Blogs and Blogging

Most poetry chapbooks are lucky to get any reviews, let alone one as kind as this, from long-time blogger Jonah at Love During Wartime in response to Twelve Simple Songs:

Song Two, “My parachute knapsack,” is another example of the dialogue between photo and poem. The poem closes with the lines “That’s what it was like / being alone.” The photograph is of a pair of boots on a red porch, a white wall behind them and white snow bordering the left of the porch. This is possibly the most “illustrative” pairing in the collection, yet I don’t see this as cloyingly obvious. There’s no self-pity on either the verso or recto: both speak of being alone, rather than being lonely. Each offer images devoid of sentimentality.

Do read the whole review… and of course check out the collection if you haven’t already. (And note that I still have some 20%-off coupons available for the print-on-demand version.)

Last weekend, Jonah blogged another review, this one for a collection I haven’t even bothered to publish aside from the series at Via Negativa and accompanying audio recordings: Manual. He wrote, in part:

I read through this brief collection in a few hours. But each poem deserves its own hour. Many of us think of poetry as some code that must be deciphered. These poems are a fine antidote to that fear: they are approachable, friendly (in their imperious way), tender, often whimsical, and sly.

It’s always gratifying when one’s work garners these kinds of close reads (especially of course when the reader has such a favorable reaction!). Both these projects have also sparked unsolicited artistic responses — close readings of a sort — from the Dutch filmmaker Swoon (Marc Neys): a single, seven-and-a-half-minute-long film for Twelve Simple Songs as read by Nic S., and a series of five films for poems in Manual. What a gift.

I now have a number of cycles of poems like Manual that feel complete and could be made into books. The question is always: Would the effort to design and produce a book be worth it? How does one measure such things if you’re giving your work away? How many downloads and purchases are enough? Or should I submit these collections to other publishers on the chance that they may be able to do a better job reaching readers, even though it means in most cases giving up control over design and the chance to have digital versions? Right now I’m putting most of my effort into an anthology of newly revised work which I may also self-publish; it’s clear to me that this book will offer value to readers simply as an act of curation from my too-voluminous online corpus. And I’m thinking I’d also like to pursue an idea suggested by Jean Morris in a recent comment here: an illustrated version of Bear Medicine.

So here’s the proposal: I’m looking for an artist or artists with an affinity for bears to collaborate on a small book incorporating my Bear Medicine prose poems. I’m thinking woodblock prints, but paintings or other media might work, too. Publication would be digital and print-on-demand under the Via Negativa Press imprint. I can’t afford to pay much. Contact me if you’re interested.

iBook screenshotThanks entirely to Rachel, for all you iPad, iPhone and iPod touch users, Twelve Simple Songs is now available as an iBook! I’ve only seen PDF versions of it, since I don’t own any iGadgets, but I’m told there are clickable audio players with my readings on each double-page spread, and the videopoem by Swoon with readings by Nic S. is included at the end.

Like the other versions, it’s free. But it did cost Rachel a certain amount of aggravation, including many hours of work, frustration at poor support docs, and a spilled beverage on her keyboard and adjacent electronic devices. So if you can, please check it out and give it a rating. Thanks.

UPDATE: Rachel has blogged about the making of the iBook.

the cassandra pages:

Some people seem to feel that online friendships aren’t real, or can’t be as deep as face-to-face relationships, but that just isn’t my experience at all. Reading one another’s blogs and communicating by email for a whole decade makes me feel that I know friends like Pica better than many people I see much more often. And on the rare occasions when we meet up in person, it’s just a confirmation that, yes, these are very real friendships based on trust, honesty, intimacy, shared interests, love, and commitment over the long haul.

