Processing words

This entry is part 1 of 20 in the series Poetics and technology


Just as I was about to compose my Morning Porch entry at this morning, my connection to the internet went down. I had a moment of irrational panic, thinking that I might have to go back to pen and paper to write the poem I wanted to get started on. Then I came to my senses: it’s just the internet! We haven’t lost our electricity, so my word processing wouldn’t be affected.

It’s scary how dependent I’ve become on this technology. It’s really only been since the late 80s that I switched from using a typewriter to a computer. At that time I didn’t have my own computer — that would have to wait until my parents upgraded about ten years later, and I got their hand-me-down. So I was still composing poems on scrap paper until well into the 90s. It was nice, in a way, accumulating all those drafts in a big file box. It gave me a real sense of accomplishment. I rarely ever referred back to previous drafts, though, and I’m not quite sure why I didn’t recycle them.

Poetry writing the old-fashioned way involved scrap paper, as I’ve said. Ironically, almost all of this paper consisted of computer print-outs with one blank side. My dad worked as a reference librarian at Penn State, where the Pattee Library had computers from the 70s on, so from the time I was a kid, I was used to writing and drawing on the back of computer paper. I remember for a number of years, the print side was striped with light green bars, and of course great reams of it were still attached and folded accordion-style, with the tear-off, perforated strips on either side where the tractor feed gripped the paper.

I never got into blank books. In fact, I hated them, because in my few experiments with them, I found myself writing in an affected style designed to require no further revision — but revision, especially for an apprentice poet, is at the heart of serious writing. My drafts on the back of printer paper would each be about three-quarters of the way covered with squiggly cross-outs before I moved on to another draft. (Instead of a straight line, I liked to wiggle my pen as I moved it through a line for an ocean-waves effect.) And although I had a refillable ink pen with an array of nibs, and had learned calligraphy for the Xeroxed nature zine my brothers and I produced when I was in my early teens, for actual writing, nothing but my old sloppy handwriting (printing, actually — I never developed a cursive hand), using a regular ballpoint pen, seemed comfortable.

One peculiarity that perhaps foreshadowed my eventual fondness for the blank screen as a composition medium was my strong preference for unlined paper. This might well have been the result simply of the availability of all that blank-sided printer paper, but I always felt a bit imprisoned by having to write on lines in a ruled notebook. Of course, I was never terribly fond of school, which was where I used lined paper. Poetry for me was an almost exclusively extracurricular activity — probably if I’d ever been made to write it in class, I would have hated it. That said, to this day I do use pocket spiral-bound notebooks with lined pages for jotting down ideas, many of which do end up in poems.

Despite an early admiration of William Carlos Williams — I was introduced to his work by the guy who became my poetry mentor, Jack McManis, when I was 13 — I very rarely let the typewriter on which I composed final-ish drafts influence the shape of the poem. Rightly or wrongly, I’ve always felt that the arrangement of words on the page is a fairly trivial matter; the aural shape of the poem is what counts for me. Also, though I took a typing class in high school, I never got any faster than 35 words a minute — and that was with the fancy new IBM Selectric typewriters they had in school. All my college papers were banged out on the same Olympia manual my dad had used at Bucknell in the late 50s and early 60s; the only advance in technology was erasable typewriter bond — so much quicker than using whiteout. So as long as the typewriter was the only other option, of course I’d use pen and paper as much as I could.

I imagine you can see where I’m heading with this. The green letters on a black screen took a little getting used to, but aside from that, once I figured out how much easier typing was on a PC, I put away the Olympia for good. Like a lot of writers, I wasn’t especially impressed by Microsoft Word when I eventually moved to a Windows operating system in the late 90s. WordPerfect 6.0 seemed plenty good enough (and in fact my mother continued to use it for all her writing until just last year, when Dad finally managed to convince her that if would be less work to just learn Word than to continue to struggle with converting from one to another each time she had to submit something. I admire her stubbornness, though). I turn off all the auto-correcting features of Word: the underlines of misspelled words and the grammar suggestions are distracting and often quite wrong, and is there anything more irritating to a poet than being prompted to capitalize the beginning of every line if you don’t want to?

Learning to compose poems on a word processor didn’t happen overnight. For a couple years after I got my own computer, I continued to write first and second drafts by hand. When I did type poems up, I would immediately print them out and then make more pen-and-ink edits to the printed texts until they became virtually illegible, prompting a return to the computer. But I liked that the version on the screen more closely resembled the version I would submit for publication (which I was doing a lot of at the time, blogging not having been invented yet). And of course it’s much easier to make sense of a draft that isn’t all messed up with cross-outs and inserts; I was sold on the convenience of word processing from the get-go. It was just a matter of slowly breaking myself of old habits and getting comfortable with the new interface.

I almost never print anything out anymore, which I regret every time the power goes out and I realize that virtually my entire corpus of poetry is inaccessible to me. But it does save enormously on paper, not to mention file cabinet space. I confess that I almost never save different versions (does it still make sense to call them drafts?) as I go along. My friend Todd Davis once told me that he learned the hard way never to over-write old versions with new ones, after an incident in which he only realized after he’d mailed a poem off to a magazine that the previous draft had in fact been superior. Fortunately, he had happened to email that version to his father, so he was able to recover it, but ever since, he said, he’s been very disciplined about saving each significant version as a separate file. I could definitely stand to become more organized about a great many things, but since I’ve never shared his experience of missing an earlier, discarded draft, I doubt I’ll be adopting this particular practice.

Word processing does have its down side: eye strain and carpal tunnel syndrome, for example, don’t seem as great a threat for pen-and-paper users. Then there’s the whole creepiness factor: I’m really not sure that processing is something I want to be doing to poems! The immediate association is with food processors, which are typically used to turn things into a uniform mush. “I’m still processing that,” we like to say about a new idea, because it makes us sound somehow hipper and more in control than if we merely said we were thinking about it, pondering it, or mulling it over. Just words, maybe. But no one knows better than a poet how much the flavor and connotation of a word can influence the way we feel about something.

