Saturday, April 29, 2006

 

This weekend, it would be a good idea to check out the plot to carve the internet up and turn it over to the major telcos. Save the Internet is coordinating efforts to sustain network neutrality. Let your member of the House of Representatives know that this is not a backwater issue. The so-called Communications Opportunity Enhancement Act (COPE), authored by Texas Republican Joe Barton, represents little more than the theft of a natural resource. Imagine an internet that not only costs a lot more to access, but on which you could never criticize AT&T or Verizon.



Friday, April 28, 2006

 

The Da Vinci Code is to great literature what Indiana Jones is to great cinema. The book is a relentless plot machine – with only one real pause right up until the final 15 pages – utterly unconcerned with any details that fall outside of its pursuit of the next clue.

In case you have not noticed, we are about to be deluged with hype – the ads have already started – for Ron Howard’s adaptation of Dan Brown’s blockbuster. With a cast that includes Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautoo, Ian McKellen, Alfred Molina & Jean Reno, a script by Akiva Goldsman (Cinderella Man, I, Robot, A Beautiful Mind), & locations that include the Louvre & Westminster Abbey, Sony Pictures is really hoping that it has its ducks all in a row, ready for a monster hit to trigger the summer film season a little early this year, coming to every damn screen at your local multiplex on May 19th.

So I thought I ought to take the vaccine as early as I could & read the book, not the sort of fare I would normally pick up.

The Da Vinci Code is to great literature what Chinese take-out is to great cuisine. Easy but involving & it’ll leave you hungry again in a few hours. And beware the MSG.

I enjoyed the book, though frankly much of it is so clunky that it’s likeable just for how cobbled together the whole project is. To begin with, protagonist Robert Langdon is a Harvard symbologist. The best I can make out about this imaginary discipline is that it must be one part art history, one part religion, one part debased semiotics – somebody forgot to tell them that semiotics is debased linguistics as it is.

Then, save for Sophie and her grandfather (and, in a eensy bit of back story, the albino monk Silas) none of the characters has any family. It’s not that they’re single, it’s that they’re utterly devoid of context outside of the narrative machine. This is particularly odd in that much of the story’s meaning comes from Sophie’s quest to find the truth out about her family, but the whole idea is something that has been so devalued by the rest of the novel that it feels like an afterthought when it finally shows up in Scotland, a bit of wrap-up needed at the end to get the whole shebang under a shiny bow.

What’s true of the characters’ families is true of their personalities – only the eccentric millionaire historian/knight, Leigh Teabing, has any hint of one (and it’s so sketchy here that you know Ian McKellan has free reign to chew on all the scenic curtains in this role). You don’t need a personality if you have a puzzle to solve. As an author, Brown is an architect rather than a writer, so consumed with getting his clues all lined-up that he can commit a howler like the comment about the left-brain in the following:

Not even the feminine association with the left-hand side could escape the Church's defamation. In France and Italy, the words for "left"—gauche and sinistra—came to have deeply negative overtones, while their right-hand counterparts rang of righteousness, dexterity, and correctness. To this day, radical thought was considered left wing, irrational thought was left brain, and anything evil, sinister. (bold face added)

In fact, it is the right brain that is alleged to be creative, associative, improvisational; the left is said to be analytical & logical, the antithesis of irrational. But it doesn’t fit Brown’s thesis, so he simply reverses the facts.

This book is an easy target for any game of Gotcha, precisely because it has to weave so many details together in what it’s author hopes will be a credible net of connections. The material here on the Fibonacci series, in particular, made me cringe. So did this passage on iambic pentameter:

Before Langdon could even ponder what ancient password the verse was trying to reveal, he felt something far more fundamental resonate within him—the meter of the poem. Iambic pentameter.

Langdon had come across this meter often over the years while researching secret societies across Europe, including just last year in the Vatican Secret Archives. For centuries, iambic pentameter had been a preferred poetic meter of outspoken literati across the globe, from the ancient Greek writer Archilochus to Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, and Voltaire—bold souls who chose to write their social commentaries in a meter that many of the day believed had mystical properties. The roots of iambic pentameter were deeply pagan.