I’m honored to join the chorus of appreciative readers and fellow bloggers celebrating the 10th anniversary of the cassandra pages — in many ways, the most indispensable site in the loose network of literary, artistic and spiritual blogs to which Via Negativa more or less belongs (we’re not big on belonging to networks, any of us). Yesterday, we head from Language Hat, Maria Benet, and the Velveteen Rabbi, and Lorianne DiSabato shared some trenchant observations on blogging at her own site. Today, I’m joined by Teju Cole and Jean Morris in reminiscing and expressing gratitude for Beth’s ten years of blogging. Here’s a quote from Teju:

It wasn’t a great year, 2003. It was a sad year. In February and March, we were all helplessly counting down to the mass murder about to begin in Iraq, watching with horror as the men in charge made up their minds to reshape the world, and to reshape the evidence to suit that purpose. Then the war began, and the terrible news began to pour in. It pours in still.

In the midst of all that, I think we all looked for those things and those people that could speak in a thoughtful, subtle, and prophetic voice to our predicament. We didn’t need more news. We needed presence of mind. I know that this is why I read so much poetry in the past decade, and it’s also why I came to value Cassandra Pages, not long after you began writing here. You used words, images, and experience in ways that set the darkness echoing. Whether thinking about civil rights, a bowl of figs, a journey to Iceland, or a painting by Duccio, you were never lazy or glib or unkind. Through your writing here (and later, through our friendship in the real world), I learned to be more thoughtful. And through you and the way things branch out on the Internet, I found many other like-minded friends, like Dave Bonta at Via Negativa, Natalie D’Arbeloff at Blaugustine, and so many precious others.

Read the rest.

the cassandra pages:

On the other hand, though, what emerges is a body of work. It isn’t conventional, or even graspable, and perhaps will be impermanent, but I know that it is, in fact, THE body of artistic work accomplished in my lifetime which most closely represents me. It’s also taught me the most. Once upon a time I wasn’t satisfied with that. Now, I am.

For as much as I sometimes have wished to be otherwise, I am not first and foremost a novelist or a painter, a writer of non-fiction books or a photographer or printmaker. I’m a reader, and observer, and an integrator, whose chosen form is the informal essay, illustrated with my own photographs or artwork, and whose perfect medium of expression is the blog. Being a blogger became an intrinsic part of my identity: like someone who works in watercolors or oils, I see the world and my daily life through an intimacy with this medium. It used to feel a bit weird, like constant translating; now it’s so normal I don’t even think about it, even though I’ve become a lot more choosy about what to base my posts upon. The change from pure writing to a greater focus on art has simply mirrored what’s going on in my own life, too.

In accordance with Marly Youmans’ suggestion in comments, I want to share a few observations about my on-going erasure poetry project with the Diary of Samuel Pepys. First, I should say that the encouragement of a number of writers, bloggers and readers whom I respect has been a great boon, and probably plays a larger role in my continued commitment to the project than I’m willing to admit. Thank you all.

I’m not ashamed to admit, however, that this began as a surprise gift for Rachel, whose long-standing enthusiasm for Pepys’ diary I did not initially share. Reading the Pepys entry of the day has since become part of our nightly ritual on Skype, and she enjoys seeing what erasure I’ve made of it when she wakes up in the morning. That’s a powerful incentive for me to keep going.

Tom Phillips, the author of the most famous erasure poem, A Humument, has said that he’s never actually read the text he uses (A Human Document by W.H. Mallock). That’s interesting, but it’s not my style. I view this erasure as an homage to Samuel Pepys as much as a new creation/discovery (or series of creations/discoveries). Although I make no particular effort to sound like Pepys or to avoid modern references, I want the “I” in the poems to reflect something of his interests and appetites — a son of Sam, as it were.

I’m also very interested in the two periods reflected in the online Diary of Samuel Pepys: the latter half of the 17th century, and the period from 2003-2012 when the online version made its first run. Because I started blogging in 2003 myself (as did Rachel and many other of the bloggers I still read), Pepys’ diary feels oddly like a piece of my own personal history. I was never an avid reader of it, but it was always there, and now I find that reading (or at least skimming) the copious and informative annotations left by readers ten years ago gives me a sense of inhabiting three historical periods at once. The diary is no longer just about them, those far-away Englishmen and women of the 17th century; it’s also about us, and about the many ways in which, over the past ten years, we’ve used the web to share and generate texts — and to present or invent our own daily lives.