So has my consciousness of the fact that I am processing and not merely writing words changed the way I feel about the resulting poems? If so, not nearly as much as the technology itself has changed me. Contemporary North American poets think a lot about process (the noun) because the workshop model of writing instruction has traditionally emphasized attention to the writing and revision process as an antidote to our society’s excessive focus on commodified products. I certainly don’t argue with that focus. In fact, I’d argue further that the electronic manipulation of texts via word processing software has helped me enormously as a writer, by making me far less attached to any given version. As my hesitation about continuing to speak of drafts suggests, I no longer really conceive of poems as going through distinct, identifiable instars on their way to a mature imago; now they are more like pitchers of water from that river Heraclitus warned us about. This attitude helped prepare me for online publishing, where even a published text can remain mutable. The new-found ease of textual modification that word processing represents has therefore turned out to be more than a convenience for me — it’s been a slow revelation.

I’ve begun hassling some friends and acquaintances to guest-blog other installments in a projected series of posts on poets/poetry and technology. If you’re interested in contributing a personal essay about some aspect of poetry and technology with which you’re familiar, please get in touch via the contact page or by email. Every month is poetry month here at Via Negativa, so the series won’t necessarily conclude at the end of April.

“Teenagers loitering outside a sentence”: Teaching grammar on Twitter

This entry is part 2 of 20 in the series Poetics and technology


I woke up yesterday, the first Saturday of spring break, and found Victoria next to me, hunched over her third graders’ papers and humming.

I was about to tell you how good those papers were — how some of them evinced better voice and grammar than many of my ninth graders’ papers, in fact — and to expound on why I think most kids don’t progress much in grammar during the intervening years that lay in bed between us yesterday, the first Saturday of spring break.

But I just decided to interrupt myself, as I often do with my high school writers, and to remind you that you’re here as writers. So, did my first line hook you? And, if so, have I lost you by now? (Be honest. Are you still reading?)

And, dear writer, did you catch the syntax of that first line? A simple sentence [Rait, I think I know why you thought it was compound. Let’s see — what would be the second clause?  “And found Victoria next to me”? Well, what’s the subject of that clause?  Right — it’s not a clause because there is no subject. The sentence is a single, independent clause with a compound predicate. Fools me too, sometimes.] sporting a nonessential appositive and ending with a participial phrase.

We could talk about “hunched” and “humming,” too [“Is that alliteration or assonance, Mr. S?” “Hell if I know, George.”], but let’s cut to what’s really important: how many characters does my opening sentence have? Those of you besotted by Twitter, a micro-blogging and social networking service, probably have already intuited that my first line is bumping up against 140 characters, counting spaces — the mandatory upper limit of a Twitter post, also called an “update” or a “tweet.” My first sentence has 139 characters, in fact. (A lot of us often write on Twitter like we’re playing a kind of linguistic blackjack: how close can I get to 140 characters without going over?)

I’m teaching diction and syntax with Twitter because micro-blogging helps writers focus on words and sentences.

Twitter has gotten so popular — it is currently growing at a 1,382 percent rate per year – that I think it’s inadvertently making people slightly better writers at the word and sentence level. Even those who use Twitter for more mundane and solipsistic purposes (and that would be just about everybody) (“Cloudy here. Just scratched my ass.”) sometimes feel pushed to improve their dribble to increase readership.

If you want people to follow you, diction and syntax are part of the equation even if you’re writing in fragments or very short sentences, as many Twitterers do. Randsinrepose, a popular blogger, cites The Elements of Style and gives his fellow Twitterers a lesson in diction and syntax in his post “The Art of the Tweet”:

In my head, I’m cutting words from my tweet to give you room to mentally add your own:

BEFORE: If it’s 4am, I know how stressed I am.

AFTER: Stress is how well I know 4am.

Nine to seven words. Slight reorganization, but which says more to you?

Twitter can be a godsend to the close reader as well as the writer.  What if Dickens had serialized his novels on Twitter instead of in Harper’s or Master Humphrey’s Clock? He’d still be alive today, certainly, if he wanted to finish Bleak House. But, more importantly, what would his readership have been focused on with each installment, assuming they could have suffered having the plot so slowly torn from them?

Perhaps Dickens’s readers would have heard music in lines larger installments might not have slowed them down enough to notice. (Or maybe it’s simply the duty of a micro-blogging generation to slow reading down. My father heard his music at 78 rounds per minute; maybe I was meant to discover something different by hearing mine at 33 1/3.) Does a single sentence of Bleak House sing its own song? Here’s a sentence I found by clicking “surprise me” on the novel’s Amazon page:

Nor has he anything more to say or do, but to nod once in the same discourteous manner, and to say briefly, ‘You can go.’ (Bleak House 552)

The sentence’s two-letter words, monosyllabic words, and long vowels, combined with the first clause’s internal rhyme (which highlights the clause’s singsong meter), reinforce Mr. Tulkinghorn’s curt dismissal. How much of that did you catch in your college’s Victorian lit survey?

(Not all of Dickens’s sentences would fit on Twitter, of course. reports, though, that the average sentence in Bleak House has only a hundred characters. Even Faulkner, known for his page-long sentences, wrote Light in August at a 79-characters-per-sentence clip. 140 characters are all a ninth grader needs to begin focusing on writing at the sentence level.)

Teenagers loitering outside a sentence on Twitter can relate punctuation rules and basic syntax to their writing, and they can discover how grammar can sometimes foster creativity. Conformity to a form, even to an arbitrary form, can do that. And young writers can learn the art of breaking the rules once they have a handle on the basics.

Before I describe how I use Twitter in the classroom, I’ll give you a précis of my views on teaching syntax and punctuation.

Basic grammar and syntax are like common Western music scales: they are not important in themselves but for where they lead the practitioner once she has achieved some proficiency. Sticking with the form, for instance, I’ve practiced composing complex sentences ending with the subordinate clause and without commas separating the clauses. When one of my writers uses a comma in that situation, I ask myself: is he aware that he’s outside the form? And does he hear music I don’t hear?

Why learn and normally stick with the rules of punctuation and syntax? First, almost all of the rules make sense, even if you might have written them differently were you alive to write those popular grammars two hundred years ago. Second, most of the basic rules carry the force of public morality, so I can expect that my audience is aware of them and will judge me by how well I use them. Third, not having to interrupt myself and explain why I use a comma is as joyous as not having to stop and explain an allusion or a joke. An audience’s grasp of grammar, then, is as beneficial to a writer as its overall cultural literacy (to use E. D. Hirsch’s term).

Nevertheless, deviations from our current rules governing syntax sometimes sing. We hear the music better if we know the rules and understand the deviation as such, because such knowledge adds nuance. Nineteenth century American writers, for instance, often inserted commas before subordinate clauses, before sentence-ending prepositional phrases, and, as Lincoln does below, before the second part of a clause’s compound predicate. In a letter, Lincoln prefaced his reasons for allowing blacks to serve in the Federal Army with this:

I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel.

