The internet, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, websites, iPad, iPod, podcasts, digital video and who knows what else. What do they all mean for the poet qua poet? For Poetry? Is it still pretty much where the Gutenberg press left it? Is Poetry technology-proof? In our fearless ongoing quest to exploit other people’s wisdom on poetry-related subjects, we are posing ten questions to a group of illustrious contemporary poets on this topic. This week’s responder is Dave Bonta.
1. Characterize your general attitude as a poet towards technology.
I’ve always gripped a pen or pencil tightly, a habit perhaps not unrelated to the fact that my First Grade teacher, Mrs. Faust, from whom I learned the rudiments of writing, made extensive use of fear and shame in her pedagogy. “Keep your finger straight!” she’d snarl, but as soon as she left the side of my desk my index finger would fold back into a sad little peak, like my family’s end of the mountain viewed from the center of town. I’m reminded of this now when I attempt experimentally to draft a poem on paper the way I used to. A blister quickly rises on the side of my middle finger where years ago there used to be a callous, and I can hardly remember how to shape the letters. My pen gets lost in the middle of an S or a G. To think I used to do calligraphy for the titles of articles and poems in the mimeographed magazine my brothers and I self-published when we were teenagers!
Typewriter, whiteout, carbon paper — these I don’t miss at all, though I’ll admit I keep my dad’s old Olympia under my writing table, ensconced in its conveniently dust-colored carrying case, because You Never Know. But I do miss the making of drafts by hand, keeping my lines as straight as I could on the unlined back of a piece of scrap paper, which for many years would have been used computer printer paper from the Penn State library where my dad worked, edged with neat round holes for the tractor feed like arrow-straight animal tracks melted into the paper’s snow, and on the other side the light-green bars and the pages of text from scholarly monographs. This was to have been the last paper before the advent of the paperless office, and from an institution whose zealots used to dream about the imminent obsolescence of the book. I still have reams of those drafts in an old file box, next to a box filled with 20-year-old floppies containing my first book-length manuscripts. Barring mice and fire, those paper drafts could remain readable for hundreds of years, while the information on the floppy discs couldn’t be recovered now without considerable trouble and expense.
So my basic attitude toward computer technology is, in a word, ambiguous. I try to resist the fetishistic allure of gadgets. I do not own a phone or other mobile device and my lack of a real income fortunately prevents me from upgrading my essential equipment (desktop computer with free-standing microphone and speakers, digital camera and camcorder) very often. My only television is a completely gutted cabinet TV from the 1960s, repurposed as a shrine to negativity.
With the gusher in the Gulf dominating the headlines, I think Americans in general are beginning to understand why we environmentalists tend to be so dour about the long-term prospects for our fossil fuel-powered weekend binge of a civilization, and why we tend not to believe the cheery assurances of engineers and technocrats that we can always fix whatever messes we make. Critiques of Silicon Valley rarely point out that it once had a different nickname, the Valley of Heart’s Delight, and was renowned for its orchards and its rich soil. “Until the 1960s it was the largest fruit production and packing region in the world, with 39 canneries.” It now boasts the densest concentration of Superfund sites in the United States. Brutal wars in places like the Congo are fueled in part by the demand for rare metals essential to the manufacture of new gadgets, and Mac lovers may have heard about the multiple worker suicides in the Chinese plants where iPads are made. They say Apple products are more expensive than they need to be, but if you had to pay the true cost of those sleek penis substitutes, you might have to remortgage your house.
While things like email and the print-on-demand publishing revolution can indeed save trees, we must also remember that the server “farms” that run the internet make extreme demands on the energy grid. The sooner they can be moved to places like Iceland, where cooling isn’t such a problem and energy comes straight from the planet’s hellhole of a heart, the better I’ll feel about my own role as a small-time web publisher.
2. Do you use Facebook in your capacity as a poet? If so, how, and what are its upsides and downsides? If not, why not?
I do. Facebook is like one of those government printing presses in Soviet bloc countries which turned out mind-rotting anti-literature by day and samizdat by night, with snoops keeping copies of everything for “quality control.” Like all analogies, of course, this one has its flaws. Under capitalism, poems do not need to be banned in order to remain unread, and we poets, lord knows, do not need to stake our lives on what we write. We can gather without fear of retribution and live in happy poet ghettoes where we never have to worry about some ignorant policeman disturbing our sleep or challenging our specialness. But Facebook is too new for the ghetto walls to have solidified yet; non-poet friends and family can listen in on our conversations and follow the links to our blogs where the true samizdat (literally, “self-published”) culture flourishes in all its hand-made glory.
