Publics Under Construction

Charles Bernstein

Do publics construct poetry or does poetry construct publics?

Not so fast, where's the shell under those nuts, the nuts under those texts, the texts under those author-functions, the author-functions inside those periods, the periods inside those stanzas, the stanzas inside those ever-loving tats for ticks, quantums for particles, buzz saws for heliotropes, missionaries for bugle boys? The public does not and cannot exist until it can find means to constitute itself; to convene in, on or about the precincts of language; to explore its multiple, overlapping or mutually exclusive, constituent parts, elements, components, units, fractions, links, bands, conglomerations, alliances, groupings, configurations, spheres, clusters, divisions, localities; to find means of conversation without necessitating conversion, among and between these constituent parts, allowing that these parts shift and reconfigure in response to changing circumstances.

Poetry explores the constitution of public space as much as representing already formed constituencies; risks its audience as often as assumes it; refuses to speak for anyone as much as fronting for a self, group, people, or species.

In the process of recognizing new communities, new audiences, and new publics for poetry, as well redressing the previous exclusion of groups from our republic of letters, I want to honor the complexity of contemporary American poetic practice over and above its representativeness. Within universities in the 1990s, contemporary poetry is increasingly being taught for the ways it marks, narrates, and celebrates ethnicity, gender, and race. To fit this curricular imperative, some poems may be selected for their explicit and positive group representations. Other poems (by the same poet or by other poets) may seem less useful if they are found to complicate representation because of their structural or formal complexity -- their contradictory, ambivalent, obscure, or mixed expressions or inexpressions of identity; or because of their negative or skeptical approaches to fixed conceptions of self or group identity. For poetry may wish to question, rather than assume, group identity as much as self identity -- not to deny that selves and groups exist, or have voices, but to take their description and expression as a poetic, as much as an epistemologic, project.

Like many developments in education, the trend toward a representative poetry is as much market or consumer-driven, not to say demographic, in origin as it is ideological. The gorgeous mosaic of students in the classroom, to use former New York City Mayor David Dinkins's term, puts an enormous, and appropriate, pressure on teachers to create syllabuses that reflect the various origins of our students as much as their multiple destinations. Yet, like in electoral politics, not every group is recognized as equally significant in the often schematic, not to say gerrymandered, patchwork of multicultural curricula. Similarly, some subject areas such as contemporary poetry are being used to front for the far more static approach to issues of gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation in other areas of the humanities and in the social and natural sciences.

There are good reasons for this unequal development, since contemporary poetry remains an indispensable site for the exploration of the multiplicities, and multiplicitousness of, identities. TV and Hollywood movies continue to provide inadequate, or nonexistent, representations of many groups in our culture. This may help to explain why poetry and the small press are a central place for such representations, given the independent press's ability to serve what can as easily be called small or niche markets as "marginal" communities. For some groups in our culture, poetry may be a primary site of basic cultural exchange in a way that is hard to comprehend for those who identify with the cultural representations of the mass media. This is why it is crucial to differentiate share-driven mass media from popular and local and folk-cultural activities whose lifeblood is their low market share -- their small scale, let's emphasize, rather than their "unpopularity".

But it is not only sociologically identified "groups" that are unserved or underserved by the majoritarian, market-share-driven, mass media, but also "outsiders" of every sort and kind, of every stripe and lack of stripe, as Maria Damon eloquently argues in The Dark Side of the Street. In an increasing intolerant American cultural landscape, nonmajoritarian cultural activities are stigmatized as elitist and as "special interests" even though these activities are the last refuge of local and particularistic resistance to the big government and big media claimed, by the right, to be the source of our problems. The current attacks on public television and public support for the arts and humanities are a sharp warning that intellectual complexity, aesthetic difficulty, and non-mega-market-driven cultural production have become "minor" art activities that cohabit the same shadow world of poetry and the small press as do group- and outsider-identified cultural practices. For if commercial culture is increasingly dominated by entertainment products that are developed, through the use of focus and dial groups, to evoke maximum positive response at every unit of exposure; then art that is not just figuratively but literally untested, art that evokes contradictory and confused initial response, or simply appeals to a statistical minority of targeted readers, will not be circulated through commercial channels.

It should be no more a surprise to us in the USA, than it has been for the past few years to citizens in the former USSR, that market forces create different, but not necessarily desirable, cultural values compared to those imposed top down by the old-guard of cultural arbiters or commissars.

