Blogs and Blogging

Last night on Facebook, Patricia Anderson messaged me on behalf of a friend of hers, a widely published poet “interested in hearing more about best practices, benefits and risks of putting one’s poetry online.” Although as a librarian Patricia knows way more than I do about social media, she thought I might be more familiar with online poetry communities. I’ll share an edited version of my response along with Patricia’s comments, and hope that some of you will add your own thoughts as well.

I began by saying that I don’t see any risk in putting already published poetry online, unless you want to maintain total control over its distribution: once in easily available digital form, it’s much easier for people to reproduce on blogs, message boards, etc. To me, this is a good thing, as long as people aren’t trying to claim your work for their own. It can expose you to a larger and more diverse audience than you can reach through books and journals alone. Having author-sanctioned or otherwise canonical versions of one’s work available at a site with good search-engine optimization is actually insurance against plagiarism, I think: that way, anyone Googling a text they’re suspicious of should discover the true author quickly. Also, posting your work at a site you control allows you to, for example, include a Creative Commons license that will permit its distribution with certain restrictions, depending on the license.

The only real risk of posting poems online is that it can render them ineligible for consideration at many if not most journals. Poets more ambitious about pursuing traditional publication than I am tend to either restrict themselves to posting poems that have already been published elsewhere, post drafts in password-protected blog entries that won’t be indexed by search engines, or post a draft for a day or two and then delete the entry.

The main benefit of posting original work online, I think, is the pleasure of getting to interact with a readership (which includes, but need not be limited to, other writers posting work on their own blogs). This interaction can blossom into a variety of collaborative projects and literary correspondences, too. I used to send stuff out to literary journals, but now the only way I publish elsewhere is if someone asks me for something (or just takes it, in accordance with the terms of my Creative Commons license). Over 500 people a day visit my site, which is kind of small potatoes in the blog world, but exceeds the circulation of many literary journals. So the only reason to send stuff out would be for prestige or promotion and tenure credits (which doesn’t affect me since I’m not in academia).

You mentioned best practices. I don’t know that there is one best way to do most things. For example, I strongly prefer to see texts in HTML on the open web instead of locked away in PDFs or other proprietary electronic formats, but I recognize that there are cases when the latter might be more appropriate.

Patricia responded:

Dave, by “best practices” I meant exactly the sorts of things you touched on here. Choosing a license, specifically one that requires attribution and prohibits modification [or better yet, one that allows it –Dave], finding a balance between protecting your work and broadening your audience, etc. I wasn’t thinking so much of technical matters, but you raise a good point about using blog format with HTML specifically to make them discoverable. If poems or art are online, but not able to be found in search engines, that kind of defeats the purpose.

In the library world, we have discovered to our surprise that making works available and discoverable online tends to DRASTICALLY increase the demand for the published printed works. People discover things online, and then decide they want a physical copy to have and to hold, or that they want to work with the poems in a more intimate way, or to research choices made in publication revealed through the printed page.

Dave, can you think of models of poets who have used the web to good effect for their own work, especially relatively well known poets? In science we are finding that the better known the researcher the less likely they are to make their work available in the Open Science models, but those who are willing to take the risk are achieving incredibly high profiles. Andrew Maynard is one who comes to mind, and Jean-Claude Bradley. I came into the Open Poetry movement through the back door, via and the huge movement for haiku in microblogging platforms, so have missed looking for “named” poets.

Hannah Stephenson, an emerging poet, uses blogging very well,
among many others I could name (check out my interview with her for the Woodrat Podcast). Hannah actively comments on a wide range of blogs — art blogs, psychology blogs, fashion blogs, etc. — and as a result has built up a readership of literate folks who are not necessarily all creative writers and poets. A number of poetry bloggers do fall into the trap of assuming that the only people who want to read and talk about poetry are other poets.

Established poets tend to be conservative and comfortable with what they know (like all of us), so no, I can’t think of any real good examples off-hand. Mark Doty has a really engaging personal blog, but doesn’t share poem drafts. Until recently, Bill Knott had all his work up on the web, but his irascible nature seemed to handicap his ability to get readers, or even very many links. Jerome Rothenberg definitely gets the value of blogs for self-publishing, though it’s not clear how many readers he has yet. In general, it’s the younger or more beginner poets of my acquaintance who are better at the social aspect of the web, and it will be interesting to see how their use of self-publishing tools changes as they become more established.