Iambs. Two syllables with opposite emphasis. Stressed and unstressed. Yin yang. A balanced pair. Arranged in strings of five. Pentameter. Five for the pentacle of Venus and the sacred feminine.

"It's pentameter!" Teabing blurted, turning to Langdon. "And the verse is in English! La lingua pura!"

This is a level of subtlety that one associates maybe with My Name is Earl. But if it did show on American TV, you could almost count on it being lampooned within the week on Talk Soup. This actually is a critical juncture in the plot.

Nothing quite reveals Brown as a clumsy carpenter so much as the way he likes to contextualize the opening of a chapter, giving way too much detail before turning to the character at hand, as in :

The Hawker 731's twin Garrett TFE-731 engines thundered, powering the plane skyward with gut-wrenching force. Outside the window, Le Bourget Airfield dropped away with startling speed.

I'm fleeing the country, Sophie thought, her body forced back into the leather seat.

There is no way for Sophie, for example, to know what model aircraft she is in, nor the name of the field. No matter – it’s a way of showing us that Dan Brown, guy novelist, knows his machines. Or, another example:

The Depository Bank of Zurich was a twenty-four-hour Geldschrank bank offering the full modern array of anonymous services in the tradition of the Swiss numbered account. Maintaining offices in Zurich, Kuala Lumpur, New York, and Paris, the bank had expanded its services in recent years to offer anonymous computer source code escrow services and faceless digitized backup.

Or:

The Sprawling 185-acre estate of Château Villette was located twenty-five minutes northwest of Paris in the environs of Versailles. Designed by François Mansart in 1668 for the Count of Aufflay, it was one of Paris's most significant historical châteaux. Complete with two rectangular lakes and gardens designed by Le Nôtre, Château Villette was more of a modest castle than a mansion. The estate fondly had become known as la Petite Versailles.

Langdon brought the armored truck to a shuddering stop at the foot of the mile-long driveway.

Or:

The Range Rover was Java Black Pearl, four-wheel drive, standard transmission, with high-strength polypropylene lamps, rear light cluster fittings, and the steering wheel on the right.

Langdon was pleased he was not driving.

This kind of awkward, creative-writing class prose is almost a twitch for Brown. Sometimes the details are plot driven, as when two police officers note that a minor character once skipped out on a hospital bill after having been treated for anaphylactic shock. It sets you up from that point forward to be on the watch for peanuts. And, wouldn’t you know, he doesn’t have his Epipen when he needs it forty chapters later. But in virtually every passage cited above, Brown is just setting the scene in the most wooden way imaginable. We do not need to know about Kuala Lumpur or the nature of the headlights or the architect of the estate. Instead, they offer ersatz credibility.

What gets readers beyond this sort of overly built Rube Goldberg-esque kind of language is the degree to which Brown can build plot upon plot. Virtually everyone in this novel, save for our symbologist protagonist and his cryptologist companion, has an agenda that is not quite what it seems. Even the minor characters – the French cops, for example – have separate plot lines & motives, both in terms of what they tell other characters and how they then do (or don’t) follow through. Between the Swiss banker, the cops, the monk, the Cardinal, the knighted historian & his butler & a malevolent Teacher, always capitalized & never revealed until the final scenes, the plotline of the two protagonists (who relate quite differently to their quest) is situated into at least eight other active narratives, all of which are doled out piecemeal, as tho every tale was a mystery here. Then there is the less active but more powerful quest set up by Sophie’s dead grandfather.

For all the excess detail at the start of chapters, Brown’s favorite word in this novel is actually rather vague: something. As in “You and your brethren possess something that is not yours." Brown’s formal problem, chapter after chapter, is how to advance the narrative without giving away key details – in this sense, the book resembles nothing so much as the old Flash Gordon serials from the movies of the 1930s & ‘40s, with their brief episodes lurching from cliff hanger to cliff hanger. And, indeed, the Indiana Jones movies are a kind of homage to those same movies.