In the post-Pantheon world of book publishing, the diversified companies that own the major trade publishers are charged with publishing not simply profitable books but the most profitable books. Works that appeal to minor or micro publics, that is to say small constituencies, are excluded from this system in favor of works that appeal to macro publics, which is to say a substantial market share of the targeted audience. The circumstance is somewhat analogous to a TV show with millions of enthusiastic viewers being cancelled for its failure to garner an adequate public.

Yet unprofitable cultural product does continue to be manufactured in the commercial sector and not simply as a result of the inevitable market failures of the entertainment industry. The question is, why are some works published despite their relatively poor profit potential in preference to other works with a similar profit profile? It isn't just nonprofit arts organizations that lose money supporting their particular cultural agendas. Indeed, as far as losing money in an effort to construct a public, the independent and alternative presses are no match for such mainstream magazines as The New Yorker, which, despite a circulation that has recently surged to 750,000, appears to be losing as much as $10 million a year (that's something like $13 per subscriber) -- an amount that could finance a good part of the annual cost of the alternative poetry presses and readings and magazines [Elizabeth Kolbert, "How Tina Brown Moves Magazines", in The New York Times Magazine, Dec. 5, 1993, p. 87]. The New Yorker's parent company, S. I. Newhouse, is apparently less concerned with profit than with cultural dominance -- legitimating the cultural product that forms the basis of its media empire; for this exercise in hegemony, circulation and publicity are more important than profit.

Of course, publishing statistics are notoriously unreliable, especially when they concern the amount publishers are willing to lose -- less to obtain cultural legitimacy, let me correct myself, than to establish cultural values. According to The New York Times [3/2/94, p.C20], Harold M. Evans, the publisher of Random House's adult trade division, told an audience at the PEN American Center that "the 29 books he published that made it on to The New York Times's 1993 list of Notable Books lost $680,000" and the eight books that "won awards from the American Library Association lost a total of $370,000." Evans went on to say that three of these books had advertising budgets of $71,000 to $87,000 each and that these books lost from $60,000 to $300,000 each. Innovative works of literature or criticism or scholarship that challenge the dominant cultural values of institutions such as Random House are not the most likely candidates to receive this type of support; yet without such subventions they stand little chance of being reviewed or recommended in The New York Times, whose reviews are closely correlated to its advertisers. The point is not that official "high" culture, just as alternative-press poetry, requires subsidies; but that a system of selection and support favors certain works over others; it is this system of selection and promotion that allows the media conglomerates to control cultural sectors that they have written off as largely unprofitable. Note, however, that the content of the selections is less important for this system of dominance than the system of selection and promotion itself, since the alternative presses can never afford to lose as much as these corporations.

It should be no surprise that it is neither the public nor accessibility that creates official literary product, nor that much of official "high" culture is a loss leader. Advertising and promotion of targeted "loss leaders" are evidently worth the price in influencing literary and critical taste, specifically by fostering a cultural climate in which genuinely profitable products may thrive.


Now should be the time to pull the hat out of the rabbit, the bottle out of the genie, the tree out of the paper, the riddle out of the problem. For example to extol the emerging electronic gateway as the balm for poetry, which will soothe our wounds of poor capitalization and shrink-wrapped publics of long-term outsiders, far-out insiders, subaltern-centric rhapsodes, and other statistical anomalies from the upper west side of Manhattan to the Castro district of San Francisco to the vacant lots behind the Galleria mall in Nowhere, USA.

I don't believe that technology creates improvement, but rather that we need to use the new technologies in order to preserve the limited cultural spaces we have created through alternative, nonprofit literary presses and magazines. This is a particularly important time for poetry on the net because the formats and institutions we are now establishing can provide models and precedents for small-scale, poetry-intensive activities. At the same time, the new interactive environment suggests new possibilities for every aspect of poetic work, from composition to visualization to display to performance to distribution to reading, and indeed, to constructing publics, this afternoon's putative subject. (You say subject, I say object; you say focus, I say associate: subject, object, focus, associate, let's call the whole thing art. But oh, if we call the whole thing art then we must part and oh if we must part -- I'd be the object and you'd be the subject or you'd be the subject and I'd be the object: let's call the art part off.)