One practice that might bear more discussion is whether to publish on old-fashioned static websites (or static pages in a blog installation) or in serial form. I lean strongly toward the latter. One can use taxonomic systems to organize works released in blog form, and accumulate issues or anthologies in that manner even when the poems are scattered in among other material. Serializing content on a daily or weekly schedule makes it much more likely that one will get actual readers, and of course any modern content management system has feeds that can be used to create email subscriptions (a very effective way to reach people), auto-post to Facebook and Twitter, etc. It still astonishes me that most online literary magazines favor static content dumps over Poetry Daily-style regular releases, though I think I understand why they do it: desperate for respectability, they feel they must ape print journals as much as possible, and fear being dismissed as blog-zines or worse if they imitate the approach of nearly every other kind of web periodical.

Web publishers must come to terms with the fact that readers online tend to be more distracted than readers of dead-tree media, and have a greater tendency to skim. This, to me, is the big downside of the whole enterprise, and another argument for serialization versus content dumps. It also argues for multimedia, which is another whole discussion. Nothing like an audio player to lure visitors into slowing down and actively concentrating on the content! In fact, the ability to easy pair text with audio is a big advantage of the web over print. To say nothing of videopoetry… I gather from people who have tried them that some of the new e-readers are pretty easy on the eyes — “slow reading” expert John Miedema was very impressed by the Kindle last year. Even still, I don’t see books going away anytime soon, if ever (and neither does John, as a matter of fact). So I don’t see print and online publishing as competitors at all. The web appears to be actually enlarging the readership for poetry books.

Patricia replied:

I agree about “enlarging readership”. I was absolutely astonished to find that my two biggest fans on my poetry blog are a health care professional who writes about religion and an engineer. I also love people who do one-a-day or one-a-week. People actually queue up waiting for the next installment!

Media is also good, BUT it MUST be associated with actual words on a page, because of accessibility. Yes, the voice adds meaning for the blind, but it excludes the deaf.

2007 (November 22)
Something approaches at a slow shuffle, gray in the gray light: porcupine. He threads the thistle patch, squeezes under the porch.

2008 (November 27)
That drum so low it sounds as if it’s in your head? A ruffed grouse, beating the air with its wings like one hand clapping. Or so they say.

2009 (November 26)
As if giving thanks, the thin, wavering call of a white-throated sparrow. The dawn sky half-cloud, half-clear. A distant owl.

2010 (November 25)
Steady rain, and the temperature just two degrees above freezing. In the herb bed, the pale blue wheel of a blossom on the invasive myrtle.

Burden, by Samantha Hahn, and Hannah Stephenson portrait by Marcos Armstrong
'Burden' by Samantha Hahn, and Hannah Stephenson portrait by Marcos Armstrong

Hannah Stephenson has been blogging a new poem every weekday since July 2008, recently posting her 600th poem at The Storialist. She’s also active on Facebook and Twitter, records and uploads songs to SoundCloud, reads and comments widely on other blogs, and has just completed a full-length manuscript of poetry called Guided Tours, in addition to her work as a college writing instructor and freelance editorial consultant. Bascially, I wanted to know how the hell she does it. I also wanted to learn more about the connection between poetry and fashion photography, her original inspiration at The Storialist.

In the course of the conversation, I got her to read a few poems, too. Here are the links if you’d like to follow along:

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Thanks to Samantha Hahn (see larger version of “Burden”) and Marcos Armstrong for the images. Theme music: “Le grand sequoia,” by Innvivo (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike licence)

I’ve been roped into invited to become a contributing author at Nic S.’s new companion site to Whale Sound called Voice Alpha, “a repository for thoughts, theories, suggestions, likes and dislikes and anything else related to the art and science of reading poetry aloud for an audience.”

The idea came out of our conversation last week, though I didn’t expect Nic to jump on it right away! But jump she has, and I am only the first of what I hope will be a whole posse of regular contributors. Check out in particular “Why don’t they teach us to read & What makes a poetry reading fail?” and “On looking (or not) at your audience when you read poetry.” If you have any reflections on the art of reading poetry, either as reader or as audience, we’d love to hear from you.

