Two Future Binaries
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This article chronicles the transition of the well-established online poetry journal Jacket to archival status hosted at the University of Pennsylvania and the parallel launch of a successor publication, Jacket2. The author addresses the new journal’s mission with special attention to the opportunities and challenges afforded to this digitally mediated resource.
When we launched Jacket2, it was clear that some sort of introductory statement would be needed—something that would mark the passing of the torch from John Tranter to our editorial team, discuss the ideologies guiding our work and give our readers some sense of the changes they could expect. Thankfully, our publisher, Al Filreis, crafted a wonderful prefatory note that did all this and more, granting me the luxury of writing “How I Got Here, and Where We’re Going,” a more personal exploration of my poetic development and how it shapes what I hope to do with Jacket2.
I start with the figure of Allen Ginsberg, writing on the anniversary of his death, and discuss how my accidental discovery of his work (I can’t quite account for how I came across him in the first place) was the life-altering seed from which I can trace half a lifetime’s activity as a poet and scholar, my editorial work at PennSound and Jacket2, and more generally the adoption of a certain aesthetic and philosophical worldview. An important part of this growth came in the form of tracing lineages outward from Ginsberg to his fellow Beat Generation authors, their influences, their New American Poetry peers, and finally to those younger writers influenced by this growing cultural family tree, which yielded a sense of belonging to a literary heritage, even if this autodidactic curriculum differed wildly from what I was learning in school.
Certainly, this learning process was much more difficult in the days before widespread use of the Internet (it would be another two-and-a-half years before I got online), and my teenage environment wasn’t particularly fostering: I didn’t have older siblings to introduce me to a world of culture, I didn’t have particularly sensitive or encouraging teachers, and I didn’t have literary-minded friends. Likewise, money was a major impediment to my ambitions, and since the local libraries and bookstores rarely carried the literature that interested me, my progress was frustratingly slow. Nevertheless, I carried on, and somehow—though it’s taken more than half my life and seems as improbable as the first sea creatures crawling ashore and developing legs—here I am.
I keep these experiences and challenges in mind, however, as I go about my day-to-day life: They’ve greatly shaped both my pedagogy and poetics, as well as the approach I take to my editorial roles at both PennSound and Jacket2, serving as a reminder not only of the redemptive power of poetry, but also the democratizing power of free access to culture. The work that we do—as guided by founding documents like the “PennSound Manifesto” and John Tranter’s “The Left Hand of Capitalism”—is rooted in the spirit of what Siva Vaidhyanathan calls “information anarchy,” the simple belief that “culture should flow with minimal impediments.” “Culture is anarchistic if it is alive at all,” he explains. “If it is working properly, culture is radically democratic, vibrant, malleable, surprising and fun.” While we certainly hope to foster and serve the evolving world of contemporary poetry, it’s also important to me to find new ways to reach out to new audiences who, like my teenaged self, are hungry for culture and looking for ways to connect with it. These are the two topics I’ll explore in this essay.
Active vs. Passive Promotion
As I write this, I’m listening to a baseball game broadcast through MLB’s Gameday Audio service. Having spent five of the last six years living outside of my hometown, I’ve had to get used to this being my primary mode of following my beloved Phillies, but all things considered, I don’t really mind—the $20 annual fee is reasonable, I find the radio announcers to be vastly superior to their television counterparts, and unlike a televised game, which demands one’s full attention, I can get other work done as I listen (which makes it possible to justify spending a few hours a day doing so). In a similar fashion, while I’d been a faithful NPR listener for most of my life, recent changes in habitus (largely since I moved to the Midwest) had resulted in me practically never listening in. When I upgraded to a new phone, however, and installed an NPR News app, I suddenly found myself listening much more frequently, finding time in life’s interstitial moments—while walking the dog, loading the dishwasher, making coffee in the morning, etc.—to pull up a story or two, or just listen to the hourly newsbreak.
