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 Sandra Beasley.
1. Characterize your general attitude as a poet towards technology.
I attended a high school for science, and there really was a time when I’d have chosen an afternoon of noodling around in Pascal code over fumbling my way through a sonnet. So I don’t have any inherent resistance to technology, nor do I have any attachment to older writing modes. I’ll draft using whatever is handy—email body, sheet of notepaper, Word document, napkin, blog post. I’m a pragmatist; I don’t fetishize the latest edition or software.
But I’ll admit reticence in using icons of technology in my poems. I love using the vocabularies of chemistry, biology, and physics, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a cell-phone in I Was the Jukebox. In Theories of Falling one poem equates “the click of our million keyboards” to “the sound American souls make as they collide.” Though I don’t know how I could have gotten at the idea without referencing computers, it still nags at me. Why? I don’t know. My worry can’t be becoming dated, given my poems name-check Pringles and Log Flumes.
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 use Facebook status updates, so sometimes that implicitly promotes an upcoming reading—or gives me an opportunity to congratulate another writer. But I don’t do much with events or notes or memes. I certainly don’t expect people to track my career via Facebook.
Honestly, I’m not crazy about the commingling of personal and professional communities in such an overly articulated space. When I first signed up it was for the sake of sharing photos with old school friends. As it happened one University of Virginia friend was also a poet, which opened the floodgates. Now I receive a steady stream of messages asking me to subscribe to a journal, buy a book, or somehow make it to a reading on the opposite coast, often a dozen messages per day. It’s the equivalent of poetry spam.
Sometimes a reader reaches out, which is lovely—I don’t take that for granted. But I wish they’d use email instead, since that’s a medium where I can organize and archive correspondences. Facebook’s messaging system is dreadful.
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?
I don’t Tweet. I don’t follow feeds. I don’t know how to create hashtags. 140 characters: no great threat to one’s attention, right? But think of little birds, each scraping the tip of an outstretched wing-feather along the face of the mountain. Soon the whole damn rock is worn away.
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.
My website and blog are primary entry points into my work. That’s how I promote my readings, make connections to new work and interviews, and in the case of the blog gossip, complain, and share my undying love for the music of Josh Ritter. The balance between the time I devote to each site shifts periodically. Right now I’m anxious to do some overhauling of the website, so I’m looking forward of getting back into the groove of HTML and template tweaking. I have not been posting blog posts because the matter of my life over the past few months has been, well, kind of dramatic and private and mine to keep. (And when not all those things, ridiculously paced by travel.)
I’m loyal to the blog though. People have been so responsive, and many new readers seem to have come to my work through Chicks Dig Poetry. So–unlike many of those who started up blogs around the same time, I suspect–I’m not trying to figure out my exit strategy just yet. But I may switch the focus over to the machinations of the nonfiction publishing world for a year, as I get ready for my memoir (Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl) to make its way into the world next fall.
I don’t do podcasts of my own simply because I don’t have the flair for the technology, but I have taken part in more than a few. I think a well-edited and concise show that mixes readings and smart talk about poetry can be a tremendous thing.
5. What do you dislike most about how other poets use technology?
Sometimes I worry we—and I count myself guilty here—offer up too much explanatory clutter around the full texts of poems in online postings. One of the most remarkable things about the Internet is its unlimited vertical space. Because of technical constraints, it used to be that reviews, interviews, and critical essays would excerpt a poem to illustrate a point; now whole poem texts are regularly plopped in. I hate to think that the first time someone encounters a poem of mine might be in immediate juxtaposition to a critical or narrative explanation of its function. The reader should have some time to form his own theory first, in a neutral reading space.
6. What do you like most about how other poets use technology?
I’m drawn to times when poets use hyperlinking to create a constellation of creative sources and resources they care about. That constellation may go on display in a website with multiple authors (HTMLGIANT, The Rumpus), a blog that seems mimetic of an individual personality (Ron Silliman, C. Dale Young), or even just one single sprawling online essay or post that makes a cultural argument. It’s not that only poets do this, but I love that poets are among those who do, and that I have this way of encountering them as three-dimensional personalities in the two-dimensional space of a computer screen.