I use Facebook in my capacity as a literary magazine publisher, too. In fact, that’s really what drew me back to the site, after my initial disgusted attempt to quit. I like the way social networks like Facebook can put writers and editors on more of an equal footing, and far from increasing cliquishness as some suggest, now these collegial conversations about life and literature are more or less public, and almost anyone who cares to can join in. Based on our experience at qarrtsiluni, I’d say it’s actually easier to reject work from people you know than from strangers, because you’re more likely to be able to find the right words, professional but empathetic. And since anyone can be an editor and publisher now, there’s a much greater sense that we’re all in this together. Our Facebook group page turns out to be a convenient way to run an email list, less restrictive than Gmail, though I do resent the fact that those of us who did the proper, social thing and set up group pages for our organizations have been penalized: you have to put the brand front and center and create a fan page in order show up in people’s feeds.
Discovering the hidden Block button also strongly influenced my decision to remain on Facebook, at least until something better comes along. For all its creepiness and its imposition of bland uniformity, at least Facebook lets us each play censor. Since I share a lot of links myself — postings to almost all my various blogs and websites appear automatically, for example, via a great little app called RSS Graffiti — it eases my anxiety about possibly overwhelming people who really just want me for a contact, knowing that they can simply block all my updates, or block all updates from that app. And my wall is as public as I can make it, so prospective “friends” will know exactly what they’re in for.
3. Do you use Twitter in your capacity as a poet? If so, how, and what are its upsides and downsides? If not, why not?
Twitter is central to my plans for brand positioning and world domination! After all, what could be more emblematic of the power of poetry to save us all than a small squadron of birds flying in two different directions while somehow hoisting a whale?
Actually, my first loyalty is to the much smaller and better-designed Identica and the nascent, decentralized, federated network of microblogging sites of which Identica is the flagship. Twitter’s refusal to join that network means that we Identica-based poets can only send our posts in one direction, and can’t subscribe to — er, I mean follow — Twitter users without going to Twitter or using a Twitter client. So basically we are back in the early 90s, when you had to have a Comcast account to exchange emails with other Comcast users.
I do love the fail whale, though, and it amuses me to see respectable tech journalists cite its frequent appearance as a sign of success, for example during big World Cup matches when Twitter handles — or fails to handle — a record volume of tweets. I’m sure Soviet apparatchiks felt similarly cheered by the appearance of long lines at every shop as proof of the desirability of Soviet goods. As with Facebook, I’m a pragmatist: if you’re serious about reaching out to poetry fans wherever they might be, you simply can’t ignore Twitter’s huge user base.
Thanks to frequent re-tweets of our bridged Identica posts (“dents”) by a minor Twitter celebrity, the very literate, nature- and poetry-loving film critic Roger Ebert, I and a couple of my long-time fellow poetry microbloggers are currently gaining largish audiences while continuing a pattern of minimal participation there, which is great if somewhat guilt-inducing. Unfortunately, the population of active poets on Identica has dwindled in recent months. At its heyday, our favorited posts hit the Identica home page so often, it developed a reputation as “Twitter for poets,” as the founder once put it. In truth, we were never as numerous there as members of other cults, especially those around various open-source software projects such as Ubuntu and Debian, we just had more of a curatorial instinct and hit the little star icon more often.
I attribute the decline of that scene to the spreading popularity of Facebook, but Identica, Twitter, and other microblogging sites continue to fascinate me and a bunch of other writers because of the challenge of writing well within a strict, 140-character limit. A recent article by critic Chris Vognar in the Dallas Morning News, “Twitter’s character limit sparks new style of short-form writing,” describes how this works, quoting journalism guru Roy Peter Clark:
“Having that calculator of characters really drives you to certain strategies which are probably good for writing in general,” Clark told me. “You’re more inclined to use nouns and verbs rather than adjectives and adverbs. You’re more inclined to make sure every single word works. If I had written what I’d just said I would take out the word ‘single,’ because it doesn’t do any work.”
