10 questions on Poets & Technology – Ron Silliman

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 Ron Silliman.

1. Characterize your general attitude as a poet towards technology.

I’m a skeptic. I tend to think that I write best when I write most in the modes I quite literally grew up with, pen & notebook. But then I had been writing for a couple of years before my mother enrolled me in a summer school program to learn how to touch type, a prerequisite to gaining permission to use my grandfather’s giant old manual typewriter, probably a Royal 10. She might have been encouraged in this by school teachers who despaired of ever making out my poor handwriting.

When I got my first “real” job in 1964 as a shipping clerk for PG&E in Emeryville, my very first paycheck went to the purchase of my own personal typewriter, a smaller, more portable Royal, which is what I wrote poetry on pretty from that point until sometime around 1969 when, moving it from table to desk in my Berkeley apartment, it slipped from my fingers, fell, and disassembled into a gazillion individual subcomponents. My first wife and I carefully gathered all of them together and took them in a bag to a typewriter repair shop across from the University of California campus. The fellow there convinced us that it would be less expensive to purchase a new one, which we did. That lasted me until the day I got my first NEA grant a decade later & used about one-tenth of my award to finally purchase an IBM Selectric. I knew then that I would never need another typewriter, since I now owned the gold standard that every professional writer seemed to have or covet. This actually turned out to be correct, but only because within four years I would be working on a Kaypro II computer at my job and coming in to work on the weekends to use it to type up my poems. This was a pre-DOS system that used C/PM as its OS. I replaced this with a DOS 2 system when I moved over to the Socialist Review in 1986 and soon went out and purchased my first personal PC, a 286 white box put together by some guys operating out of a store front on Mission Street in San Francisco. Since then it has been a series of progressively more powerful PCs up to a Vista-based HP Pavillion that had a catastrophic disk drive failure just last Thursday. At this point, I’m just waiting to get a new hard drive.

All of which is to say that I experience these writing systems as transient – that one typewriter I bought in Berkeley that lasted ten years is the system that I’ve used the longest in 54 years of writing practice, with one exception I’ll mention in a minute. When the little Royal portable that preceded it died, I went for a few weeks without one at home and was forced to resort to writing by hand for the first time in several years. This actually enabled me to write on the bus – I was attending San Francisco State but living north of the Berkeley campus, so had a long schlep down to the “F Bus,” then a second one on the street car out to the campus at the furthest end of the City. Writing on the bus – I was using legal tablets – was an exceptionally liberating experience for me. Later when I bought my new machine, I typed up the manuscripts and discovered that every single text I’d written came to a single page, typed single space. I had really internalized that frame without realizing it. From that point forward, I started to make notebooks part of my practice, and they still are.

When I do one-week workshops, one of my primary tasks is to get workshop participants to recognize how much that “seems natural” to them is in fact the consequence of some choice, so one of the things I have them do is work differently than they did before. If they use a PC to write, then they must try something else. If they focus on the 8.5-by-11 page, then they need to focus elsewhere. I get back works written on napkins, even leaves.

All of this is technology and needs to be acknowledged as such. Most of my poems have been written with the same pen now for 29 years, a Waterman that I modified when I bought it to accept felt-tip refills. When I switch to some other pen – usually because of the porousness of the paper I’m using, which differs from poem to poem – it invariably comes as a huge shock.

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 for marketing, and sometimes I get ideas for links in my blog from it. I’m not a big fan: the program itself is both limited and controlling and the design of the Facebook page is terrible. For one thing, the type is too small. I think that is intentional, part of the plan to keep its usage skewing younger. I’m amazed at the level of cynicism that is given a formal expression by Facebook, for example its privacy settings.

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 use it, rarely, for one-sided communications. Again, it’s a marketing tool, not a writing one. And while marketing is a real part of the life of any writer who wishes to be published, it is not writing itself, at least for me. That may not be so true for Christian Bök or Tao Lin. Facebook & Twitter seem to me far less revolutionary web sites than, say, YouTube or Vimeo. Both YouTube & Twitter played important roles in the creation of a resistance to the Iranian regime in the aftermath of its last elections, but it was the murder of that young woman on YouTube that has had the broader & more lasting impact.

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.

In my capacity as a poet? Well, I’m working on one poem that deliberately uses funky mobile input devices, such as my cell phone & an old Palm Pilot I still use for my contacts list & as an e-reader for PDF files. But all of my other poems at the moment are being written into notebooks. These range from a giant accounting journal to a pocket-sized moleskin notebook you can find in any college bookstore, plus a couple of leather-bound fancier writing notebooks that have been gifts from friends.

