Poetry under the Big Tent

Big Tent Poetry
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.

19 Comments


  1. I think that gatekeeping and semi-private spaces are the big unresolved challenge of social networking. It’s been interesting watching facebook wrestle with it: I haven’t much liked their culture either, but I suspect any social network apparatus that big will find itself hated, no matter what it does. The discontents of social interaction are so intense, and the scapegoat so handy :-)

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    1. Indeed. Facebook could certainly be worse. I actually think they have pretty good usability since the most recent site re-design. But their new attempt to spread the Facebook “like” button to sites beyond their walls (I could add it to VN) does worry me: my point is simply that no one should be that dominant.

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  2. …but yes, hurrah for the Big Tent! It’s exciting to see it go up.

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  3. This is an exciting place! Maybe I can drag myself away from Facebook …

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    1. I honestly get excited every day at the idea that I can publish new material on the internet. Facebook is fun, too, but mostly for relaxing, not creating.

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  4. Thanks! And I like your utopian network idea, Dave. Maybe one of these days. And I think you are spot on with your other points, too.

    I also think one of Big Tent’s draws will be Carolee & Jill’s challenges (Ring #2). They had an avid following at RWP where folks really loved the short-term intensity of digging in for a kind of mini NaPo or poetry boot camp kind of experience.

    The Big Tent community may very well end up small (or not as large as RWP), and we’re (decidedly) okay with that (not that we are elitist by any stretch — we want to keep the egalitarian feel that RWP always had, as well as the fun).

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    1. Glad you liked the post, and I’m sorry I neglected Ring #2! I hope the site stays manageable enough that y’all don’t burn out, always a risk with these sorts of things. I think it’s good that you’re one of three sites created or revived to provide a home for ex-RWPers, though I love the idea of a big tent, considering how rife with factionalism poetry communities tend to be. It would be nice to see both more formal poets and more avant-garde poets coming out of their ghettoes and particiating in these kinds of things.

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  5. BIG TENT !
    HALLELUJAH !!!

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  6. Your vision of the decentralized web resonated with me, but I wonder if it’s already come and gone. Many of the bloggers I once read when I started 5 years ago are now more active on FB, which is why I think I still resist it to a (diminishing) extent.

    I think the check on Gersham’s Law has to do with quality and attention to craft. Sites (such as yours) have a staying power to them because there appears to be a sense of seriousness. The ones “giving poetry blogging as a whole a bad name” seem to fade over time as the owners lost interest or perhaps audience, I assume.

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    1. In a way I’m glad the blogging craze is behind us; blogging isn’t for everyone, and there are so many more ways for people to establish a presence on the web now. Delicious, for example, is a great social bookmarking site, and very similar to the original blogs of the 1990s. I think the problem five years ago was that everyone who wanted to be hip online was feeling the pressure to post at least once a day, and not everyone wants to do that. The models were limited. Commenting systems were rudimentary, with poor spam-blocking systems and subscriptions limited to RSS. I don’t blame people who just want to connect, share and chatter for abandoning blogs for less cumbersome venues.

      I’d like to believe you’re right about bad poetry blogs having a shorter shelf life, but I can think of a few exceptions.

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      1. I always forget about delicious. I have an account and it can be so useful, yet I always forget to use it. In a way I think FB has taken over some of that too–at least the sharing of links part. In fact that’s the thing I find I do most at FB is follow links out to other sites.

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        1. Yeah, same here. I used Delicious mainly to share links in the sidebar here, and stopped when I got concerned about site load times and took the feature out.

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  7. I don’t use Facebook (or Twitter), partly because I don’t have time to catch up with all the different ways of connecting on the web, and partly because I am very suspicious of it. I don’t necessarily want to muddle up all the parts of my life together in one place, but more seriously, it alarms me that even though I have never been near Facebook, they know all sorts of things about me. Proof of this is that when I get an invitation to connect to someone on Facebook, it comes along with a big list of “other people you might know on Facebook”, and it is scarily accurate – and very random, ie if the invitation comes from a poetry blogger, the list of other people includes business contacts, sports group contacts etc, who could not possibly have anything to do with the person the invitation comes from – in other words, Facebook has my e-mail address, and a list of other people who have my e-mail address, even though I never gave permission for that data to be stored there.

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    1. People often voluntarily let FB go through their email account to see who they know might be already be on Facebook; it’s the easiest way to hook up with your firends and contacts. I think what’s probably happening in your case is that Facebook recognizes your email address from all those other people’s address books. But yes, they are getting increasingly reckless about violating users’ privacy, and I’ve been noticing that the tech press is staring to turn against Facebook in a big way as a result. I think it will go the way of MySpace in another couple of years. It just isn’t quite clear yet what will take it’s place, but I’m sure something will.

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