Intellectually, The Da Vinci Code makes the Harry Potter series look like Sartre, real novels of ideas. This poses as intellectual fair in that Robert is a symbologist & Leigh a historian & both are constantly having to explain the history of this or that clue to the wide-eyed cryptologist Sophie. But Robert is a symbologist about as seriously as Harrison Ford’s Jones is an anthropology professor. The result is a great romp through the scenery of ideas, but virtually absent ideas as such. As an author, Dan Brown is closer in spirit to Mike Hammer than to Umberto Eco. Indeed, closer to Mike Hammer than to Stephen King or Elmore Leonard or Walter Mosley. If Robert Parker had an interest in history & weren’t so damn lazy with his plots, The Da Vinci Code could have been a Spencer novel. But Parker’s characters have a lot more depth.

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Thursday, April 27, 2006

 

If you look at the chart at the bottom of the note from Tuesday, you will see that Simmons B. Buntin gave his survey takers just six choices when he asked them what they liked about online resources. Conversely, however, when he turned the question around, asking them what they liked least about online resources, Buntin left it open ended. He got, as a result some 114 answers, which he was able to group reasonably well into some three dozen master categories. But again, six categories predominated, groupings that were listed by nine or more respondents each – no other grouping had more than four. As the chart below suggests, five of the six “least liked” aspects of online poetry resources have to do with the aspects of online technology, only one with the quality of the work online, as such.

One might quibble as how much of the look & feel of online publications is due strictly to the technology (think of the formal constraints blogs face) vs. people having to learn a whole new discipline when contrasted with either offset or (better still) the type case drawers of letterpress technology. Or, for that matter, the overwhelming amount of work that’s available online – is that a feature of the web, or merely a secret that the web has revealed?

Having read several books – from Hardt & Negri’s Empire to Robert Duncan’s H.D. Book to, most recently, The Da Vinci Code (about which more anon), in e-book format on various Palm Pilots, one of the things I appreciate most about the new technology is its extremely portable nature – it’s lighter & more versatile than a hardback & even most paperbacks. But I have yet to see a good conversion of poetry’s spacing in a PDF file from a PC (where it will be absolutely perfect) to a pocket device. So, yes, the limitations are real, at least for the present.

When asked what the biggest misconception people have about poetry appearing online, at least 85 of the 103 responses were variants of the “online poetry is not as good as poetry in print” theme. Some of this no doubt is the absence of certain older poets from the online scene. Some of it is the inept use of HTML¹ some journals evidence. Some of it is the sense that certain mags online have had of printing anything and everything they get. And more than a little of this has to do with sites that get abandoned, or which fail to get updated, even as the zine promises the Spring ’03 issue is just around the corner. There is an interesting & fairly complex discussion to be had as to what happens exactly when an active site goes dark.

But when I read, for example, Bill Berkson’s masterful online chapbook in the current issue of Big Bridge, or when I see Norman Fischer’s “After Alberto Caeiro in the same issue, it is evident to me at least that the upper limit of web publishing is every bit as high as it is for print.

We see these same somewhat conflicting messages again when Buntin what the “biggest truth” about poetry appearing online is. There were 104 responses, which he was able to cluster together into 35 basic groups, but again just four accounted for a substantial majority of the replies. The most common, cited 23 times, was that online poetry is that it achieves broad geographic distribution – it is more readily accessible than any print journal ever could be. But the second most commonly cited response – this is from an open-ended question, Buntin didn’t ask his respondents to pick from a list – is something of a perpendicular argument, taking a similar position but in a completely different direction: 13 folks noted that there is much greater exposure to a greater range of genres, commentary, and writers. Unlike the chain bookstore that carries mostly trade and university presses, or the small press cornucopia like Woodland Pattern that carries the absolute inverse of what you find at Borders, the web has everything, from the snooty neoformalism of William Logan to blogs devoted to slamming & the open-mic type sites like Poetry Super Highway. You want to check on the English-language poets of South Africa? You can do it on the web. You want more content than you can find in the Library of Congress? You can do it on the web. Ten years ago, most poets who wrote deeply School of Quietude or radically post-avant poetries might not have had any exposure to one another. The statement “I used to write that way because I didn’t know any better,” a line I hear a lot from poets of a certain age, may very well be abolished as an excuse as a result.