With 51 Pepys erasures under my belt, my approach has changed in small but significant ways. The visual presentation itself has changed from “blackout” — using the highlighter tool in MS Word set to black to blot out all but the chosen words — to digital erasure. At first, I took a screenshot only at the end of the process. Now, the process involves copying and pasting the text from the online diary into a new file in my word processing program (Open Office Writer rather than Word these days); adding back any text censored from the 19th-century edition used for the online version, as supplied in the annotations by readers with newer editions; full-justifying the text; taking a screenshot with Screenpresso and saving it as a jpeg; drafting a poem below the text, in the same text file; and finally, opening the screenshot in Photoshop and using the eraser tool, set usually to a 15-pixel radius for a 700-pixel-wide image. Sometimes the text of the poem gets adjusted in the course of the erasure, but not too often.

My rule that I can only use words, or consecutive groupings of letters, in the order in which they appear in the original hasn’t changed, and won’t. (Contrast with A Humument, where Phillips typically constructs passages from words that are adjacent on the page, and links passages via umbilical-cord-like strings.) But I have loosened up: originally I only permitted myself to use words unchanged from the original, allowing for differences in spelling which I would correct in my text versions. But several weeks ago I began permitting myself to look for shorter words within longer words, which opened up more possibilities. For one thing, there are now a lot more potential indefinite articles!

Initially, my focus was completely textual, not aesthetic at all (and I think the blackout-style erasures were pretty ugly, too). But now I do pay attention to the look of the erasures, though I still try to keep the process simple enough that it doesn’t become enormously time-consuming. I try to preserve a scattering of un-erased marks to give the erasure a more physical, analogue feel, as well as to suggest the continued, shadow presence of a larger, parent text. If I have two or more options — duplicate words — in the parent text, I tend to pick those on the most natural visual route. And sometimes, as with yesterday’s haiku, I’ll allow myself to include an extra word (“west,” in that case) which the poem doesn’t necessarily need, but which gives the image a more balanced look.

Although I’ve entertained vague notions of building a collection whose component parts make some sort of consecutive sense, in practice each erasure stands on its own. I add the titles last of all, as with almost all poetry I write, but since they don’t emerge from the process of erasure, I think of them as quite superfluous — there because my blogging style at Via Negativa has been to provide original titles (as opposed to, say, “Pepys I.2.20,”  which is how I am saving them on my hard drive). Nevertheless, in some cases I think the titles have added something to the poems.

The text versions below the erasure images aren’t as much of an extra as my decision to place them in brackets might suggest. (And I’m considering doing away with the brackets.) In part, they’re there for accessibility reasons: if I didn’t put them out front, so to speak, I’d include them as HTML “alt” text instead, so as to make the erasures accessible to screen readers for the visually impaired. But for those who are not so visually impaired as to need a reader, and who simply rely on increasing the font size, the 700-pixel-wide image by itself, available on click-though, would not suffice. Hence in part the gloss. More than that, though, I am obviously enough of a traditionalist to want to make standard-looking, modern lyric poems out of the erasures, punctuated and arranged on the page for maximum impact. And I kind of like the idea of having two versions of each erasure, neither one of them authoritative.

The writing has certainly gotten easier than it was for the first three or four weeks, when I was often drafting two or three different poems before deciding on a keeper. Now there’s usually just a single draft. That’s largely because I no longer put the cart before the horse (as I now see it) by trying to erase from the outset. I start with a list of attractive nouns and phrases, then see where the best verbs are and start matching them up until an idea occurs to me. Occasionally, as in the one I called “Revolution Revelation,” Pepys’ language is so vivid and exciting, I can’t resist lifting great portions of it almost unchanged, and the erasure poem becomes more of a found poem.