And Clark points out that William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” weighs in at just 88 characters, counting the slashes for line-breaks.
I started my daily microblog The Morning Porch back in November 2007 as “an exercise in paying close attention to language and to the world around me,” and for many months I didn’t think of what I was writing as poetry. Most readers seemed to feel that it was, though, and one day at Identica I half-jokingly coined the term “micropoetry” to describe what happens when the 140-character limit of microblogging leads one to unintended lyrical heights. It’s now a reasonably popular hash-tag on Twitter.
Writing one tweet-length observation every morning about what I see and hear from my front porch as I drink my coffee has turned out to be a fun and sustainable formula for a blog. Since I happen to live way out in the country, most of what I write about is “nature,” which has its own constituency on Twitter and elsewhere. I’ve listed the blog in the Backyard category of the 1145-member Nature Blog Network, a fantastic resource for anyone interested in nature blogging. People have asked why my yard seems so much more interesting than theirs, and a good part of it is the location next to a woods-edge ecotone and a water source, and the fact that my yard is an unmown meadow. But part of it too is that I’ve been fortunate to receive a pretty good nature education, so I know what I’m looking at or hearing most of the time. You can only write for so long about generic birds, trees, and butterflies, but if you know specific names, here in the biodiverse Appalachians you’re unlikely ever to run out of writing prompts.
The technological aspect is interesting to me, too, the fact that by far the largest number of readers are following The Morning Porch on Twitter, followed by Facebook, feed readers, Identica, Tumblr, and Friendfeed, probably in that order. What I think of as the canonical location at morningporch.com receives on average just 25 visitors a day. There’s an existential homelessness to writing on the web that appeals to my inner Buddhist, even though I do still treasure books as well.
The phenomenon of Twitter haiku has received quite a lot of attention, and I do sometimes microblog haiku myself — last Saturday while watching the USA-Ghana World Cup match, for example. I have little patience for the 5-7-5 crowd, but serious haikujin abound on Twitter, too. As a social network, it’s great for linked verse exercises, though I’ve only participated in a couple. Here’s a chain poem I collaborated on with PF Anderson last year, riffing on current news items.
4. What other technologies – including blogs, websites and podcasts – do you employ in your capacity as a poet? Explain how, and the upsides and downsides of each. If none, explain why.
Blogging has been central to my development as a writer. I am a huge believer in the technology, and use it also to publish a literary magazine, as I mentioned, a videopoetry site, the coordinating site for a monthly blog carnival on trees, a couple of static collections of my best poems, and other projects too numerous to mention. Rather than launch into another interminable answer, though, let me just link to a blog post from last December: “Personal blogging for writers: a manifesto.” Here’s a snippet:
Many writers prefer to use blogs merely to share news of their publishing success elsewhere, and that’s fine. But I think those with a more exhibitionist streak are missing out on a great deal of fun, and poets in particular — who are almost invariably exhibitionists, let’s face it — are missing an unparalleled opportunity to connect with audiences they might never otherwise reach. But there’s a risk, too: that they will be so seduced by this new medium that they won’t want to go back to jostling for publication in snooty print magazines no one reads, and their professional reputations will suffer as a result.
I’ve been blogging since December 2003, and for the first couple of years I posted a lot of long essays on anthropology, religion, philosophy and the like, but once I got that out of my system my blogging at Via Negativa matured into the present mix of poems, essays, and miscellany. A reader’s gift of a used digital camera in early 2005 got me hooked on photography, and I discovered what great writing prompts photos could be. Successive Christmases brought me a better digicam and a camcorder. With the latter I began to shoot wildlife footage — because, again, I live way out in the woods, not because I’m opposed to filming people — and pretty soon that footage was finding its way into videopoems. I’ve also been recording and posting audio for at least three years, mostly at qarrtsiluni for our daily podcast, but sometimes at Via Negativa too. In January, I started a weekly, half-hour podcast, which is currently on summer vacation and might return as a monthly podcast. Since I’m a bit of a perfectionist with the editing, it turned out to be more time-consuming than I’d expected, but it was fun as hell.