NPR is a worthwhile organization that finds itself in crisis precisely in the moment when it’s needed most (how many of us, for example, will turn to NPR as our primary news source now that the New York Times has put its paywall in place?) and when it’s most imaginatively using technology to make itself available to larger audiences free of charge. It’s no great stretch to say that contemporary poetry finds itself at a similar technologically induced watershed moment. While the stakes aren’t quite the same—for one thing, poetry’s never had funding to threaten—we nonetheless find ourselves in an era of fundamental change. Certainly, there is much evidence that poets are responding to our new modes of living in innovative ways—from Flarf poetry to digital constructions by the likes of Chris Funkhouser, Brian Kim Stefans, and Danny Snelson, among others—however, since my primary role is that of archivist and editor, I’m most interested in how entities such as PennSound and Jacket2 (along with likeminded sites such as UbuWeb, Eclipse, and the Electronic Poetry Center) might best make their holdings available to new audiences in the digital era.
I want to begin, however, by looking at two long-running examples from the world of promoting contemporary poetry. The Academy of American Poets’ “Poem in Your Pocket Day” is one noble-minded endeavor of this sort, as is the Poetry Society of America’s “Poetry in Motion,” which uses ad space on public transportation to share poetry. The differences between these programs, however, underscore what I see as the two major trends in disseminating culture in this day and age: a dynamic between what I’ll call active and passive accessibility.
The stated goal of “Poem in Your Pocket Day” is, by the Academy’s own admission, a simple one: “Select a poem you love during National Poetry Month then carry it with you to share with co-workers, family, and friends.” However, here we see that a line has already been crossed between one having a personal, talismanic relationship with poetry (or, if that’s too much for some, a single poem) to becoming a would-be propagandist for the cause. Some of the suggested activities on the Academy’s website make this even clearer: “Urge local businesses to offer discounts for those carrying poems. . . Handwrite some lines on the back of your business cards. . . Start a street team to pass out poems in your community.” Even the downloadable PDFs of suitable pocket poems, identified by keyword (love, mice, pie, use, lost, etc.), are mildly pushy, with dotted lines and a scissor icon indicating precisely where the user should cut the two conjoined poems apart. While I’m very happy to see selections from Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Adelaide Crapsey, and Vachel Lindsay among other worthwhile choices—I particularly love the transgressiveness of random passersby being handed Gertrude Stein’s “A Carafe, That Is a Blind Glass” from Tender Buttons—there’s still something faintly pedantic about the entire operation, suggesting that poetry is some sort of edifying yet bitter vegetable that we need, even if we don’t want it. Moreover, most of us familiar with the urban environment know where all the flyers and handbills given out on a given day—from sale circulars to religious tracts and political manifestoes—wind up in the end, and in these cases, our jaded indifference to causes that we might very well be amenable to is rooted in the intrusion upon our personal space. Poetry, no matter how great it might be, is likely to meet a similar fate.
Compare this approach with that of “Poetry in Motion,” which also offers bite-sized work by great poets—as an undergrad riding Septa buses I recall enjoying poems by Stevens, Robert Creeley, Carl Sandburg, Dorothy Parker, Ogden Nash, Langston Hughes, H.D., and Robert Pinsky’s translation of Dante’s Inferno, among others—yet presented in a very different fashion. While the pocket-sized poem thrust at you as if it was a broken beer bottle provokes a hostile response, this poetry-as-advertisement, nestled between ads for blockbuster movies, weight loss plans, and correspondence schools, serve as a respite from the din of the everyday; they wait for you to discover them on your own terms, or provide some small edifying thrill should you seek them out and find them.
Activity implies an agenda. Of course, we all have an agenda, and in the cases of “Poem in Your Pocket” and “Poetry in Motion,” that agenda is the same—both organizations love poetry and want to be able to share it with others so that they might feel the same way about it. Since poetry is still by and large an elective affinity, its audience must be cultivated carefully. When I teach poetry courses and workshops, I usually begin by asking students about their previous experiences with poetry, and those who’ve formed negative judgments frequently attribute it to the way in which poetry had been taught by their previous teachers or the sort of work they’d read. They’re surprised to read poetry written during their own lifetime, to learn that a poem can sustain multiple (even contradictory) interpretations, or that their own opinions and instincts can play an important role in understanding poetry.