But the next two commonly cited responses show us the conflict people have about the web directly. Twelve respondents commented that “Quality on the web varies widely,” while ten responded “Quality on the web is as good as it is in print.” Only one of these statements can be true in any deep sense of that term, but I think it’s an argument that you can hear both sides of, and that the line between one and the other is constantly being renegotiated. The long-term trend is that, in another decade at the very most, quality on the web should be utterly indistinguishable from quality in print, at least with regard to journals. Already the idea that an appearance in Poetry would have more value than one in Jacket is naïve at best.

The final four questions in Buntin’s survey reiterate themes already highlighted. Asked what additional poetry resources should be online, respondents generally asked for more, more, more of everything. In particular, audio resources, video resources, a centralized – and comprehensive – poem search engine linked to a far more complete inventory of texts by poets past & present. One senses that there is a fairly deep need for the work of writers who may be out of print, but still “in copyright” to be added onto the web. There have been a couple of repositories of out-of-print books, mostly in PDF format, but the logistics of a major repository obviously would be daunting. Similarly, the problems of web sites going dark and the lack of in copyright resources show up again in response to a request for “overall concerns about publishing on the web.” So does the debate over quality & the despair at just how much quantity there is already. That’s an interesting double-bind – there’s more poetry on the web than you will ever be able to read, but it doesn’t include, say, William Carlos Williams’ The Wedge or Robert Creeley’s Words, which might be the exact works you are looking for.

One person noted in the “additional comments” section that many print journals maintain “teaser” sites with a poem or two online to encourage you to acquire back issues. Those are a form of online publishing, of course, but basically they’re bad marketing. A press like Coach House that tends to put up entire books from its backlist and to treat the web as an interactive archive of its print efforts is far more likely to be the way presses are representing themselves on the web in a few years.

There was one question asking for recommendations, most of which were pretty standard words to the wise, e.g., Don’t enter competitions. One that did jump out at me was the suggestion that responding to blogs is a good way to get known. Curiously, tho, nobody mentioned that having a blog of your own has become the fastest and most popular method, a fairly interesting twist for a medium that is itself barely five years old. And one person, thinking no doubt of the issues of inept web design and programming, recommends keeping the formatting issues to a minimum. Someone else, of course, took exactly the opposite approach, suggesting that you take note of the fact that the web is, by definition now, multimedia.

 

¹ As has been mentioned more than once in the comments stream here over the past couple of years, I’m obviously a primitive when it comes to web design myself.



Wednesday, April 26, 2006

 

Of course the fun part of a survey like the Terrain.Org study of poets and their use of online resources is when they get down to naming names, and listing what they do and don’t like. For example, when Simmon B. Buntin’s 137 respondents were asked to identify their three “favorite online poetry resources,” they listed 113 different web sites. Interestingly, tho, just eight were cited by as many as six respondents each – none had five mentions. The eight are graphed in the figure below:

There’s a ringer here – one of the two sites that advertised the survey last July was this blog – that accounts for my embarrassingly high score here. Still, this isn’t a bad roster of major poetry web sites – I was personally surprised to find Poetry Free-for-All, which I think of as a web equivalent of an open mic drop-in poetry workshop, listed, considering that a majority of responses to the survey came from readers of this blog. I need to think about that some. And I was surprised also not to see more people list Third Factory, MiPOesias, Selby’s List, Big Bridge, Duration Press, How2, Light & Dust, or PENNsound, all of which received between two and four citations each. Wom-Po proved to be the listserv most widely mentioned, but that was only twice. Poetry and Ploughshares were each mentioned once – the first is sort of sad when you think of the $100 million they have to put into their operations there. At $6.95 per month for an upgraded version of Site Meter, which is what this blog costs, I’m getting a lot more bang for my buck.