The question says “in my capacity as a poet,” but in all of this I think of myself as a blogger or publisher first; poetry is just one aspect of what I do. And I kind of recommend the miscellaneous approach to blogging because I think it builds a more diverse readership. Of course, if people are only interested in my poems, they are free to subscribe to the feed for just that category and not bother with all the other stuff. But I would hope they’d want to see where the poems come from, too.
5. What do you dislike most about how other poets use technology?
I get frustrated with some poets’ reluctance to post drafts of their work to their blogs because they don’t want to ruin their chances of getting published elsewhere, but I can understand why they do so. My frustration is directed more toward the literary magazine editors who refuse to consider previously blogged work. I’m grateful to Very Like a Whale for opening my own mind on the subject a couple years ago with your series of posts on the subject. My co-editor Beth Adams and I talked it over and changed our policy at qarrtsiluni shortly thereafter, and I encourage other magazines also to consider making an exception for work self-published on the author’s own blog or website. Since rights almost invariably revert to the author after publication, you’re not protecting yourself from duplication of content online in any case. And by welcoming bloggers, you get the benefit of their ready-made audiences, too, when they proudly blog the link to their poem in your magazine.
6. What do you like most about how other poets use technology?
I respect people who are much more cautious about using new tools than I am. I think poets should take their role as preservers of tradition seriously, and sometimes this translates into a curmudgeonly rejection of anything more modern than a typewriter. I don’t have a problem with that. But I most enjoy poets who are willing to experiment and take full advantage of the read/write web. Despite what I just said about liking miscellaneous blogs, I love poem-a-day bloggers like Christina Hile and Hannah Stephenson — they set a great example for us slackers. And most of all, I like seeing the generosity with which online poets and other writers link to each other, comment on each other’s work, workshop each other’s poems (the internet is great for that), and form new and I think more resilient networks than we’ve seen in a very long time, especially here in the U.S. where the poetry world is so factionalized.
7. Technology is enabling poets today to take poetry off the page in ways that were previously inconceivable. Either comment on this piece by Tom Konyves or provide a link to and comments on a different piece of work that uses technology to take the poem off the page.
The other week I had a realization: all poetry is found poetry. It was prompted by this found videopoem:
Talk about news that stays (and stays, and stays, and stays) news! I’m very interested in the potential of multimedia to liberate poetry not merely from the page but also from the tyranny of monolingualism. Because of the way the visuals hint at the content while the audio conveys the word-music, videopoems in languages the viewer doesn’t know, if done right, can convey poetic qualities that would otherwise remain inaccessible except through translation. Here for example is a Japanese tongue-twister about pigeons by one Hanafubuki:
And check out this wonderful reading by Icelandic poet Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl, a sound-poem in homage to a 17th-century nonsense poet called Æri-Tobbi, or Crazy Tobbi, whose poetry is discussed at length in a fascinating essay archived at Norðdahl’s blog: “Mind the Sound.”
I’ve been curating a blog of other people’s videopoetry and poetry films, Moving Poems, for a year and a half now, posting four or five videos a week, and there’s no indication that I’ll ever run out of fresh material. I invite everyone to stop by and browse the archives. A true librarian’s son, I am ridiculously pleased with the detailed indexing system I’ve put in place there, though lately I’ve begun to wonder if I haven’t shortchanged the filmmakers a bit by placing the focus on the poets. Anyway, choosing almost at random, here’s an example of what I consider a pretty good videopoem with real populist appeal by award-winning filmmaker Chel White, narrated by Alec Baldwin. I love the way they’ve repurposed a century-old poem by Antonio Machado (in Bly’s translation) to convey a contemporary environmental message — showing, again, that “foundness” at the heart of authentic listening.
This is obviously very conventional in its choice of music and imagery, but the choice of honeybee footage to accompany the reading itself was inspired, I thought. I tend to react negatively to videopoems that are too literal. Another way many videopoems use “foundness” to help prompt a deeper, or at least different, understanding of the poem is through repurposed footage, as in this video for a Rumi/Barks poem from Four Seasons Productions:
I love the way film can rescue poetry from its long exile in print. One commonly expressed hope is that it will bring poetry to new audiences, including those with stunted attention spans. I don’t know. Some of the best videopoems I’ve found have been viewed less than 100 times. I don’t think people are going on YouTube, or even Vimeo, to look for poetry most of the time — at least, not in the Anglophone world. I do know that those of us who are already devoted members of the poetry cult can find fresh inspiration for our own writing from the gestalt effect of watching really good videos.
