The Pages of the Future
On the Uses of the New Online Media
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We drive into the future using only our rear view mirror.-- Marshall McLuhan
Be not the first by whom the new are tried,
Let me begin by saying that I am not a great advocate of all Internet uses of poetry. Books tend to work just fine, most of the time, and I continue to enjoy the look and feel of literary magazines of all sorts. However, even modest developments in technology have engendered incredible advantages for poets, editors, and readers, primarily as a means of rapid and affordable distribution.
In its more advanced, or experimental forms, Internet poetry remains in a state of flux and uncertainty, which is seemingly where many practitioners would like to keep it. As we must so frequently say, time will tell if any of it will be as durable as print or oral traditions have been in previous centuries. I believe some of what is called Internet poetry is in need of another nomenclature. It is not enough to qualify the word “poetry” with some sort of expensive adjective like “hyper” or “cyber.” Much of it can simply be deemed new media art with an occasional word whizzing past.
One problem with new media poetry is that the limits and conditions of the very media are constantly changing, as anyone who has worked in an office will know. Thus a new media poem devised ten or even two years ago can seem to be lagging quite far behind the times. Another problem is that a kinetic digital poem might not live longer than the program used to create it. A poem, in its purist form, is a sequence of words that can exist in memory and on the tongue for centuries without being committed to paper, and we should remember that paper was, until fairly recently, a poem’s ultimate technological storage system. It is not at all unusual that the Internet, which has changed the way we handle banking, shopping, and even personal correspondence, would be enlisted in the name of the muse. In the few years in which the Internet has existed in its current, pervasive, and most importantly high-speed form, several publishing models have taken shape.
We will begin with what can be termed static uses of the Internet for distribution of poems. Put simply, the term “static poetry” basically means that the poem is read on a screen just as it would be on a page, which is also to say that it does not need to be activated, passively viewed, or interacted with (it can even be easily printed if one prefers paper to screen). The term “static poetry” sounds redundant and even a bit perverse, much like “acoustic piano,” but it helps us to understand its function in this particular context. Don Selby’s very successful Poetry Daily (another example of this publishing format is Verse Daily) is a perfect example of the way in which a poem, just as we have always understood it, can be made accessible to an extraordinary number of readers for relatively little money. Imagine that on a given day, 8,000 readers worldwide access the poem. One must admit that this is a healthy distribution in the world of poetry. Picture now, if you will, the resources that would be required to photocopy and mail that same poem to as many readers. One would require an assistant just to keep the addresses current. This is not to mention the fiscal burden of printing the poem on paper—paper that will likely be immediately discarded—much less the cost of international postage. Then multiply these factors by the 365 days in each year, and what we are left with is essentially an impossible task, quite a surprise given what seems such a humble undertaking. Additionally, new readers all across the globe can find the site simply by using a search engine. New readers come to them, rather than the other way around. Poetry Daily is only possible with the Internet, because it is not sending anything to anyone, as such. Rather, readers are coming to Poetry Daily, accessing information but not actually receiving it in any physical or even permanent digital way. Another beauty of this method is that the number of readers can double or triple on a given day without the cost increasing at all. This has been called a “gift economy” by Kenneth Goldsmith, editor of the vast, utopian online archive UbuWeb. This is precisely why it has proven so difficult to make money using the Internet, at least by the standards anticipated in the mid-1990s.
In the timeless struggle to break even, print magazines have also enlisted the Internet. A species of website exists merely as appendage to its print body, as one finds in sites for Fence magazine or The Hudson Review, which offer samples of the writing to be found in the issue, as well as providing an efficient process for subscribing or donating (sometimes even submitting) to the magazine. It also allows audio performances of the poems in the issue. While otherwise unremarkable literary magazines like Rattapallax arrive with a CD located in a handy sleeve, others choose to place their readings in a more accessible place: online. Classic magazines like The Atlantic Monthly and The Paris Review provide free online readings by their authors. The New Yorker provides interviews with poets online that do not, for one reason or another, appear in the glossy newsstand incarnation. Given the various hardships and nuisances facing the publishers of both new literary magazines and the old standbys, it is not surprising that this ancillary use of the Internet can sometimes come to supplant the very magazine it originally promoted. Even widely known magazines, like Grand Street, have toyed with the idea of decamping from the overcrowded Manhattan of the periodicals shelf and taking shelter in the low-rent districts of the Internet.
