Poetry and technology brain dump at Very Like a Whale

This entry is part 11 of 20 in the series Poetics and technology


In lieu of a Via Negativa post today, I have a guest post at Nic S.’s blog Very Like a Whale — actually a series of ten mini-essays in response to 10 Questions on Poets & Technology. Please go read.

If you have the time, I highly recommend reading the other responses to the interview so far (see the links at the bottom of my piece). I’ve been really impressed by the breadth and depth of replies, and have ended up posting links to almost all of them at Facebook. Clearly, this is a topic I get pretty passionate about, as witnessed by the length of my own response. I started jotting down ideas a month ago, and thought I had it mostly finished yesterday morning, but instead spent another ten hours working on it. I know, I know, it’s just supposed to be an interview…

Blogging in English class

This entry is part 12 of 20 in the series Poetics and technology


Watch at YouTube.

If the writers’ workshop, popular at most colleges, married online technologies, and they had a ninth-grade daughter, it would be Mr. Stephens’s English class.

Thus begins this funky and wonderful video application to Google for some free Chrome OS notebook computers. “Mr. Stephens” is my friend and fellow blogging enthusiast Peter of Slow Reads, who two years ago guest-blogged a post for this series about teaching grammer on Twitter. (He now uses the Twitter-like microblog service for schools, Edmodo, instead.) The video mentions the multi-user blog community he set up using WordPress, inko.us, as well as a plethora of other websites and online applications he’s adapted for high school use.

But just as important as the online tools are the freedom Peter allows his students and the respect he shows them. “To the extent possible, I’d like to run the classroom like a writer’s workshop,” he says.

They are the writers. They make choices. The more I can treat them like writers, the more effective they’re gonna be as writers and the more love they’re gonna have as writers. If they are always told what to write, whom to write to, and what genre to write in, they’re not gonna feel like writers.

To me, blogging is all about exploring this kind of freedom, and I’m glad Peter is able to bring that into the normally restictive environment of a public school classroom. I’ve always admired his willingness to learn new technologies; as the first lines of the video suggest, I think he’s actually ahead of most university writing teachers in this regard. In his blog post about the application to Google, he mentions that he bought and learned how to use iMovie for the sole purpose of making this video — his first. Do watch it.

On Beyond Zebra: discovering @font-face

This entry is part 13 of 20 in the series Poetics and technology


On Beyond Zebra coverOn Beyond Zebra was always one of my favorite Dr. Seuss books: an alphabet of new, imaginary letters and the fabulous beasts whose names they were invented to spell. This week, I finally decided to figure out what this new-fangled @font-face CSS property for websites was all about, and I’m feeling very much as if the old alphabet has suddenly expanded into uncharted territory. If you’ve visited Via Negativa or any of its sister sites in the past few days, you might have noticed some of the results: a new header font here, a new header and description font at The Morning Porch, new headers and headings at Moving Poems and the Moving Poems forum blog, and a new base font at the Woodrat Photoblog.

You’re probably going to be seeing a lot more of this kind of experimentation around the web in the next few years. Here’s why. Until recently, web designers have been limited to a very small number of fonts that are compatible with all browsers, and a few of them, such as Comic Sans and Impact, kind of suck, which narrows the field even further. You can of course introduce fancy fonts in image form, but the problem with using images rather than text is that you are basically saying “fuck you” to the visually disabled, who rely on screen readers to access the web, as well as making yourself less visible to search engines. (I am continually baffled and irritated by literary magazines that use JPEGs for all or most of their textual content, but that’s a rant best saved for another time.)

The @font-face method is one solution that’s gained a lot of traction over the past year. Check out “The Essential Guide to @font-face” from Six Revisions, which I just discovered this evening (sure could have used it earlier in the week). As they explain, it’s not simply the CSS property itself, but a particular syntax for it that has enabled webmasters to overcome what might otherwise seem like a fairly daunting challenge: the fact that you have to reference four different font formats to accommodate all browsers.

Of course, we can’t possibly expect all the browsers to play nice and agree on a given solution! That would just be unreasonable.

Instead, all the major browsers have decided to go their own way with font formats that they choose to support.

  • Internet Explorer only supports EOT
  • Mozilla browsers support OTF and TTF
  • Safari and Opera support OTF, TTF and SVG
  • Chrome supports TTF and SVG.

Further, mobile browsers like Safari on the iPad and iPhone require SVG.

If this is beginning to sound like a huge pain in the ass, relax and do what I did at first: head over to Google Web Fonts. Google takes care of all the complicated stuff for you, and using one of their free fonts reduces the load on your server compared to uploading the font files to your website. To experiment with it, stick the line of code they supply for your chosen font in the head portion of your site, and substitute the name of the font for whatever you want to try replacing in your stylesheet. If you’re the cautious sort of person who likes to read a tutorial first, another one from Six Revisions, “A Guide to Google Font API,” covers all the essential points in a little more detail than Google’s own introduction.

