Friday, May 02, 2008

An Important Discussion About Poetry Online

There's an important discussion about online poetry going on that's been triggered by an essay which asks the question: how useful and beneficial are online poetry boards to poets, and to poetry in general? A lot of very thoughtful (and some just plain snarky) replies are in the comments thread. For anyone who has ever been involved in the online poetry scene, and/or run afoul of its dark side, this is required reading. There is also a set of links to parallel discussions being generated elsewhere in cyberspace.

The single best summation and overview of the entire situation that I have read so far can be found at one of these parallel discussions, right here. My own experience of online poetry boards largely supports this summation.

The discussion will no doubt keep rippling out through cyberspace. That is a good outcome, I believe, even if it sparks a lot of disagreements. The essay addresses a set of issues that need to be periodically re-examined and kept alive, not swept under the rug.

I'm breaking one of my own unspoken rules with this post: to not make this weblog into one full of links that spot things for readers to go read that they might find interesting. I rely on such blogs as do primarily post links, the best of which have become clearinghouses and guides to the (online literary) zeitgeist of our times. (You can view my shortlist among the links at the side of this page.) My original purpose in starting the Dragoncave was to collect in one place finished essays about creativity and the arts, especially poetry, and some poems, to keep polishing them after they'd been put into this repository, and to start organizing them by theme and concept. A significant number of the short essays on poetics that have been posted here began as posts on discussion threads on some of the poetry boards; what I wrote there I've revised and reformatted for inclusion here. Hence, there is some spiraling around certain themes that have become strange attractors to which I must return. I do normally post links within essays to bring associations to the foreground. One of the joys of hypertext is that you can create virtual footnotes via links that are multi-dimensional and non-linear, that allow readers to go look up an idea perhaps new to them without breaking the flow of the essay itself.

And yes, I've contributed to this discussion on some of those threads; you'll see my name here and there. (So I won't be repeating my views here at the moment; you can read those on the carious threads.) There is a lot of history behind this; I've been involved in online poetry since 1997 or so. (My email address is the only "permanent" address I've had since 1994.) In my experience, this particular discussion about the utility and culture of online poetry boards has been raised numerous times in the past three or four years, only to be ignored, deleted, or suppressed. Some boards are more autocratic than others. Some others avoid drama at all costs, even at the price of the free exchange of views. Small, private boards often seem to meet more of the ideals presented in this discussion than do the large, public boards.

This is a discussion that I believe is relevant not only to the future of poetry, but peripherally to the future of how we will continue to make art. The online poetry world as a paradigm brings out several possibilities of what art-making in the future might look like, affected by the media used and the tools we continue to invent.

Update, two years later:

In an ironic twist of fate, in which the truth of this discussion about poetry criticism becomes even more true, this writer of this essay, in running his own poetry board, turned into the same kind of paranoid control freak which he complained about in his essay. Perhaps it's a case of absolute power corrupting absolutely, but I don't think so. i think it's more a case of human frailty and failing in the face of impossible stress. We all run into things we think we can handle, but are not up to handling, really. The irony here is of course that, as Nietzsche once put it, "If you look too long into the Abyss, the Abyss also looks into you." It's a case of mirroring, or perhaps of unconscious repression.

Anyway, the point is that no one is immune. The outcome, two years later, is that the author of this essay turned into that very thing he hated. I feel nothing but compassion about that, even though I was targeted for banning. None of that really matters.

Nor does any of this strange turn of events mitigate the truth of what was written in that essay. if anything, it just underlines how true this critique of poetry boards really matters, how accurate and insightful it really is. And how it remains relevant.



Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I've been involved in the poetry section of Zoetrope for eight years now. I left it for a while because it was eating up too much of my time and I was doing no writing but I went back recently. The quality of most of the poems I've reviewed so far has not been high and the quality of the reviews I've received has also lacked. Oh, they say nice things but they don't really know how to say what's good about a particular poem – it is much easier to critique a bad poem. And that is the thing, people equate critique with criticise. One woman said to me, "If you don’t like my poems then don’t review them," to which I replied along the lines of, "But don't you want to know why I didn't like the piece?"

In my experience poets have the thinnest of skins and I used to be pretty sensitive myself. I do point people towards Zoetrope but with a proviso to stay out of the private rooms and restrict themselves to reviewing; getting tied up in discussions in the rooms can really eat up your precious time. You can learn a lot yourself by having to pull someone else's poem apart and you can even learn a few things from a bad review too. I have no experience of any other sites so I can't pass comment.

8:33 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Out of curiosity: Zoetrope? The only references I can readily find are to film, and also to Francis Ford Coppola's film company and vineyard. The other reference I found was a slam of the Zoetrope poetry forum by someone on PFFA, which I do not take seriously, on the principal that one must always consider the source. (There's a reason the nickname for PFFA is Piffle.)

You're right, people do generally equate critique with criticism, and assume that honesty in a critique is always about pointing out the negative. It's not, but that's the common assumption. I've addressed that once or twice, elsewhere.

I also agree that critiquing is a great way to learn about poetry. To a point. After a certain point, it can lose sight of the goal, which is one's own improvement as a writer, if not necessarily as a critic.

I've been on a couple dozen sites over the years. Only one or two were worth committing much time and effort to, in the grand scheme of things.

10:14 PM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

The Zoetrope Virtual Studio is a powerful collaborative tool for filmmakers, writers and other artists. Each of our workshops is a community where artists view, review and discuss one another's work. Whether you're looking for feedback on your new novella, or just want to discuss screenwriting, click on a workshop on the menu at left to begin participating in our creative communities. - at least that's what the blurb on their site says. It has been on the go for many years now and has forums for short stories, screenplays, novellas, short scripts, poetry and flash fiction.

Like any forum it is only as good as the members at that time. Eight years ago I spent a lot of time on the short story and poetry boards and it was a worthwhile experience. There were a few decent writers posting and reviewing. I'm only on the poetry board this time and there are only a couple of decent poets that I've run into - both ages with me.

There are some who are there just to massage each others' egos and that's fine but I don't play that way. Some are appreciative of a thorough review, others take offence and that's their problem - they can block me from seeing their poems if they're that sensitive.

I'll be honest I don't get a great deal out of the site but I think it's incumbent on those with knowledge and experience to spread it around a bit. I ran into a sixteen year-old yesterday who is clearly desperate for input and stimulation. I didn't get his poem and I told him so and the next thing he'd rewritten it and sent me an e-mail to have a look at his changes. I still didn't get it and I told him so but it doesn't matter whether I get it – I really do have fairly narrow tastes in poetry – what matters is that he took on board what I said and his second version was better than the first. Maybe I'll get his third go.

3:03 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks for the additional info.

That sounds like a classic online workshop experience, both the positive and the bland parts, and less fraught with drama than many.

It's always good to find a place online where can actually exchange ideas without running afoul of artist's egos. I note that things go in waves. You're quite right in that who is present at any given time makes all the difference.

9:41 AM  

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