Christmas letter

Dear Friends,

Well, Via Negativa is two years old now. I knew the birthday was coming up sometime around the solstice, but I missed it: it was last Saturday. And here I’d been assiduously taking notes for a “year in review” post (which, I see, I avoided doing in the first birthday post). Nuts. Well, here’s that post anyway.

2005 saw a lot of changes in Via Negativa, beginning in her sidebar. Three of my favorite brainiac bloggers – Abdul-Walid of Acerbia (formerly Elck of the vernacular body), Siona of Nomen est Numen, and Andi of Ditch the Raft – hung up their blogging hats. They each had very good reasons for doing so, I think, and it’s not their fault that I felt my enthusiasm for the medium ebb just a little after they left. But now one of them is back, blogging under a new name. Andi took her vows as a Korean Buddhist nun-to-be (haeng-ja), and just last week returned to the blogging fold as Soen Joon, with a blog called One robe, one bowl – the first cloistered blogger in my blogroll.

Three of the bloggers I read faithfully have scored major successes in the world of print publishing this year. Ivy – surely the hardest working poet online – had her first book-length manuscript, Mortal, accepted by Red Morning Press. Patry Francis, who blogs at the aptly named Marvelous Garden, having more than paid her dues with years of waitressing, had her first novel accepted by Dutton. And I was perhaps most excited to learn back in October that Beth successfully pitched her book on Gene Robinson to a small New York publisher. Back in January 2004, Beth’s post about listening to Bishop Robinson preach and then going to a shopping mall sparked a memorable discussion spanning three comment threads. That was, I think, the first really meaty blog conversation in which I took an active part, and it was a revelation to me. I added a comments feature to Via Negativa shortly thereafter.

This past September saw the birth of a new kind of online publication, qarrtsiluni – equal parts group blog and literary magazine. While there are all sorts of equally valid reasons for blogging, those of us involved with qarrtsiluni are hoping to inspire folks around the blogosphere to sometimes take a bit more time with their writing, starting with ourselves. And we want to encourage more collaborative literary and artistic efforts, taking advantage of the much greater opportunities for interaction and feedback available online than in print journals. So far, I think, qarrtsiluni has had a pretty good run.

One thing my sidebar doesn’t reflect too well is the exponential growth in country/nature blogs over the past year (see Rurality‘s sidebar for a good collection of links). I’ve added a few, but I’m always wary of expanding the list of “vaguely compatible blogs” beyond the point where it can still serve readers as a handy guide to a sampling of sites I find interesting. But this past week I decided to put in links to the parent sites of two blog carnivals – regular, community-generated compilations of links to the best posts about a given topic, in this case birds and invertebrates. I coupled them with the useful, weekly compendium of Buddhist-flavored posts at Blogmandu – an old-fashioned meta-blog – to create a new sidebar category, which I hope to expand in the coming year as similar efforts get off the ground, or as I discover more such places already in existence. They offer great solutions to the blog addict’s eternal dillemma: how to read more blogs and still leave time for, well, anything else.

There are many other things that excite me about the blogs in my blogroll: new experiments in writing or artwork, major life changes for the people whose lives they chronicle. I started jotting down notes, and the list quickly got out of hand. So you’ll just have to click through my links and discover them for yourself, I’m afraid.

I don’t want to sound more selfless than I am, either. Via Negativa has had a pretty good year in terms of its original content, too. Long-time readers probably have their own ideas of what the most significant developments were; here’s what stand out in my mind:

1. I got a camera, a hand-me-down birthday gift from a loyal reader (thanks, Matt!). Though only one megapixel, it’s proved more than adequate for the low-resolution pictures required for the Internet. I haven’t owned a camera since I was a kid – film processing was never something I thought I could afford – and I have really enjoyed the effect that taking pictures has had on my quality of attention.

2. I blogged an epic, Cibola (see sidebar links). At least six people claim to have read it all the way through, not counting myself. It had its moments.

3. An involuntary sojourn in lovely Summersville, West Virginia with a broken-down car led me to read the one poetry book I had on hand with the same approximate intensity with which the survivor of a shipwreck clings to a raft. That book was Paul Zweig’s Selected and Last Poems. Unlike Andi, however, I didn’t ditch the raft once I got home; I made a shrine out of it and began regular prostrations. So far I’ve written thirty-four poems in response to Zweig’s, and the project continues to hold my interest. Let’s face it, we can only ever write as well as we read, so why not make the effort to read more consciously? And the blogging medium seems ideal for experiments in antiphony.

4. After some fourteen months of finding captions for the same cartoon, many of them mildly amusing, I finally ran out of steam with the “Words on the Street” feature early last August. The efficient cause, I think, was that it lost out against my new-found enthusiasm for responsive writing – I didn’t have enough time to write two features in addition to a regular essay. The material cause? I was simply running low on ideas. But the final cause may have been the reality that, with all the photographs, Via Negativa no longer had to rely on a daily cartoon to provide graphic relief. Nevertheless, Diogenes the Bum had become in some sense his own person, and it has proved impossible to keep him from popping back up from time to time.

5. The travelogue I just completed was satisfying to write, and I learned (or perhaps relearned) a couple things from it: First, that the pieces I write off the cuff, following just a few leads, are in many ways more satisfying than those I plan out and research (the ivorybill posts). And second, that the time I spend here at home, following all my usual waking and beginning-to-write rituals, is absolutely essential. I really can’t write anywhere else. But given the necessary distance in space and time from the actual travelling, travel writing, I discovered, can be a blast!

6. Overall, I think I can discern a few trends. The lengthy treatises that I used to inflict on Via Negativa readers with monotonous regularity largely disappeared this year, though I doubt the overall word count has diminished too much. I don’t indulge in nearly as much speculative thinking as I did the first year – whether because I got that all out of my system, or simply because I haven’t read much philosophy lately, I’m not sure. There’s been a much higher proportion of poetry, though some of it has taken the form of prose.

One thing that hasn’t changed is that I can’t remember where I’ve been from one month to the next. On occasion, when I go back into the archives searching for a particular post, I find myself reading the adjacent entries with only the faintest recollection of having written them. That’s good, in a way, because it means I can keep coming up with the same ideas again and again and they’ll seem fresh every time. You may think I’m joking, but many of the poets I most admire seem never to have had more than a small handful of original insights. In fact, that may be part of their charm, what makes their oeuvre seem so tidy and unified in tone. Last year at this time I said, “Long live the melange!” But given my craving for variety, sooner or later variety itself may come to seem tiresome, and I’ll crave the simplicity and mystery of the eternal return. Even now, it might be possible to imagine all the words posted here to date as constituting some kind of interminable, profane mantra. Om mani padme jesus h. christmas hum!

Best wishes for a joyous and safe holiday season. Thank you all for reading, and I hope you’ll find the time to visit often in the coming year.

– Dave

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