But the real message of a listing of 113 different “favorites” is just how decentralized poetry has become in our society – half a century ago, back in the heyday of Personism, Deep Image, the SF Renaissance, the Boston Brahmins, Black Mountain & the Beats, 113 web sites would have meant roughly one site for every three publishing poets in the United States. The twin literary heritages back then were called Raw & Cooked by some – Overcooked by some others – and they squabbled then as they squabble now. But the argument in those days seemed a lot more coherent – you could think of the New Americans as a group of unlettered barbarians or of the Brahmins as a bunch of Jeeves wannabes, reeking of mothballs – tho that coherence was enforced through the benign neglect of whole populations who proved neither fish nor foul. Now that everybody is pretty much allowed to play, the relationship of writer to audience is undergoing an amazing transformation, one that neither the schools nor the trade presses nor the so-called public media have even begun to figure out.

We can see this new pluralism in responses to other questions in Buntin’s survey as well. Asked which E-zines they liked to read, respondents listed 85 different choices. Once again only a seven received six or more mentions: Jacket (25), Terrain.Org (12), Can We Have Our Ball Back (12), Shampoo (9), How2 (8), MiPOesias (7), Typo (6). As with the previous question, Terrain.Org benefited greatly from being the sponsoring site for the survey, but none of the other ezines here is a surprise. We get only a slightly different list when we ask their three favorite e-zines to submit to: Can We Have Our Ball Back finished first, with just seven mentions, followed by Terrain.Org (a ringer here as well, methodologically), then four journals listed by five respondents each: Jacket, MiPOesias, The Hold & Mot Juste, a relatively new magazine that appears in PDF format.

Where the question of a plurality of tastes shows up most profoundly is in the question Who are your three favorite poets? Respondents listed 223 different people! Only nine were mentioned by as many as four people & nobody by more than five. So much for the settled canon. The nine who were most often listed were Billy Collins, Emily Dickinson and Mary Oliver with five mentions each, followed by John Ashbery, Rae Armantrout, Seamus Heaney, Wallace Stevens, Walt Whitman & William Carlos Williams with four. Any attempt to frame this survey as skewed towards the post-avant is pretty much cancelled by the presence of Collins, Oliver & Heaney right at the top of that list. Not one respondent listed Louis Zukofsky!



Tuesday, April 25, 2006

 

Yesterday, I looked at Simmons B. Buntin’s survey of poets conducted thru Terrain.Org, noting in part how Buntin’s cross-section of writers differs materially from the ”poetry users” recently surveyed by the National Opinion Research Center for the Poetry Foundation. Perhaps the starkest contrast between the two groups is that over 90 percent of Buntin’s respondents read poetry at least once each week, a majority of them doing so daily, whereas less than 17 percent of the Poetry Foundations “users” do likewise.

Buntin’s agenda, it is clear from his questions, is to find out how the web is changing the reading and publishing habits of active poets. The responses he gets are worth thinking about. He begins by asking

How are you notified about new poetry appearing online?

This was a question for which multiple responses were possible, and indeed the total answers received was slightly more than two per respondent. No surprise that the most common answer was through email, listed by 86 of the survey’s 137 respondents. What is interesting is that word of mouth finishes second, listed 59 times, followed by discussion groups (e.g., Spidertangle, Wom-Po, Buffalo Poetics or LuciPo), listed 40 times. The next three most commonly cited means of notification are all non-electronic: print magazines or newspapers (37), announcements at literary events (20) and flyers or brochures (16). This is a question that almost certainly would have changed had Buntin thought to add web sites and blogs as possible mechanisms, but given the restricted choices, it’s revealing that word-of-mouth still outranks discussion groups almost by half. For all of the hype about how the web erases borders and democratizes communication, transforming it from a world of who you know to how well you can communicate, poets still depend on personal recommendations as a primary source of data, even about web sites. While word-of-mouth can occur in any number of different media and contexts, from email to telephone to drinks at the bar, it’s invariably personal.