Though the last sentence’s comma isn’t kosher today, it’s expressive. To me, it draws out Lincoln’s response to slavery and creates a greater emotional distinction between thinking and feeling. Blame me if you get caught doing stuff like that.

I present syntax as a means of making music and improving clarity and concision, and I present punctuation as a means of varying syntax. I don’t teach punctuation for its own sake, so I don’t present all the comma rules (for instance) at once. To do so would disconnect commas from good writing. At least, that’s what happened when I tried it when I first started teaching. (Only recently in my career have my writers started to make considerable progress over my wife’s.)

A good teacher showed me how to present basic syntax using a tree analogy. Sentences that start with phrases or subordinate clauses are left-branch sentences. (E.g., “If it rains, it pours.”) If sentences end with phrases or subordinate clauses, they are right-branch sentences. Mid-branch sentences include appositive phrases and other interrupters. (“Esmeralda, my best friend and confidant, heard me snore.”)

Now that we’re ready again for Twitter, let’s make my writers members. It’s easy. They create a username and password, and they’re on. The only thing I do out of the ordinary is to have them check “Protect my updates” when they sign on for the first time so no one can follow them outside of our class. They then set up their sites — they love decorating them and selecting an icon — and make and accept invitations to follow one another.

After we play around with some left-branch sentences as a class and learn the punctuation rules associated with them, I ask my writers to write a left-branch sentence on Twitter employing some word — let’s use “waffle.” The arbitrary word works as a sentence-level writing prompt, and it creates enough excitement and maybe competition in the classroom to get the juices flowing. (My writers usually come up with better word prompts than I do.)

“You have forty-seven seconds,” I say. “Don’t worry: it’s just a draft.”

After they write and publish their sentences, I have them read one another’s work on Twitter. “Pick two tweets to riff on,” I say.

In Twitter, if you mouse over a tweet, a “reply to” button appears, and if you click it, your next update will start with a link to the Twitter site of that tweet’s author. I have my writers use this button for only one purpose: to publish sentences created in response to other writers’ tweets.

I instruct my writers not to revise weak tweets. Instead, they are to create sentences in response to others’ sentences that inspire them. The resulting sentence may or may not bear an obvious resemblance to its stimulus because the second writer may have been inspired by one of any number of things, including the earlier sentence’s plot, rhythm, and structure.

This way, the first writer does not feel picked on. I am gratified that someone has been inspired by my sentence; I am not mortified that someone has corrected my sentence in front of my peers. If a writer finds a mistake in another’s writing, she is to send him a “direct message.” Twitter’s direct messages are private and are not shown with the updates that all of a writer’s followers can see.

I use a Promethean board — a brand of smart boards that help writing teachers focus on small portions of text — to display a Twitter site to the class in order to examine and celebrate some of the creations. We also “favorite” favorite sentences on Twitter by clicking the star that appears when we mouse over them. By doing that, a user sends a copy of the tweet in question to her “Favorites” page for all of her followers to admire.

You can imagine other directions an instructor could give a class of writers on Twitter to help them play with diction and syntax and learn punctuation and grammatical rules associated with particular sentence structures. (In fact, if you do, would you email them to me?)

I am loath to close (to employ Lincoln’s diction again). I was also going to develop here how obsessed writing teachers, such as my wife, can be and how the better ones often seem to labor in obscurity at the younger grades. I was also weighing an attempt at eliciting your pity for writing instructors in a sort of sub-plot, but I guess I’ll essay to do that over my long summer vacation.

Or maybe I’ll squeeze it all into a single, solipsistic tweet.

—Peter Stephens


If you’re on Twitter, be sure to follow Peter’s highly poetic updates. Some of my favorites include:

Speak comfortably to the mulch, son of man. This summer, butterflies will rise from grasses like brown leaves to heaven. (Dec. 31st, 2008)

The grave at sunrise. The grave buried in snow. The grave in recession. The grave at war. (Jan. 27th)

Rabbit: I tend my fire in the sun. Snake: I am the sun. (Feb. 26th)

Dogma falls crisp as hoarfrost, but hormones open new worlds. (Apr. 8th)

Still to come in this series, I hope, are guest-written pieces on typewriters, hand-made books, Twaiku, Facebook update poetry, Second Life, and more. If you have an idea for an essay you’d like to contribute, let me know.


Binding words

This entry is part 3 of 20 in the series Poetics and technology


Publishing houses that will print poetry are almost extinct (I know Dave B. Porcupine would argue that so are readers of poetry), yet the numbers of people writing poetry seem to have grown at an equal or greater rate. Some of them self-publish online or at print-on-demand shops like, but there can be a considerable cost to doing even small numbers in this way.

Just to get a bit low-tech on you for a second: you can hand-bind books yourself.

Through coverWhen a poet friend, Rachel Barenblat, had a miscarriage earlier this year and worked her way through the trauma and grief by writing poetry, yet wondered how to make these poems available to others going through a similar experience, I suggested a small hand-bound edition. Ten poems, title page, table of contents, acknowledgments: this adds up to 15 pages, plus one blank at the back. The magic 16. (Bookbinders think in multiples of eight and get super excited when all the pages add up to multiples of 32…) We settled on a tall, skinny format which conveniently fit on a standard letter-size sheet, folded in half: a pamphlet.

How to do it

Get familiar with your printer, and with whatever software you use to produce sheets with your poetry on them. (I use Adobe InDesign because I’m a designer but you can do this quite adequately on a word processor.) Always make a dummy and number its pages and then unfold them, so you know where the poems are going to fall. And then put them all together before you run off large numbers to be sure it still works. You can use imposition software but it’s not necessary; what IS necessary is a good understanding of where each page is going to end up after folding. Automatic pagination is not your friend here.

Find the longest line of any of your poems and work backwards in the design of your page from that (if the line will be split, find the longest line that won’t). Try and leave a generous gutter/central space, which should almost never be smaller than the optical margin of the outside when the booklet is held open. Remember to leave a wider margin at the foot of the page than the top and outside margins, to avoid that sinking feeling.

Through middleIn terms of typography, remember that you can use a relatively small font size if you allow generous leading (interline spacing). Look at books of printed poetry and see what they do and what you like, and why, and what you don’t like, and why, and use those to guide your page design. Try and identify the character, the personality, of typefaces and match the character of your poetry. Less is usually more with typography… it is almost never a good plan to use more than two typefaces in a book of poetry (or much else), and if you are tempted to do this, ask yourself why. Let the poems sing for themselves rather than be tripped up by clunky type.