If you’re on WordPress.com, by the way, I believe you can only use Google web fonts with the paid CSS upgrade at this point. Although you don’t have access to your theme’s header file, you can put something like
@import url(https://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=theme+name);
in your stylesheet and achieve the same effect. Or you can use Typekit via the link-up provided in your site’s dashboard. They do have a few free options, I gather, but for the most part they’re a paid service with annual fees to use proprietary fonts. Which kind of takes all the fun of it, in my opinion.

According to Six Revisions, “The Google Fonts API … neglects to include an SVG version so there is currently no support for mobile devices.” I don’t know that I’m hugely concerned whether people accessing my sites on small screens have access to prettier typography; the fall-back fonts ought to do well enough. However, Google web fonts are still fairly limited in number, so I do recommend checking out the much larger trove of free fonts at Font Squirrel as well. (Thanks to Elizabeth Enslin for tipping me off about them earlier this week.) I used their kit for a public-domain font called Goudy Bookletter 1911 over at the photoblog this afternoon, and the process was painless: just a little more code to paste into the stylesheet, and some files to upload to my WordPress theme folder.

In each case, of course, introducing a new font has prompted me to tinker with the design as well. While this hasn’t resulted in any major changes at this blog yet, it did result in, I think, some dramatic improvements at the Moving Poems sites, where I may end up not keeping that crazy header font — Slackey, by Sideshow — but feel kind of fond of it now, since it was my very first experiment with this new approach to web fonts.

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, self-publishing is a habit that started when I was a kid, and my brothers and I put out a quarterly nature magazine. We were part of the Xerox revolution, boys and girls, and it was totally analog! Our articles were typed, we drew the illustrations in pen and ink, and I taught myself calligraphy to do the article headings. Despite devouring a pile of books on calligraphy and type, however, I didn’t keep up with the hobby, and for a number of years in my 20s, virtually the only fonts I composed in were whatever monospaced monstrosities WordPerfect used pre-6.0. MS Word was a huge improvement, with dozens of fonts to choose from. Going from Word to the web, with just a handful of usable fonts, seemed like a step backwards. To this day, there’s a great sameness to the way the web looks, even outside the padded cells of Facebook. But if this @font-face method catches on the way I think it will, the web is about to become a lot more eccentric and diverse.

On translating poetry into bloggish

This entry is part 14 of 20 in the series Poetics and technology


I’m not a real translator, but I play one on my blog. I don’t know the languages I translate from — Spanish, Japanese, Chinese — at all well, and I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable with sending my translations out for publication elsewhere, but I have no qualms about posting them here (and occasionally at Moving Poems), and in fact treat such posting as part of the process. Some of my readers have native fluency in the languages I translate from, and will let me know if I’ve messed something up, especially if I include or link to the original. Others are learners like me, and enjoy putting an oar in on occasion. Plus, anyone with a good ear for poetry in English is qualified to critique a translation to some extent, I think. I am pretty confident that Edward Snow is Rilke’s greatest English translator ever, for example, even though I don’t know a lick of German — his translations just feel right. And I am equally confident that some perfectly fine poets fall short as translators because, no matter the language they’re working with, their translations always sound exactly like their own poems.

Several times I have solicited feedback on difficult phrases, sparking interesting and useful discussions, both here and on Facebook. Last June, for example, I asked for help with a line from a poem by Jorge Tellier, and the responses from people with better Spanish than me was sufficiently contradictory that in the end the arbitrariness of my choice was scarcely diminished — but it was a much better informed choice than it otherwise would have been. In December 2009, my posting of some annotated translations of Buson’s haiku elicited, among other things, a helpful response from a Dutch translator (and Twitter contact) who had written an entire essay about one of the poems discussed. Back when Via Negativa was still on Blogger, a lengthy exchange with an Indian student of classical Japanese (subsequently lost — curse you, Haloscan!) helped me whip my translations of tanka by Izumi Skikibu into shape. Which was a good thing, since that post has drawn a lot of search-engine traffic over the years. Such crowd-sourced collaboration is of course one of the great distinguishing features of literature on the web, and it’s a source of conviviality and delight.

Including the original texts sometimes involves copyright violation, but since this is a “just” a blog and I can take down anything right away if the current copyright holder complains, I don’t feel I need to go through the hassle of trying to track down said copyright holders to gain permission. A strict interpretation of international copyright law would also deem the translations themselves to be in violation, as derivative works, but I tend to agree with the spirit of “fair use” in U.S. copyright law that holds that a sufficiently creative transformation of source material shouldn’t require special permission. Still, as managaing editor for qarrtsiluni, I felt we had to take quite a stricter line for submissions to our current Translation issue. And I got to see first-hand how hard it can be to locate copyright holders for works whose authors have died more recently than 70 years ago (the point at which they enter the public domain).

