Blogs and Blogging

This entry is part 20 of 20 in the series Poetics and technology

Today is the fifth birthday of The Morning Porch. I thought I’d mark the occasion by sharing some lesser-known facts about the blog and my daily writing practice.

1. You’d think that this discipline would have made me a better, more assiduous devoteee of the early morning hours, but if anything, it’s been the opposite. I was a very early riser when I started back in 2007, as my first entry attests. Now I sometimes sleep in so late, I’m lucky to get out on the porch before noon. In my defense, there’s no doubt that waiting at least for daylight, if not late-morning warmth, does give one a lot more to write about in terms of (for example) bird and insect activity. But I can’t really claim that’s the motive for my increasingly late-rising tendencies.

2. I was very skeptical about Twitter when it got started, and felt like a relative late-comer to the platform when I finally joined five years ago. I had two ideas in mind: use the 140-character limit to literary advantage, and use the novelty of what I was doing to spread interest in nature among ordinary internet users. For most of the past five years, I’ve been very poor about using Twitter to communicate, and for several years, I was barely on it at all, preferring the open-source alternative Identica. I still feel guilty about using a social platform for broadcasting, but I just find Twitter awkward for carrying on a conversation. Part of that is because:

3. When I’m not forcing myself to be concise, I’m actually very long-winded. Browse the first couple of years of Via Negativa if you don’t believe me.

4. And I guess the other reason I’ve never really taken to Twitter is I don’t own a mobile device of any kind, and therefore don’t use an app. I interact with Twitter exclusively from the web interface.

5. I am still not sure that The Morning Porch is a particularly good fit for Twitter. I do follow some other people who use Twitter for literary purposes, of course. (One curent favorite: British poet George Szirtes’ surrealist microfiction.) But my personal favorite twitter feeds are the humorous ones, the purveyors of pop-culture snark and whimsy such as KimKierkegaardashian and Your Life Coaches. Above all, I think Twitter was made for such displays of wit. Which is why I’m never too bothered by the occasional negative reaction to The Morning Porch: people accustomed to a steady diet of snark who encounter retweets of my posts must find the sincerity and attention to nature really jarring. I think I would.

6. I’m still inordinantly proud of the fact that my Twitter feed made a sports writer’s list of Worst of 2010 at the Gawker media site Deadspin. With fewer than 3000 followers at the time, it felt like a real honor, albeit a perverse one, to be singled out as the worst feed on all of Twitter! Evidently the dude thought my use of common names such as “mourning dove” was a literary affectation.

7. From the beginning, I’ve archived my tweets at a blog, but for the first couple of years, I used Tumblr. I migrated it to a WordPress installation to take advantage of plugins and features that give better access to the archives, such as tagging (which didn’t exist on Tumblr at the time) and especially the “on this date” column in the sidebar, which fills me with geekish delight.

8. Though I don’t really think of The Morning Porch as poetry, a lot of other people do, and I’m fine with that. At one time, I was part of an active community of poets exploring the microblog medium on Identica, where I coined the term “micropoetry” to describe what we were doing. The irony is that I don’t actually think I’m very good at haiku or other types of short-form poetry. Writing haiku is hard, and I’m not sure I’ll ever have the knack for it, though that won’t stop me from writing and sharing the things from time to time.

9. Writing The Morning Porch is as much or more about the writing than it is about the observing, but my most successful posts over the years have been those I’ve composed in my head, while sitting on the porch, rather than those I’ve composed inside at the keyboard. My usual approach is to try to stuff at least two observations into each post and rely on the relationship between them to do most of the literary work, augmented by as much alliteration and assonance as I can muster. If you go through the archives, you’ll notice that metaphors are very thin on the ground.

10. Apparently a lot of readers suffer from the misapprehension that I’m a good naturalist; I’m not. I was raised in a nature-loving family, so of course some of that rubbed off on me, but when I was growing up I was actually somewhat in rebellion against the family culture — especially what I saw as the obsessive compulsion to identify everything. I felt that assigning a name to a creature put it in a conceptual box that kept us from seeing it as it truly was. Also, I was very lazy about looking things up — and still am. But writing The Morning Porch has forced me to become more disciplined about it. So if you’ve ever wondered “How does he know all that stuff?” the answer is I don’t — not always. Many times I have an idea, or several ideas, and have to rush inside to consult field guides and the internet. And sometimes those names turn out to be poetic enough that a mere roll-call comes to resemble a poem.