As I suggest in the category description at the head of the archive, I started this project at a moment of personal crisis, if that’s not too strong a word. Re-reading too much of my own poetry has always left me slightly nauseated, but recently it had gotten even worse. I needed to expand my horizons, get a transfusion of new vocabulary, not worry so much about making complete or even comprehensible statements, and most of all, stop imposing so much of my own preconceptions on my poems.  I wanted to give accident a larger role in my writing, so that perhaps genuine discovery could take place more often.

Judged on that basis, I feel this erasure project has been a success so far. It may seem ironic, but working within these fairly severe, self-imposed restrictions has taught me a lot about creative freedom, which is always a dance between some kind of rules (be they only syntactical) and total license. Thinking of my materials as given in some sense has been immensely liberating, though it’s something I’ve long felt, a bit more abstractly, about writing in general. The arbitrary restrictions I’ve imposed on myself for this project probably don’t limit me much more than would the challenge of writing, for example, a sonnet sequence, though in the case of an erasure it’s the material rather the organization of the material that is limited. And I’ve enjoyed indulging certain delusions of an erasure poet.

My initial expectation that these erasure poems would all be of a piece — semi-surrealist, full of eating and drinking and bodily functions — has not been borne out. Instead, the results have resembled my usual flow in their variety: sometimes dominated by word-music, sometimes humorous, sometimes metaphysical, etc. Probably I need to stop fighting my natural tendency toward variety in style and tone. Also, as Luisa can probably attest, writing a poem every day is enough work without trying to strive for a high degree of continuity yet. Still, I’ll be curious to see if Son of Sam’s voice ever develops a degree of consistency, or if he continues to suffer from multiple personality syndrome.

cover of Words on the StreetYes, that’s right. Nothing says “Joyeux Noël” better than a collection of sayings from an embittered, wise-cracking homeless guy on the streets of New York City. Imagine the pathos of Tiny Tim combined with the misanthropy of Ebenezer Scrooge (and perhaps a soupçon of bad-assery from the Artful Dodger).

Actually, you don’t have to imagine it — you can simply browse the Words on the Street archives here at Via Negativa (where I recently took an afternoon to go through and restore the old cartoons that had long ago vanished from the servers of their original host, because I am a librarian’s son and I believe in archiving everything forever). All the cartoons that my publisher and I selected were re-lettered for the book, at a much larger size and higher quality than what I posted here. A significant number of Diogenes’ comments were re-written, and a couple are brand-new. I even re-drew the sketch especially for the book.

Knowing of its relevance to the holidays — especially to the holiday shopping season — my publisher and I strove mightily to get it done in time for Christmas last year, but ran into unanticipated technical difficulties, so it didn’t appear until January. You can order the print version (£9.99/$17.47) directly from the printer, Lulu.com, and 100% of the profits will go to support the upkeep of this website.

The introduction is by Kaspalita Thompson, because frankly, if you can’t trust the word of a ukulele-playing Pureland Buddhist priest, you’ve got a hole in your soul, my friend. He writes:

Bonta’s words are given another layer of meaning by their fixed context, the unchanging homeless character whose placard they grace. “Friend Me” takes on a completely different significance seen here, as opposed to on one’s favorite social networking site.

Each page I flick to raises a smile and then asks me to come back to it and think, and then to think again. In this book Dave moves towards cementing his reputation as satirist and as an important contemporary gadfly.

Now, the “important” part might seem like a bit of a stretch, but it doesn’t have to be. If you buy a copy for everyone on your list, and they buy copies for everyone on their lists, and so on, not only will this “inaction comic” be granted automatic cultural relevance by the capitalist arbiters of taste, but even the part about a timeless holiday classic might come true. A Christmas miracle! And my publisher, my blog and I will be able to afford a much-needed, rejuvenating holiday strategy session in Aruba.