Online dictionaries are one of the greatest things on the web, right up there with Google and blogging, and when you’re a dilettante translator whose knowledge of the source language barely covers the grammar and a basic vocabulary, good dictionaries are a must. Nor is it only foreign-language dictionaries I depend on; English dictionaries with lots of synonyms and/or online thesauruses are also helpful in grinding out translations quickly enough to satisfy the ever-voracious blog. Translating a poem is just like writing an original poem, only more so: that constant groping for just the right word is rendered all the more acute by the need to stay faithful to a template. And with a closely related language like Spanish, one has to constantly struggle against the impulse to use the cognate, or the first word given by the bilingual dictionary (which often is the cognate). Plus, I like to search for other translations online and see what they’ve done — knowing that this will put even more pressure on me to come up with something original.

Note by the way that “original” doesn’t necessarily mean “unique.” Often the best choice, or at least one of the best choices, will indeed turn out to be the most obvious one, but that decision should only be arrived at through struggle. This is what originality means for a writer: to dive down to the origins of language and meaning as often as possible.

This kind of part-time, half-serious translating for the blog may seem irresponsible, but for me, it’s a way of paying homage to literary heroes and sharing my enthusiasm for their work — and what is blogging about if not the sharing of enthusiasms? Sometimes it takes a more serious cast: when Hondurans were fighting against a coup government in the summer of 2009, I blogged a six-part series of Honduran poetry, trying to show how some of the country’s leading writers have perceived its political, social and economic situation over the decades with poems by Oscar Acosta, Roberto Sosa, Clementina Suarez and others. One of my more astute readers responded: “Thanks for dwelling with Honduras. There seems to be some glare at this time that keeps me from seeing too far into the poems, but still I get a feeling of being somehow present in that landscape where I’ve scarcely, but memorably, been.” I’d like to think I got beneath the surface of two or three of the 16 poems I translated for the series, but in general, yes — I’m afraid there was a bit of surface glare.

If I did know the source languages well, would I still feel compelled to attempt translations? I am far from the first poet to treat translation as a species of decipherment. And I’ve been assured by a few professional translators that there’s nothing wrong with this, that it’s considered perfectly respectable within their discipline. That’s all to the good, I suppose. But I am still going to self-identify as an apprentice translator, because translating poetry for me is very much an act of apprenticeship: I want to study how master poets have played with language and meaning. I want to practice slow reading of the most deliberate kind.

In general, as a writer, I try and work on cultivating a better quality of attention to the world around me, and translating helps me do that. We flatter ourselves that we understand a little about the inner workings of the universe, but every day brings news of fresh discoveries from biologists and physicists that turn accepted ideas on their head. And if even the scientists don’t know what’s going on, where does that leave the rest of us, who probably can’t identify half the species in our own back yards, let alone begin to untangle their relationships? To say nothing of the mysteries of human nature and society.

So in a very real sense, every act of writing is an act of translation, and every honest effort to translate involves “going to the pine,” to paraphrase Basho. How can I translate another’s words when I have yet to interpret my own? For example, I have been writing about darkness forever, but just yesterday an online friend from the city on his first writers’ retreat deep in the country marveled: it’s dark here! I was struck by the realization that although we’ve been in conversation for severn years and have talked about concepts of light and darkness more than once, he and I have had very different ideas about this word “darkness” all that time.

Languages too are full of mysteries. I’ve done just enough translating to experience the rare joy of a serendipitous echo across the gulf between languages — a kind of discovery hardly differing from those one makes when writing one’s own poem and suddenly learning what it is one really thinks or feels. There’s more than one way to rescue something from that great blankness beyond language. Everyone talks about what’s lost in translation, but you rarely hear about the found things, which are of course equally numerous. Regular readers may recall this list of things I’ve found in one sort of translation or another:

  • The steam that rises from a slaughtered hog on a cool morning in October, mingling with our breath.
  • The missing links from a game of Chinese whispers, complete with shrugs.
  • A hole in the wall just big enough for an empty hand, a hand without a fist in it.
  • A spotted feather dropped by a striped bird.
  • The tribal woman pressing her face into the anthropologist’s wet clay, then raising her head and laughing, so that flakes of clay fly off.
  • A formula for silence that doesn’t involve wind or distance.
  • The reptile claws of ferns before there were fiddles.
  • The self-censorship of clouds on a clear day.
  • Tears of a potato rendered chemically unable to sprout.
  • A nest of spray cans under the railroad trestle and the deep-sea visions of those who used them in lieu of oxygen.
  • The royal carpet a thistle extends to bees.
  • The silver hair of water going over the concrete spillway that no one stops to look at on their way to the pig roast.
  • Young thrushes practicing their song over the noise of the mining trucks, perched in the shadow of the disappeared mountain.
  • A stranger’s finger on your face, causing you to forget your own name for a few seconds.
  • Foghorns and their incidental summons to a new life.

Of course I blogged this as if it were a poem, as if it were something original to me. The comments were forgiving: “A waking dream,” offered one. Yes, that too. Such imprecision would doubtless make a professional translator balk.