An enticing thing about today's Internet environment is the spirit of innovation and engagement that prevails. A poem with a sound file electronically published by PMC (Postmodern Culture) will get many more "hits" (user connections) than a poem published in a comparable print journal because so many people are cruising the net looking for new material. Poetry enters into a performance space on the net, providing text-based content -- something poetry is particularly good at! -- to an audience hungry for it. There is some general interest, from an Internet-focussed public, in the new formats being created, including those by poets and poetry editors. The result is that for the moment the public of poetry on the net is unusually eclectic, even open, in their specifically poetic or literary interest. That is, a range of people will read and listen to poetry, or participate in poetry-based discussion groups and bulletin boards, who would not be interested in this genre in its print- or performance-based forms (a claim that also could be made for performance versus print and vice versa). At the moment, we have on the net something like a general audience for poetry -- a claim that rightly will alarm those people conscious of how restricted physical access to cyberspace is. (Of the poets I know in New York, less than 10 percent have e-mail accounts; while in Buffalo, in a university based environment, about 90 percent of the poets I know have e-mail accounts.) But I would argue that it is the current limitation of access and programming that gives poetry its particular edge on the net and as the information superhighway is put in place, the public that will be constructed by it will return poetry to its hard-core.

Poetry on the net is very small-scale: I am not talking about big numbers so much as a certain fluidity of audience. At the University at Buffalo, we have set up an Electronic Poetry Center. The EPC, still under the construction, provides gopher and WWW access to extensive listing of small press catalogs and addresses, electronic versions of print journals and archives of electronic magazines and our Poetics listserve discussion group, recent obituaries, sound files, plus alphabetically arrayed home pages for poets, with links to all their electronically available poems and essays. A related project is Rif/t magazine, a electronic poetry magazine (publishing poems, essays, reviews, and chapbooks) edited by Loss Glazier and Ken Sherwood. Rif/t itself has 1,000 subscribers. As to the EPC, the number of hits per month has been increasing: we estimate, for 1994, something over 1000 "root" connections per month and about 8000 "hits" per month for all EPC subdirectories. Some of these hits may be the same user going back for more; at the same time the statistics do not account for all modes of access to the EPC, so the number of sessions is actually higher. <1> In any case, over 1000 hits in one month compares favorably to the public for an establish literary magazine. Luigi-Bob Drake's Taproot magazine provides the most extensive and useful listing of small press magazines available-- providing short reviews of over 300 different magazines and chapbooks in the last issue. Taproot is also available on line, minus its feature articles. The hard copy version of the magazine has a print-run of about 2500, of which 500 are distributed free in Cleveland, its home base. The e-mail version goes out directly to 500 subscribers and is also redistributed to an additional 1,000 e-mail accounts as part of FactSheet5 Electric, which in turn is available from over 20 archive and gopher sites with undetermined additional "hits". Taproot itself is also available via the EPC.

More startling, and more informative as to the potential for electronic distribution of "literary-niche" audience material, is the incredible success of the electronic journal Postmodern Culture. According to co-editor John Unsworth, in the approximately six-month period from May 18, 1994 to Dec. 8, 1994 there were over 40,000 requests for the table of contents of all issues of the journal. In total, more than 358,000 items have been requested from the PMC archives during this same period.<2>

Poetry on the net is not so much a positive development as a necessary one. The Internet will become increasingly central for poetry because of the economy of scale it provides, given the high cost of printing and paper, the increasing expense for unreliable postal service, the shrinking of the presently tiny public support for literary publishing, and the absence of poetry-committed bookstores in most localities. In the words of Joe Hill, Don't mourn, organize (though there is plenty to mourn over). A crucial prerequisite for that organizing is understanding how this new space will affect the composition and presentation of our work, especially insofar as we respond in our work to this new electronic medium. We also need to explore the implications this emerging space has for the composition and disposition of the publics for poetry.

Unlike poetry on the net, poetry in print and live formats presents few physical limits to access and user-interface given the prevalence of hard-wired body systems for processing spoken language and broad familiarity with alphabetic technologies. Our limits are more conceptual and ideological: the very niche-based, specialized, focussed, small-scale, often non-overlapping readerships that are a fundamental and vital and source of poetry's aesthetic and social value.