As John Ashbery laments in “What is Poetry,” “In school / All the thought got combed out,” but it doesn’t have to be: If we want to win converts, then our approach to poetry can’t be overly didactic; it can’t force itself upon readers or belittle them into being convinced of its worth. When I think back to my own teenaged experience with Ginsberg, I see a lot in common with my students—until I discovered work that spoke to me, to my hopes and concerns, that commanded my attention in ways that the dusty relics offered up by my high school teachers couldn’t, then it would be impossible to love poetry. In time, I could challenge myself, or be challenged by others, to read more widely or take on difficult work, but I had to come to it on my own terms, and I believe many readers feel the same way. The most effective approach might well be summed up by the popular Internet meme, “I’ll just leave this here. . .,” and the beauty of our wired era is that it’s replete with opportunities to do just that.
This ideology frequently guides our work at PennSound and now at Jacket2. Both sites are dense with information, and due to the pace at which content is added, worthwhile materials can be lost in the shuffle. We want to make sure that this isn’t the case, and therefore try to maximize our audience impact by promoting our content in a wide variety of ways, from Facebook and Twitter to newsfeeds and blogs, along with the Kelly Writers House’s “Dial-A-Poem” hotline (which, of course, is a nod to John Giorno’s groundbreaking service of the same name that ran during the late 1960s and early ’70s). However, despite the vigor of our communications practices, they’re still largely passive, taking place within a closed circuit of those who’ve initiated contact with us, whether that means signing up for our PennSound Daily newsfeed, following us on Facebook, and so forth.
Returning to the broadcast examples with which I began, I see two possibilities for maximized cultural outreach: the semi-attentive experience of poetry (like the baseball radio broadcast, which provides a full and vivid experience that one might tune in and out at will) and specially tailored content that fits into the tiny gaps in our lives where we might not typically think of connecting with culture.
The former reminds us that our participation in poetry need not always be intensely focused—there’s room for distractedness, and in fact some poets cherish that possibility as part of the overall listening experience. Ashbery, for example, likens the live poetry reading (and, by extension we might include recorded readings) to environmental art or Erik Satie’s musique d’ameublement (“furniture music”), noting: “You’re surrounded by different elements of a work and it doesn't really matter whether you’re focussing on one of them or none of them at any particular moment, but you’re getting a kind of indirect refraction from the situation that you’re in.” A generation of scholars—foremost among them my PennSound colleague, Charles Bernstein—have argued that a poem’s sonic aspects are every bit as important as its textuality, and I’ll take that one step further here by offering that the recorded poem is, in this discreet sense, superior to the written word in that it has a capacity for this sort of incomplete attention that a printed page does not. By no means do I believe that this is the ideal way for us to interact with culture; nonetheless, it can be a meaningful one, and acknowledging it as such is also an acknowledgment of how increasingly hectic, and technologically mediated, our lives have become.
A more direct solution to this issue, which technology can also provide, is a wealth of bite-sized micro-content that is capable of fitting into whatever small, stolen moments one might have to devote to culture. A casual reader might not think that she has time for poetry in her busy life, but when that work is readily available and integrated with her daily habits, she very well might. The most opportune venues for this sort of interaction are mediated spaces like Facebook and Twitter, which we go to out of habit when we need a break or need to be entertained. The communicative ease of these fora is clear to all of us who use them to keep up with friends, discover new culture, support political causes, and follow our favorite sports teams in this fashion.
For several years now, PennSound has been using Facebook in this way, posting traditional links but also embedding audio and video directly into the wall feed, and by further facilitating the process of listening, we hope to be able to draw in even more listeners. At Jacket2, we’re embracing a similar approach, with plans for both micro-reviews and micro-interviews that will fit well within the contexts of Facebook. You might not have the volition to visit PennSound on your own, but when news of our latest addition appears between photos of your brother’s vacation and wacky cat videos, perhaps you will; likewise, you might not follow a link to a resource elsewhere, but if you can stream it while you look at those travel snapshots, maybe you will. All of us can spare 45 seconds to listen to (or read) a poem—it’s just a matter of making it irresistibly easy—and this is a useful reminder that while our love of poetry might be fostered by the broad course of literary history or intimate knowledge of a few favorite authors, it inevitably begins, or can begin, with one single poem. In our present era, the potential for that fruitful moment of aesthetic interaction is greater than ever.