Both the shape-shifters and those magazines born fully online diverge from the thriving model of the single poem a day as seen on Poetry Daily by attempting to replicate standard literary magazines (representative examples include Slope, GutCult, Octopus, and the Philadelphia-based Ducky). This is to say that the homepages appear as issues, or installments, each containing new cover art over an assortment of poetry, reviews, sometimes images and the like. The benefits of publishing a literary magazine online are manifest, and some pundits, such as Garrick Davis, have insisted that these benefits will eventually conquer the world of little magazines—which he sees as an outmoded Modernist phenomenon—and compel a mass migration to a strictly online community for new writing. These benefits include the elimination of sometimes nearly prohibitive costs of printing, shipping, and distribution faced by a fledgling magazine (not to mention a way to avoid the dreadful sting of copies returned with their covers cruelly detached). Another advantage is that the publisher can store archives of previous issues for those who are interested in reading them, rather than devoting a perfectly good spare bedroom or attic to this purpose.
Yet another benefit has to do with publishable space, and, as we will see, this is not without its disadvantages. With an Internet magazine, an editor can publish a 500-page poem as easily as a haiku. This can be seen as a great boon in a purely literary sense, as it allows the editor to include more contributors and allow longer works, which, due to their generous proportions, would not otherwise see a small-magazine readership. It can be viewed as opening the way for a more democratic playing field, in which everyone can be published and what few critics remain can be washed under a tsunami of emerging poets. However, weighing the sheer volume of unpublished poetry currently available for free against the available pool of dedicated readers of poetry, including those unwilling to exchange money for the poems they read, it seems that we would soon be faced with what might be considered a disaster of over-publication in which any one distinct or powerful voice would be lost in the ever-receding bayou of effortlessly published poems. Rather than everyone finding a readership, the result will be that no one will. If nothing else, the limitations of space placed upon the editor of a traditional print journal force difficult and often-necessary decisions to be made about what can be included in a given issue. It becomes crucial to impose some set of criteria, even if they turn out to be centered on unifying themes or even friendships rather than disinterested critical scrutiny.
One quick aside: This method of massive acceptance might prove to be one of the few means of turning a real profit with poetry online. Fraudulent online businesses such as poetry.com, otherwise known as the International Library of Poetry (not to be confused with poems.com), publish literally millions of poems without any review process at all and makes millions of dollars by selling gaudily bound anthologies titled A Budding Joy and A Flood of Contentment, even tote bags and sweatshirts emblazoned with poems. In addition to selling items back to would-be poets, they lure them to “conferences” for alleged contest winners where they discover that there are in fact thousands of winners of the same prize and that they have been fleeced. Although he probably never actually said it, a phrase attributed to classic American impresario and huckster P. T. Barnum is apt.
Departing from what I have termed the static world of online poetry publication, in which the poems basically appear as they would on the page of a journal or newspaper, we will briefly examine the more radical poetic expressions made possible by computers and made available by the Internet, to which we can apply the descriptive term “kinetic” or “dynamic” poetry. Kenneth Goldsmith has made the case that the current flowering of new media literature is a natural continuation of the concrete poetry movement that emerged in the 1960s and 70s, a movement that quickly exhausted the available print and art materials then available. By the 1970s, the natural home for the most successful concrete poets was not the bookshelf but the art gallery. Thus, it stands to reason that one’s feelings about new media poetry will, to a large degree, be determined by his feelings about concrete poetry. Some embrace it with great alacrity and continue to practice it in its purely typographical forms; others are dismissive or, at worst, somewhat agitated by it. It is true that a group of periods on the page can be described by a critic as a “non semantic cluster”, but it is unlikely they would choose to have it read (as if one could “read” it) at a wedding or funeral, two of the few practical social outlets for poetry. Giant renditions of the letter “L” will not cause a tear to gather in the eye. With the application of concrete methods to new technology, however, a more playful and animated element has arisen. Concrete poets were, for the most part, as entirely unconcerned with narrative as a minimalist sculptor. Unlike the vast majority of concrete poetry, however, new media poets have had a great deal to say about the uses and alleged transformations of narrative. This is due to the ability of programs like Flash to produce a steadily rolling series of images exactly like a film or video camera would produce. In fact, the results sometimes resemble art-house films or television commercials more than anything that we might think of as a poem.