Respondents were asked – and the wording here is important – if there was a “difference in the quality of poetry appearing in online journals and print journals.” The majority (55%) responded that they did not see a difference in the quality of poetry. Asked to identify how poetry differed online and in print, respondents gave a wide range of answers that Buntin subsequently grouped whenever possible. The most common response, accounting for nearly a quarter of the answers given, was that “online poetry is more experimental, more avant-garde, more engaging, more innovative and fresher.” The next two most widely cited answers, however, clashed with the optimism of this conclusion. The more common one was simply that the “quality of poetry in print journals is higher.” This was followed by a response not about the poetry, but the presentation, the idea that “print journals look and feel better.” This was closely followed by two other propositions that tended toward optimism toward online poetry, but in a more qualified fashion. The first, as worded by Buntin, is the proposition that “online journals tend to feature younger poets whose work may be less well-crafted or may be really good, just no quid pro quo.” This response was tied with: “There is a broader spectrum in the quality of poetry online: some of the poetry in online journals is quite good, but some is awful.”

The next most commonly offered response differs almost completely from a couple of the above, including the one given most often: “Work in online journals is more accessible and narrative.” This reflects one of the implicit questions of a survey like this: which journals are we talking about? There are online journals that are entirely experimental, especially those that take advantage of flash animation and some of the other graphic potentials of the web. But there are also web journals that could have been done in print form well over a century ago for all of the work that they present.

Those responses accounted for just under three-quarters of the responses to Buntin’s question. The remaining ones echoes some of the themes above, but sometimes with interesting twists. Here they are and the number times each was cited, again in Buntin’s wording:

3 Online journals feature more than print journals can.

3 Quality of online submissions is increasing, quality of print submissions is about the same.

3 Well-edited online journals are usually better quality.

2 Print journals have more well-known poets.

2 Print journals take themselves too seriously and are humorless.

2 Some online journals appear to be set up as mutual fan clusters, or cliques, supporting each other.

2 There is a better, broader range of poets in online journals.

1 Harder to find top-quality poetry in online journals that you find in print journals.

1 Online journals usually have a different niche.

Unsurprisingly, acknowledged perceptions about the differences between online and print journals leads to different strategies with regards to submitting and publishing in them, at least for some poets. While two-thirds of respondents do make distinctions as to what they send to print and what they send to online journals, the other third have very clear ideas about this. Four distinct answers accounted for just under two-thirds of these responses. The two answers given most often are interesting for how they intersect without quite conflicting. Most commonly cited was the idea that “I submit more experimental work to online journals.” Cited somewhat less was the counter theory (if it is one) that “I send my best work to print journals.” The next category of responses were those who choose to send either their longer or their shorter work to online journals – there seems to be no consensus as to which is preferable. Cited as often was the refusenik position: “I do not submit to online journals.”

The counter to this last statement, “I do not submit to print journals,” was cited, but only half as often. In fact, after the four responses above, no other statement was mentioned by more than three respondents & tend to be all over the map. Other comments included the following:

I do not submit to print journals.

I submit more 'formatted' poems to print journals, which can space text better.

I submit more formal work to print journals.

I submit to print journals first, and if rejected I then submit to online journals.

Online journals solicit more poetry.

I do not like the long response times of print journals so send to online journals.

I only publish my poetry on my blog.

I prefer to publish more than half my work in print journals.

I send my best work to online journals: more readers, easy to find in Google, accessible, never goes out of print.

I submit to online journals first, though the poems may be reworked before appearing in chapbooks or books.

My online submissions are inferior because they represent my earlier and less mature writing.

What I find interesting about these two disparate lists of responses is that they show exactly how broadly, and differently, it is possible to think about this question of print vs. online journals. There are a lot of different ways to consider these questions, but it is worth noting some trends. One is that the (current) inexpensiveness of setting up an online journal is not particularly a major factor here. Others that seem to be more important are speed-to-publication, appropriateness for the text, distribution and prestige. It is absolutely true that certain authors, especially among writers of my own generation – I’ll be 60 in August – still show a generational allergy towards the internet. Since writers who have been active for 30 or 40 years tend, almost by definition, to be better known, the bias against the web shows up as a perception that some writers are above the web. This is the contemporary equivalent of some buggy riders being above the motor car, but it has interesting consequences. One is that the absence of these older poets is taken as an index of quality. In fact, print journals show pretty much the same range as do online journals. Some, like Jacket and How2, are as well edited as anything in print. And if you see as many print publications as I do – I get about 20 per week – one thing you cannot miss is that some print publications, journal, book or chapbook, can be every bit as ill-conceived or poorly executed as anything on the web.

