daring and strong. The winter 2002 issue, for example, contained a special feature, Exilic Voices: Four Iraqi Poets in Translation, including these lines from the poem "Vacant City" by Mahmud al-Buraykan, translated by Salih J. Altoma:
On one of my journeys
I entered it: a silent city
with no trace of inhabitants
its doors are closed
and its squares are a stage for the winds.
But the lights of its windows
shine all night
who turned them on?
Mahmud al-Buraykan, we learn, was born in 1934 and died in March 2002, apparently killed by thieves who had broken into his house.
The Web poetry-journal editors I conferred with think of their online pages as a kind of synergistic wager. Certainly there are concerns. "We understand that for many poets, the tangibility of a finished product and the existence of that product in a commercial atmosphere are tantamount to a kind of legitimization," says Shankar. "There seems to be a presupposition that anyone can post poems on the Web, while it takes a real professional to run a publishing house. Also, the newness of online publications means that there has not been enough time to securely establish reputations."
Web del Sol's Michael Neff says that many people don't realize how much work goes into running an online publication. Excellent Web magazines, like the highly respected Australian Jacket, must take a temporary hiatus, or even fold, he says, "because the creator -- for whatever personal reasons ... can no longer continue, or the task becomes so time-consuming that finances suffer, especially if they receive no grants." Interestingly, most of the online editors with whom I spoke confessed to being what Shankar calls the sort of "fusty, anachronistic reader who would prefer to sit in bed with a dog-eared collection of verse" than to navigate a poem online. "To me," says Thompson, "there's no gainsaying the loss of the physical object. ... But there are many compensations -- not least of which is the possibility of publishing print anthologies of work that initially appears in the online journal."
Not all editors are sold on the value of an Internet presence. "When I think of all the ways that poetry gets from writers to readers," says the poet R.T. Smith, who edits the prestigious print journal Shenandoah, "print journals are only a small part of it. Collections, anthologies, public readings, audiotapes, and even videotapes also provide access. Considering that, I see the Web magazines as just one in a sequence of forums expanding our access. Web journals don't seem opposed to print journals because it's already a rich mix." While readily appreciating the immediacy of Web technologies (Smith does occasionally publish his own poems in online journals like The Cortland Review), and believing, too, that it's important to know what's out there and to be open to change, he prefers the "substantiality" of the print format for Shenandoah.
No poetry insulates itself from the age in which it is written, however, and like it or not, even those of us in quiet, pencil-and-paper-based, workshop-centered, manuscript-shuffling creative-writing programs are influenced by the velocity of contemporary culture, the pervasiveness of mass media, and the existence of the Web. (And I should note that several well-respected writing programs -- Brown and SUNY at Buffalo come immediately to mind -- have been strongly committed to integrating new technologies into the creative-writing classroom for some time.) There are those who, like the Borg in Star Trek, suggest that resistance is futile. Neff, for instance, believes that "the electronic world is still the great sleeping dragon -- cliché, but true. Once it harnesses sufficient funds, it will overwhelm print in terms of acquiring prestige and power." But most editors and writers seem to share a hope that the answer lies not in the disappearance of print and the ascendancy of digital technologies, but in a mutually illuminating and valuable counterpoint between the two.
In his Poets Q&A interview with Smartish Pace, Eavan Boland responded to a question about the impact of the electronic media on Irish poets. "I doubt that [technological change] will have much effect on a poet like myself -- my poetry methods were shaped in the age of the pen and the typewriter," he said. "But the Web will inevitably become a second-nature feature of the environments of poets who are still being formed. I'm fatalistic about that. The struggle of the poet -- to be exact, to be truthful, to convey experience in language -- won't change because the broadcast medium changes."
At their best, good writing and good reading have always been interactive, virtual, threshold-crossing acts of creativity and translation. Nothing I've encountered in hypertext, for example, can compare with some of the time-imploding, inward- and outward-reaching travel I've done in the thrall of an amazing poem on the page. Electronic communication may alter in some ways the feel of engagements between word and world. But it's the verse epic called language that remains the principal attraction. To that vast work's latest stanzas, the Internet is but an eye-catching epigraph.
Lisa Russ Spaar is the director of the creative-writing program at the University of Virginia. She is the editor of Acquainted With the Night: Insomnia Poems (Columbia University Press, 1999) and the author of Glass Town: Poems (Red Hen Press, 1999). Her new book of poems, Blue Venus, is due out next year from Persea Books.
SOME POETRY SITES WORTH EXPLORING
Any list is arbitrary, but if you're looking for a way into the intimidating world of online poetry, here are a few reliable places you might start:
Archipelago(http://www.archipelago.org): An international journal of literature, the arts, and opinion.
Beltway (http://www.washingtonart.com/beltway/beltway.html): Focuses on Washington-area poets, and has an excellent list of writing workshops and conferences around the United States.
Blackbird (http://www.blackbird.vcu.edu): Features a wide spectrum of works, including the formal and complex, and the speculative and wild.
The Cortland Review (http://www.cortlandreview.com):One of the more prestigious online journals, a pioneer in the use of audio clips, and the first to introduce several prominent poets from the print world to the Internet, including Charles Simic, Mark Jarman, and R.T. Smith.
Drunken Boat (http://www.drunkenboat.com): An aesthetically and culturally diverse site for the literary and visual arts.
Electronic Poetry Center (http://www.epc.buffalo.edu): Offers invaluable links and the latest information in the field of e-poetry.
Free Verse (http://english.chass.ncsu.edu/freeverse): A new online journal with a special interest in work in translation.
Ploughshares (http://www.pshares.org): Features more than 3,000 poems, stories, and articles from current and archived print issues.
Smartish Pace (http://www.smartishpace.com):Complements the print version with poems by new and established writers, as well as interviews and reviews.
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 50, Issue 11, Page B9