The distribution channels for new media poems are, for the most part, remarkably conventional. Most online magazines featuring kinetic digital poems maintain the basic format favored by other literary magazines. Poems that Go and BeeHive are two of the hottest zones for new media publication. I might prefer the term “gallery” or even “arcade” to the designation “magazine,” and this assessment is in no way intended to be pejorative. Many of the examples to be found are quite nimble and diverting, even if they sometimes fail to leave a deep impression (certainly they are interactive in the most obvious sense, but so is the most traditional poem, in its own way). An interesting feature of these magazines is the space devoted to scholarly essays on the very mode of publication itself. This is where they differ most from their ancestor literary magazines. Nearly every new work is accompanied by considerable reflection and commentary by the artist. There are also a number of awards for new media poetry, including About.com’s “Best of the Net” award and the Electronic Literature Organization awards (the ceremony is quite an enjoyable time).
Just as might be expected, a certain amount of what has been written on the possibilities of new media literature is given over to vaporous theoretical analyses of the sort universally used to justify the existence of flaccid or poorly conceived art. However, it is possible to find a remarkable sum of clearly stated and clear-headed writing on the subject of new media literature, some of it more entertaining and edifying than the works themselves. The two print issues of nowCulture.com’s literary magazine, NC1 and NC2, contain a new media literature roundtable with some of the foremost practitioners and theorists. Most of the writing is not only sober but far more convincing and compelling than what is sometimes written today about poetry as traditional as Robert Frost’s. It is also important to think of new media literature as a multi-disciplinary form. Very often, a poet will team with an engineer or producer in order to realize the finished work. As a result, energetic communities have sprung up, some of them informal, as is the nature of the Internet, some far more institutional, such as the Electronic Literature Organization and the Electronic Poetry Center.
This form of poetry has also generated the equivalent of small presses, which publish new media books, which may appear as streaming files or on disc, such as those issued by East Gate Systems and Spineless Books. This trend has also worked backward into traditional publishers, like HarperCollins, which published Stephanie Strickland’s invertible book, V: Losing L’Una / WaveSon.nets, which contains two beginnings and a virtual ending of celestial navigation, accessed through a URL (Uniform Resource Locator, otherwise known as “web address”) provided in the center of the book at the convergence of the two poetic sequences.
static forms of online poetry publishing, I personally believe that the
style used by Poetry Daily is the best, because it isolates a
single poem each day. Following Edgar Allen Poe’s notion of the unity of
experience, this is quite refreshing, the thought of a generalized poetry
audience reading a single poem each morning, rather than being frightened
off by a table-tipping $50 Collected Poems or engorged online lit mag,
with page after page of poems that begin to blend into one another,
according to the tastes of the editors. Compared with sites that offer
thousands of poems at once, this approach is best suited to the
recognition of the unique qualities and insights of individual poems, and
readers benefit from the attention that went into the decision to publish
a given poem over others competing for such limited space. This is no
guarantee that the poem selected will not be a dud, but when it is primed
to launch, it will be much more likely to find a ready audience and not be
lost in a low-level bombardment of mediocre poems. So far as the kinetic
or dynamic forms of online publishing go, it is clear that the simplest,
most conventional means of distribution serve the poems best, however
formally radical they might be. It has become clear that new media poetry
needs publishers, awards, and other institutions as much as any other
literary art form. Some MFA programs offer the option of working in new
media forms. It is impossible to know what will happen to the
multidisciplinary poetic works currently on display, but it is likely that
they will be folded into the worlds of video and computer art, where they
might make a more comfortable home than beside the Oxford Book of
English Verse on the shelf.
Editor's Note: This essay was originally presented as a paper at the West Chester Poetry Conference in June of 2004.