8. Do you use technology as an integral element of your poetry? If so, how? If not, why not?
Sometimes, yes. I mentioned ekphrastic writing earlier. A couple years ago, I got really interested in digital poetry postcards, in which the image and text are all of a piece. Some of my best efforts were for a series I called Postcards from a Conquistador. Similarly, with some of my most successful videopoems the text has been prompted by the footage. The final shaping of the video happens after the audio recording, which is a procedure that works for me because sound has always been more central to my poetry than its shape on the page.
I’ve written a couple of neo-flarfist poems using Google search results — who hasn’t? — and I think I’ve pioneered the genre of opinion poll poetry, which seems to be going nowhere fast. I even did one survey poem, though I failed to take full advantage of the medium and have branching questions, choose-your-own-adventure style. This is clearly a genre that deserves further exploration.
9. What has technology done for or to Poetry?
This is a tremendously broad question, and I’ve been enjoying the range of responses from the other participants in this series. No technology we can devise will rival the impact of the invention of writing systems, for sure. (I’m a big Walter J. Ong fan.) But the other day I ran across the following intriguing observation in a blog post by the poet and retired journalist Djelloul Marbrook:
My guess is that the press has had a profound influence on poetry, and I think poems now lighting up in cyberspace will have an equally revolutionary impact. I don’t know if hypertext will become a protocol in poetics, but the mere knowledge that a word has the inherent capability of being a hyperlink is bound to influence poetry, because now we must presume that words are tangible as well as metaphorical gateways.
I love that suggestion, and suddenly it makes me want to reverse my policy against including hyperlinks in poems! One site I know that does hyperlinks and multimedia exceptionally well within the confines of a thematically unified online project is The Peter Principle, Clayton Crosby’s collection of poems about work. Links are off by default, but clicking “etymology” to the right of a text turns them on. This is an interesting compromise between the desire for textual purity and the desire to see how a text is connected to the larger world. He also accompanies each poem with a Flash animation and an audio player. There is no single authoritative form.
I find my expectations of poetry changing and softening under the influence of online media. As I mention in my blogging manifesto linked above, I used to be an obsessive polisher before I caught the blogging bug. Now I am much more accepting of imperfections in my poems, secure in the knowledge that I can go back later and fix them. True, William Stafford didn’t need the internet to teach him about the virtues of daily writing, but I definitely needed that nudge. I have grown to like the way many poetry bloggers embed their poems within accounts of their creation, though my own ideal mix of prose and poetry is something closer to haibun. I am so comfortable with comment sections now, online magazines without comments strike me as peculiar. One writer friend defended this lack to me a couple of years ago, saying essentially that he didn’t enjoy the transition from the carefully chosen words of a poem to the typically dashed-off quality of comments, but I rather enjoy the contrast, as long as the comments are clearly separated from the text.
So in general I see online media and social networks contributing to a more relaxed understanding of the relationship between poems and the matrices in which they’re embedded. Just as Facebook, Twitter and interlinked networks of personal bloggers can help poets break out of their ghettoes, I think we’re seeing poems, too, assume a more natural, less precious position.
One frequent online conjunction I don’t care for is between poetry and advertising. But I tend to think of poems as anti-ads, so maybe it’s not such a bad thing to place the two in direct conflict. A good poem can pretty much rob any nearby ad of meaning and relevance. Of course, should poetry ever become as wildly popular in the U.S. as it is in, say, the Arab world, I expect that corporations would simply pay poets to name-drop products in their poems.
10. What should Poetry do with or about technology that it has not yet done?
Critique it more effectively. With a few exceptions, we poets haven’t done a particularly good job of educating ourselves about science and technology and making them subjects of our poetry. We’re a technology-obsessed civilization, and our technology could very well destroy or (possibly) save us, so I think we owe it to ourselves to begin thinking more deeply and critically about that.
Dave Bonta lives in Plummer’s Hollow, Pennsylvania and is the author of Odes to Tools. He recently compiled what he fears may be the first stab by anyone at a comprehensive guide to formatting poetry for the web.
This series’ standing page: click here.
Previous Ten Questions series: