Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Poetics List is coming to the end of its run after 20 years. I don’t know how many messages were posted, but as of the last round-up of December’s posts into a text file (a process that is still incomplete), the verbiage totaled more than 302 megabytes. Not an impossible quantity, it would barely take up space on a thumb drive today. Of course, it’s worth noting that when we first computerized the student records for the California Institute of Integral Studies back in the early 1980s, those records – dating back to the school’s founding as the California Institute of Asian Studies three decades before – were held in their entirety on a blazing fast Compaq PC that boasted 10 MB of capacity. This month, I read of the list’s demise on my Nexus 7 tablet, not to be confused with either my desktop or my laptop. 

It’s been years since I paid much attention to the List itself, but once it had a huge impact on my life. In 1995, when I was recruited by Technology Service Solutions and given the opportunity to pretty much name my salary in return for moving to the vicinity of Wayne, Pennsylvania – a place I had never even heard of – the idea that I could continue to stay in touch with the poetry world electronically was a major element in my decision to make the move. 

The Poetics List was the first poetry tool to make serious use of the internet. Prior to the existence of the net, geography really mattered in ways that younger poets may never appreciate. If, in the 1970s, you were a post-avant poet in someplace like Kent, Ohio or Tucson, Arizona, you were at a serious disadvantage. The relationships articulated in a collection like In the American Tree, let alone The New American Poetry two-plus decades earlier, were almost entirely face-to-face, which meant that the anthology was really representing a discussion then going on in three  metropolitan areas: the SF-Bay Area, New York and Washington, DC. When I first published the book in 1986, I got serious blowback from several of the poets – at least a quarter of the contributors – for including a writer, Tom Beckett, whom nobody had spent much time with in person. The absence of poets from the Chicago & LA scenes, both in the Tree and The New American Poetry, can be attributed to the same geo-centric phenomenon. In the 1980s, we were just 20 years beyond Jack Spicer’s prohibition of the distribution of the magazine J anywhere east of the Oakland  hills. Indeed, Leland Hickman used to complain that he got protests from many of his compadres – the exception seems to have been Bill Mohr – for including poets who lived east of the Valley & north of Santa Barbara in Temblor, a journal that wasn’t begun until 1985.

The arrival of the net has had a transformative impact on poetry – one that is still taking place at a pace it is doubtful any of us can truly appreciate. If, in fact, there is no estimate of the number of publishing poets in the 1950s made in that decade that is over 100*, just 60 years later we find ourselves in a world in which GoodReads.Com claims to have over 100,000 authors among its members. The AWP conference is larger than that for the MLA. 

The growth in the number of poets is not a result of the arrival of the net, but the existence of the cloud has permitted institutions to grow up that embody and empower this expansion in the number of writers. Just a few decades back, the flame of concrete poetry seemed perpetually in danger of flickering out. Today, VisPo is a robust global phenomenon. Major poetic trends turn up not just in one or two cities, but all over the planet. A year ago, Nada Gordon took flarf & Gurlesque to Myanmar, and I’ve heard poets from there and from China refer to language poetry as something taking place in their societies, even as it seems to be very old news here in the USA. I’m currently working on a collaboration with a Dutch poet who lives in Japan. One of the books I’m most looking forward to this Spring is Secession, with Insecession, by the Galician poet Chus Pato with her English translator / collaborator, the Canadian writer Erin Moure. Its publisher, Toronto’s BookThug, is also the publisher of the first volume of my new project, Universe, the second and third volumes of which will be appearing this spring from Shearsman in the UK and Counterpath in Denver. 

Borders mean something very different in 2014 from what they meant in 1985 or 1940. In the Schengen zone within Europe, I can drive from the Netherlands into Belgium & back the way I would go from my house to Wilmington, Delaware to  hear a night’s music at the Queen, the way I can drive up to New York for a reading or to Princeton for a conference. That an American can’t do this so easily to & from Canada is patently absurd, and the net makes it more so every day. 

When in 1950 Charles Olson traveled to Chiapas and wrote his hallucinatory poetics correspondence back to Robert Creeley, collected in The Mayan Letters, he never imagined a volume like Heriberto Yépez’s The Empire of Neomemory,  a volume that easily could have been characterized as The Mayan Letters II: The Mayans Strike Back. The idea that the whole of poetry could be governed from the back of the bar at Gino & Carlo’s in North Beach, or from the faculty lounge in Iowa City, or from anywhere, has always been a fantasy, but it is really only in our lifetimes that that notion has been revealed to be a total farce. 

The Poetics List was an important step in that unveiling. In terms of activity, it took a full year before a single month generated half-a-megabyte in data, and it peaked in March, 2003, at just under 4 megabytes for one month, which still translates into more than 580,00 words and 1,725 pages of text, should you want to print that month out. That suggests that the total project generated more than 45 million words, which as they say is a mouthful.

* A figure that is insanely low. If one used the sort of investigatory methods that Cary Nelson brought to his study of poetry between the First & Second World Wars in Repression & Recovery, one would almost certainly get a number over 500.