11. I almost never use binoculars. I just don’t like them.

12. One of my biggest disappointments is that more people on Twitter haven’t followed my lead and begun tweeting what they see from their own front porches or stoops. Despite what I said above about preferring witty Twitterers, I’d also love to read other porch sitters, especially if they’re in urban and suburban environments filled with colorful specimens of humanity.

13. Completing five years of a daily journal may seem like an admirable achievement, but it doesn’t really compensate for the fact that to me, my front yard is a landscape of loss. Gone is the big, spreading butternut tree that once shaded it, the focus of an earlier, short-lived chronicle from the porch. It fell victim to a canker that threatens the very survival of the species. This puts me in mind of all our other tree species under threat from non-native blights and insects, such as the eastern hemlock (hemlock woolly adelgid), American beech (beech bark disease), and white ash (emerald ash borer) — all of them common trees here on the mountain. The dead elm tree recently truncated by Sandy was very much alive when I started writing the Morning Porch; it fell victim to Dutch elm disease and died in less than two years. It snapped off a few feet above the flicker nest-hole, which reminds me of that little domestic tragedy (nestlings eaten by a black snake) every time I look at it. The ornamental cherry beside the porch, now reduced to a tall cluster of limb-stumps, was also alive in 2007. It fell victim to a native disease, black knot. It was never a great tree, but I miss its messy sprays of blossoms in the spring, and the way it served as a bird-perch all year long. And finally, the dog statue next to the lilac, which may well mark the grave of some forgotten family pet from 80 or 100 years ago, was smashed when the top of the elm blew over.

14. I guess this doesn’t really qualify as a lesser-known fact, but: I really don’t get off the mountain much. So in a certain sense, writing The Morning Porch amounts to making lemonade out of a lemon. I suppose I could claim that some mornings, my porch-sitting feels more rewarding than a journey of a thousand miles. And it does! But many other mornings, it’s just kind of humdrum, you know? And at those times, I don’t feel as if I have anything especially original to share. But I do it anyway.

15. Doing The Morning Porch has made one thing very clear to me: I don’t take writing as seriously as many of my peers. When I discover, as I often do, that I’ve repeated myself and used the very same image or analogy for some critter as the previous time I wrote about it, I tend to be amused rather than depressed at the limits of my imagination. And I have no trouble acknowledging the truth behind the accusation that The Morning Porch can be a bit formulaic:

But it’s not just the product; it’s the process. And part of the process, for me at least, involves growing so sick of one’s own words, one lurches in a new direction from time to time and inadvertently produces something brilliant.

16. When I started, my goal was to keep it going for five years. I am not a very goal-oriented person, to put it mildly, so the fact that I’ve made it astonishes me. What I didn’t anticipate was that it would become a source of writing prompts for a number of talented poets, and that one of them would become a co-author at Via Negativa, driven by the much more impressive goal of writing a poem every day, no matter what. Luisa’s been at it for nearly two years now! That alone makes me feel as if I should keep doing this Morning Porch thing as long as I can. If nothing else, it will force me to get my ass out of bed before noon.

Just a brief housekeeping note: I’m experimenting with a new commenting system here to try and reduce the number of automated spam comments that come in. As a side benefit(?), you can now log in from your Facebook, Twitter, or WordPress.com accounts if you so choose. Let me know if that makes your lives immeasurably more convenient.

For other self-hosted WordPress bloggers who might be interested, I’m using Jetpack Comments. I’ll be curious to see what it does to page-load times. Other comments plugins already in place include Bad Behavior, which has cut automated comment spam submissions by about two thirds, and Akismet, which still does a great job blocking at least 99% of all spam from appearing on the site, with very few false positives. Why worry about spam comment submissions if so few of them ever make it through Akismet’s filters? Because every submission refreshes the page, regardless of how well the site might be cached, so that an intense spam storm can be a real drain on server resources. Like most websites, Via Negativa is on a cheap shared webhost, and a year ago got booted off its previous webhost for using too much CPU — precisely because I didn’t understand how automated comment spam can produce CPU spikes.