Five years of WordPress: a love note

This entry is part 15 of 20 in the series Poetics and technology


Via Negativa passed an important milestone here on April 1. It was on that date in 2006 that my geek cousin Matt and I completed the move of this blog off Blogspot to its new domain on a platform that was then just beginning to attract more widespread attention beyond the circle of open-source geeks who developed it: WordPress 2.0. I don’t remember how I heard of it myself, but it turned out to be a very lucky choice. Moveable Type (or its hosted counterpart, Typepad) was still the preferred choice of serious bloggers at the time, but it had gotten kind of a bad reputation as a result of its developers’ disastrous decision to start charging for it. WordPress was free of charge. Aside from that, my other main criteria I think were having categories (Blogger was years away from its debut of “topics” at that point) and static pages to use for permanent site information (ditto). Boy, did I lust after categories!

The open source aspect was part of what attracted me, but it took a year or two for me to really appreciate its significance as a model for how poets and artists might collaborate and let go of their impulse to restrict others’ use of their content, and how good it would be for the culture at large if we all took our cues from the free/libre and open source software (FLOSS) movements. Regular readers of Via Negativa see one result of this new attitude every day in the form of Luisa Igloria’s poems, based to one extent or another on my Morning Porch entries.

And yes, thanks to WordPress and the pleasure I get from working with it, I have been led to launch quite a number of other sites, too, over the past five years, a few of them hosted at WordPress.com (the Festival of the Trees and Plummer’s Hollow blogs, plus qarrtsiluni, which began on Typepad) but the majority as self-hosted WordPress.org installations (The Morning Porch, Moving Poems, the Woodrat Photoblog, Postal Poetry, Shadow Cabinet, etc). Had I chosen Moveable Type, I doubt I ever would’ve expanded much beyond Via Negativa and qarrtsiluni; its code would’ve remained impenetrable to me, unmotivated as I am to actually knuckle down and study programming languages in any systematic way. That’s because Moveable Type is written in Perl, which is way gnarlier than I can handle. WordPress, by contrast, uses PHP, which is a lot less intimidating if you already know some HTML, as I did (thank you, Old Blogger!): HTML and CSS can be mixed right in. Seeing something you already know makes the rest of it a hell of a lot easier to dope out. “Copy, paste, and don’t panic” might as well be the official WordPress slogan for tens of thousands of code-poet-wannabes like me: WP’s fanatic fanboy base.

There are definite drawbacks to using the world’s most popular blogging platform, as I’ve discovered on two separate occasions: you’re a big target for hackers. But the ease and pleasure of use more than make up for it. I hope I have retained some critical objectivity about WordPress — I certainly don’t agree with every decision of its lead developer, for example — but it’s hard, possibly even mistaken, to be objective about something you love. I actually worry that subsequent major versions of the software will go too far in the direction of accessibility and eliminate the need for guys like me to muck about in the code.

Software purists like to deride WordPress as a kludge, and while I have no way to evaluate or contextualize that judgment, I do like its cobbled-together, Mir-ish vibe, the sense that the slightly twisted geniuses who work on the core code will always manage to stay one step ahead of disaster with the generous application of duct tape and super glue. I love how we can replicate that in a small way on our own sites: hack up a free theme, dump in a bunch of plugins, and try to keep too many PHP processes from pushing CPU usage through the roof and getting shut down by our bargain-basement webhosts. Fun! In software as in art and literature, it’s the mongrel that has the hybrid vigor, the impurities around which pearls form. And while Moveable Type or its fork Melody will I’m sure always have their advocates, and many other equally fine blogging platforms all have their strengths, I am pleased to be part of a worldwide community that takes freedom and generosity so seriously. I’m so glad that on a rainy April day five years ago, I decided to become part of the solution.

House of Wordiness: my nearly endless interview at the Palace

This entry is part 16 of 20 in the series Poetics and technology


At her blog The Palace at 2:00 a.m., Marly Youmans has an on-going series of interviews with writers and publishers called The House of Words. One afternoon last February, I sat down and wrote a few thousand words in response to a series of questions she sent me, and promptly forgot about it until a couple months later when the first installment appeared (#20 in the series). Marly posted a few installments, illustrated with photos she found at Via Negativa, then went on vacation for a month… in the midst of which, somewhat surreally, she and I actually met up in Wales. This was the very first time we met, despite the fact that we’ve known each other for several years and are only about a five-hour drive apart over some of the most lovingly maintained highways in the world. Anyway, the interview finally resumed in the third week of May, and just concluded a few days ago. Here are the links to the pieces in order, with a brief quote from each to give you a flavor. If you have comments on specific points I raise in the series, please leave them at Marly’s blog rather than here so as to keep the discussion in one place.

Part 1
Friends started telling me about Blogger that summer, but like most literary snobs I turned my nose up at it, both because of the absurd and ugly word, “blog,” and also because of what I was hearing about blogs in the mainstream media: that they were filled with worthless minutiae of people’s daily lives and/or links accompanied by minimal, uninformed comments. It didn’t seem at all attractive.

Part 2
I’ve come to feel that blogging and poetry writing are an ideal match, at least for those of us who are shameless enough to share imperfect drafts with the world.

Part 3
The push to come up with new content every day was transformative.

