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Some Thoughts on Poetry and Pornography as Experimental Twins
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It is commonplace that pornography is the avant-garde of all media. When new technologies arise, the pornographers are there first, too. Every time there has been a significant shift in marketplace rules, even if the technology is broadly unchanged, the pornographers are the first to figure it out. What is however far less frequently discussed is poetry. Poets and pornographers have nothing to lose. No commercial opportunity in the former case, no prestige in the latter. Conversely, they have very clear goals, too: prestige in the former case, money in the latter.
It is commonplace that pornography is the avant-garde of all media. When new technologies arise, the pornographers are there first, too: the printing press, the nickelodeon, four-color printing, paperback books, VHS, DVD, cable—all see their first significant commercial exploitation at the hands of the smut peddlers.
Every time there has been a significant shift in marketplace rules, even if the technology is broadly unchanged, the pornographers are the first to figure it out. At the time AT&T was broken up, talk was cheap. But pornographers quickly realized that people would spend serious money to talk to a person named Felony about. . .whatever they might want to talk to a person named Felony about. This led to premium 900 numbers for the weather, sports scores, horoscopes, etc.
In his recent book, I Live in the Future and Here’s How it Works, Nick Bilton discusses this phenomenon at length, quoting the legal scholar Peter Johnson, who notes especially that the benefit of the First Amendment is not just political and social but also economic.
Pornography, far from being an evil that the First Amendment must endure, is a positive good that encourages experimentation with new media. The First Amendment thus has not only intellectual, moral, political, and artistic value, but practical and economic value as well. It urges consenting adults, uninhibited by censorship, to look for novel ways to use the new media and novel ways to make money out of the new uses. Therefore, while it may be politically impossible and socially unwise to encourage computer pornography, legislators should at least leave it alone and let the medium follow where pornography leads.
What is, however, far less frequently discussed is Pornography’s more serious sidekick in the avant-garde of media, its wingman: Poetry. Notwithstanding that there has, of course, been pornographic poetry as long as there has been either verse or smut, poetry has a role all its own in the history of media innovation. Poetry flowed off the printing presses at the same time as the Bibles and the indulgences and the pornography.
But what I’m after here is a provocative generalization I want to propose, not conclusively, but as an opening gambit, one which my fellow essayists are probably far better equipped than I to research, prove, disprove. Poets and pornographers in a loose sense have nothing to lose. No commercial opportunity in the former case, no prestige in the latter. Conversely, they have very clear goals, too: prestige (or more sociologically, reputational capital) in the former case, ducats in the latter. In the past decade, it’s clear that poetry is in the forefront of abandoning the basic $15 trade paperback sold through retailers on a sale-or-return basis, in favor of the web and the chapbook, of sales online and at events. In this regard, they’re pretty clearly in the vanguard of publishing: Money comes from unique experiences and singular objects; awareness is generated digitally and there are relatively few serious thinkers about the future of consumer publishing who do not see that as the future.
But where else can we see poetry in the forefront of new approaches to distribution and discovery? I’m not suggesting that poetry is always the bleeding edge for new technology—in fact, the importance of new technology as such, as the New, is frequently exaggerated in the history of innovation. What’s typically far more important is what David Edgerton in The Shock of the Old calls “technology in use.” And here poets, I believe, have been brilliantly opportunistic, like the pornographers, because they’ve nothing to lose, so few sunk costs, no juicy boondoggles to preserve, no massive infrastructure to exploit to the bitter end. Instead, we have John Giorno, who, after talking to William Burroughs on the phone in 1968, initiated “Dial-A-Poem”—fifteen phone lines were connected with individual answering machines: People called and listened to a poem they were offered from fragments of various live recordings. This, in fact, predates 1-900-SMUT by 15 years!
Then, to take a case from three hundred years previously, it was the poet Alexander Pope who pioneered the use of the subscription format to sell his Iliad translation. From which he made so much money that he bought a villa and grotto that he filled with alabaster, marbles, Cornish diamonds, stalactites, spars, snakestones, spongestone, and no less than a camera obscura.
Finally, to look just at digital or web-based innovations in poetry, both in its composition and in its delivery: there is the UbuWeb world; Brian Kim Stefans as digital poet and critic of digital poetry; an effusive academic called Thom Swiss who writes on this stuff at length; and the PennSound site. Stefans and many other people also compose visual poetry that relies on digital effects for its form (simple animations, from what I’ve seen). One could further argue that the latest generation of popular “performance” poets relies on digital distribution of affordable sound files: The rise of iTunes can help account for the success of a Saul Williams, for example.
Candidly, though, I do not aim to prove my thesis here, but to introduce it, to offer it here and allow the experts a chance to poke around at it. . .et voilà!
Richard Nash is an independent publishing entrepreneur—VP of Community and Content of Small Demons, founder of Cursor, and Publisher of Red Lemonade. For most of the past decade, he ran the iconic indie Soft Skull Press for which work he was awarded the Association of American Publishers' Miriam Bass Award for Creativity in Independent Publishing in 2005. Books he edited and published landed on bestseller lists from the Boston Globe to the Singapore Straits-Times; on Best of the Year lists from The Guardian to the Toronto Globe & Mail to the Los Angeles Times; the last book he edited there, Lydia Millet's Love in Infant Monkeys, was selected as a 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist. Last year the Utne Reader named him one of Fifty Visionaries Changing Your World and Mashable.com picked him as the #1 Twitter User Changing the Shape of Publishing. He has spoken on the history and future of reading, writing, and publishing across the world, from Melbourne to Toronto to Helsinki to Seoul—Chris Anderson characterizes his Publishing 3.0 talk as "the best I have ever seen."