5. What do you dislike most about how other poets use technology?

I can’t say that there is anything that fits this, unless it’s younger poets treating any sort of technology ahistorically, as if it’s “permanent” or transhistorical. But that may even be more of a risk with pen & paper than it is with more recent writing systems. In general, I find that folks who gush on about the wonderfulness of the future or of a given gadget aren’t really engaging with the dynamics of writing itself. And indeed, they seem to drift away pretty quickly.

6. What do you like most about how other poets use technology?

Sometimes a new system seems to free up creativity. Watching – or more accurately, listening – to how Linh Dinh makes use of text language in some of his recent work enables me to see him tapping into new social practices that I could stand to be more cognizant of. But this is not an untraditional aspect of satiric writing in general, just a new manifestation of how satire is keeping up with the socious. Linh Dinh is a very smart guy as well as a very good poet & it shows.

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.

Tom is a friend and we’ve talked at length about his efforts to create a new genre or field of genres around the videopoem. And I’ve written on my blog about this as well, as the first link above points out (the second is to a piece I use an example). I think it is one on a range of examples that could eventually become something tending toward a genre, but what the field really needs is its Pound, its Baudelaire, its Shakespeare, somebody who will make everybody sit up & think Wow & want to head off in different directions related to it. And the great risk is that the technology will become obsolete before that happens. I mean if you look at Frank & Caroline Mouris’ Frank Film (1973) as an antecedent to this genre we have not necessarily come so very far in nearly 40 years, and yet it’s clear that they never envisioned the direct path from their film – which won an Oscar no less – to the YouTube revolution of today.

Think of the Sound Poetry craze that came out of Canada in the 1970s. That was created first of all by the fact that two poets at the same time were terrific at this genre – bpNichol & Steve McCaffery – and that they worked together in the group The Four Horsemen (Steve was the Mick of that quartet, bp the Keefe, or maybe Steve was the Paul, bp the John), plus – and this is huge – the nature of government funding for the arts in Canada during that period favored live performance over the lone poet working quietly on a manuscript. There were Sound Poetry festivals in the Bay Area, in New York, and in Canada, an enormous amount of enthusiasm. But 30 years later it seems to have evaporated, except as one aspect of what one finds in Christian Bök’s portfolio. I know that there are a few sound poetry projects out there, but they are at much quieter, less widely visible level than was the case just awhile back. And yet if anything the technology for recording and disseminating sound is much better and more widely spread today than it was in the 1970s.

8. Do you use technology as an integral element of your poetry? If so, how? If not, why not?

Sometimes, sparingly. I still mostly work in notebooks, but not exclusively. Right now I’m at work on five poems or sections from Universe & four of these are being composed in notebooks. The fifth as I noted is being composed on funky input devices. Three of those notebooks use the Waterman pen, but the fourth bleeds too much. You could ask what the difference between the sections is, but in many ways the answer lies in those writing technologies. Using two different journals with the same pen will yield very different poems, or at least poems that feel different to me.

9. What has technology done for or to Poetry?

It killed the novel. More accurately, the literary novel dissolved between modernism, its genre derivatives & the rise first of film, then television, as a medium for communicating stories. People seriously using the form today – DeLillo, Lethem, Auster, Pynchon, Maso, Markson (who died earlier this week), Acker (who died 13 years ago) – are rare birds indeed. I take them very seriously because they have no particular concern about the future of the novel and are driven by the best of internal reasons.

Poetry was prodded into the 20th century by the existence of the typewriter, without which The Cantos could not have existed. Poets who write as though the typewriter has yet to be invented strike me as curiously pathological – a few of them fall into the same category as those novelists above (Wendell Berry, say), but most are simply ignorant or disdainful of history, which also means the history of our own time, even as they write quatrains filled with oily pelicans.

The most important fact of poetry in my lifetime is that we have moved from an English-speaking world in which there were at most a few hundred poets in the 1950s – only 8,000 book titles of all kinds, from poetry to cookbooks, in the late ‘40s – to a world in which there are easily more than 20,000 publishing poets, several thousand books of poetry published each year & around 250,000 book titles of all kinds. The relation of the individual poet to audience has been transformed totally and nobody really knows yet what this means. It’s past time to start addressing it.

The other fact that really gets my attention right now is that for $9.99 I can get an e-book, but for $8.99 I can get thousands of motion pictures every month through Netflix. What this suggests is that e-books are wildly overpriced – they should be roughly $1. But then who makes enough money to stay in business? And a hardback at $25? A trade paper at $14.95? Netflix represents a particular moment in the film distribution process, not the whole she-bang. And yet everyone I know says of certain films, Oh I’ll wait & see that on Netflix. Not much fun if you just spend $400 million making Robin Hood or if you manufacture DVDs and notice that Netflix is shifting over to online downloads as fast as it can.

