Now we are twenty

A war of imperialist aggression, sold to a credulous and bloodthirsty public as just desserts for their attack on us, prompts feelings of helplessness and despair in everyone who sees through the lies — the mainstream media has been so captured or bought off. Fortunately, a new independent media seems to be emerging online. Perhaps there we can make some kind of difference.

That was the state of affairs in 2003, when Via Negativa was born—20 years ago today! I had started posting things to a static website at the beginning of the year, but soon tired of having to email a list of friends every time I published something new. And rather than start yet another contentious political web log, I was determined to go against the flow and blog quietly and briefly, and possibly not about politics at all, because what do I really have to add to that conversation? In a post titled Caveat emptor, I said

I’m hoping this format, which favors shorter expressions, will encourage precision. Unbloggerlike, I want to write not the way I talk but in a slightly more controlled fashion. Most important, to write in anticipation of response, and therefore to leave quite a bit unsaid.

It took a few years to figure out that Via Negativa would mainly feature poetry. I was determined not to get drawn into the kind of poetry blogging that animated people like Ron Silliman, whose comment threads were nasty slugfests about things I had zero interest in. Life is too short for arguments about matters of taste, in my view. Though I always enjoyed Ron’s tilting at the windmills of mainstream mediocrity. Silliman regularly pilloried the fundamental silliness of academic poetry fashions in a way any outsider could appreciate.

But as a ‘poet of quietude’ myself, it’s not really fair to call me an outsider. More like an inside-outer. Not unlike my co-blogger here since 2010, Luisa Igloria, who’s paid her dues in a way I never have with public roles as a teacher, mentor, department head, etc., despite being I think an even more private person than me.

Of course, few if any poets are true insiders in American society. I for one am grateful for our cultural insignificance, as I watch poets being jailed or assassinated abroad. Besides, ‘How dreary to be somebody…’

But the most unconventional thing we both do, as American poets, is insist upon blogging our first drafts for all to see, rather than hiding them away so they won’t lose their publication virginity and become ineligible for publishing anywhere else. Literary critics appear to go out of their way to avoid acknowledging that writers’ blogs even exist, which is a bit bizarre, considering the prominent place of epistolary literature in the canon. Somehow despite this stain, Luisa has continued to place manuscripts with publishers, and even got selected as poet laureate for the state of Virginia, which I like to joke is all down to Via Negativa and our legions of loyal readers. And online publishing is central to the very existence of my Pepys Diary erasure project, drawing as it does on a popular site from the first wave of blogging, now in its third cycle.

I asked Luisa if she had any thoughts. Here’s what she wrote:

There’s something about the idea of “negative capability” which I equate with “via negativa,” or the process of figuring out something through an exploration of what it’s not. Poetry works in the same register of mystery and the unknown, kind of like how reading Via Negativa often provides the spark of an idea for writing toward what I didn’t think I even knew a moment ago. Congratulations on the 20th year of Via Negativa, Dave! So glad it exists; and, thanks to you, that I found my way here.

And it’s thanks to Luisa, I’m sure, that I’m still blogging here myself. I highly recommend getting a co-blogger to anyone struggling with burnout.

And here’s the eye of a green dragon that used to be a white pine tree, that rests beside one of my favorite spots for drinking my afternoon tea. Seeing is always a knotty problem. I’m reminded of one of the very first things I posted here back on December 17, 2003, from Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim:

Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav has handed down to us these words of his great-grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov: ‘Alas! The world is full of enormous lights and mysteries, and man shuts them from himself with one small hand!’

Or as the Zennies would say, we prefer the pointing finger to the moon. A lot more fingers than moons on social media.

Blogging is of course dead… or was, until Substack came along. We’ll maintain our independence here, but I’m cheered to see the return of creative energy online among a younger generation, who seem finally to be waking up to the brutality undergirding much of our economic system. I won’t say I’ve lost all hope, but I do think it’s an open question whether any of us will be around for Via Negativa’s 25th. Authoritarianism, runaway militarism, and severe inequality make for a volatile mix even before you factor in the multiple environmental crises we face. Things have never been more grim.

For that reason, it would seem grotesque to make a huge big deal out of this anniversary. Thanks to all who read here or share links with friends, and thanks to my friends and colleagues in what we used to call the blogosphere, especially other members of the Class of ’03, who were such grand company in those dark times. We started online magazines and played with free online tech to make poems in new ways and shared strange thoughts and hand-made things, and from time to time compared notes on the enormous lights and mysteries that still fill the earth.

24 Replies to “Now we are twenty”

  1. Ah, c’mon, Dave! It is a “big huge deal” in my view! 20 years is a great run, and may you and Luisa continue to light the corners of the interwebs with poems, moving poems, erasures, blog digests, photos, reviews, whatnot and whatever’s next.

    I have gained so much from “following” you folks–and I am certainly not alone. :)

    1. Aw thanks. I mean I had this whole idea of how I ought to blog about the blogiversary, with screenshots of the masthead in different eras and links to fave posts – that’s what I nixed. Still ended up with a fairly verbose post, though, so it’s all good.

  2. Congratulations on 20 years of Via Negativa! In internet time, it’s a vast epoch, as online poetic ventures come and go. And thanks for having included me. It’s nice to feel part of the “blogosphere” or wherever we are now. Viva Via Negativa!

    1. Thanks, Rachel. I’m always pleased when one of your posts touches on poetry so I can include it in the digest. I love the independent author path you’re on – an inspiration.

    1. Thanks, man. I’m glad we’ve been able to embark on so many poetry-film collaborations together. Looking forward to many more such opportunities in the years to come.

  3. What a lovely post, Dave. Brought tears to my eyes and not just from nostalgia. I was in the blogging class of ’04, stumbling on the “grand company”–you describe that right–well underway by then here and at other places we all blogrolled. Luisa’s later partnership here felt to me like a blessed counterweight to the social media trend that was already thinning our numbers. All the best here and elsewhere in the years to come.

    1. (As a emblem of VN’s influence on me (overall, I must say, for the good), my WordPress avatar is still the snail you let me use from a photo you posted here long ago, quite apt for “slow reads.”)

    2. Oh hey, Peter! I forgot about blogrolls! And how eventually everyone got penalized for having them when the PageRank algorithm changed, even though Google owned Blogspot by that point.

      It does seem almost like an end of an era for social media these days – so many people cutting back or getting off for good. The only good thing I’ll say about Facebook, in particular, is how it got so many more people comfortable with posting things online, a steady trickle of whom continue to find their way to blog platforms.

  4. Congratulations this is tremendous and a delight And Luisa’s thoughts ‘…Via Negativa often provides the spark of an idea for writing toward what I didn’t think I even knew a moment ago…’ and so much more. Everything about this is stunning Dave and Luisa xxxx blessings to you both.

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