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.

“Twitter for poets”: poetry and conversation in Identica

Identica LogoOver at Identica — the open-source, feature-rich microblogging service which I greatly prefer to the faddish Twitter — I’m collaborating on a chain poem with librarian-blogger Patricia Anderson. It’s probably still quite a few days from completion, but those with an interest in the creative process and/or in social media and micromessaging technology might be interested in following the poem’s slow progress.

Twitter users will notice right away that they’re not in Kansas anymore. Up until a few weeks ago, each reply to another Identica user had a Twitter-like “in reply to” link at the bottom, and you could only follow conversations by clicking backward from one such link to another. But now, as the official description of the latest version of the underlying Laconica software puts it:

Related notices are organized into conversations, with each reply a branch in a tree. Conversations have pages and are linked to from each notice in the conversation.

In the current styling, each nested level is a slightly darker shade of gray, so that a back-and-forth between two people resembles an inverted staircase descending into darkness. A perfect medium for poetry!

Actually, I had wanted to have staggered verses, which would entail replying each time to the other person’s earliest post in the conversation, but Patricia wanted to let the conversation proceed naturally and keep nesting deeper with each reply instead. The poem can end, she suggested, at the point where replies no longer nest. We’re not sure exactly when that will be, but we should have at least another week at our current rate of one or two posts per day. I proposed the topic: “in the news,” with regular images drawn from current, international news stories. You can see our conversation about the poetic conversation — the meta-poem — here.

This is, as far as I know, the first collaborative poem in Identica written to take advantage of the conversations feature, though earlier collaborations, such as this one between Carolee and Blythe, have been threaded retroactively. I imagine that when we’re done, we’ll repost the entire conversation at Open Micro, so I’m not too worried about keeping the thread free of non-poetry replies. In fact, I thought it was pretty cool when an Identica user from Ukraine — Kobzahrai, whom I got to know initially as a fellow member of the blues group — responded appreciatively to my opening sally about the strange mayor of Kiev.

Identica has a small but active poetry community, lured there by such features as groups and favorite notices. Belonging to groups such as poetry, writers, haiku, or lyrics can greatly help reduce the noise-to-signal ratio in your feed, because you don’t need to subscribe to someone who writes 90 percent of the time about Ubuntu, for example, just to see their occasional haiku. And while Twitter also allows you to save favorite posts by other users, only Identica notifies you when someone favors one of your posts. The six most popular posts of the day appear at the top of the sidebar on the front page of Identica, and a longer compendium of currently popular posts is one click away. And perhaps because we poetry fans are inveterate word-hoarders, we probably “favorite” things more often than other users, giving an impression to casual visitors that Identica is — as someone once told Evan Prodromou, the lead developer — “Twitter for poets.”

Incidentally, if you follow me on Twitter and are wondering why you’re not seeing my half of our collaborative poem there, too, that’s because I’ve elected not to send my “@” replies across the automatic bridge that Identica provides.* Most Twitter folks already struggle to make sense of a morass of atomized messages, and I don’t see any point in subjecting them to additional fragments. Twitter is increasingly about broadcasting anyway; “power users” compete to see who can acquire the most followers, with whom conversations will generally be limited to one-way exercises in “crowd sourcing.” If you want true conversation, group-enabled camaraderie, or poems longer than 140 characters (multi-authored renga? Ballads? Epics?) Identica is the place to be.

*The lead developers of Identica are committed to an open microblogging protocol, which if ever fully adopted would mean that users of competing micromessaging services would be able to subscribe and reply to each other without leaving their own service, just as we now do with competing email services. The people who run Twitter, like AOL and Comcast in days of yore, don’t seem to see the need to give their users that freedom, so Twitter is still essentially a silo.

Nature in 140 characters: microblogging from the front porch

view of my front porch in mid-May

For years, I’ve greeted the day by sitting out on the front porch of my 150-year-old cottage in a mostly wooded hollow in the mountains of central Pennsylvania. It’s a habit I began back when I was a smoker, I guess. Fresh from a hot shower, I find if I bundle up enough and cradle a thermos mug of coffee in my hands, I can sit outside even in the middle of January, though I might not last for more than 15 or 20 minutes on the coldest days. The porch sits high above a small, overgrown yard, which is adjacent to the woods’ edge, the headwaters of Plummer’s Hollow Run, and a small cattail marsh next to the old springhouse. Due to this strategic location, it’s probably one of the best spots for watching wildlife on the mountain. If I sit still enough, the animals quickly forget I’m there.

