I’ve been to the ERPA

Last night, in chatting with an environmental consultant, I learned a dandy new acronym: ERPA. That stands for Engineered Rock Placement Area. It refers to the artificial mountains created from the rubble of bedrock blasted out to make room for a new highway, Wal-Mart, or other envelopment. Such piles are “engineered” in the sense that some specialist tries to minimize their effects on the local hydrology, keep them from collapsing, etc.

The specific ERPA my friend was talking about will consist of highly acidic mountaintop rock removed for a certain local highway cut and placed in the adjacent valley, where it will tower over the new highway and an adjacent railroad line and creek. I am being vague here because he asked me not to quote him about the tenuous chances of its success as a long-term environmental solution.

I just liked the fact that “ERPA” sounds like a burp — a gross and embarrassing discharge resulting from too-rapid consumption — and that it rhymes with “Sherpa.” From what I gather, one might well need a Sherpa guide to scale this thing by the time they’re done with it.


It’s been three years now since I began work on my own ERPA, Via Negativa. The previous spring, I had begun writing essays to post to my then-new Geocities site, and forwarding the links to a number of email contacts. Many of the essays I was writing were in response to the Iraq invasion — a catalyst for many people to start blogging in 2003, it turned out. From time to time, one of my hapless email victims would tell me I needed to start a blog, but I’d pooh-pooh the suggestion.

The main thing that kept me from jumping into blogging as soon as I found out about it was my impression that blogs consisted mainly of political and social polemics. Where was the poetry? I didn’t want to narrow my focus like that. When I finally did start a blog in mid-December 2003, I had the notion — erroneous, as it turned out — that I’d be doing something largely without precedent. I aimed to write a “celebration of the unknown, the unknowable, and the mystic experience,” as I put it at the time. But within two weeks I was straying beyond this self-imposed limitation, and by late spring, I had pretty much abandoned all pretense of having a thematically unified blog. In the meantime, though, the name Via Negativa had stuck, as names will do.

I went with Blogger because it was free. After about three weeks, I figured out how to add a commenting system, which Blogger didn’t provide back then. Suddenly, with comments coming in, and my own participation in conversations at other blogs, the writer’s life was no longer a mostly solitary affair. I started getting valuable feedback that went beyond the polite or enthusiastic applause one might earn at a poetry reading, or the occasional responses from email correspondents. And of course I discovered plenty of other bloggers working in similar territories, writing about faith or lack thereof, about nature and place, about art and philosophy and what they had for breakfast. I found myself in a blog neighborhood that felt both compatible and invigorating, as if I had just entered a graduate program at some elite university.

This past year has seen the biggest changes since I started blogging. Via Negativa moved to its present location on April Fool’s Day, changing URL and software platform in the process. I discovered the wonders and challenges of blogging with open-source software, something which, as an anarchist of sorts, I deeply believe in. I started a sideblog, Smorgasblog, and saw myself become a much better reader of other blogs as a result. I helped start a blog carnival, Festival of the Trees, with Pablo of Roundrock Journal, and with Beth Adams (the cassandra pages) took over the managing editorship of qarrtsiluni.

Less than a week ago, I began to assemble a new collection of poems derived mostly from Via Negativa, a project which I am calling shadow cabinet. I’ve gotten so used to doing things online, it seemed natural to put it together as a website, using a WordPress.com template, rather than just a dull document in MS Word. This has led me to think about the difference between blogs and other kinds of websites, especially as it relates to publishing poetry. The apparent stasis of a regular website — to say nothing of a book — aids in the perception of poetry as finished creation, an illusion central to our appreciation of any art. The dynamic nature of blogging, on the other hand, helps us see poems as ephemeral expressions of a continually evolving creative process.

I think it’s fair to say that blogging has made me a better writer, more disciplined, less prone to spend all my time polishing what I’ve already written. As I noted in a comment to a recent post about blogging and writing at the cassandra pages, because I try and post something at least once a day, six days a week, I’ve learned to be a little more easy-going in what I write — less prone to try and pack everything I want to say into one poem or essay. Much as I dislike Billy Collins, I have to agree with the quote that appears on the front page of Poetry Daily: “The urge to tie a poem to a chair and torture a confession out of it lessens when poetry arises freshly each day.”


Last year at this time I did a quick survey of the immediate blog neighborhood, but now that I keep the Smorgasblog, that doesn’t seem as necessary. I would like to thank all my enablers (see Credits page). Thanks for reading. It’s been a real pleasure, and I hope to stick around for many more years. In ten days — wood willing, knock on God — I’ll be getting a new (to me) computer, many times faster and larger than what I have now. So starting with the New Year, I’ll have the space and ability to back up files much more effectively, shoring up this mountain of rubble against collapse.

20 Replies to “I’ve been to the ERPA”

  1. I think I can credit blog keeping with improving my facility as a writer. It certainly provides adequate “warm up” work, and just keeping the words flowing seems to do immense good to me.

    I admire and respect your passion and production. Count me as one of the hosts of thousands who hope you will continue to blog for decades.

  2. It’s been a real joy to have you as a blogging and writing companion, Dave. I have never once been bored or disappointed, coming to your pages, and much more often surprised, delighted, edified, and moved. Congrats on your anniversary, and I second Pablo’s wish – may you blog on and on!

  3. The apparent stasis of a regular website — to say nothing of a book — aids in the perception of poetry as finished creation, an illusion central to our appreciation of any art. The dynamic nature of blogging, on the other hand, helps us see poems as ephemeral expressions of a continually evolving creative process.

    Well said! Combining shadow cabinet with Via Negativa seems to live out this tension. Thanks for doing that.