Make it Anachronistic / Make it Futuristic
I started playing music and listening to music seriously around the same time I first got interested in literature, and for a very long time entertained hopes that I might make a living doing so. Given the precipitous decline of the music industry over the past decade or so, I can’t help but feel like I’ve dodged a bullet, and yet as that field struggles to reinvent itself in a new, digital era, I see much that is applicable to contemporary poetics as well.
Let’s start with the proposition that the perfect bound volume of poetry is analogous to the record album—for generations, each has been the dominant form, the medium through which most artists have chosen to work. I don’t believe that either is necessarily obsolete, but I do acknowledge that each has some potentially serious limitations, largely tied to material concerns and market demands. Since the start of the millennium, we’ve seen record prices dip dramatically as an overinflated market adjusts itself to forestall consumer anger (though many would argue this was too little done too late); however, poetry publishers have neither the scale nor the budgetary breathing room necessary to make such cutbacks. As a result, all but a lucky few poets publish books less frequently than they might in a thriving system, and no doubt there are also many deserving voices left out of the loop (though I’m heartened to see so many wonderful small presses emerging each year to fill that void).
The perfect-bound book looks very nice on your shelf, certainly pleases reappointment and tenure committees, and selling a few after a reading is a sure-fire way to get enough gas money to make it to the next stop on your self-financed reading tour. At the same time, when, due to the glacial pace of the industry, that book likely consists of poems written three to five years prior to its release, or if the contents of that book are largely poems that you’ve seen or heard elsewhere over those intervening years (in journals and chapbooks or at readings), this suggests serious issues within the publishing system. Much like the record industry, contemporary poetry continues to adapt to changing times through electronic means—greatly facilitating accessibility and avoiding the substantial costs associated with materials and distribution—in the forms of online journals, blogs, archives, Twitter feeds, YouTube, and other novel forms.
Indeed, it seems as if an entire generation of authors is emerging within, and in response to, this new setting. Two names that come immediately to mind are Dana Ward and Thom Donovan, both of whom have been well-respected and ubiquitous members of the contemporary poetry scene for as long as I can remember, and yet neither of whom, surprisingly, have published a full-length book (however, both will finally do so later this year). Ward, in particular, has stated that he’d “rather have a PennSound author page than a perfect-bound book” (something I was glad to make a reality) and this serves as some small testament to the ways in which these two poets—whose work, rooted in hybridized poetic and critical practice, is both highly discursive and reactive—are products of the environment in which they thrive.
The other tack the record industry has taken is to move away from digital expedience, whether that means promoting vinyl or fully loaded limited editions. Like many of you, I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival of the special “newspaper album” version of Radiohead’s latest record, The King of Limbs—a very generous Valentine’s Day present from my partner, Jennifer—however, I don’t suffer its absence greatly, because I’ve listened to the record in MP3 format hundreds of times since the day it was released. In this regard, this “newspaper album” functions more like the traditional poetry collection, but that’s solely due to the production delay, and most releases of this sort are ready contemporaneously with the regular versions. Instead, these special editions, these carefully constructed craft items, seem reminiscent of the growing prevalence of handmade artifacts (chapbooks, broadsides, etc.) within the contemporary poetry world. This is yet another area that’s experiencing a renaissance thanks to online communication, which makes promotion and distribution of these curios—that once would’ve been traded after readings or available in only a few high-minded bookshops—open to a worldwide audience, and the hybrid mix here of analogue process and digital dissemination is a particularly fascinating one, reminding us that old and new world processes are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
The Internet is capable of accommodating a variety of work that’s neither of the scale nor temperament of the full-sized book—including the ephemeral, the occasional, the experimental, the conceptual—in the same way that chapbooks and broadsides can, whether this takes the form of blogs, PDF editions, or single-serving sites. For example, last fall, while rereading Stein’s Tender Buttons I came across the vignette “A Little Bit of A Tumbler” in the Objects section, and in an inspired moment of literary seed planting created a site called “A Little Bit of a Tumblr” (http://alittlebitofa.tumblr.com) through the popular Tumblr blog service, which consists of a photo of Stein, the complete text of “A Little Bit of a Tumbler,” and a link to Bartleby’s online version of the book. I added an otherwise unadorned link to the site on PennSound’s Stein author page, and now, a little over six months later, it’s now the top Google hit for the title phrase. My intentions for the site aren’t particularly ambitious—it’s a techno-literary in-joke that might provide a small chuckle or a brief satori-like moment for the reader; however, more importantly, it serves as a connection between Stein resources at PennSound and Bartleby, or better still, as a potential means for those who unintentionally stumble on the page and are intrigued to connect with the author’s work.