I really like the answer of the one person who responded that he or she sends his best work to web journals because they have more readers, are easy to find in Google, are accessible and never go out of print. What that doesn’t deal with is what might happen when online publications go offline, or if an editor should die. It seems clear that there is, or soon will be, a need for a web archive for online journals – but if you look at what has been done with sites like the Electronic Poetry Center, Ubuweb or PENNsound, it seems evident that this stage will reached eventually. In the long run, having work in a publication like Jacket might prove a lot more valuable than having work in, say, Conjunctions or Paris Review and Poetry. And Conjunctions is still one of the very best print journals around.

Thus it is not surprising to see that accessibility is the aspect of the web that Buntin’s poets like most about online resources, as the graph below demonstrates.

Two other questions Buntin asked, concerning the ease of submitting work over the web, and the speed with which editors respond to submissions, underscore the value of the web’s real-time 7-by-24 environment. Just under half of all respondents replied that online journals respond to submissions more quickly than do print journals – less than two percent claimed that print journals respond more quickly. And just under three-quarters of all respondents indicated that submitting work over the web is easier than via the old hard copy by mail routine. Nobody thought that the web was more difficult, tho elsewhere in the survey you could find some reservations about the web’s ability to handle complex spacing issues.

Next I will take a look at what people are reading, which resources they prefer, and where they like to send their work.



Monday, April 24, 2006

 

Last July 16, I posted the following note to the blog:

Terrain.Org is conducting a comprehensive survey about the online reading & publishing habits of poets. Go here and fill out the form.

Simmons B. Buntin, who crafted the survey, kept it open until late fall – the final survey was filled out on November 29. Last week, he sent me the results with permission to post them as I see fit.

Overall, Buntin got 137 responses. It’s not a scientific survey in that he didn’t randomly select respondents from a larger list of poets, poetry readers & poetry site visitors, but rather got replies from people who actively chose to fill out some or all of his questions. Nonetheless, 137 is an excellent number of replies from which gather data and the responses are well worth considering. For the record, 81 of the responses came within one week of my posting the above note, so that readers of this blog presumably account for a majority of his replies.¹ Not every respondent filled out every question, so when I give percentages in what follows, those percentages will represent the portion of people who actually replied to the question, not the total number in the respondent pool. The exception will be those questions for which multiple responses were possible. Looking through the email addresses of respondents, I note a few Canadian, Australian and British addresses, and one from Norway. Virtually all of the others come from dot coms, dot nets and dot edus.

The first question Buntin asked was where had respondents published poetry, a question for which multiple replies were possible. Most respondents indicated that they had published in print journals or anthologies (119) and that they had published in online journals or e-zines (114). Just half of all respondents had published a print chapbook – 50.4 percent – while a smaller number – 38 percent – had published a larger print book. While these numbers feel about right to me, it was interesting to note that a much smaller number had published a book of some kind on line, 18.3 percent having had an online chapbook, while 10.2 percent had published a larger online book. Just seven respondents (5.1 percent) indicated that they had never published a book.

Several things jump out from these responses. First is a confirmation that, be it in print or online, chapbook authors outnumber the poets publish larger volumes, in spite of a printed chapbook’s invisibility in bookstores and difficulty getting distributed. Second is that, in spite of online publishing’s alleged “ease of access,” respondents with print volume experience outnumber those with online book experience by more than two to one.² It would have been interesting to have followed up with a question as to how many books of each kind had each respondent had published – the numerical gap between chapbooks and “books” would really open there – and also to ask how many books one had published by trade presses, university presses and “large independents” such as Coffee House, Graywolf, Copper Canyon, Godine/Black Sparrow or New Directions.