Are you a silo blogger? By that I mean: does no one ever link to you or comment on your posts? Well, I doubt it. Because if that were the case, you probably wouldn’t be reading this, either. Or if you did read it, you wouldn’t leave a comment with your name linking to your blog, because then I’d know about it and there’s a chance I’d go read it — and you wouldn’t want that, would you? The next thing you know, we might get into this weird relationship where we’d feel compelled to read each others’ blogs on a regular basis. You might have to learn how to use Google Reader, and be tempted then to subscribe to other blogs, taking valuable time away from your real work, which is the crafting of perfect poems, essays or novels. Pretty soon you might have a hard time continuing to keep your sidebar free of such clutter as links to other blogs, or (god forbid) one of those awful widgets with the avatars of other bloggers in it. You need that space to link to all your publications elsewhere on the web.

Remember, the blog is your space, a tool for leveraging your personal brand, as I’m sure your agent has told you. Like a real silo, its sealed environment is integral to its purpose as an efficient storage space for fermented fodder — the blog archives. And while you can use your blog to share some original content now and then, be careful with that because most literary magazines — your real destination — don’t like to see content replicated until after they publish it. They want their poems to be virgins! So try and restrict yourself to sharing news about your writing, with the occasional link or embedded video to show off your wide-ranging intellect.

Now, none of this should be construed to mean that you shouldn’t be social. Quite the contrary! Social networks are invaluable for making connections with editors and publishers and possibly even meeting a few readers — in short, advancing your brand. Consider joining Facebook and sharing your blog content there, so that if people really feel compelled to comment on that announcement of your upcoming book signing, they can do so on Facebook and keep your blog silo clean as a whistle.

There is a danger, though. If you start finding yourself getting sucked into conversations that have nothing to do with you and your writing, then you might legitimately question your involvement in this too-social network with its birthday announcements and silly online games. Remember, you are a serious writer! The web is little more than a distraction machine, with none of that hallowed hush that one finds in books and the better magazines.

So if Facebook becomes too much, I advise abandoning it and trying Twitter instead. Some of the most famous and important writers are on Twitter, and the reason is simple: you can amass way more than the 5,000 friends permitted on Facebook. Plus, on Twitter they’re called followers, which is a much better description of what you’re looking for. And whereas on Facebook you may find that constantly sharing links to your own content alienates people (take it from me), on Twitter, it’s considered weird not to link to everything you do. Best of all, for your purposes as a silo blogger, conversation is kept to a minimum, and hardly anyone ever clicks on links. It’s perfect!

Three weeks ago I blogged about a great review of Odes to Tools at Verse Wisconsin Online, but I’ve failed to make note of any of the other reviews and mentions the book has received over the past nine months. I started counting them up today, with the help of Google, and rediscovered a couple I’d completely forgotten about, so I think it’s high time I attempt a round-up.

  • My friend Todd Davis, author most recently of The Least of These, supplied a blurb after publication — which makes it almost like a review, right? — to help us promote the book. Read it here.
  • The first true review, on February 6, was from Dale Favier at mole. Dale is one of my oldest friends in the blogosphere, so this meant a lot. And I loved what he had to say: “How can you get lost, in a thirty page book? But I did. All these poems have edges, teeth. It’s a brilliant collection.” Read the rest.
  • The second review, in March, was from John Miedema, author of Slow Reading. I am all about reaching non-poets, so I was tickled to be reviewed by someone who loves reading and tools in equal measure, on a blog with a readership of librarians and geeks. John’s was a very bloggy review, meaning that he related it to his own experience, and he drew a design lesson about single-purpose versus multi-purpose tools that helped me see the book in a new light. Here’s his review.
  • A couple days later, poet and novelist James Brush published an equally bloggy and generous response at Coyote Mercury. The book led him to “imagine a world in which we didn’t throw things out the moment they broke.” Here’s what he wrote.
  • Also in March, the obviously very discriminating Daily s-Press, a blog about small press publications, took note.
  • In June, Verse Daily published a poem from the collection, “Ode to a Wire Brush.” I don’t know anyone there, so that definitely comes under the “kindness of strangers” heading. As a bonus, I got a chuckle out of their typo in the original title (subsequently corrected): “Odd to a Wire Brush.”
  • In July, poet and blogger Sherry Chandler compared me favorably with Emerson, and called my work “quiet and grounded.” It took days for my head to return to normal size. Here’s her review.
  • As mentioned previously, I didn’t know the reviewer at Verse Wisconsin Online from Adam’s off ox, and was impressed by the perceptiveness of his criticisms. I was also pleased with the venue. Judging by how many Wisconsin poets have made the cut at qarrtsiluni over the past five years, it’s a great place for poetry.
  • Most recently, my friend Rachel Barenblat, guest-blogging this week at The Best American Poetry, devoted a post to a review of the Odes. “What makes these poems work,” Rachel writes, “is their juxtaposition of mundane objects with breathtaking leaps of imagery.” Well, gosh. “Breathtaking” seems a little over-the-top, but who am I to argue with a soon-to-be-ordained rabbi?