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.
Can poetry be taken off the page, entirely? Or does a “poem,” at that point, cease to honor some of the core components of poetic craft versus the craft of the visual and dramatic arts? It’s great to present poetry in innovative ways, whether YouTube video-poems or dynamic performance, but at the end of the day I want the anchor of text on a page, whether that page is cotton rag or PDF file. Yes, poetry began as an oral tradition, but that’s just playing devil’s advocate; when we study our Homer nowadays, a written text is considered key to contemporary comprehension.
A poem should feature language, shaped with intent by the author—in terms of conception or lineation—and gesturing toward a larger tradition. That’s the bare minimum, before considering the manipulation of sound and figuration of image, which I consider central pleasures of poetry. I enjoy Konyves piece, but I’d call it a clever video assemblage with a few particularly lyrical juxtapositions. I wouldn’t call it a poem unless cued to do so by this prompt.
Jeez, I sound so harsh and conservative. Sorry about that. But if I don’t stick up for what I believe constitutes a poem, what good am I?
8. Do you use technology as an integral element of your poetry? If so, how? If not, why not?
I am drawn to reading poetry in front of a live audience, and being able to respond or edit organically based on their intellectual attentions, energy, and willingness to laugh. I can’t take pleasure in being reliant on a pre-recorded musical track, a laptop—or even a power source—to bring a poem alive. Things can and will go wrong in such scenarios. I’m staying unplugged.
9. What has technology done for or to Poetry?
As a reader, I am grateful for the ever-increasing number of texts that can be accessed on the virtual page—whether in the case of seeing new work in online journals, or affirming a line from something I once had memorized, or passing the work of a favorite poet along to someone else. While sitting at an office desk, I can just as easily steal three minutes for poetry as for a round of Minesweeper or the latest celebrity gossip. Technology has made poetry a more immediate art.
There are some who will jump on me for not making all my poems available online, given I’m championing the idea above. Actually, the full text of I Was the Jukebox can be found on Norton’s site; it just can’t be copied and pasted, or printed. If its poems as portable texts you’re looking for, about half my poems have been printed or reprinted in online journals. It’s true that I haven’t centralized access through a set of links or a PDF on a site of mine. But so what? I believe in the book as the primary body for a collection, and I want to support my publishers (who have supported me) by letting them be the sole purveyor of that body. I don’t suspect this will satisfy Mr. Knott, which is too bad (I like his work), but so it goes.
Before I leave the topic entirely, I want to recognize that technology has also put previously isolated or self-segregated pockets of poets in conversation with each other. As a writer, I appreciate that the web lets me create a community of peers outside my immediate geography and lifestyle. A poet in Alaska comes to the virtual table; a poet with physical impairment responds as quickly as any able-bodied participant; the poet-mom with only one free hour a day—some ungodly hour, 3 or 4 AM—still contributes to a discussion.
10. What should Poetry do with or about technology that it has not yet done?
There’s got to be more poetic cell phone sounds out there—let’s get our best voices at work on the problem. What we need is the Edgar Allan Poe ring of bells, bells, bells. Perhaps the vibrate mode that echoes the buzz of a fly when it dies. And who doesn’t want a ding announcing that yes, your text message is slouching toward Bethlehem?
Sandra Beasley won the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize for I Was the Jukebox, selected by Joy Harjo (W.W. Norton, 2010). Her first collection, Theories of Falling, won the 2007 New Issues Poetry Prize judged by Marie Howe. Her poetry has appeared in Poetry, Slate, and The Believer, and was chosen for The Best American Poetry 2010.
Other honors include the 2010 University of Mississippi Summer Poet in Residence position, a DCCAH Individual Artist Fellowship, the Friends of Literature Prize from the Poetry Foundation, and the Maureen Egen Exchange Award from Poets & Writers. She has received fellowships to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Millay Colony, VCCA, and Vermont Studio Center.
Beasley lives in Washington, D.C., where she serves on the Board of the Writer’s Center. Her nonfiction has been featured in the Washington Post Magazine and she is working on Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales From an Allergic Life, forthcoming from Crown.
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