Beyond the publication backgrounds of his respondents, Buntin’s next set of questions probes their reading habits. A majority responded that they read poetry, both in print and online, daily. This is worth noting, because it suggests that Buntin’s respondents differ significantly from the more scientifically random pool of respondents ferreted out by the Poetry Foundation in its “Poetry in America” project, the “first scientific study of American attitudes toward poetry,” which was released about two weeks ago. The Poetry Foundation conducted phone surveys with 623 “users of poetry” and 400 non-users, and frankly did a good job, at least insofar as polling methodology is concerned. Table 34 of the foundation survey found that 16.9 percent of “current poetry users,” read poetry at least once per week. In contrast, 91 percent of Buntin’s respondents read poetry in print at least once per week, 61.7 percent doing so daily; 85.8 percent read it online at least once per week, 53 percent doing so daily. For both print and online, those who read poetry daily outnumbered those who read it a few times per week by more than 2:1, while those who reported reading poetry only once per week were far fewer still. In part, these differences reflect the variation between a self-selecting group of respondents, as in Buntin’s survey, and a pool generated by randomly dialing telephone numbers, the Poetry Foundation method. In addition, Buntin’s respondents were most apt to hear of the survey either through the Terrain.Org website, an online journal that includes poetry as part of a broader environmentalist agenda, or this blog. But most importantly, the Poetry Foundation’s survey is a study of “poetry users,” readers rather than writers.³ The survey asks just three questions about that involve the actual writing of poetry: Have you written poetry as an adult? Have you performed or read your own poetry in public? How recently have you written poetry? Buntin’s survey is aimed explicitly at poets.

To clarify this difference, it’s useful to ask about poetry’s most mysterious community – non-writing readers. The question of who reads poetry or, as Mr. Gioia once put it, Can Poetry Matter? is a focal point of the Poetry Foundation survey, which found that

Thirty-six percent of all readers have written poetry as adults. Poetry users are significantly more likely to write poetry (45 percent) than are non-users, fewer than 1 percent of whom have written poetry as adults. Just over one-quarter of the adults who have written poetry (27 percent) have performed their own poetry in public.

The phrase “of all readers” is the Catch-22 here, by which the Poetry Foundation survey means “readers for pleasure.” Contrast this with a recent British study reported in The Guardian last January:

A Book Marketing/TMS survey found that last year 63 per cent of Britons aged 12-74 bought any kind of book, with 34 per cent purchasing fiction and only 1 per cent verse.

Worse yet, fiction readers in the U.K. buy more novels per person than readers of poetry buy collections thereof, by a ratio of 51:1.

The respondents in Buntin’s survey are people for whom poetry is not an ornament to a literate life, but central to it.

Tomorrow, if I get a chance, I’ll look further into Buntin’s results, with an eye towards how poets make use of the web, both as readers & writers. Later on, I may look more closely at the Poetry in America, especially because I want to look at the questions it asks and the assumptions behind them.

 

¹ This obviously skews the data toward poets who are reasonable, intelligent, excellent writers and good looking.

² One possible flaw in the survey itself was the lack of a standard definition of a chapbook, especially for online publication. From my perspective, it’s always been a question of the spine, although I do myself have one volume, Xing, that has appeared both as a chapbook and perfect bound at different times.

³ “The Poetry Foundation’s primary concern is with the reading and listening audiences for poetry.” (Poetry in America: Review of the Findings, p. 13).



Sunday, April 23, 2006

 

Ashraf Osman added a note yesterday suggesting that I ought to let you know that I’ve been nominated for 2006 Poet Laureate of the Blogosphere over at the Poetisphere website. Why he would tell me this is a little unclear, since he himself is currently leading the “race” for this august honor. Maybe he thinks the pleasure of beating me will be greater if I campaign.

The 2005 Laureate was Jilly Dybka. I’m sure that winning this would change my life every bit as profoundly as winning has changed hers.



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