Thanks to everyone who’s reviewed or linked to the book so far, and if I’ve left anyone off the list, please let me know. This is a really gratifying number of reviews and mentions, especially for a poetry chapbook. Hundreds of equally deserving chapbooks are published each year to far less notice. But probably their authors don’t blog, or if they do, aren’t active participants in blogging communities.

Ezra Pound famously advised poets to “make it new.” Poetry websites, too, can benefit from regular revamping. For the past several days, I’ve been playing around working to re-create a couple of websites. I found out last week from Marja-Leena Rathje that a site I helped publish two years ago, Postal Poetry, was no longer online, so I set to work rebuilding it from the Google Reader feed. There were only 69 posts and one page to worry about, so that part of it was actually less time-consuming than figuring out the optimal design for a static, image-heavy site and finding a free WordPress theme to provide it. Our former theme-choice worked pretty well, but it was designed for an earlier version of the WordPress software, and I didn’t think it would be worth the trouble to update it.

At first I was seduced by a beautiful design, but it didn’t really do what I wanted as far as the index and category pages were concerned, and it was practically impossible to tweak because it was one of those theme framework child themes where one isn’t supposed to make alterations except to the stylesheet and the functions.php file, and every time I tried to edit the latter, I got the infamous WordPress white screen of death and had to use FTP to restore the site. It turns out that functions files are hyper-sensitive to the wrong kind of spacing, or something. I think theme frameworks are designed solely for the convenience of professional web developers with lots of clients who don’t want to ever touch a line of code. They’re a lousy fit for hobbyists like me, who actually enjoy doing our own maintenance as long as it doesn’t involve the equivalent of dropping in a new engine.

So anyway, I ended up using a theme designed for aggregator sites. Although it’s hardly an unsophisticated theme, and works great out of the box, its designers also anticipate that users will hack the files to fit their needs. That’s what I like to see! I found a serviceable header logo in my files that Dana had designed for the original site, but that we never used, I don’t think.

It might seem crazy to spend so much time re-creating a short-lived site whose original domain name had been scavenged by someone else, but I just hate to see discontinued periodicals vanish without a trace. I got all kinds of creative inspiration from the pieces we published there — I did my Postcards from a Conquistador series that winter — and some of the best cards on the site still take my breath away.

In the process of contacting contributors to Postal Poetry to let them know that their work was back online, I was surprised to hear that one of them, Emma Passmore, had just taken the Public Jury Prize for Best Film at the 2010 ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival in Berlin. ZEBRA is like the Academy Awards for poetry films, except that it’s truly international, with more than 900 entries this year. I can’t link to a full version of Emma’s film, Breathe, because apparently some of the festivals where it’s been shown embargo web publication for up to a year. (Who knew that film festivals were even more jealous about content than literary magazines?) She did upload the French version, so I suppose I can share that at Moving Poems, at least. Since I’ve been making a lot of low-tech one-minute videopoems lately, it’s great to see a professional director and poet win top honors for a one-minute film!