Many people say that the university, with its captive audience of mostly 18-24 year-olds, has become the primary site for the distribution of poetry. I don't think this is quite true, but few can fail to recognize how much of poetry's public consists of students. This reflects badly neither on poetry nor universities, quite the contrary; rather, it reflects the appalling lack of public cultural space outside the narrows confines of the literary academy. It is bad for poetry, and for poets, to be nourished so disproportionately; for the sort of poetry I care for has its natural habitat in the streets and offices and malls and parks and fields and farms and houses and apartments and elevators and stores and alleys and parades and woods and bookstores and public libraries.

Sometimes I imagine the kind of audience contemporary poetry would have if it were on the radio on a daily basis: say a new half-hour program every night at 8. The public for this programming would be small, although larger than our current publics for poetry. At the turn of this now turning century, radio promised to revolutionize the distribution of poetry, making widely accessible, at no cost, the new the new acoustic riffs of the language arts. For, of all our technologies, radio has the greatest potential to create a democratic listening space. Without access to the public soundwaves, subsidiary, privately available, spoken art media (tapes, CDs) cannot flourish. The exclusion of contemporary language arts from the public air, from radio, is a stark warning about what we can expect from the upcoming merging of cable TV, radio and the Internet.

If contemporary poetry is able to construct only a series of disconnected publics, then poetry is banished from that virtual republic that we aspire to, all the more, knowing it unattainable. For all the utopian promise of technological optimists, the answer is not in our machines but in our politics. For we see in this society a constant erosion of public space-- space not privatized for maximum profit, but made available for common use. And so it seems we can only imagine the public square, the town green, a Central Park of our poetries, where, leaving the solitude or sustenance of our rooms or communes, we might jostle against one another, unexpectably mingle, confuse our borders: refigure ourselves, reconstitute our affiliations, regroup.

There is no education in the arts equivalent to having art works available in open channels-- public spaces-- to intrigue, befuddle, and engage those unfamiliar and familiar, but especially unfamiliar. Such initial points of public access to art must not be abolished; neither should they be privatized, through the restrictions of pay TV or high admissions prices. For such sites to have a democratizing function they must be maximally accessible from a physical, technological, and financial point of view, just that what they exhibit may not be so immediately accessible in other ways. We must resist the idea that difficult art is elitist, any more than that science is elitist or that learning is elitist. Such arguments breed demagoguery not populist empowerment. By denying the value of the labor necessary to become linguistically and culturally informed, we encourage the maintenance of an uninformed, indeed, ignorant, citizenry.

If the arts are denied public support, it is not the artists or dedicated readers and viewers who will suffer, for one way or another their commitment will keep them working and they will be prepared to find art in out-of-the-way places. But for the uninitiated, the decline of public space for art can be devastating, for they will have no common place to find non-market driven art production. Public radio and public television, despite their manifest inadequacies, are, like public arts funding through the NEA and other agencies, a fundamental point of intersection between the public and the arts. They are the town square of art. In a society that has few such points of access, any diminishment of our public spaces for culture is a catastrophe.

Don't lament, or don't lament only: construct.


Presented at the Twentieth Century Literature Conference, at the University of Louisville, on February 25, 1995, at a panel on "Constructing Publics", organized by Robert von Hallberg. First published in Arachne 3:1 (1996).

1. EPC root connections through the main menu are as follows: July, 1994: 614; September, 367; October, 429; November: 573; January, 1995: 1,079; February: 1,283. Total connections to any menu item are higher: January: 6,798; February: 8,083. Perhaps an additional ten percent accessed the server through Veronica searches or direct gopher connections. [By April 1997 connections to EPC numbered 151,200.

2. "The WAIS­based search function for PMC, which operates through a WWW fill­out form, is heavily used, with more than 6,000 requests for that. The table of contents for the May 1994 issue (our most popular recent issue) has been requested over 6,000 times. Our most popular single item has been the popular culture column on Krazy Kat, with roughly 2,500 requests for the opening page. By the way, the page of information and archives on PMC­MOO has been requested almost as many times (5,700+). PMC­MOO is now the second largest virtual community on the internet, with 2,718 "citizens," over half of whom have been active on the MOO in the two weeks prior to this tabulation). And we've had close to 900 requests for the table of contents of the PMC book of collected essays. I should add that none of these numbers reflect the non­WWW distribution channels; I don't have stats for gopher or ftp use, but we do have over 3,000 subscribers to the listserv distribution list for the journal's table of contents and calls for reviewers."-- John Unsworth, personal communication, January 31, 1995.