UPDATE (10/19): There appears to be a conflict with Bad Behavior, so I’ve deactivated the latter plugin for now. (Depending on what happens with spam comments, I may end up reactivating it and deactivating Jetpack comments.)

UPDATE 2 (10/21): Wow, this is MUCH better than Bad Behavior at stopping spam comments! Only three have made it through to be caught by Akismet in the past two days (normally it would be around 100). The main downside I see to this system is the longer delay after posting a comment, but that doesn’t seem like to big a deal. Also, it conflicted with the comments subscription plugin I was using before, so I had to switch to the Jetpack-provided option, making me even more reliant on the plugin.

wowed

We hadn’t planned our Adirondacks camping trip to coincide with the peak of fall color — in fact, my hiking buddy Lucy and I hadn’t really thought about it at all, because we see the fall foliage display every year, and we knew that if we didn’t catch it at its peak there, we’d certainly see it here. We just wanted to show Rachel one of our favorite places. (It also didn’t hurt that another blogger friend happened to live less than two hours away.) Hell, we were even foolish enough to think the campgrounds would be virtually deserted, as they had been the last time we’d visited the Adirondacks in October. No such luck.

Instead, we found ourselves hopping from campsite to campsite as spots became open in what had otherwise been a fully booked campground in the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks. (Thank you, rainy weather!) The cold rain might have made hiking and camping less than optimal, but it did nothing to diminish the autumn colors. And our British visitor seemed suitably wowed — that’s her arm in the photo above, gesturing in inarticulate appreciation at the drops of water dangling from the ends of shed white pine needles ornamenting a balsam fir bough. Though I did bring my own camera along, I had a hard time seeing things afresh. There’s just nothing like seeing something for the first time, as Rachel’s Adirondacks photo set attests. Go look, and prepare to be wowed yourself.

Tinkering with WordPress sites can be a lot of fun, but often doesn’t produce visible differences as far as site visitors are concerned. This morning’s tinkerings with The Morning Porch, however, have brought one highly visible change that I think dramatically improves the reader’s experience: In the “On this date” sidebar widget, I now include the full text of posts from previous years so one can read them without clicking through. Also, I believe the widget will now change in sync with my timezone rather than stay tied to GMT, as it did before.

I should also note the addition of a new site to the “other micropoetry and microessay blogs” section of the Morning Porch blogroll: Northern Light: A Daybook, by the western Massachusetts-based poet Rosemary Starace, author of Requitements.

*

For those of you who are fellow WordPress geeks, here’s what changed behind the scenes and why. When I moved the site to its current location in late 2009 after two years on Tumblr, none of the posts had titles—Tumblr isn’t as insistent on that point as WordPress is. Rather than do the smart thing and start creating titles at that point, manually pasting the first few words and an ellipsis into the title field of each post going forward, I couldn’t bring myself to let the archived posts remain titleless. So I found a nifty plugin designed for a slightly different purpose, Blogger Title Fix, that would automatically substitute a short excerpt for the title field. It worked pretty well, but I had to hack the hell out of the plugin I used to display “on this date” links so that it would link to the date rather than the (nonexistent) titles. Last year, that plugin—A Year Before—got a major update, but when I upgraded, I found it didn’t play nice with Blogger Title Fix, and since its codebase had been substantially rewritten and I am a terrible coder, I couldn’t figure out how to hack it as I had its predecessor. But at some time in the intervening months I must’ve run across another, newer and more general title-adjusting plugin called Auto Post Title and given it a quick try without thoroughly checking out its features, because I found it unactivated among my plugins at The Morning Porch this morning. This time I realized that one of the things it can substitute for a title is the excerpt, so it was just a matter of radically shortening the standard excerpt length with another plugin, Advanced Excerpt, so my titles wouldn’t be the same length as the posts. (I could also do this via a hack to my functions.php file, of course, but in my opinion such things belong in plugins rather than theme files.)

So I was happy to have replaced an old, unupdated plugin with a newer one, which still leaves me dependent on a plugin where I shouldn’t be, but puts off the day when a major change in WordPress core suddenly makes all the post titles disappear. And then I was able to update to the current version of A Year Before, and oddly enough, what it uses for a post excerpt is still the standard—it’s unaffected by the Excerpt Length plugin—so I was able to include the full text of Morning Porch posts as previously mentioned, which I think adds a whole new dimension to the site. Moral: it pays to reexamine one’s plugin configuration on a regular basis. Just because a given setup works doesn’t mean it’s optimal.