Conversely, digital environments are also capable of serving works whose scale is maximal rather than minimal. Many of us have been forced to trim critical work within an inch of its life so that it might fit within the pre-ordained boundaries of the conference paper, the journal essay, the book chapter; however, these limits are largely functions of material costs (whether time, space, or resources) that don’t exist in the digital realm. Much of the important work that’s been done in the field of textual archives in the past decade—whether Craig Dworkin’s excellent Eclipse site, UbuWeb’s /UBU Editions and Publishing the Unpublishable series, and the work Danny Snelson will be doing for Jacket2 (starting with a complete digitization of Jerome Rothenberg and Dennis Tedlock’s influential ethnopoetics journal, Alcheringa)—is proof of this principle in action, as is Marta L. Werner’s diligent work to preserve Hannah Weiner’s The Book Of Revelations (also for Jacket2). This unpublished full-length manuscript, presented in multiple transcript versions, along with a lengthy critical introduction, copious notes on the text and numerous appendices, is the sort of project that would either never see the light of day in print due to cost constraints, or would have to be scaled back greatly. I couldn’t be happier that we’re able to present this vital work in its most complete form in Jacket2, and it serves as an inspiration that we might be able to undertake similar projects in the future.
While all of the aforementioned examples are relatively professional endeavors—associated with major universities, producing good-looking final products, often available in numerous formats—there’s also been tremendous growth in digital artifacts with a more handmade feel, largely facilitated through blogging platforms, which takes the form of a sort of online mimeography. The beauty of the mimeographed (or photocopied) text lies in its immediacy, along with its low production costs compared to more traditional publishing methods, though this has traditionally come at the expense of appearance (even if the genre has its own lovely aesthetic). Presently, however, looks need not be sacrificed for the sake of ease or access, and a wide array of worthwhile creative endeavors has demonstrated that in our online era, anyone can micro-publish to a worldwide audience. I’d like to conclude by exploring the efforts of one such individual.
For years, Philadelphia-based poet CAConrad has used the readily available Blogger service to create a wide array of sites; however, very few of these seem legitimately blog-like. Certainly, the PhillySound Blog (http://phillysound.blogspot.com)—which Conrad created in August 2003 as part of a multi-day poetry festival of the same name held at the Kelly Writers House and La Tazza—as well as his (Soma)tic Poetry Exercises page (http://somaticpoetryexercises.blogspot.com/) have functioned in this way, but the majority of them are more akin to single-page websites, serving various purposes large or small: He’s made an author homepage, separate sites for interviews, upcoming events and audio/video recordings of his work, pages for projects like the Philadelphia Poetry Hotel, his Annual Sexiest Poem Award, and even tarot card readings that he offers. Essentially, he’s using Blogger’s templates as an easy means of constructing webspaces that are both good looking and functional, allowing him to promote his poetry and connect with readers worldwide.
What makes this ambitious exploitation of ready-made technology even more remarkable is the knowledge that until recently Conrad did all of this on an antiquated desktop with a dial-up connection. In late 2010, a very generous and anonymous benefactor bought him a new laptop, which opened all sorts of exciting new worlds of possibilities for him. Aside from having faster and more reliable access to the Internet, taking advantage of the copious free Wi-Fi throughout town—he refers to Amtrak’s 30th Street Station as “his office,” and recently spent an entire day guest-Tweeting for the Academy of American Poets from the food court—he’s also made great use of some of the laptop’s other features, most notably its built-in camera.
In early January 2011, Conrad started Jupiter 88 (http://jupiter88poetry.blogspot.com/), a new “video journal of contemporary poetry,” whose character is decidedly spontaneous and charmingly handmade, much like the marker-and-glitter title cards that begin each episode. Using the Photo Booth program’s lo-fi green screen function, the readers are superimposed on a background image of the planet Jupiter—though patterns of shadow and light often cause a digitally garbled haloing effect—and there’s little in the way of editing. This cinéma vérité aesthetic is reminiscent of public access television (a key trope in Conrad’s play The Obituary Show) or YouTube bedroom documentarians; however, what truly distinguishes Jupiter 88 is the quality of its content.
