I am now officially a sideshow barker for Big Tent Poetry, a new poetry prompt site and the most direct successor to Read Write Poem, which ceased publication and shut down its associated social network on May 1. The Big Tent organizers — Carolee Sherwood, Deb Scott, and Jill Crammond-Wickham — are published poets (each has had work in qarrtsiluni, for example) and long-time bloggers committed to a culture of sharing and mutual support among online poets. As lead organizers at RWP, they helped foster a spirit of playfulness and irreverence which I always thought was one of the best things about that site, and which looks to become a defining feature of Big Tent, as well.
This time, there’s no Facebook-for-poets, which is probably a good idea: the time and effort required to run such a thing proved debilitating at RWP, I gather. And I hate to say it, but Facebook itself does at least as good a job at connecting writers as RWP did, with the added advantage of including tons of other friends, family, and assorted contacts who, while not necessarily as smitten with poetry as some of us are, still might be persuaded to click on a blog link once in a while. I may not care for the centralization, much less for Facebook’s corporate culture, but as with Twitter, I figure it’s there and we might as well take advantage of it. My alternative? A decentralized internet where we all have our own sites (whether blogs proper or sites on Tumblr, StatusNet, etc.), subscribe to each other’s feeds, and link and comment back and forth with the enthusiasm now reserved for Facebook and Twitter.
O.K., that day will probably never come. But Big Tent Poetry’s mode of operation definitely contributes to the dream of a decentralized social web. Carolee, Deb and Jill have made the wise decision not to try to line up a bunch of regular columnists, but instead get a bunch of us to agree to send along links whenever we write something poetry-related, and let them decide whether to feature it on the site. They have dedicated a whole third ring (the circus kind, not the Dantean kind) to collect such contributions, and I’m pleased and honored that they chose my piece about Poetry Reading Month as the second entry there. I like the idea of Via Negativa as sideshow and me as its barker. And I’m in good company — see the complete list of barkers on the site’s About page.
I’m sure the main attraction at Big Tent Poetry will be its weekly writing prompts, which will appear every Monday. I don’t know how often I’ll join them under the main tent of the circus, but I’m glad they’re providing a venue for blogging poets to come together and share their work. Since so many literary magazines, including online ones, actively discourage writers from posting original work on their own blogs by refusing to consider blogged work for publication, it’s really helpful to have prompt sites like Big Tent, Writer’s Island, and the new We Write Poems to help build alternative audiences — which can often be larger and more diverse than the audience for a literary magazine. (I can tell you, for example, that Via Negativa has two to three times as many readers as qarrtsiluni. I wish it were otherwise.)
The challenge with any kind of online poetry community, I think, is keeping the cultural version of Gresham’s law from driving out those who take craft seriously, because of course the downside of a self-publishing landscape where anyone can post their stuff, and build an audience without the interference of gatekeepers, is that a horde of people who just want to share their feelings and call it poetry risk giving poetry blogging as a whole a bad name, kind of like the way zealots, anger addicts and purveyors of snark have come to define the political blogosphere. RWP did an amazingly good job of attracting serious writers to its prompts. Here’s hoping Big Tent Poetry enjoys similar success.