I finally got around to joining Goodreads, the social network for readers. If you’re a member, please send me a friend request. Here’s my author page.

Hard to say yet how I’ll use the site, but I don’t want to use it just to promote my own books. That would be really lame. So I’ve taken the time to add some favorite books to my virtual shelves there, identify a few favorite authors (some of whom, by sheer coincidence, also happen to be friends or fellow bloggers), and I hope to link to all my book reviews here at Via Negativa going forward. (It’s no longer a good idea to cross-post the full content of anything to multiple sites — the latest Google search algorithm penalizes that kind of behavior.)

I also imagine I’ll be using my Goodreads author blog from time to time to post stuff directly relating to the site or to my books. In fact, I have a post there now announcing that Breakdown: Banjo Poems is due out in September. As publication time nears, I’ll probably do a giveaway with a few of my 50 (!) free author’s copies. Pre-release book giveaways are apparently a pretty big deal at Goodreads, and they seem like a much cooler way to promote a new book than (for example) paying for an ad on the site.

Sorry for my absence around here. I’ve been setting up a new author’s site — take a look. I wasn’t sure I really needed such a thing, but the domain was available and the previous owner (another Dave Bonta, naturally) didn’t want it back, so I thought, what the hell. As I say on the current front page of the site, I never wanted Via Negativa to be primarily about me, and it felt good to move my bio page over there. I’ve also set up a books page, something I’ve needed for a while, and have added a few gruit ale recipes to a brewing section. (Eventually that may bud off and become its own website, but probably not for a few years.)

I’m trying to be selective in what I put up there, because I think too much information is of no use to anybody. The Elsewhere page, for example, contains only those websites and social media sites where I regularly post new content. Google works perfectly well for those who, for some perverse reason, would want to find every site where I’ve ever had a presence. What Google can’t do as well is tell readers, editors, and other folks with an interest in my work what I consider important. As an editor myself, I’ve been frustrated by writers who don’t have easy-to-find, easy-to-navigate author sites (though sites that are simply online business cards without any originality and quirk can be disappointing, too).

I’ve been inspired by three friends who have recently launched or completely over-hauled personal websites (which are all worth checking out, by the way): Steven Sherrill at stevensherrill.com, Will Buckingham at willbuckingham.com, and Swoon Bildos at swoon-bildos.be. My new site isn’t as pretty as any of theirs, but you know me — I like the minimalist look. That, and I’m way too cheap to pay a web designer. But I love the typography of the theme I’m using.

There’s something refreshing about setting up what will be, aside from occasional updates, a static site. It makes one’s life feel more meaningful, somehow — more precisely delineated and, you know, complete. So unlike a blog, where you’re only as good as your next post.

Excuse me while I wring this long swim out of my hair Excuse me while I wring this long swim out of my hairSarah J. Sloat; dancing girl press 2011WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder 
Regular readers of Via Negativa might recognize Sarah J. Sloat as the author of a blog I often link to, The Rain in My Purse, and another chapbook which I blogged about in 2009, In the Voice of a Minor Saint. I didn’t think this chapbook was quite as satisfying as that first one, at least in terms of the percentage of poems that blew me away, but it’s still pretty damn good. Her droll wit and sense of the absurd remain intact, and if this slim collection is any evidence, she seems to be getting more rather than less experimental with age, which is a good sign. She has a third chapbook due out shortly from Hyacinth Girl Press.

Sloat excels at poems in which a critical piece of information is missing, but the rest of it hangs together so well, it seems the better for it, like the Venus de Milo without her arms. Sometimes the execution seems a little too off-hand (heh), as in the title poem for this chapbook. But more typically it makes me chuckle or shiver with recognition, as in “My Money is on Fire,” a wry look at that sense of collective guilt inescapable for sensitive participants in a capitalist economy:

Every time I wear green or live
my secret life, no matter what
innocence I’m up to,
I’m sponsoring a disease
somewhere, making
souvenirs of the populace.