Part 4
I feel like a bit of a hypocrite: I run an online journal, but almost never submit my own work to journals unless invited. But mostly that’s because very few journals consider previously blogged material, and I write first and foremost to feed the blog.

Part 5
In general, I think the best medicine for discouragement [at not getting published] is to join a community of writers, online or in real life, and focus on the writing rather than the writer.

Part 6
There are just so many opportunities for collaboration now — I don’t see how any serious writer can fail to be excited by that.

Part 7
Generations of poets have been taught to be absolute perfectionists and struggle against every word, because we all know how mortifying it is to have to look at a poem in print that we’ve long since revised. Being mainly self-published and mainly online does allow for a more fluid conception of one’s work.

Part 8
It gradually turned into a regular magazine, though we’ve never gone so far as to issue periodic issue-dumps, as other online magazines do, preferring instead to remain bloggish, with new material at least five times a week, and comments activated for every post.

Part 9
I fear a lot of people start blogs these days on the advice of editors or agents who neglect to tell them that the most important trait of a good blogger is generosity.

Jack-in-the-boxwood, Wales (photo by Marly)
Jack-in-the-boxwood, Wales (photo by Marly--click on the photo to visit her post)
Marly Youmans and Clive Hicks-Jenkins
Marly Youmans and Clive Hicks-Jenkins take a spin through the art gallery

At play in the fields of Google

This entry is part 17 of 20 in the series Poetics and technology


UPDATE (9/1/11): I’ve decided to end my use of Google+ due to Google’s intransigence over its identity policy. One Facebook is enough! See you over at the other corporate soul-stealer.

Cory Doctorow sums up the issues better than I could.


So I’ve joined Google+, the fantastic new social network for talking about Google+. (It’s still in private beta, but I have invitations if anyone wants one.) Enthusiasm for the still-developing service has been balanced by skepticism that we actually need another general-purpose social network — see for example what Lorianne DiSabato and Beth Adams have blogged about it. Here are my initial reactions.

1) Facebook has had a “lists” feature for quite some time, supposedly allowing one to keep up with subsets of one’s contacts — family, close friends, blogger buddies, etc. Unfortunately, it never shows me more than the most recent day or two of posts from the lists I’ve set up, and even then doesn’t seem to include everything. Facebook is good at suggesting people I should add to each semi-functional list, which makes me suspect it’s really all about data-mining with advertisers in mind: figure out how specifically we network so they can better target us in coordinated advertising campaigns. Now, there’s no guarantee that Google+’s ballyhooed “circles” won’t have the same ultimate purpose. But the interface for screening one’s data-stream by subset of contacts is much smoother, it’s not three clicks away, and (so far at least) it works.

2) Data portability is a critical issue for me. Google+ lets you download and save all your posts at any time. I like that. Despite my very liberal views on copyright and content-sharing, I don’t like the feeling I get over at Facebook that my content isn’t really my own.

3) Much as I like the 140-character limit at Twitter and Identi.ca as an enforcer of concision and spur to creativity for my microblogging at The Morning Porch, I don’t otherwise see the point, and I resent Facebook limiting the length of status updates. Google+ lets you go on as long as you like. It’s bloggish.

4) While it would be nice to have a “Facebook for grown-ups,” and I’ll be happy if Google+ becomes that and gets mass adoption, at this point I’m most interested in social networking around specific interests or for specific purposes. (Just look at the success of Goodreads among book-readers and Ravelry among knitters.) It’s not clear to me yet whether Google+, with its circles and video-chat “hangouts,” represents a major step forward in this regard. I am considering getting a webcam, though — the possibilities for small-group readings and workshops are very tantalizing. I’ve always hesitated to organize conference calls on Skype due to the sometimes intermittent nature of our internet connection here; far better if it were hosted in the cloud, as Google+ hangouts are. Also, spontaneous get-togethers are often the best kind, and creative types in particular are hard to herd, as would be necessary if I ever tried the Skype approach.

5) Like Beth and Lorianne, I’m a blogger first and foremost. I think that anyone who really has anything to say on a regular basis should have their own blog, and that we should preferentially leave comments about blog posts at the point of origin and stop letting discussions fragment and dissipate at a half-dozen different places where the link might be shared.

6) A link-sharing culture, regardless of its host (Google+, Reddit, Tumblr, StumbleUpon, etc.) is fundamentally about enthusiasm for things that others have written, captured or made. This is both good and bad. I like the enthusiasm (and the frequent displays of wit), but I get frustrated after a while and want to say, O.K., but what have you made? Where are your poems? Hang out too much with professional writers or artists, though, and you’ll notice that we tend to go in the opposite direction, rarely sharing anything we didn’t make ourselves. Is it possible that our participation in social networks has helped mitigate this tendency a little? Or for those of us who were already blogging before Facebook and Twitter got big, has it actually shrunk our blogs, diminishing the emphasis we once placed on linking out, assembling sidebar linkrolls, and being social, because hey, we’re doing enough of that elsewhere? Self-centered and often anti-social as I am, I do try to strike a balance between self-promotion and other-promotion, but it’s not always easy. I like to think my use of Facebook has forced me to at least stay focused on the problem.