You can use a simple sheet as the cover or you can use different paper, or papers. You can do collage, you can paint on them, you can use photos. Experiment. You don’t have a publisher’s marketing department breathing down your neck! Just make sure that the grain of the pages matches the grain of the cover or it will buckle.

There are many online resources for bookbinding.

  • Short chapbooks can be bound with a simple pamphlet (figure 8) stitch.
  • A longer book can be done easily as a stab-bound (Japanese-style) book, where the folded edge faces the outside, not the spine.
  • Accordion-fold books are sculptural and lend themselves well to open display, though require a long sheet which may not work well in most printers — consider hand-lettering or cutting poems or stanzas out to stick to this format.

What you need

  • paper for text pages and cover
  • cutting board
  • metal ruler
  • utility or exacto knife
  • bone folder (optional, but this is a great tool)
  • awl or long needle to punch holes
  • needle for sewing
  • linen thread, silk ribbon, etc.

A better reader

Through last pageAs I folded the sheets for Rachel’s book, 176 in all, getting engulfed in the rhythm that comes from doing a repetitive task for love, I started seeing the same lines over and over. A different word would jump forward. I noticed connections within stanzas, within poems, across poems. In short, I was reading the poems in a different way. A better way. Binding poetry makes me a better reader. Try it; I think you’ll discover new things about your poetry — or someone else’s. And you’ll have a few hand-bound booklets to give or keep or even — gasp — sell.

—Alison Kent (Feathers of Hope and Bird by Bird)


Still to come in this series, I hope, are guest-written pieces on typewriters, Twaiku, Facebook update poetry, Second Life, and more. If you have an idea for an essay you’d like to contribute, let me know.


Poetry in the Ether

This entry is part 4 of 20 in the series Poetics and technology


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.

—Dick Jones

SEO for poetry, poems, poets

This entry is part 5 of 20 in the series Poetics and technology


I don’t spend much time looking at site stats. Oh, I glance at them pretty often, but I rarely pore over them to see which posts are the most popular, who’s arriving from where, and the like. Only yesterday did it even occur to me to see what kind of statistics my blog host offers, and I’ve been with them since last March. Otherwise, I rely exclusively on the very minimal statistics provided by a WordPress plugin identical to what’s used on Its main virtue as far as I’m concerned is that it doesn’t slow load-times down at all, since it doesn’t require the installation of javascript. But I also like the fact that it doesn’t tempt me to waste time looking at lots of additional information of marginal utility, as I used to do when I relied on

That said, my vanity was piqued earlier today when I took a rare, detailed look at the most popular searches that led people to my blog. Via Negativa is now the #1 result in Google for penis poetry, #2 for penis poems, #8 for penis poem, and #3 for poems about penis. (You might have to turn “safe search” off to verify these results at home.) In the non-phallic category, Via Negativa comes in at #8 for poems about movies, #1 for viking nicknames, #1 for balm of Gilead tree, and #3 for raccoon sex.

There’s a depressingly clear pattern emerging from all these inadvertently search engine-optimized (SEO) posts. All include the search term right in the title of the post: “The penis poems.” “Poems about movies.” Viking nicknames.” “Felling the balm of Gilead.” “Hot raccoon sex.”

The SEO experts are right: if you want Google juice, pander to the bots with titles only a robot could love. For example, if you want to blog a poem about giving birth, title the post “poem about giving birth,” and save the actual title for the next line. (You could always enclose it in h1 or h2 tags, if you still want to make sure it’s indexed.) I mean, I’m probably not going to change my ways anytime soon, but don’t let my stick-in-the-mud example deter you from deploying titles like the one I used for this post. (If there’s one thing guaranteed to get lots of searches, it’s a blog post about SEO.)

But please keep things in perspective. Even my most Google-friendly poems have yet to garner more than a couple thousand page views total in the 17 months since I started using stats. Blogging poetry may be a much better way to reach audiences than through traditional publication in print journals, but that’s relative: poetry blogs will still never attract a fraction of the readership of, say, knitting blogs, mommy blogs, or (lord help us) political opinion blogs. And sadly, it seems that only a vanishingly small percentage of those who go online every day in search of information about the human male sex organs say to themselves, “Hey! I wonder if there are any really good poems about it?”

Amanda Palmer on Twitter, boredom, and blogging

This entry is part 6 of 20 in the series Poetics and technology


A wide-ranging discussion about the pleasures and distractions of the internet with Amanda Palmer, a musician whose DIY spirit, creative energy, and songwriting skills I deeply respect. “I think being bored is really important,” she says. Yes. I’ve sometimes thought I owe a real debt of gratitude to the optometrists and orthodonists in whose waiting rooms I spent so many endless hours of my childhood. Without them, would I ever have developed the habits of mind necessary for that kind of focused daydreaming we call writing?

But I also saw myself in Palmer’s description of her writing process, needing to be online in order to look up words on Google and explore ideas in Wikipedia. I’m not ashamed to admit that I use Wikipedia almost constantly when I write poems — who wants to risk being badly mistaken about some Norse mythology allusion, or (to cite something from my latest poem) the exact purpose of a gyroscope?

I share Palmer’s sense that the relationship with one’s blog is almost indistinguishable from a long-term, committed relationship with another person. I don’t feel that way about Twitter or Identica, though, much less Facebook. To me, those sites are more like fun, low-key parties where you can drift in and out of interesting conversations without feeling like you have to stick around.

Poetry-Blogging, a Primer

This entry is part 7 of 20 in the series Poetics and technology


When sharing poems on the internet,
it is important not to consider an audience
of square dancers and nudists but to focus instead
on less “mainstream” readers: the tracing-paper
addicts and chronic organ grinders.

The latter are especially unreasonable and will offer
poetry critique at inappropriate times, such as when
they want to feel better about their own shoddy
attempts at plastic surgery.

Password protection of poems offers a sense of security,
although a misguided emphasis on the sanctity
of toadstools and juke boxes prevents poets
from enjoying steady employment.

Everyone knows the point of sharing poems
on the internet is to keep them hidden away
like secret regrets. Yet we find that the more
we behave like flashers, the more we have to spend
on trench coats.

Likewise, our public invitations to square dances
and raves, though almost universally rejected,
are still our only chance at being rubbed all over
other people’s hair, causing it to stand on end.

This brings us to copyright issues. The ownership
of a poem, like the ownership of a washing machine
or cat, is pretty simple: Just slap an ID tag on it
and you’re good to go — or so we thought.

As it turns out, in the murky world of the internet,
your “cat,” however “cat-like” it may appear,
might yet turn out to be a washing machine.
How will you know what to do with it?

Do you open its mouth and fill it with Tide,
or do you take another route and stop washing
your clothes altogether? Soiled shirts
will definitely make you look like a poet.

The phenomenon of poetic recognition is crucial
to a sense of online community. Waking up one day
and realizing three or four people know your name
is akin spotting a UFO: You know it’s real, but you
can’t lay your hands on the evidence.

This is why poet-bloggers turn to their oracles,
Statcounter and Google Alert, neither of which
need be consulted more than 400 times a day.
Every page view produces a sensation similar
to sliding along a Slip-n-Slide covered in baby oil.

Toxicologists fret about enthusiastic bloggers’ tendency
to lick their monitors until the words smear. The aftermath
can be measured in parts per million: How many
poets’ nouns must bleed into the verbs of casual readers
before this behavior is seen as a public health risk?

—Nathan Moore and Dana Guthrie Martin

* * *

Dana Guthrie Martin and Nathan Moore blog at My Gorgeous Somewhere and Exhaust Fumes and French Fries, and co-edited an issue of qarrtsiluni, Mutating the Signature.

Earlier in this series, British writer Dick Jones also tackled the subject of blogging and poetry, in case you missed it: “Poetry in the Ether.”


Personal blogging for writers: a manifesto

This entry is part 8 of 20 in the series Poetics and technology


Thanks to weblogs and other modern content management systems, a poem, essay or story can now be written in the morning and published the same afternoon. Does this spell the end of polished writing? Not judging by some of the highly polished books I’ve read by active bloggers, many of them derived in whole or in part from blogged material.(1) On the contrary, I have seen people become better writers as a result of blogging, myself probably included. Writers have always done some of their best writing in a white heat of inspiration, and blogging can either aid or hinder this depending on the personality of the writer and his or her approach to blogging: it can just as easily be a tool for artistic exploration as an agent of distraction.

Many writers prefer to use blogs merely to share news of their publishing success elsewhere, and that’s fine. But I think those with a more exhibitionist streak are missing out on a great deal of fun, and poets in particular — who are almost invariably exhibitionists, let’s face it — are missing an unparalleled opportunity to connect with audiences they might never otherwise reach. But there’s a risk, too: that they will be so seduced by this new medium that they won’t want to go back to jostling for publication in snooty print magazines no one reads, and their professional reputations will suffer as a result.

Blogs began as collections of links to real material published elsewhere, and to the extent that it’s still possible to generalize about blogging as a whole, I’d say that the “Hey, look at this cool thing I just found!” approach still predominates, whether it’s a tumblelog of quotes and images from around the web, a StumbleUpon blog, or the Huffington Post with its tabloidy presentation of news stories mostly lifted from other sources. But that’s as it should be. For the internet to remain vital, I’d guess that linking of one form or another ought to constitute somewhere around 80 percent of total web publishing behavior.(2)

“Publishing” in this sense means simply the creation of something on the internet that didn’t exist before, even if it’s only a link. Obviously this kind of secondary publication depends entirely upon the publication of original work in the first place, a relationship which the less internet-savvy may be tempted to characterize as parasitic. It certainly can be, in the case of commercial spam blogs with content scraped from RSS feeds for the purpose of gaming search engines, but otherwise I think it’s actually a symbiotic relationship, since without incoming links, an online author is limited to whatever readers s/he can reach through email or handbills.(3)

The biggest difference between online publishing and print publishing is its greater ephemerality: anything that’s published online can also be unpublished, and sites that are not actively maintained will eventually disappear. The flip side of this represents a huge boon for author and editor: any online publication can easily be altered at any time after publication. The print-oriented writer’s obsession with producing the most polished work possible is a natural reaction to the immutability of the printed word. Before I began blogging, I too would typically spend days, weeks, sometimes months on a single poem, returning to it again and again like a dog returning to its vomit. Now, as soon as I get something into a half-decent form, I just post the son of a bitch. I can always go back and swap in another draft later — and sometimes I do.

Mine isn’t the only approach, though, just the one best suited to my particular, impulsive brand of slap-dash perfectionism. Other writer-bloggers might prefer to publish later drafts in new posts, linking back to the original (Dick Jones does this a lot, to good effect) or save them for a spin-off project on another site, with component parts linked in both directions. I’ve also come to admire and sometimes emulate the style of some literary bloggers who share notes on the writing process alongside the primary text. This can make many kinds of writing more approachable for a general audience, especially if the notes are informal and personable. As blog software becomes more sophisticated, I hope to see more templates with innovative approaches to the presentation of notes and commentary.

Instantaneous self-publishing gives the author more power than at any time since the invention of literacy, but it also confers a new degree of autonomy on the text. Once published online, especially on a blog with a feed, the text can be replicated endlessly. Though it’s easy enough to instruct search-engine robots not to index a website, doing so kind of misses the whole point of the internet. Authors who desire complete control over their creations should not go anywhere near the web.

Readers have more power now, too: in most cases they can log comments in a space directly adjoining the text, with a reasonable expectation that the author will read them and even respond in turn. Of course, in many cases the readers are other bloggers, a situation that should feel familiar to most poets. But in some cases they’re bloggers from very different backgrounds, specializing in other genres, with cross-communication enabled by a personal/creative blogging culture in which some blogs (like this one, I hope) elude pigeonholing and mix genres in ways that would be considered unmarketable in traditional publishing.

Becoming part of that culture means adhering to a set of mores that might seem strange to those more familiar with the posturing and flame-wars of the political blogosphere, but the rewards include the chance for new kinds and greater degrees of creative interaction. In a nutshell, I’d say the personal blogger has an obligation to be a gracious host (which includes throwing out mean-spirited or disruptive guests as quickly as possible) and the commenters should behave as if they were guests on someone’s front porch: a publically accessable, privately controlled space.

Blogging enables the mixing not just of genres but of media, too. In contrast to print publication, full-color illustrations entail very little additional expense (and may even be free, depending on one’s web hosting arrangements). The web is in many ways a visual medium, which doesn’t mean that online audiences for longer, unillustrated texts don’t exist, simply that authors have to be aware of different strategies for gaining and retaining readers. Ekphrastic writing is one very common example of the kind of creative synergy maintaining a blog can inspire in its author. Writers with digital cameras can always shift to photoblogging when they start feeling blocked, and the kind of seeing required to take good photos can feed back into their writing.

The web doesn’t have to remain a purely visual medium, though — and this is another of its great advantages over print. Online poets in particular are fools if they don’t at least occasionally take advantage of the opportunity to return listening to center-stage. While eye-catching photos might draw in easily distracted readers, a good audio recording embedded in a Flash player alongside the text can lead someone to actually pay close attention to the poem. Video is another great blogging medium, and while putting videopoems together may seem too complicated for most, anyone capable of writing a sonnet or a villanelle can certainly figure out the basics of video and audio editing. In fact, digital literacy should probably be taught in all college writing programs now.

The greatest thing about the web, for me, is that authors can reach anyone in the world with a connection to the internet, for free or close to it. There is no longer any need for a publisher as an intermediary. The personal weblog medium offers the potential to reach beyond traditional audiences for poetry, nature writing, and other genres that commercial publishers have for decades considered irrelevant. While it’s true that blogging has passed its peak of faddishness, I see that as a sign of growing maturity. And all the people who are now using Facebook and Twitter instead of blogging are still looking for cool things to link to and tweet about.

Many print and online magazines will not consider previously blogged material for publication, causing the more ambitious writers to avoid posting drafts of their work, except possibly in password-protected posts. The irony is that in many cases a poem posted to the author’s blog can reach more readers than it would receive in all but the most widely circulated magazines — even online magazines, which are all too often poorly designed, practically invisible to search engines, and lack any kind of feed.

On the other hand, self-publishing alone does not advance a literary reputation, which is essential if academic advancement is at stake. One solution is for literary bloggers to publish each other. The same tools that enable the easy publication of a personal weblog can be used for any other kind of online periodical. Authors (and readers) can organize formal or informal networks through interlinking and the use of social media tools. We can rise together rather than compete for pieces of an ever-dwindling publishing pie.

Networked bloggers can help promote not only each other’s online work, but books as well, through organized virtual book tours. Audiences built up through years of blogging can be counted upon to buy copies and in some cases to assist in viral marketing, too.

Books need not remain the holy grail of literary publishing, however. Think what writers of such titanic energies as Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, or Pablo Neruda would’ve done had the web existed in their day. Though books are wonderful and will probably always be produced, much of what goes into a blog really can’t fit into a book, and the experience of reading a regularly updated blog as it is being written certainly can’t be reproduced in print. Balancing the immediacy of it are the opportunities for comparison and perspective provided by internal and external hyperlinks, archives, and search unequalled by any indexing a traditional book might provide.

While there is no one best way to present literary and artistic material online, the personal weblog may be the best suited for this age of the memoir. Writers concerned that a focus on personality might draw attention away from the work itself should consider applying a “copyleft” licence to their works, such as a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike licence, to release them for creative re-use and remixing by other writers, artists and musicians. We can also engage in networking and community building with other bloggers, as mentioned above. This includes collaborative projects of all kinds, as well as participation in blogging memes, carnivals, writing and photo prompts, NaNoWriMo, NaPoWriMo, and so on. We can provide readers with tools such as email subscriptions, easy social media sharing options, and print-this-post buttons to encourage the redistribution of works originally written as part of a journal-like blog stream. With all these possibilities for transformation, though, no longer can we think of a creative work as having a single authoritative version. Like its author, the blogged text is forever a work-in-progress. (4)


(1) In addition to the poetry chapbooks by Rachel Barenblat and Sarah J. Sloat that I’ve reviewed previously, these include: Going to Heaven by Elizabeth Adams, Mortal by Ivy Alvarez, Mapmaker of Absences by Maria Benet, Cargo Fever by Will Buckingham, Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole, Uglier than a Monkey’s Armpit by Stephen Dodson and Robert Vanderplank, The Brother Swimming Beneath Me by Brent Goodman, and The Idea of the Local by Tom Montag.

(2) A completely made-up statistic.

(3) During my first eleven months online, before I discovered blogging, I was publishing stuff on a Geocities site, and advertising mostly via email. I get more page views now in a single day than I did in those nine months.

(4) Where does all this leave the critic, then, if writers are reviewing each other and no longer competing for the attention of publishers? Personally, I think literary critics need to combine forces, incorporate, and open an app store. If you want to be a gatekeeper in today’s increasingly open, content-sharing, remixing media environment, you simply have to build a more attractive gate.

Written for Via Negativa’s sixth birthday. Thanks to Jessamyn Smyth and Arvind for the Facebook discussion that gave me the idea to attempt a personal blogger’s manifesto.

Literary podcasting made simple with

This entry is part 9 of 20 in the series Poetics and technology


As I opined in the first episode of the Woodrat Podcast, poetry is above all an oral art — to say nothing of storytelling. At the literary magazine I help run, qarrtsiluni, we started including audio recordings of the authors reading their works more than two years ago, once we figured out how easy it was to get the recordings. Starting this past September, we decided to repackage this feature as a daily podcast, which basically just meant adding an extra spoken introduction and a musical theme, and submitting the main RSS feed to iTunes.

Here’s the thing: for reasons of security against hackers and dependability of service, qarrtsiluni resides at the extremely reliable yet restrictive, hosted version of WordPress, Anyone else with a site, given the right software and hardware, could podcast the same as we do. A lot of mystique surrounds the mechanics of podcasting, but nine tenths of the work is in making the recording. Beyond that, it’s as simple as uploading an audio file to any file storage site (which can be your own blog); adding the audio file link to a new post on your blog, along with an optional Flash player; and hitting Publish. That’s because WordPress feeds are designed to be correctly parsed by iTunes and other podcatchers. (This is equally true for Typepad, by the way. Blogger/Blogspot users have to route their feeds through Feedburner, I think.)

What is podcasting?

Let’s back up a second. What is a podcast? Basically, it’s an internet radio program, which may or may not be affiliated with any actual radio station.

Imagine getting new “radio”-style talk and music shows to listen to on your iPod or other MP3 player every day. You wake up and automatically have new shows ready to listen to while you exercise or commute to work. This is the podcast listening experience. […]

Podcasters are creating very raw and real content and listeners are responding. Free from corporate radio and broadcast regulations, you can create whatever kind of show you can imagine.

Some podcasts are “talk show” style. Others introduce you to the latest bands and music. With podcasts you can stay current on the news, get a glimpse into someone’s life, listen to movie reviews and the list goes on.

Not only do you not need an iPod (source of the “pod” part of “podcast”), but you don’t even need a portable digital device to listen to podcasts. Many people, me included, access them through a regular computer (though good speakers or headphones are a big help). Literary podcasts are still a little thin on the ground, which is one reason why I’m writing this article. I’d especially like to hear more writers doing their own shows in the style of T.M. Camp or Joe Milford, who uses the hosted podcast platform Blog Talk Radio for live and unedited, talk-radio-style interviews with poets. It would also be fun to hear personal bloggers talk about what they’ve been reading, writing, observing and thinking.

The Wikipedia article on podcasts has a good technical definition, attributed to journalism and communications researchers at the University of Texas:

A podcast is a digital audio or video file that is episodic; downloadable; programme-driven, mainly with a host and/or theme; and convenient, usually via an automated feed with computer software.

I don’t know anything about video podcasting, so this article will focus solely on audio. As the foregoing definition suggests, you don’t really even have to make your audio stream available through iTunes to qualify as a podcast. The fact that your site generates an RSS feed that handles audio enclosures takes care of the “convenient” part, really. It’s the other stuff — the style and content of the audio files, and the regularity with which you post them — that really differentiates podcasting from just putting up audio whenever the spirit moves you. But somewhere around 70 percent of all podcast listeners on the web do use iTunes, and it’s safe to assume that a good number of them don’t know how to enter an RSS feed in the iTunes store themselves. (Those using other podcatchers, by contrast, probably do understand such things.) So let’s go through what’s involved in submitting a podcast to iTunes.

Main feed, category feed, or dedicated blog?

For the qarrtsiluni daily podcast, we simply submitted our main RSS feed to the iTunes store. Previously, we had had a tri-monthly podcast in which we tried to cram the contents of entire issues. It might have failed as a podcast, being too difficult both to produce and to listen to, but again, the actual distribution part worked fine. For that earlier incarnation of the qarrtsiluni podcast, we created a new category, “podcast,” and submitted the feed for just that category.* In, simply add “/feed/” to the end of any category URL to get the RSS feed for that category.

If you anticipate making audio posts that are not part of your podcast, you’ll definitely want to restrict the podcast to one category. You’ll need to advertise the category RSS alongside the iTunes link for the benefit of people who want to subscribe through other podcatchers or feed readers. Obviously you can still assign a given podcast episode to multiple categories, just make sure that your podcast category is one of them. If you use your main feed, as we do now at qarrtsiluni, be mindful of the fact that iTunes and other podcatchers will treat every post with an audio link as a podcast episode.

A third option is to start a new blog just for the podcast. This gives you the most control over what image, name and description show up in iTunes, but it does mean you’ll have to work a little harder to attract an audience. Episodes won’t show up in email and RSS subscriptions for those who already follow your main site unless you cross-post them. You could of course use an RSS widget to display links to the latest episodes in your main site’s sidebar.

Podcast image and metadata

The image that iTunes will use for your podcast comes from what calls your blavatar (your blog’s avatar, not to be confused with your own avatar as a user of, and is uploaded via the General Settings page of your WordPress dashboard. Be sure to upload the largest size supported there, 128×128 pixels, to avoid pixilation… while at the same time picking something simple enough to look half-decent as a tiny favicon in browser address bars. This can make for an interesting design challenge.

The title of the podcast is simply the title of your blog, and the summary below the image is the description you entered in the general settings (which in qarrtsiluni’s case is not very illuminating: “online literary magazine”). If you use a dedicated category, the title will appear in iTunes as “yourblogtitle » podcastcategoryname,” which is slightly ungainly, and the summary will still come from the blog’s description. Optional iTunes fields such as subtitle and keywords have to go unfilled when podcasting from a site.

You can use the Excerpt box to make manual summaries of your posts for iTunes to use as descriptions of each podcast episode (which appear in the pop-up when you click on the little “i” with the circle around it). Otherwise, iTunes will simply include the first 65 words followed by an ellipsis. Also, these descriptions are not pretty: even apostrophes, let alone ampersands and other special characters, will be in HTML code, and links will not appear. One thing to keep in mind when crafting episode summaries or writing the first few sentences of your post is that they will be used for keyword indexing, along with the post titles.

Recording and posting

As I said at the outset, most of the work of podcasting is in making the recording, and this is where you really don’t want to cut too many corners. Yes, there are any number of ways to record spoken word, and as we’ve discovered at qarrtsiluni, even a bad telephone connection recorded over Skype can be perfectly adequate for a three-minute-long poem, especially if the reading is a strong one. But for anything much longer, it does help to have a decent external microphone. That heavy layer of electronic noise you get with the internal mike in your Mac will become tiresome to listeners after more than five minutes. You’ll need to learn how to use decent audio editing software. If you plan on interviewing a lot of people over the phone, you’ll probably want to pay for phone-out privileges in Skype, and also get the premium version of one of the several recorder software applications (I use Pamela), the free versions of which tend to limit you to 15-minute calls.

My point here is that you don’t need to pay a lot of money for equipment and software, but if you are on very a tight budget, you might not want to take up podcasting. If you’re not, the $20/year that charges for the lowest file storage upgrade to 5 GB, necessary to upload any audio files to your blog, is a really good deal in my opinion. There is apparently no limit on file size now (it used to be around 70 MB), and no limit on transfers, bandwidth, or downloads. Yes, there are free file storage sites you can use, some more reliable than others, but what you get with is virtually uninterrupted service and fast, cloud-based streaming. In fact, I even use it to host the audio for my podcast here at Via Negativa, an independently hosted WordPress site. My webhost is pretty good, but it is a typical cheap shared web hosting service with occasional blips in service, and I don’t want people to be cut off in the middle of a half-hour show.

The official support page on how to post audio is a decent summary. Many more options for the design and positioning of the audio player are detailed at the very useful, WordPress Tips blog.

Including a player is optional — though a very good idea — but including a link to the audio file is essential if you want podcatchers to pick up the episode. Even if you’re just posting audio and not really podcasting, including the audio file link is still a good practice to get into, since otherwise feed and email subscribers won’t have any way to listen without clicking through. Plus, not all visitors to your site will have Flash enabled, so they won’t all even see the players.