Wait, what secret life? you want to ask, but the poem goes in another direction. Perhaps Sloat refers to the kind of private visions at the heart of the wonderfully bleak “Toy Boat Toy Boat Toy Boat”:

My mug is rimmed with frost, an analgesic.
I peer over its horizon to see a toy boat
wobble on the Biergarten pond.

The mug’s a sun going down in my mouth. It alps
up like a snowglobe, mountainous with lipstick
ridges. Inside my father bows, shoveling snow.

He looks beyond me, turning to the window,
where my mother stands sucking the life
from an ice cube in her martini.

In “Do Tell,” a dream in which “doubts puckered like peas” throws the narrator off-balance the next morning.

Help me here.
How many mailboxes do you count lining the roadside?
And on whose head does the apple totter?

Things are clearly about to go very, very wrong here. A slightly less dire but still bracing take on domesticity, “Sworn to Observance,” reminded me of my own housecleaning. The dust under the radiator is “busy building a silt / equivalent of desert,” leading evidently to thoughts of the desert mystics in early Christianity, and/or John 8:6:

I sit nearby in my saint suit,
no intention of action.

With a finger sometimes
in the dust I draw a circle
to see how God enters into it.

Another poem, “On the Way to Meet My Daughter’s Teacher,” might or might not be about smoking. It begins:

I was about 15 minutes early
so I figured I’d kill myself a little bit.

Something more constructive
was out of the question.
But hell if I could handle
15 minutes of thinking.

About the whales.
About bedraggle.
About meeting my daughter’s teacher.

Or perhaps it is the cynicism that kills. One way or another, Sloat is like the anonymous artists in “Dictionary Illustrations,” who “don’t dawdle / among the obvious.” When she hums in the kitchen, it is to channel bees, and when she visits “Frankfurt Cemetery,” she remarks: “Not the past, but the present makes me sad.” We are all implicated, and our imagined refuges can’t save us:

Lately my house stands so still
at the back of my mind

I’m afraid of myself, here
at the bottom of the sky.
(“From the Back of My Mind”)

If you were ever tempted to think that the welter of literary micropresses on the scene these days exist solely to publish fairly minor talents, think again. Sarah J. Sloat is one example of a widely published poet with a sure voice and mature vision who has yet to get an ISBN of her own. Perhaps she is too busy leading a secret life.

Jennifer Schlick in action

Naturalist, blogger and photographer Jennifer Scott Schlick visited Plummer’s Hollow earlier this week, and has just posted a short but stunning set of macro photos of some of our wildflowers. She was especially charmed by the rue anemone and fringed polygala (AKA gaywings), neither of which she’d encountered in her area of upstate New York (Jamestown and environs, just north of the northwest corner of Pennsylvania). It was also the first time she’s seen pink and yellow color variants of red trillium — one of the flowers included in our photo-poem collaboration last year. I’ve embedded her Flickr slideshow below, but if you can’t see it, here’s the link.

I had a hunch that Jennifer’s slideshow-talk “Confessions of a Reluctant Birder” would make a good presentation for our local Audubon chapter’s annual spring banquet, and I was right. Turns out she’s a highly entertaining, down-to-earth speaker. She does this sort of thing more or less for a living, along with banding birds, introducing high school kids to nature, mobilizing hundreds of volunteers to remove invasive plants from a 600-acre wetland, and yes, writing the occasional grant to support the Jamestown Audubon Center & Sanctuary, for which she serves as program director.

It was fun following Jennifer through our woods and introducing her to some of my favorite fellow inhabitants. Seeing the hollow through the eyes of a visitor is always a treat, but never more so than when the visitor has advanced training in looking at the natural world. And if you’re wondering whether Jennifer has blogged about the visit yet herself, the answer is of course.

Can anyone recommend some good audiobooks or audio chapbooks of work by contemporary poets (or contemporary translations of poetry)? Once again this April I’m going to try to blog about a different collection of poetry every day, but this time I’d like to expand the definition of “book” a little bit. If I’m reading, I still prefer paper to a screen, but I am also interested in multimedia collections of poetry, so I want to make room for a few in the line-up. (I’ll be making a greater effort to read out loud the regular books I blog about, too. More than ever, my emphasis will be on slow reading.)

Incidentally, if you’d like to browse my poetry-book-a-day efforts from past years, they’re tagged Poetry Reading Month 2011 and Poetry Reading Month 2010.