Speaking about Moving Poems, that’s been the other focus of my website-building mania of the past few days. I wanted something that made a little better use of screen real estate, while remaining fairly minimalist and easy to use. A new theme called Blogum caught my eye, and again, it proved easy to mess around with. I swapped in the fonts from the previous theme, in part to provide some stylistic continuity and in part because I preferred them to Helvetica and Arial. (The front-page tag cloud just looked terrible in Helvetica, for some reason. Verdana isn’t nearly as bad for things like that.) After a lot of puttering, I think I’ve got it pretty much the way I want it, with one exception: it could use a simpler logo in the upper left corner. Any artists or designers want to give it a shot? I can’t afford to pay, but you’d get a permanent link and credit in the footer.

Direct link to video on Vimeo.

More and more publishers are producing video trailers for new books. Perhaps it’s time to start making them for websites, too. This action-packed trailer, though, is intended less to promote The Morning Porch than simply to introduce it to new readers — something to embed on the About page.

I shot the video yesterday for my one-minute movies project, and I suppose I’ll still class it as such even though it goes five seconds over with the addition of the Paul Eluard quote (which I stole from a friend’s pseudonymous Facebook profile a while back). This one is definitely more documentary than videopoem. I could probably make it more exciting with a few, brief inserts of other images: you know, close-ups of things glimpsed from the porch. But that might clash with the message of the text, I don’t know. Here’s what I wrote for it:

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be a prisoner, condemned to the same round every day, compelled to do things I had little appetite for, surrounded by others in the same situation, all of us desperate with loneliness and the desire to be somewhere, anywhere else. What would I do? I’m a writer, so I suppose I would write. It would be an almost enviable situation: all that free time. I would take note of everything I saw, immerse myself in the moment no matter how bleak, because daydreaming would only lead to despair. I would write small, spare things 140 characters in length that some would call poems, but that I would see as clauses of one long sentence. I’d be in for life.

black birches in Plummer's Hollow
black birches in Plummer's Hollow

This month’s Festival of the Trees blog carnival at Kind of Curious features an unusually large haul of poetry, including poems by Daniela Elza, Nic S., Eric Burke, Dorothee Lang, Walt Franklin and Rob Kloss. I also enjoyed some of the more informational posts on topics ranging from nurse trees to the destruction caused by the recent tornadoes in New York City to the practical and legal implications of tree-hugging in the U.K. I’m not going to link to any of these individually, because John did all the work pulling the link-fest together — he deserves all the traffic. So go visit.

Don’t forget to bookmark or subscribe to the coordinating blog of the Festival of the Trees, and whenever you happen to blog about trees or get a tree-related item published on the web, try to remember to send us the link. Also, we still need a volunteer to host the festival on December 1, so let me know if you’re interested.

One final tree-related note: my mother’s nature column for October is all about last year’s devastating October snowstorm. I think I posted some of my photos here at the time, but Mom goes into much more detail than I did, so go for the photos if you want, but stay for the writing. That storm was about as much excitement as we ever get around here.

I went out in mid-morning while it was snowing heavily again. The forest was a palette of white, gold, and green. Black birch and witch hazel trees were bent over and a few black gum trees had broken in the woods both inside and outside the deer exclosure.

Large branches littered the Far Field Road along with occasional whole trees — red maple, sugar maple, hickory, chestnut oak, and a split black cherry. Once again snow piled up on the leaves and branches of standing trees, and after I had walked over to the Sapsucker Ridge Trail and across the black-locust-bowed Far Field, I heard the smash of a tree or large branch on the Far Field Road. Nervous about my safety, I tried to hasten along the ridgetop trail…

Snow on autumn leaves is a beautiful sight. But an excess of beauty can be a terrible thing.

Lorianne DiSabato
left: in San Diego; right: in Dharma teacher robes (photos by Jim Gargani)

Lorianne DiSabato is a writer, photographer, naturalist, college instructor, and Zen teacher who’s been blogging at Hoarded Ordinaries for nearly seven years. We’ve been friends for almost that long, and first met in person in March 2005, but I realized there were still some questions I’d never asked her. I got her talking about how she got into nature, how or whether she would categorize Hoarded Ordinaries, journaling versus blogging, getting married at the zoo, nature writing as a pilgrimage, the myth of the literary hermit, blogging and Buddhism, the danger of Zen books, and more.

Theme music: “Le grand sequoia,” by Innvivo (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike licence)

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