Last night, in chatting with an environmental consultant, I learned a dandy new acronym: ERPA. That stands for Engineered Rock Placement Area. It refers to the artificial mountains created from the rubble of bedrock blasted out to make room for a new highway, Wal-Mart, or other envelopment. Such piles are “engineered” in the sense that some specialist tries to minimize their effects on the local hydrology, keep them from collapsing, etc.
The specific ERPA my friend was talking about will consist of highly acidic mountaintop rock removed for a certain local highway cut and placed in the adjacent valley, where it will tower over the new highway and an adjacent railroad line and creek. I am being vague here because he asked me not to quote him about the tenuous chances of its success as a long-term environmental solution.
I just liked the fact that “ERPA” sounds like a burp — a gross and embarrassing discharge resulting from too-rapid consumption — and that it rhymes with “Sherpa.” From what I gather, one might well need a Sherpa guide to scale this thing by the time they’re done with it.
It’s been three years now since I began work on my own ERPA, Via Negativa. The previous spring, I had begun writing essays to post to my then-new Geocities site, and forwarding the links to a number of email contacts. Many of the essays I was writing were in response to the Iraq invasion — a catalyst for many people to start blogging in 2003, it turned out. From time to time, one of my hapless email victims would tell me I needed to start a blog, but I’d pooh-pooh the suggestion.
The main thing that kept me from jumping into blogging as soon as I found out about it was my impression that blogs consisted mainly of political and social polemics. Where was the poetry? I didn’t want to narrow my focus like that. When I finally did start a blog in mid-December 2003, I had the notion — erroneous, as it turned out — that I’d be doing something largely without precedent. I aimed to write a “celebration of the unknown, the unknowable, and the mystic experience,” as I put it at the time. But within two weeks I was straying beyond this self-imposed limitation, and by late spring, I had pretty much abandoned all pretense of having a thematically unified blog. In the meantime, though, the name Via Negativa had stuck, as names will do.
I went with Blogger because it was free. After about three weeks, I figured out how to add a commenting system, which Blogger didn’t provide back then. Suddenly, with comments coming in, and my own participation in conversations at other blogs, the writer’s life was no longer a mostly solitary affair. I started getting valuable feedback that went beyond the polite or enthusiastic applause one might earn at a poetry reading, or the occasional responses from email correspondents. And of course I discovered plenty of other bloggers working in similar territories, writing about faith or lack thereof, about nature and place, about art and philosophy and what they had for breakfast. I found myself in a blog neighborhood that felt both compatible and invigorating, as if I had just entered a graduate program at some elite university.
This past year has seen the biggest changes since I started blogging. Via Negativa moved to its present location on April Fool’s Day, changing URL and software platform in the process. I discovered the wonders and challenges of blogging with open-source software, something which, as an anarchist of sorts, I deeply believe in. I started a sideblog, Smorgasblog, and saw myself become a much better reader of other blogs as a result. I helped start a blog carnival, Festival of the Trees, with Pablo of Roundrock Journal, and with Beth Adams (the cassandra pages) took over the managing editorship of qarrtsiluni.
Less than a week ago, I began to assemble a new collection of poems derived mostly from Via Negativa, a project which I am calling shadow cabinet. I’ve gotten so used to doing things online, it seemed natural to put it together as a website, using a WordPress.com template, rather than just a dull document in MS Word. This has led me to think about the difference between blogs and other kinds of websites, especially as it relates to publishing poetry. The apparent stasis of a regular website — to say nothing of a book — aids in the perception of poetry as finished creation, an illusion central to our appreciation of any art. The dynamic nature of blogging, on the other hand, helps us see poems as ephemeral expressions of a continually evolving creative process.
I think it’s fair to say that blogging has made me a better writer, more disciplined, less prone to spend all my time polishing what I’ve already written. As I noted in a comment to a recent post about blogging and writing at the cassandra pages, because I try and post something at least once a day, six days a week, I’ve learned to be a little more easy-going in what I write — less prone to try and pack everything I want to say into one poem or essay. Much as I dislike Billy Collins, I have to agree with the quote that appears on the front page of Poetry Daily: “The urge to tie a poem to a chair and torture a confession out of it lessens when poetry arises freshly each day.”
Last year at this time I did a quick survey of the immediate blog neighborhood, but now that I keep the Smorgasblog, that doesn’t seem as necessary. I would like to thank all my enablers (see Credits page). Thanks for reading. It’s been a real pleasure, and I hope to stick around for many more years. In ten days — wood willing, knock on God — I’ll be getting a new (to me) computer, many times faster and larger than what I have now. So starting with the New Year, I’ll have the space and ability to back up files much more effectively, shoring up this mountain of rubble against collapse.