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.”


Poetry habitat

Slideshow linkdirect link to the photoset

O.K., so why am I attempting to improve on nature by writing poems on seashells with a permanent marker? Once again, this is Dana Guthrie Martin’s fault. Who else, learning about the plight of hermit crabs, would immediately think, “Poetry to the rescue!”?

Did you know that, worldwide, hermit crabs are experiencing a housing shortage? About 30 percent of all hermit crabs live in shells that are too small for them, and up to 60 percent can’t find homes that are the correct size in the spring when they experience their growth spurts.

Artists like Elizabeth Demaray have called attention to this problem and are creating alternative housing for hermit crabs. She points out that two factors seem to be involved in the housing shortage: environmental pollution and the collection of sea shells. Elizabeth’s work led me to think about my own role as a poet and what I might be able to do to help. Some of my poet friends and I thought it might be nice to invite people to send us any sea shells they’ve collected over the years – no questions asked.

We’ve set up a PO Box where people can mail in their shells for use in the project. We’ll take the shells you send us and write poems on them (in nontoxic ink of course) before whisking them off to beaches and placing them on the shore so hermit crabs can move into them.

Visit Dana’s new site Shore Tags [dead link; removed 11/09] to learn more about how to contribute to this project, including what kind of shells to send, how to contribute poems even if you don’t have any shells, and what kind of markers to use if you decide to try your hand at a couple yourself, as I did.

Now, I’m sure my more utilitarian-minded readers are wondering why the heck hermit crab shells would need to have poems on them. Surely the crabs don’t give a crap. Couldn’t we get more shells to more crabs more quickly if we skipped that step?

Well, I suppose. But it seems to me there’s nothing wrong, and everything right, about asking givers to put a little of their heart, soul, and imagination into their gifts. If charity and welfare have become bad words, I think it’s because they perpetuate such a gulf between donor and recipient. The recipient of charity always risks becoming an object of condescension, and the utilitarian approach further reinforces the objectification, I think. It’s weird. We take it for granted (ha!) that dependence on charity is an unfortunate thing, even though every living being is utterly dependent on the grace of God or Lady Luck at every moment.

Hermit crabs actually teach this lesson better than most organisms, come to think of it. They are by nature naked and homeless and dependent on other creatures for shelter… not unlike a certain, virtually hairless species of ape trying to live in a temperate climate.

To suggest that we can and should learn from the beneficiaries of a conservation project is to go at least part-way to restoring a balance between donor and recipient, don’t you think? It’s no longer just a one-way exchange. And by entering the imaginative space necessary to make poems for another being, one engages with that being in a whole new way. So my hope for the Shore Tags project is not just that it will help thousands of crabs find better, more comfortable habitat, but that, by encouraging children, especially, to contribute their most prized skills as human beings — the power to make art and find meaning — it will help inculcate a deeper respect for the rest of creation. Given such respect, perhaps, we might not have collected seashells so heedlessly in the first place. It might’ve occurred to us to wonder if they were really ours to take.

Mutating the Signature

Submissions are open for a new qarrtsiluni theme, Mutating the Signature. This is a process- rather than a subject-oriented theme, requiring all submissions to spring from a creative collaboration between two or more people. Be sure to study the theme description carefully before submitting. The deadline is January 15, and we expect to start publishing the first pieces for the new issue shortly after January 1. It seemed like a good way to kick off the new year. The guest editors, Dana Guthrie Martin and Nathan Moore, have been going great guns at their own collaborative poetry experiments, as readers of their blogs will know, so they seemed as qualified as anyone to edit such an issue.

The current issue, Journaling the Apocalypse, will continue through December. In fact, we’ll have to pick up the pace of posting if we’re going to fit everything in. Suffice it to say that we have many more good things in store — and if the holiday season doesn’t seem like the best time to contemplate the apocalypse, all I can say is you haven’t gone shopping lately.


Shortly before Halloween, I tried my hand at collaborative poeming with Dana. We used Skype IM, and followed a procedure based on the surrealist game called exquisite corpse, which seemed appropriate to our subject: vampirism. Or, as Dana would have it, hemotophagy. We wrote alternate lines, and each of us saw only the second half of the preceding line. Here’s what I saw:


We walked arm in arm on the sunset strip, red at night
___________________ inside me, my mouth parts
like a coffin lid lined with velvet & redolent of formaldehyde
___________________ carotid, its point of bifurcation
the wye-shaped crossroads of all my midnight appointments,
___________________ my hands, how I lap up
everything your heart has to say in its simple syntax.
__________________________without enormous effort,
like typing a heart smiley in lieu of using that dread word
____________________ attack, my bending over you,
mother of my suffocation nightmares, homeothermic swamp.
________________________ handkerchief, stuff it in my blazer.
It’s a gloomy affair, this filling of my coffin-sized hole
__________________________ My desires coagulate near your wounds,
plaster for that red fresco where my shadow lost its way.

Then came the reveal, as they say in TV land.


We walked arm in arm on the sunset strip, red at night
blood the only hunger inside me, my mouth parts
like a coffin lid lined with velvet & redolent of formaldehyde
I feel for your common carotid, its point of bifurcation
the wye-shaped crossroads of all my midnight appointments,
skin pulled taut between my hands, how I lap up
everything your heart has to say in its simple syntax.
This is living: to take you without enormous effort,
like typing a heart smiley in lieu of using that dread word
fang. This is not an attack, my bending over you,
mother of my suffocation nightmares, homeothermic swamp.
I wipe up the access with a handkerchief, stuff it in my blazer.
It’s a gloomy affair, this filling of my coffin-sized hole
will never bring satiety. My desires coagulate near your wounds
plaster for that red fresco where my shadow lost its way.