7) Email is still the “killer app” for me and I think for almost everyone over the age of 30. Unlike phone calls or (god help us) instant messaging, it doesn’t interrupt whatever I’m doing and destroy my concentration. We need less distraction, not more. What keeps me involved in online social interactions are email notifications, and the more customizable those notifications are, the happier I am. Facebook has recently gotten pretty good in this regard, letting me decide on a page-by-page and group-by-group basis how I want to be notified. It would be nice if I could do this for each comment thread as well, because some discussions you really want to follow and others, not so much. (I’ve seen participants in Facebook conversations go back and delete their comments just to stop the flood of notifications when the conversation goes on too long!)

It is in this regard that the older blogging platforms are really falling behind WordPress. I’m much less likely to leave a comment anymore if can’t keep track of follow-up discussion via email. I’ll actually be surprised if Blogger doesn’t overhaul its archaic commenting system soon, and introduce a “subscribe to other comments in this thread” feature when it does so. Typepad is probably a lost cause. (Incidentally, for self-hosted WordPress bloggers, I recommend the plugin I’m using, Subscribe to Comments Reloaded, rather than the original Subscribe to Comments, which hasn’t been updated since 2007. Previously I used a different plugin with a double opt-in feature — in other words, the subscriber had to not only check a box, but reply to an email in order to confirm each and every subscription. That’s too many hoops to jump through, I think.)

The point is that for me and I presume most other email-oriented people who want to participate in online conversations, it’s important that we have the option to follow discussions via email — and that we have fine-grained controls, including the option to unsubscribe from any discussion at any time. WordPress.com currently leads the social media field in this regard, which may seem ironic, since WordPress is all about traditional, long-form blogging and website creation rather than social networking. The highlight of the latest version of the software is a distraction-free writing option, which shows what the developers prioritize. At the same time, they have more — and, I gather, better — mobile phone applications than any other blogging platform. But I think it only makes sense that those who most value thoughtful communication would build the best tools for discussion and response.


This entry is part 18 of 20 in the series Poetics and technology


typewriter by Darwin Bell
photo by Darwin Bell (CC BY-NC license) - click to enlarge

Writing is hardly an innocent act. I remember with what force I had to strike the keys of my dad’s old manual typewriter when I was a kid. How the ribbon would rise to the occasion like someone throwing himself between an assailant and his victim, absorbing the blows. And as the ribbon ran dry, how the type would slowly fade, prompting me to pound the keys harder and harder, pummeling the paper, turning the letters into pale, shallow graves.

The first time I used an electric typewriter, it felt like cheating. It was in 4th or 5th Grade. I was typing up a parody of the movie Jaws — “Lips,” which we would later perform in appropriate costume. One of the kids who’d volunteered to help on the play sat and watched my two-finger typing, studying me closely but not saying a word until I was done. “I think I understand how you’re doing that now,” he said. I hadn’t realized until that moment that it was a kind of magic trick.

I took touch typing as an elective in high school, and of course we used nothing but the most modern IBM Selectrics. That was in 1982, I think. But when I started at Penn State two years later, it was nothing but the old manual for me. I figured as long as I had a newish ribbon and a sturdy, erasable bond, that was good enough. And in my own writing, watching a poem take shape letter by letter and word by word… I find myself almost salivating now as I recall the pleasure of that tactile experience. Poems were things that you hammered out by hand, which is perhaps how poets were able to unironically refer to poetry-writing classes as “workshops.” And most lyric poems being fairly short and the look on the page difficult to grasp with too many hand corrections, it was easier to just keep hammering out new drafts. I have a huge file box upstairs filled with nothing but those abandoned prototypes, like the empty larval shells of cicadas. The final drafts sit in a nicer, metal tomb downstairs, beside my writing table. It’s hard to simply throw out a handmade thing.

After we bought the adjacent property here in Plummer’s Hollow in 1992, we had the melancholy task of going through the derelict house where our neighbor Margaret had lived almost until her death the previous year. Among her possessions were three typewriters from her youth in the 1930s or 40s, when she had pursued a secretarial career in New York City. They were huge and black, archaic as ringer washers or Model T Fords. By that time I had switched to a word processor and was happy to have put the typewriter era behind me, so when a friend mentioned he collected typewriters, I passed those machines onto him without a second thought. Now I kind of wish I’d kept one of them as a conversation piece.

Around that same time, I had some people up for a party, and they all had a good laugh at the ancient, hulking, hand-me-down of a PC I was using. It must’ve been at least ten years old! I used WordPerfect 6.0, and only a Courier font because that’s what typing was supposed to look like. A few years later, I finally upgraded and put the old beast out to pasture — literally. I didn’t know then about the heavy metals and other hazardous substances found in circuit boards, cathode ray tubes and the like. So now it sits in a shallow, unmarked grave somewhere out in the goldenrod patch we call a field.

Prompted by Beth’s latest post, “Process,” at the cassandra pages.

