When I started to write poetry as a suffocatingly earnest, paralysingly intense teenager, I scribbled down everything as it emerged into a small, blue school exercise book. Just beneath the heavily-scored-out printed title of ‘Spelling Book’, I inscribed the words ‘Poems — 1960 Until Whenever’, carefully foxed the edges of the pages, distressed the cover and thrust the slim volume just far enough into my jacket pocket for the title to be clearly visible.
Now, as a writer of poems in late middle age (60 being the new 40), I have graduated from ‘Spelling Book’ to Moleskine, but I still scribble down everything as it emerges onto its pages. If I put the two books side by side — which I just have — the only significant differences I note are that a.) whilst I read ‘Poems — 1960 Until Whenever’ with a mixture of dry-mouthed embarrassment and wry amusement, the contents of the Moleskine bring a little more satisfaction, and b.) my handwriting has got worse during the past 45 years.
All of which constitutes an unpromising start to a piece on links between writing poetry and information technology. However, cherished notebooks notwithstanding, I would claim that the latter has had a more profound influence on the former than any of the other forces that chance or design have brought to bear during the long years since ‘Poems — 1960 Until Whenever’. Here’s how.
I came to computer usage late. I maintained a lofty indifference to their rapid incursion into our lives during the ’80s, only finally deigning to tickle a keyboard when my son needed some help in typing up his degree thesis against a rapidly approaching deadline. Within 30 minutes of applying the changeover technique from typewriter percussion to keyboard caress, I was seduced. On changing schools in the early ’90s and having access to the staff computer room, I launched myself onto what, at that time, comprised the Internet.
Even in those early days there was a handful of poetry sites and one or two e-mags too. I submitted some stuff to one called So It Goes and — maybe unsurprisingly, considering the thin scattering of e-poets across the territory — got it published.
But initially there was little to promote or even sustain the interests of the online poet and for me the principal utility of the computer was as a composing and editing tool. The speed at which a poem could be formatted, amended and re-formatted was intoxicating and, after a few deranged weeks of font and layout experimentation, the flexibility and range of the medium began to have a profound influence over the structure and substance of the message. Even in those early days of tiny monitors, keyboards like pub pianos and regular encounters with the blue screen of death, the pixel dance that had words spinning across the digital page enabled a synchronicity of content and form simply unobtainable within the humble notebook. Buying my own computer enabled me to reach beyond the limitations of Windows 95 and queues for each terminal, and being very definitely the first on my block to wire in cable broadband had me uploading and downloading at frightening speed.
As my facility both in keyboard technique and computer procedure developed, I began to transfer all my painstakingly typed manuscripts to various digital files and folders. And surfing on broadband gave me rapid access to the now burgeoning poetry sites. Here the clunky but comprehensive Electronic Poetry Center was enormously useful, providing links to the growing number of e-mags and also to the burgeoning poetry workshops. I joined two of the latter, one a multi-channelled come-one-come-all community in which effete sonnet-eers shared cyberspace with agonised goths, the other a jittery, nitpicking group of high-achieving monomaniacs seeking validation for their oeuvre.
Flitting between the two brought little creative satisfaction, but what it did provide was a degree of interaction and this was enormously exciting. Suddenly, after years of scribbling first drafts into scruffy notebooks, the final incarnations of which efforts only saw light of day when under the withering scrutiny of little mag editors, fresh work in progress was receiving the attention of my peers. Although there was a powerful sense of rivalry and general muscle flexing on the site, decent criticism was offered too and I lingered for a while and indulged the novelty of the slow motion dialogues. The process of submission of text and leisurely response was like a protracted game of chess, two players leaning over a complex board analysing the display before making a considered move.
But in the final analysis it all became a little too arid and cerebral for me. Jokes and asides were judiciously ignored in the pursuit of critical excellence and, jaded and feeling a little fraudulent in such arcane company, I dropped out one long rainy afternoon and floated off into cyberspace. I was unclear as to what it was that I hoped to find, but the potential for a much more broadly based interactivity seemed to me, in my ignorance, vast and untapped.
And so, much in the manner of the exobiologist exploring the cosmos, I guess I was looking for signs of parallel life — kindred spirits inhabiting some deep space archipelago, opening up the lines of communication and, in the best tradition of the sci-fi romance, all speaking the same language as me.
Which is how I discovered the phenomenon of the weblog. I’d heard of ‘blogs’, of course, but the notion of the online diary recording in minute quotidian detail the life and times of a Media Studies student or a post office clerk held little appeal. What I found was exhilaratingly different. By chance, my first encounter with the blog in action was via Salon, the liberal news and views clearing house, which, in 2003, still hosted a substantial blogging community. Scanning through a cross-section of the blogs on board, I marvelled at the extraordinary variety of topic and treatment and signed up.
Had I had the ghost of an idea of the struggles ahead in trying to master the diabolical complexities of the Radio Userland software, I might never have set down the foundations of the Patteran Pages. But with lunatic persistence I persevered and so began the steep uphill ascent that — in between major Sisyphian descents — comprised the final rite of passage in my IT education. For three years the Patteran Pages operated from the security of the Salon Blogs community. A blog platforming homebrew poetry alongside bits of splenetic political commentary and items showcasing the juvenile humour of its proprietor found plenty of elbow space amongst the Salon misfits. Firm friendships were forged and a powerful sense of mutual endeavour prevailed.
But eventually the gasket blew in my RU engine room and when Lawrence, the overworked and under-appreciated Salon Blogs techie, finally nursed it back into life, I still couldn’t upload pictures. So I ventured forth into the wide-open spaces outside the Salon stockade, choosing Typepad as my new host. Which is where I have been more or less comfortably ever since. Within a few months of my departure from the Salon blog community, Salon announced that they were discontinuing blog hosting and a diaspora followed. I have retained contact with a handful of my erstwhile comrades, but links to the majority of blogs on my sidebar have been made since the move.
I’m now in my sixth year of blogging. I can work within the flexible and largely user-friendly procedures of the Typepad format with confidence, but in some ways I regret the rapid advance of template technology. Having begun to master HTML in order to deal with the eccentricities of Radio Userland, the off-the-shelf technology of Typepad has made me lazy. Where I might have further advanced my IT skills by exploring design possibilities, my concentration is now entirely on content with the emphasis being on the presentation of my own poetry.
Lately it occurs to me: What a long, strange trip it’s been. Long and strange indeed, but exciting, enriching and fruitful too. At a time of life when many are contemplating not a lot more than consolidating what they’ve already got, I find the daily adventure of blogging — the devising, the sharing, the research, the reading, the interacting — revitalising and energising. Most of all, it has provided, and continues to provide, a powerful stimulus to my writing. Everything I write goes into the notebook first; I never compose straight onto screen. But there exists a continuum of creativity now whereby from the privacy and seclusion of the first scribbled elements of a poem, a route is followed through the portals of the keyboard, the computer and the router into the wider world. Way outside the scope of my wildest sci-fi dreams back in the far-off days of ‘Poems — 1960 Until Whenever’, but cherished beyond measure now.