Blogs and Blogging

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.

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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.

Chicago Public Library at night

“Electronic literature might also be called born-direct literature.”

“I love the messiness of digital space.”

“Blogs and online magazines with comments best embody the literary anarchy of the web — a literature without gatekeepers.”

“I’m sorry, I like gatekeepers. I don’t have the time to decide what to read.”

“A kind of hypertextual tunneling.”

“It’s emblematic of our societal discomfort with poetry that so many blurbs for poetry books use the word ‘unflinching.’ Actually, I think poets should flinch. We need to get better at flinching.”

“I practice a pedagogy of emergency.”

vortices

“The Seminary Bookstore at Hyde Park is the best bookstore in the world. I was jilted by Powell’s.”

“To give a poetry reading is to feel the phantom limb of the musician’s audience.”

“I make 40 to 50 thousand dollars a year traveling around playing the fiddle and reading poetry.”

“If you funk up a cliché, it becomes genius.”

“I was a whore at the poetry bordello.”

“She ripped the cigarette out of his mouth, broke it in half, and jabbed the lit end into his cheek.”

“Not many parks, but lots of feral space.”

“Just because you know how to write doesn’t mean you know how to read.”

with Susan Elbe
With poet and Chicago native Susan Elbe

I can’t believe I forgot to mention the new blog that originally gave me the idea to write a post profiling new blogs yesterday! I am such a scatter-brain sometimes.

The blog is called A year of Mt. Tamalpais. Its description: “dreaming in the shadows of the Sleeping Maiden.”

Poet and blogger Maria Benet, author of Mapmaker of Absenses, began this so-far delightful and often moving record of Marin County, California’s “single most identifiable symbol” without any particularly lofty goals other than persistence:

Over the years and through many seasons, I’ve never tired of looking at the way the light and fog and rain work together to edit the mountain’s features, sometimes bringing out the depth of colors with a bold brush stroke and at other times rendering the solid ridges into gossamer. I’ve taken hundreds, if not thousands of pictures of Mt. Tam, mostly at random times of the day when the mountain seems to call out suddenly, demanding that I take notice and record the way a long, thin patch of fog slips fast over its peaks, or the way the narrow ray of winter sun slices through clouds to section the slopes with light, or the way, at the height of summer the ridges burst into a blaze with every conceivable shade of green.

So here is what I propose: a picture a day of the mountain that looms over our lives in this corner of the world.

Ideally, it would be best to take that shot at the same time and from the same place, every day. Knowing the way I work, this is not a realistic option. This is not just a question of my habits, but also of the eyes — of the vision becoming inhabited by a single perspective. With that approach I would be documenting a process over time, which is a fine project in itself, but not the one I want to launch.

A picture a day from the same place and same time would capture subtle changes, as well as those larger familiar ones wrought by the seasons. A robot would be the perfect candidate for that project. My project is about how the mountain gets itself seen in a daily life, in this case, mine. In other words, instead of my going to the mountain for data, I am going to let the mountain come to me in its power to make impressions.

So check it out. This is the sort of blogging project for which RSS feeds were invented. Sure, you could catch up once a week, but for maximum cumulative impact the photos, and Maria’s commentary, ought to be seen every day. If for some perverse reason you prefer the haphazard nature of Twitter to Google Reader, you can follow Maria there @alembic. And her main blog, small change, is worth following too, though it sounds as if it may be undergoing some not-so-small changes soon.

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If price resistance, lack of physical space for new books or an extreme love of trees have prevented you from picking up a copy of my collection Odes to Tools yet, I have some good news: Beth at Phoenicia Publishing has just taken her first leap into e-book publishing, with my book as one of the first two to receive this treatment. The Kindle (MOBI) version is available through Amazon, but you can pick up either the MOBI or the EPUB directly from the publisher “to give a greater percentage of royalties to the author and greater support to independent publishing.” The price is $2.99 USD.