I found this quite a bit wordier than I was used to dealing with — which was more my fault than Dana’s — so when we finally returned to the thing a couple weeks later, I left all the heavy lifting up to her. After half an hour or so, she came up with the following edit (ignore her account of events at the link):


My mouth parts to reveal velvet lining
redolent of formaldehyde.

I feel for your common carotid,
its point of bifurcation,
the wye-shaped crossroads
of all my midnight appointments.

Skin taut between my hands,
I lap up your heart’s simple syntax.

To take you without enormous effort,
without using that dread word “fang.”

Mother of my suffocation nightmares,
homeothermic swamp.
I wipe up the excess with a handkerchief.

This gloomy affair. This filling of my coffin-
sized hole will never bring satiety.

My desires coagulate near your wounds,
plaster for that red fresco
where my shadow lost its way.

Being the contrary sort, I tried to see if I could make a poem using the words that didn’t appear in her edit. I had to add a bunch more words. I’m not sure the result could still be considered a collaboration. But it was fun!

Now You See It

We walk arm in arm
on the sunset strip,
red at night like a plush coffin lid,
like a cartoon heart used as a glyph
to stand in for that dread word
as I bend over you in my blazer
& count to ten.
The only hunger that matters now
can hide in a silk handkerchief
& reappear in a deck of cards:
club, diamond, spade.
You learn to dig.

In one final transmogrification, I ran the text of our rough draft through Wordle to produce the image at the top of this post, symbolically releasing the words and ideas we’d been playing with. That’s kind of what “mutating the signature” is all about, I think.

Storm chronicle

Dear Dana and Blythe,

The storm jarred me awake at 4:00,
at 4:30, at 5:00 — close strikes
are a fact of life here on the mountaintop.
The lightning came & went, came & went.
When I finally got up,
weariness flooded every muscle,
& I sat on the porch sipping black coffee
& enjoying the Brownian noise
of rain on the roof. The darkness
freed me from the labor of seeing,
the downpour, from listening.
Each flash & boom was painful,
the apparition of trees, yard, porch
all much too brief for my slow pupils
to shrink and take in.
Awakening is rarely a rapid thing;
dawning can’t be rushed.
I’ll admit, though, I pulled my pocket
notebook out & began writing blind —
too risky to go turn the computer on.
When I looked at it later, in the light,
I found I’d underestimated the spaces
between lines: words overlapped
as if on a palimpsest, ballpoint arabesques
interwove like fingers in hair.
Flashes, but not of insight,
I appeared to have written.
Ark of the Covenant — talking drums —
dyslexia of dark & light.

I am a cipher to myself. At least
the storm passed.


Dear Dana,

Three days of hurricane-remnant weather —
a tropical depression — have brought varying
& unpredictable amounts of rain. Today
we’re in a cloud, which acts as
an acoustic blanket, letting me fantasize
that I’m living in some mountain fastness
a thousand miles from the nearest factory
or highway instead of just two.
The night before last, hard rains
loosened the bark on the lower limbs
of the dead elm in my yard, and I woke
to find the tree half-stripped. A pair
of nuthatches — bark-gleaning birds —
flew in & discovered the change
while I watched, spiralling rapidly
down the bare columns of wood
on their big clown feet, poking,
calling. The fog reminds me of early June,
and makes me miss the wood thrushes
& their melancholy flutes.
It occurred to me that memory
provides its own layer of vibrato,
whether or not the original tone
still sounds. But sadness wasn’t
the whole of it: the low pressure
provokes a mild elation in me,
as what was once a boiling fury
passes over these tired, old mountains
without opening its eye.

With our internet connection
rapidly degrading here, I may soon get
my wish for isolation. Which
was never of course my wish.
So I wonder if I really could live
without the highway & the railroad,
the quarry & the factories,
the human presence implicit
in all that noise?

Scattered notes

Dear Dana,

Cold out this morning, but
one cricket still managed
a sclerotic chirp. I watched
parallel furrows form
in the clouds to the east,
five lines. A large flock
of grackles flew across them,
accompanied by the usual
scattered notes. If I’d snapped
a photo at that precise moment,
there might’ve been a score
someone could play.
Instead, I sat thinking
how I’d like my own notes
to be so lightly anchored
to the page: an antidote
for all the heaviness
our tribe of meaning-makers
has inflicted on the world.
I am lodged in this body
not like a businessman
in some motel but like
a meteorite at the center
of a target its own impact created,
glowing for a short time
with the heat of its entry.
The truth isn’t out there
between the stars. The cricket
kept chirping in the herb bed,
and beyond, the wild rose
almost leafless now as the color
deepens in its shrinking
wrinkled capsules,
which are said to heal.

UPDATE: We’ve decided to broaden this conversation and invite others to join in, because why not? It’s a world-wide web. See Dana’s response to me, and Lirone’s response to Dana.

Red letters

chicken mushroom 2

Dear Dana,

I climbed the ridge to look for a poem
& came back with supper instead:
five pounds of chicken mushroom,
freshly sprouted from the end of a log
& dripping with moisture.

A couple of rove beetles scrambled
in & out of fissures as I began
breaking off hand-sized fans
& nestling the boneless yellow flesh
in a shopping bag. In this supermarket,

the shelves themselves are edible.
Red letters on the bag said
Have a Nice Day

Looking in at the bright crop, I felt as if
I’d raided the crayoned worlds of first graders
& lifted the sun from the top left
corner of every drawing.
I left a little behind for the beetles.

The beginning of a planned correspondence in poems with Dana Guthrie Martin, my co-conspirator in the new Postal Poetry venture. If it goes O.K., we may branch out and correspond with other online poets this way, too. And we hope to inspire imitators. Weblogs seem like an ideal medium for this kind of exchange.