This daily habit of quiet observation is very important to me. Even if the rest of my day is taken up with busyness and distractions, at least I’ll have had a short period of attentiveness to the natural world to keep me grounded and keep my writing from straying too far into the ether. When I began blogging in December 2003, I had some idea that I would focus on religious agnosticism — whence “Via Negativa” — but within a very short time, morning porch observations began to creep in, and pretty soon I dropped all pretence of a focus in favor of writing about whatever popped into my head first thing in the morning.

In November of 2007, I started a new online experiment: using Twitter to record daily observations from the front porch. I unexpectedly found the 140-character limit a goad to lyricism. Like the French writers in the Oulipo movement, I’ve always been interested in “seeking new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy,” especially those involving artificial constraints. I hadn’t meant to write poetry, but readers on Twitter began to assure me that’s what I was doing, and who am I to argue?

I soon began backing up these posts to a blog — The Morning Porch — and in July of 2008, switched from Twitter to the much more reliable and feature-rich, open-source alternative as my primary microblogging platform, though I continue to forward my updates to Twitter via an automatic bridge.

My main goal with this project, I suppose, is to excite curiosity about and appreciation for the natural world among other users of Twitter and (and to some extent, my contacts on Facebook, where my Morning Porch posts also appear via an application for Friendfeed, another micromessaging service which I use mainly for lifestreaming purposes). Both as a poet and as a nature-lover, I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to reach beyond traditional audiences, and not just preach to the choir. A loose-knit community of poets, geeks, and other assorted misfits has sprung up on, which is to Twitter roughly as a very cool party is to Times Square on New Year’s Eve. There are many more birders recording their observations on Twitter, perhaps influenced by that service’s songbird iconography, but I don’t consider myself a birder — I’m not particularly interested in keeping lists or identifying rare nonresident species — so I haven’t made an active effort to connect with them, beyond following those whose blogs I already read. There are also active groups of poets, gardeners, eco-freaks, and other compatible folks on Twitter, though they’re slow in discovering each other due to the lack of effective, platform-internal semantic tagging and group tagging — features I’ve grown used to on

Oddly, perhaps, given its origin on social networking services, I haven’t installed a comments system on the Morning Porch blog. The posts themselves are so short, I guess I’m resistent to the idea of burdening them with commentary; if folks want to comment, they can simply join and respond there. Also, the platform I’m using, Tumblr, doesn’t have native comments, and I’m reluctant to commit to an external commenting system because there’s a good chance I’ll move the blog to a self-hosted WordPress installation at some point. (Tumblr has promised to introduce an export tool.) (UPDATE: The blog has now been moved to a self-hosted WordPress installation with comments ennabled.)

I hope to keep the Morning Porch chronicle going for at least five years, and I envision a synoptic nature book with one page for each day of the year, five paragraphs or stanzas per page. Since I hardly ever leave home, this seems doable. But it’s also fun to go back and re-read sections of the journal in the order they were written. Looking at my posts from last May, for example, one can gain some appreciation for the two great dramas of a northern Appalachian spring: the return of neotropical migrant birds and the leafing out of the forest canopy. In May, more than any other time of the year, the forest is a-twitter.


May 1, 2008
Roar of the quarry in my left ear, burble of a wren in my right, and in the front yard a catbird sits in the lilac, silent, head swiveling.

May 2
Two Jurassic-like things, both of them “great”: the call of a great-crested flycatcher, and seconds later, a great blue heron in flight.

May 3
The air smells of rain. A large robber fly buzzes into my weed garden and lands on the underside of a dame’s-rocket leaf.

May 4
The bleeding-heart I bought yesterday, still in its pot, pulls in the first hummingbird of the year: shimmery red gorget, grotesque blooms.

May 5
Bright sunny morning. A hooded warbler bursts from the white lilac; for a moment I think it’s a yellowthroat with his mask on wrong.

May 6
Full leaf-out is still a week or two off. In the green wall of woods across from my porch, the dawn sky leaks through a hundred holes.

May 7
Behind the lilac, the sounds of a fierce wood thrush altercation. A third thrush lands close by and swipes its bill against the branch.

May 8
Rain at dawn. In the half-light, the green is intense. Add the bell-like tones of wood thrushes, and the effect is other-worldly.

May 9
Rain. Have robins always had white spots on the ends of their tails? Yesterday afternoon, four eastern kingbirds in the field—unmistakeable.*

May 10
Two myrtle colonies are closing in on what’s left of my lawn. In the grass, the green fists of bracken open complex fingers to the rain.

May 11
Sunday, and one can hear between bursts of oriole song the creaking of wings, the drone of a bumblebee, a deer snorting a quarter-mile off.

May 12
Black-throated green: the warbler lisping at the woods’ edge, but also the woods itself, green-feathered, trunks running dark with rain.