Goodbye to the Netscape sky

This entry is part 19 of 20 in the series Poetics and technology


Netscape Browser UninstallThis morning I decided it was time to remove Netscape from my PC. I hadn’t used it since 2006, but it was still patiently sitting there in my hard drive, all 29 megabytes of it, like a faithful hound that’s grown much too old to hunt. When I clicked “remove” on the Windows XP Add or Remove Programs utility, it generated its own sad screen, with “Netscape Browser Uninstall” in generic serif italics in the upper left corner, white on blue, as if it were trying to remind me of the good old days of WordPerfect 5.0, acoustic couplers and AOL. “Don’t you want to go for one more run around the field?” Sorry, old boy. It’s time for you to go to sleep and hunt rabbits in the blue screens of heaven.

Truth to tell, I never used Netscape very much, because I didn’t spend much time online before 1997, by which time Internet Explorer already seemed like a better option. But it mediated my first introduction to the World Wide Web: on a monitor in my brother’s basement office at Cornell back in 1995 or 96. As we waited for the page to load, the little animated icon of comets passing a rapidly spinning planet caught my eye, as it was meant to — something to stare at while data slowly crawled in over the telephone line, with the not-so-subtle message that this is the future, we’ve arrived. From Mountain View, California to the outermost reaches of the atmosphere, it was nothing but blue-black skies from now on.

The architects of the first mass-market web browser were very conscious of metaphor. The Wikipedia quotes an article from Macworld, May 1995:

Netscape Communications wants you to forget all the highway metaphors you’ve ever heard about the Internet. Instead, think about an encyclopedia — one with unlimited, graphically rich pages, connections to E-mail and files, and access to Internet newsgroups and online shopping.

But who would write those pages? Who would build that wondrous new netscape? Microsoft won the first browser war (as geeks sententiously call it) by giving their product away, a foretaste of much to come. What they couldn’t have known was that users would not be content to merely explore the internet, and that profits would not be the main motivator of those who would go on to create not only most of the best and most useful content on the web, but also the open-source code that now runs a great deal of it: Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP, WordPress, and of course Firefox, which is my main browser these days. That much neither Microsoft nor Netscape could have foreseen. But every time I upload files to Dropbox, Vimeo, Flickr or Google Docs, I am in a way indebted to Netscape’s starry-eyed vision:

Netscape advertised that “the web is for everyone” and stated one of its goals was to “level the playing field” among operating systems by providing a consistent web browsing experience across them. The Netscape web browser interface was identical on any computer. Netscape later experimented with prototypes of a web-based system which would enable users to access and edit their files anywhere across a network, no matter what computer or operating system they happened to be using.

These days we have a new metaphor for that. We call it the cloud.

The Morning Porch, five years on

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


Today is the fifth birthday of The Morning Porch. I thought I’d mark the occasion by sharing some lesser-known facts about the blog and my daily writing practice.

1. You’d think that this discipline would have made me a better, more assiduous devoteee of the early morning hours, but if anything, it’s been the opposite. I was a very early riser when I started back in 2007, as my first entry attests. Now I sometimes sleep in so late, I’m lucky to get out on the porch before noon. In my defense, there’s no doubt that waiting at least for daylight, if not late-morning warmth, does give one a lot more to write about in terms of (for example) bird and insect activity. But I can’t really claim that’s the motive for my increasingly late-rising tendencies.

2. I was very skeptical about Twitter when it got started, and felt like a relative late-comer to the platform when I finally joined five years ago. I had two ideas in mind: use the 140-character limit to literary advantage, and use the novelty of what I was doing to spread interest in nature among ordinary internet users. For most of the past five years, I’ve been very poor about using Twitter to communicate, and for several years, I was barely on it at all, preferring the open-source alternative Identica. I still feel guilty about using a social platform for broadcasting, but I just find Twitter awkward for carrying on a conversation. Part of that is because:

3. When I’m not forcing myself to be concise, I’m actually very long-winded. Browse the first couple of years of Via Negativa if you don’t believe me.

4. And I guess the other reason I’ve never really taken to Twitter is I don’t own a mobile device of any kind, and therefore don’t use an app. I interact with Twitter exclusively from the web interface.

5. I am still not sure that The Morning Porch is a particularly good fit for Twitter. I do follow some other people who use Twitter for literary purposes, of course. (One curent favorite: British poet George Szirtes’ surrealist microfiction.) But my personal favorite twitter feeds are the humorous ones, the purveyors of pop-culture snark and whimsy such as KimKierkegaardashian and Your Life Coaches. Above all, I think Twitter was made for such displays of wit. Which is why I’m never too bothered by the occasional negative reaction to The Morning Porch: people accustomed to a steady diet of snark who encounter retweets of my posts must find the sincerity and attention to nature really jarring. I think I would.

6. I’m still inordinantly proud of the fact that my Twitter feed made a sports writer’s list of Worst of 2010 at the Gawker media site Deadspin. With fewer than 3000 followers at the time, it felt like a real honor, albeit a perverse one, to be singled out as the worst feed on all of Twitter! Evidently the dude thought my use of common names such as “mourning dove” was a literary affectation.