In a little over three months, the journal has hosted 33 poets—a diverse assortment that includes many of the young poets working in and around Philadelphia (from well-established writers such as Frank Sherlock to exciting newcomers such as Laura Spagnoli and Debrah Morkun) as well as a wide array of poets from throughout the country (including Rod Smith, Mel Nichols, Eileen Myles, Fred Moten, Mark Nowak, Stacy Szymaszek, Dottie Lasky, and Thom Donovan, among others). The common factor uniting these authors is their friendship with Conrad himself—recently hailed by Ron Silliman as “Philly poetry’s modern day Ben Franklin. . . the lone figure who appears to be known, respected, even loved by people in every literary scene in this quite diverse city.” The various episodes are filmed either when these poets visit Philadelphia or when Conrad travels outside of his hometown.
Therefore, Jupiter88 is a testament to the power of coterie fostered by technology, or better still, technology fostered by coterie: Though our viewing experience is nonetheless vicarious and mediated, it’s also an intimate one, bolstered by the host’s affinity for his guests, the brief glimpses of their private spaces and the personalized touches, including the strange props (a black globe, a porcelain elephant, houseplants, a cat, a parrot) that frequently dominate the frame. Not unlike Frank O’Hara or Allen Ginsberg before him, Conrad occupies the role of social center, and his contribution to the world of contemporary poetry is as much about the connections he makes with his fellow poets as his own writing. Moreover, Jupiter 88’s creative use of technology at the disposal of many (a webcam, Facebook used as a media host, Blogger used as a homepage) not only serves as an idiosyncratic document of a thriving period in contemporary poetics, but also welcomes the remote viewer into that discourse. Thus, one anonymous benefactor’s act of generosity is repaid a thousand times over and we all benefit greatly.
Coda: Digital (Im)mortality
Jacket2 was born because John Tranter wanted to ensure that Jacket’s archives would be preserved long beyond his editorial tenure, and because he had the vision to realize that his life’s work could be carried on, and built upon, by others. I sincerely hope that both Jacket2 and PennSound will last as long as or even longer than Jacket’s successful 13-year run, and yet I lose a lot of sleep at night thinking about what will eventually happen to all of the work that we’ve done.
When I’m pressed into service as a eulogist in my PennSound Daily column—something that seems to happen far too frequently as of late—I try to remind our listeners that we might still hope to connect with our favorite deceased poets through their work, and particularly audio/visual recordings, which bare some greater auratic trace, the death-denying magic of the human voice. Yet so much of the work that we do as archivists and editors seems to be directed toward forestalling a different sort of death: a race against time to digitize old cassettes, reel-to-reel tapes, and videos (none of which were designed for longevity) before they deteriorate, or to document poetry’s past, present, and future before it fades from memory. There might be some solace, however, in the realization that our present online era is one dedicated to the proposition that no information should ever be lost to the tides of history—as anyone who’s ever wasted a Saturday afternoon watching old music videos or commercials from your youth on YouTube can attest—and within this strange new environment, poetry can truly thrive, establishing a more intimate connection with its history and reaching out to new audiences in ways previously unimaginable.
Michael S. Hennessey is the editor of PennSound and editor (with Julia Bloch) of Jacket2. His scholarly writing on sound, media and poetry has appeared in Audiobooks, Literature, and Sound Studies (Routledge, 2011), Interval(le)s, and English Studies in Canada, and is forthcoming in The Salt Companion to Charles Bernstein (Salt Publishing, 2011) and PoemTalk.
Recent poetry publications include Jacket, EOAGH, Elective Affinities, Jupiter88, Zen Monster, Brighton Approach: Gold Edition, and Horse Less Review, along with Leonard Schwartz's radio program Cross Cultural Poetics and the chapbooks Last Days in the Bomb Shelter (17 Narrower Poems) and [ static ].
The Academy of American Poets, “Poem in Your Pocket Day,” Poets.org, http://www.poets.org/page.php/prmID/406.