May 13
Cold and clearing. The black cat pads up the driveway, coyote bait still in her belly** and the usual hungry, hateful look in her yellow eyes.

May 14
At first light, the silhouette of a hawk in a dead tree above the corner of the field. A small rabbit grazes in the yard, ears twitching.

May 15
Cloudy and cool. A tanager’s plucked string; no glimpse of scarlet. Where are they off to, the hummingbirds that keep zooming past my porch?

May 16
At 6:00, the sky grows dark again as a storm approaches. Wood thrushes start back up. The lilac’s white torches all point at the ground.

May 17
The same woodpeckers and nuthatches that we heard all winter, but with flickering leaves. The same wind as yesterday, but with golden light.

May 18
A black-and-white warbler’s two-syllable whisper; drumroll from a Good God bird. The clock is blinking—what time IS it? The patter of rain.

May 19
Birdcall like the chant of some demented sports fan: the yellow-billed cuckoo is back! The forest canopy must be full enough to skulk in.

May 20
A gray squirrel seems to be in heat: as in January, the slow-motion chases, the soft scold-calls, but now mostly hidden by the leaves.

May 21
Sun! I hear the crow that thinks it’s a duck, a catbird’s simultaneous translation of a wood thrush song. Last night, I dreamed of bluejays.

May 22
A male robin scours the forest floor for twigs; the female combs the lawn for dead grass. The small thorn bush shakes when they both fly in.

May 23
The gibbous moon no sooner clears the trees than the sun comes up. First crystal-clear morning in weeks, and I’m off to New Jersey.

May 26
Robins mating on a branch: one-second contacts spaced half a minute apart. Each time the male flies off and the female ruffles her feathers.

May 27
Warm, humid, and overcast. In the side garden, the first twelve yellow irises opened in the night. Small flies walk all over my legs.

May 28
The flower heads on the white lilac are half-brown now. Two phoebes take turns flying into the bush, momentarily quelling insistent peeps.

May 29
Clouds like scales on the belly of a blue fish. In the garden, ants immobilized by the cold cling to the sweet pink seams of peony buds.

May 30
In one direction, a singing wood thrush; in the other, a red-eyed vireo. Evocative refrain or dull repetition? It’s all in the delivery.

May 31
In the light rain, a squirrel feasts on red maple keys. Reduced to pieces, the blades flutter straight down, robbed of all ability to spin.

*A white tip on the tail is a diagnostic feature of the eastern kingbird.

**In other words, she was still pregnant.

Open Micro

Yes, I know my photo blog is down. Shutterchance, the host, sent around an email saying they had experienced massive server failure, and were working hard to try and reconstruct files. It doesn’t sound too encouraging. And I know that Via Negativa was out of commission for close to a day. My blog host and patron, Matt, suggested that’s because I had over 30 active plugins, and the server couldn’t take it. So I’ve been cutting plugins right and left and holding my breath. No more ShareThis, no more silly word count in the footer, no more Table of Contents. (Did anyone ever actually use ShareThis? If so, for what?)

There for a few minutes yesterday morning, even The Morning Porch was down for maintenance, which meant that all three of my personal blogs were MIA at the same time. Scary. What to do?

Well, create a new site, of course. Check out the new group blog for micropoetry, Open Micro.

Most people use microblog services like Twitter and its open-source counterpart Identica for updates on their daily activities, and that’s fine. Some people use them for hilarious bon mots — I try to follow as many of those as possible. At qarrtsiluni, we use Twitter and Identica to help disseminate news about the magazine and our contributors. There are even some novelists taking advantage of the medium, trickling out new work one or two sentences at a time — enough of them that a new word has been coined for the genre, twitterature. But some of us simply enjoy the challenge of trying to create complete poems or prose-poems within the strict confines of a single microblog post of 140 characters, spaces included.

There are actually quite a few haiku writers on Twitter, though of course not all of them take the art too seriously. But it was actually the much less populous Identica whose recent addition of groups sparked the creation of Open Micro. Some of us on Twitter and Identica had long been favoriting other people’s most lyrical notices and hoarding them in our Favorites pages (mine are here), but with the ability to create a Poetry group page came a new idea: wouldn’t it be cool if we could somehow combine all our favorites pages into one?

That’s essentially what Open Micro will do. We’re trying to be careful to get permission for everything we post, though this isn’t as onerous as it sounds, since any micropoem by a fellow contributor is fair game. The group will probably add a few more members, but what we really need now are readers. Stop on over! And be sure to bookmark it, so that the next time Via Negativa vanishes into the ether, you’ll still have something to read.