I’ve mostly not sent work out or even responded to requests from journals lately. I think the print journal may already be toast. Would you rather have your work in Jacket or Shampoo or another online site where it can be found & read, or in Conjunctions where it may look great but be seen by relatively few people?

10. What should Poetry do with or about technology that it has not yet done?

What if the Library of Congress gave everyone unlimited digital access to everything for, say, $20 per month? Or free even. People would have to start recognizing how scandalously incomplete that library is, but this is where we are heading, whether it takes us 20 years or 100. And if we have 40,000 English language poets in, say, another 25 years, that would actually represent a significant lowering of the growth rate of writers. Freed of the economy of the book, and of trade publishing, the relationship between writer & reader would come to some very different place. What I can’t tell you today is what that will look like, or how soon it will get it here.

But I don’t necessarily think that technology by itself is the sole major force that will transform poetry in the future. For example, I expect the for-profit university – the University of Phoenix, or Stryer or any of a dozen others – to be the norm for post-secondary education sooner rather than later. I think we will see a number of private colleges collapse in the next ten to fifteen years, just as we did in the 1950s & ‘60s, a period otherwise of great educational expansion. We have already seen Antioch & New College functioning as canaries in the coal mine. But where many of the schools in the 1950s & ‘60s were absorbed into exploding state systems (the U. of Buffalo into SUNY, Milwaukee into the U. of Wisconsin, SF Teachers College becoming SF State, etc.), the state systems won’t be there this time to rescue anybody. But the cookie-cutter teaching model of the for-profit schools would have a devastating impact on poetry. So I think we’re headed for interesting times. If there is any single trend that can undercut the rapid growth in the number of poets, I think this is it. I hate to tell people struggling to get by under the indentured-servant-like conditions of most adjuncts, but these are the good old days. It’s about to get much worse. And I think that a world in which the number of poets actually starts shrinking will have much more profound of an impact on poetry than any new technology. That won’t happen in my lifetime, but I can’t say that won’t happen.

Ron Silliman has published more than 30 books of poetry, criticism and memoirs. He was some new work in the June 2010 issue of Poetry, a portion of Revelator, which in turn is the first section of a new large project (poem) entitled Universe. His blog can be found at http://ronsilliman.blogspot.com.

Previous responders:

Amy King
Collin Kelley
Ren Powell
Chris Hamilton-Emery
Cati Porter

Coming up:

January O’Neil
Dave Bonta
Sandra Beasley
John Vick
Eric Elshtain

This series’ standing page: click here.


Previous Ten Questions series:

1. Ten Questions on Poetry
2. Ten Questions on Publication
3. Ten Questions for Poetry Editors

Published by

Nic Sebastian

Nic is the author of Forever Will End On Thursday and Dark And Like A Web. She founded the now-archived Whale Sound site and is co-founder of The Poetry Storehouse. Nic blogs at Very Like A Whale and Voice Alpha.

13 thoughts on “10 questions on Poets & Technology – Ron Silliman”

  1. The other fact that really gets my attention right now is that for $9.99 I can get an e-book, but for $8.99 I can get thousands of motion pictures every month through Netflix.

    A very telling comparison.

  2. Interesting review although I agree and disagree about the Netflix comparison. Netflix, like a library, has to pay for the initial content and then the user shares the expense by paying the monthly fee. If e-books had some kind of monthly service and read as much as you want – that might actually get me to buy an e-reader.

    I do agree that e-books are overpriced, my chapbook was only 2.99 at its highest in its e-book version and still only one copy ever sold. I don’t see many people reading poetry on e-readers, poets seem to want their books in hands. Does that make us dinosaurs? But if e-books are overpriced how can writers ever make back a few dollars?

    Ah the new ways we can make a no win situation :)

  3. Interesting point, Jessie- there are the films we watch for entertainment and the ones we feel we need to “own” in one form or another- to have the beautiful object. I read novels in the summer and never keep the books – fast food novels, I call them. One time only entertainment – but I don’t think of all books that way. Some people will still long for first editions because they are beautiful objects not just content.

    1. You definitely said it better than I did! There are books I always want to have around and then there are those I give away or trade in to used bookstores :) Same with movies!

  4. – Wow, I like the idea of being pressured to use different tools & mechanisms to write poetry. Would the resulting poetry be affected, and how?

    – The difference between 500 or so publishing poets in the 1950s and 20,000 or so today is mind-blowing. Yes, what *is* the implication for the writer/reader relationship? Are the numbers of readers growing at the same rate, or are 20,000 poets competing for the same number of readers 500 poets competed for in the 1950s?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s