  4. pablo –

    just keeping the words flowing seems to do immense good to me

    Yes, and as long we can take pleasure in that, I think our enjoyment shines through and, to a great extent, makes up for whatever infelicities infect our perhaps too hasty writing.

    Teju – I’ll look forward to your unseen presence. If blogs have lurkers, do non-blog sites have skulkers?

    beth – Thanks for these kind words. You know the feeling is mutual. (And thanks to your on-going series on blogging and writing, I was able to keep my own reflections mercifully brief, here!)

    Brett – I appreciate your saying so. I meant to add — but forgot — how pleased I was to see so many worthwhile new blogs coming online this year, chief among them chatoyance, The Twitching Line and your own Sheep Days.

    Peter – I think that relates something to something you and I have discussed quite a bit: how to keep the best blog posts from effectively disappearing, given that almost no one ever reads through a blog’s archives. My feeling, based on looking at the more popular recent WordPress plugins, is that the next major evolution in blogging will see a hybridization between blogs and static websites as long-term bloggers seek to make their best content more accessible.

  5. Dave — I’m grateful that you inspire, delight, and sometimes confound me just about daily.

    And I’m in such strong agreement with your observation of the gifts of community and the benefits of discipline blogging fosters, I’m almost vibrating in place. Loved what I saw unfolding in shadow cabinet.

    In echoing Beth, all I can say is “thanks so very much — may you have a long, fun run.”

    (P.S. — I’m completely tickled that chatoyance tickles you enough for that kind mention.)

  6. What a fittingly beautiful new site for collecting your poems. It’s immediately inviting and involving, and I look forward to browsing during the coming holiday.

    Finding bits of my meanderings in Smorgasblorg is most gratifying, and getting to know some of the other writers you highlight who are new to me is a huge pleasure.

    And your blog endlessly by turn intriguing, satisfying, provoking and overall inspiring.

  7. I’m remembering, now, that I occasionally used to feel a little oppressed by your writing: there was so much of it, and it was so dense, that I would sometimes think, “maybe I’m just not up to reading Via Negativa today.” I never feel that way now. & I’m reminded of your advice to me today to put some space into one of my poems, to break it up into stanzas. You’ve learned to put space into your writing. And your layouts, for that matter — your old first home page was packed with stuff, cordant and discordant. A long long way from the grace and spaciousness of your Shadow Cabinet.

  8. I second everything said here, Dave! So glad to have you and your fantastic blog as part of my daily life, a life that has expanded greatly with this medium. Happy blogiversary and may you have many more!

  9. Happy blogiversary Dave, and many more I hope. I think three years in the blogosphere qualifies you as one of it’s grand old men. I’m continually amazed that I occasionally show up in your smorgasblog, given the talent of the others that are there. Thanks for making me a part of Via Negativa. Keep it up.

  10. Thanks for recapping a bit of the history of Via Negativa and your writing — I’ve only been coming here for less than a year but your site is now definitely a part of my own “blog community”.

    Your fine posts and photos have helped keep me motivated to continue writing and observing. Thanks also for the flattering inclusion of some of my output in your Smorgasblog sidebar.

  11. “. . . the next major evolution in blogging will see a hybridization between blogs and static websites . . .”

    You’ve got me thinking hard about WordPress plug-ins now!

  12. Thanks for all the kind words. A few responses…

    Lori and Jean, I’m flattered that you both like what I’ve done with shadow cabinet so far. The marriage of template and photo was a happy accident, but I think it will inspire me to do the best job I can with the anthology.

    marja-leena – It’s always gratifying to find myself in your virtual company.

    Clare – Thanks. I’m very pleased to have you here. It makes the difference between the Appalachians and the high Arctic seem almost neglible! RE: “grand old men of blogging,” I was thinking that someone whould work out an equation to help us convert blog years into people years.

    Larry – Thanks and you’re welcome. Yes, your blog is certainly a good fit with the others I read in this loosely knit community of genre-mixing bloggers. (And we’re writing the types of blogs that the self-appointed blog experts warn against, you know! If you want lots of eyeballs, you have to have a fairly tight focus, they say. Fortunately, blogging doesn’t have to be a numbers game.)

    Peter – I was thinking in particular about various plug-ins that automatically generate a short list of links to related posts (from the archives) at the end of each new post; that produce link(s) to posts from a year ago (or three years ago, or whatever), either at the end of the post or in the sidebar; and that foreground categories or topics over chronological archives. In this last category, Alex King’s just-released Articles plugin is especially interesting. It automatically adds designated posts to a Favorite Articles page, organized by category/topic. (I’m considering switching to it and abandoning my chronologically organized “Best of” pages.) And it’s probably only a matter of time before King or another software developer writes a companion page that will list links to the readers’ favorite posts, as determined by a combination of links, trackbacks, comments, and page views.

  13. Oops, sorry, Dale – I missed your comment on the second read-through!

    Glad to learn my posts aren’t as gnarly as they used to be. The way I experience it, though, is that saying anything of substance seems much more difficult than it did three years ago — or even one year ago. I’m not sure if that’s because my standards have gone up, or simply becasue I’ve gotten more indolent and more easily distractable.

  14. Shadow cabinet looks very nice, Dave. I look forward to going back and browsing when I have half a brain to take it in. It’s a nice idea. And thanks for your continued presence here and elsewhere – I can’t imagine my blog neighborhood without you in it.

  15. I came here for the first time when you hosted the Festival of Trees. I’ve been returning more and more often though, and I’m looking forward to more in the furture.

  16. leslee – Thanks. I feel the same way about 3rd House.

    bill – Hi. Nice to know you’re still reading! I do keep up with prairie point journal too, via Bloglines, even if I rarely comment.

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