One thing to keep in mind is that iTunes and most other podcatchers will only grab the first audio file in a post, so if you produce, say, a monthly podcast in several parts, each part will need to go up in a separate post.

Submitting your feed to iTunes

First you have to post at least one episode. Then test your feed in iTunes, and if it checks out, submit it — making sure to choose the most relevant iTunes categories — and wait. As with most things Apple, the approval process is shrouded in secrecy, but I’ve done this three times now, and the longest I’ve had to wait was something like 36 hours. Once you’re approved, take the link they give you and advertise it in your sidebar and wherever else you want to promote your show.

Stats and Feedburner

At this point, doesn’t give bloggers any way to track the number of downloads on a podcast or other audio file, so a lot of people recommend routing your feed (main or category, whichever you’re using) through Feedburner, and submitting that instead of your feed. Feedburner does provide stats, but I’m not sure how reliable they are — they tend to fluctuate wildly from day to day, in my experience. Also, I found it sometimes took up to 12 hours for Feedburner feeds to update with new content, though it’s been many months since I’ve used the wretched service — perhaps it’s improved in the interim. Feedburner’s SmartCast feature does, however, give you more control over iTunes metadata, so it might be worth using for that reason alone, though I gather that getting your podcast description to update in iTunes using Feedburner is a bit of a hassle.

Good luck, and please let me know via the comments if you start a literary podcast (or already have one) so I can follow it. I may or may not be able to answer technical queries; I’m very much still a learner here, just sharing what little I’ve been able to pick up.

*This is also my approach here at Via Negativa with the Woodrat podcast, though being independently hosted I am able to use a plugin to get some extra control over the display both on-site and in iTunes. For other self-hosted WordPressers who might be curious, I am using the newish Blubrry Powerpress plugin, though I haven’t been using it long enough to really be able to evaluate it.

The latest blog redesign: a quest for readability

This entry is part 10 of 20 in the series Poetics and technology


As you might have noticed if you’ve visited the site anytime in the past three days, I’ve been messing around with the design a bit. I can’t promise I’m done tinkering yet, but I think I’m almost where I want to be. I had two, basic goals: to provide better navigation among my four personal blogs — Via Negativa, The Morning Porch, Moving Poems, and the occasionally updated Woodrat Photoblog — and to make this blog in particular easier to read and navigate.

The new top navigation bar is my attempt to solve the first problem, though I do worry it may seem a bit grandiose, like I’m trying to set myself up as a one-person blog network. But why not? Think of me as a poetry-obsessed Arianna Huffington or Om Malik, minus all the pesky traffic and employees. And actually I did get the CSS code for the univeral nav bar from another one-man show, WordPress lead developer Mark Jacquith (always steal from the best).

Preliminary results from the stat plugins on each blog do show a slight uptick in cross-site visits, which is what I was looking for. Each of the first three sites has its own fan base, which is great, but it doesn’t hurt to remind people about the other ones. And I do feel that the main navigation menu for any site should be confined to intramural links; mixing on-site and outside links in the same menu strikes me as questionable usability. So it was good to get the Morning Porch and Moving Poems links off of the main menu here, and make room for other stuff.

Of course, some people never notice anything at the top of the screen, but that’s O.K. I still list and describe “My other projects on the web” at the bottom of the sidebar.

Speaking of the sidebar, that’s obviously one of the things I’ve changed in my effort to make Via Negativa more readable. I’ve been very impressed by the theme I’ve been using for The Morning Porch, Ian Stewart’s Kirby theme — especially by how readable the main column is with really big type. Stewart referenced something called The 100% Easy-to-Read Standard, which begins,

Most websites are crammed with small text that’s a pain to read. Why? There is no reason for squeezing so much information onto the screen. It’s just a stupid collective mistake that dates back to a time when screens were really, really small.

I spend a lot of time crafting the stuff I publish here, so I think it’s worth thinking about how and whether people read it. Over at qarrtsiluni, we try to combat the average reader’s tendency to skim material on the web by providing audio for every text post, so people can listen along while they read. That’s too much of a hassle to do here; the weekly podcast is already enough work. But I started thinking of the literary sites I find easiest to read, and generally they are distinguished by large type and lots of white space, just as the above-linked article recommends. Take a look at this typical page from Poetry International Web, for example: Wadih Saadeh’s “Shadows.” Or check out Linebreak, or the big honking type on Necessary Fiction. Pretty enjoyable to read, aren’t they? That’s kind of what I’m trying to duplicate here.

Except for the white space part. I am not willing to give up on the stuff in the sidebar just yet. If readability were my sole concern, I’d do away with sidebars altogether, as I’ve done at my two static online collections of poems, Spoil and Shadow Cabinet (and yes, I’ve increased the font size at both those sites as well). But I have to balance readability with other goals, such as improving access to the voluminous Via Negativa archives, and also linking to other people’s blogs, which is a vital part of the whole blogging enterprise.

Do I really still need two sidebars, though? It might seem as if I could do away with the sidebar version of Smorgasblog and just keep it on its own page, but if I did that, it wouldn’t get nearly as many readers, and the people I link to wouldn’t get much of a boost in Google or in Technorati, as I understand it. The only real option I think would be to do away with it as a semi-separate blog and integrate link posts with main-column material, possibly distinguished by some special styling, à la Tumblr. (I could still filter them out of the main RSS feed, so as not to annoy subscribers by sending too many posts their way.)

I am still thinking about this — any feedback would be appreciated. Obviously with just one sidebar, I could have lots more white space. On the other hand, I don’t think my current strategy works all that badly: putting sidebar material in a lightly colored box and a different font does seem to set off the main content pretty well, though I may not be the best judge of that. I am also thinking a width of 520 pixels seems a little cramped for 16-pixel type. (One alteration later — see comments — the main column is 540 pixels wide, and looking a bit less cramped, maybe.)

among the big oaks

By the way, if you’re the kind of person who likes to nose around in stylesheets, be prepared for a bit of a shock when you look at mine. It’s a mare’s nest. When WordPress adopted the slogan, “Code is Poetry,” I don’t think this is what they had on mind. On the other hand, since I know so little about the fundamentals of CSS (and even less about PHP, the main language WordPress is written in), playing around with the design and functionality of one of my blog sites reminds me very much of trying to write a poem: I am rarely sure what will happen when I try something new, and nine tenths of what I try never makes it out of draft. In short, it’s an adventure.