7. From the beginning, I’ve archived my tweets at a blog, but for the first couple of years, I used Tumblr. I migrated it to a WordPress installation to take advantage of plugins and features that give better access to the archives, such as tagging (which didn’t exist on Tumblr at the time) and especially the “on this date” column in the sidebar, which fills me with geekish delight.

8. Though I don’t really think of The Morning Porch as poetry, a lot of other people do, and I’m fine with that. At one time, I was part of an active community of poets exploring the microblog medium on Identica, where I coined the term “micropoetry” to describe what we were doing. The irony is that I don’t actually think I’m very good at haiku or other types of short-form poetry. Writing haiku is hard, and I’m not sure I’ll ever have the knack for it, though that won’t stop me from writing and sharing the things from time to time.

9. Writing The Morning Porch is as much or more about the writing than it is about the observing, but my most successful posts over the years have been those I’ve composed in my head, while sitting on the porch, rather than those I’ve composed inside at the keyboard. My usual approach is to try to stuff at least two observations into each post and rely on the relationship between them to do most of the literary work, augmented by as much alliteration and assonance as I can muster. If you go through the archives, you’ll notice that metaphors are very thin on the ground.

10. Apparently a lot of readers suffer from the misapprehension that I’m a good naturalist; I’m not. I was raised in a nature-loving family, so of course some of that rubbed off on me, but when I was growing up I was actually somewhat in rebellion against the family culture — especially what I saw as the obsessive compulsion to identify everything. I felt that assigning a name to a creature put it in a conceptual box that kept us from seeing it as it truly was. Also, I was very lazy about looking things up — and still am. But writing The Morning Porch has forced me to become more disciplined about it. So if you’ve ever wondered “How does he know all that stuff?” the answer is I don’t — not always. Many times I have an idea, or several ideas, and have to rush inside to consult field guides and the internet. And sometimes those names turn out to be poetic enough that a mere roll-call comes to resemble a poem.

11. I almost never use binoculars. I just don’t like them.

12. One of my biggest disappointments is that more people on Twitter haven’t followed my lead and begun tweeting what they see from their own front porches or stoops. Despite what I said above about preferring witty Twitterers, I’d also love to read other porch sitters, especially if they’re in urban and suburban environments filled with colorful specimens of humanity.

13. Completing five years of a daily journal may seem like an admirable achievement, but it doesn’t really compensate for the fact that to me, my front yard is a landscape of loss. Gone is the big, spreading butternut tree that once shaded it, the focus of an earlier, short-lived chronicle from the porch. It fell victim to a canker that threatens the very survival of the species. This puts me in mind of all our other tree species under threat from non-native blights and insects, such as the eastern hemlock (hemlock woolly adelgid), American beech (beech bark disease), and white ash (emerald ash borer) — all of them common trees here on the mountain. The dead elm tree recently truncated by Sandy was very much alive when I started writing the Morning Porch; it fell victim to Dutch elm disease and died in less than two years. It snapped off a few feet above the flicker nest-hole, which reminds me of that little domestic tragedy (nestlings eaten by a black snake) every time I look at it. The ornamental cherry beside the porch, now reduced to a tall cluster of limb-stumps, was also alive in 2007. It fell victim to a native disease, black knot. It was never a great tree, but I miss its messy sprays of blossoms in the spring, and the way it served as a bird-perch all year long. And finally, the dog statue next to the lilac, which may well mark the grave of some forgotten family pet from 80 or 100 years ago, was smashed when the top of the elm blew over.

14. I guess this doesn’t really qualify as a lesser-known fact, but: I really don’t get off the mountain much. So in a certain sense, writing The Morning Porch amounts to making lemonade out of a lemon. I suppose I could claim that some mornings, my porch-sitting feels more rewarding than a journey of a thousand miles. And it does! But many other mornings, it’s just kind of humdrum, you know? And at those times, I don’t feel as if I have anything especially original to share. But I do it anyway.

15. Doing The Morning Porch has made one thing very clear to me: I don’t take writing as seriously as many of my peers. When I discover, as I often do, that I’ve repeated myself and used the very same image or analogy for some critter as the previous time I wrote about it, I tend to be amused rather than depressed at the limits of my imagination. And I have no trouble acknowledging the truth behind the accusation that The Morning Porch can be a bit formulaic:

But it’s not just the product; it’s the process. And part of the process, for me at least, involves growing so sick of one’s own words, one lurches in a new direction from time to time and inadvertently produces something brilliant.

16. When I started, my goal was to keep it going for five years. I am not a very goal-oriented person, to put it mildly, so the fact that I’ve made it astonishes me. What I didn’t anticipate was that it would become a source of writing prompts for a number of talented poets, and that one of them would become a co-author at Via Negativa, driven by the much more impressive goal of writing a poem every day, no matter what. Luisa’s been at it for nearly two years now! That alone makes me feel as if I should keep doing this Morning Porch thing as long as I can. If nothing else, it will force me to get my ass out of bed before noon.