Friday, January 14, 2005


On Wednesday, I thought to write a note on the changing status of literary magazines in the age of post-mechanical reproduction. For, while there are certainly some print journals – Chain, Kiosk, Poker, Combo – as great as any that have plied their trade in & around the fields of verse, there is also Jacket & a rapidly growing legion of online journals that have demonstrated that they can be just as well-edited – and just as creatively formatted – as anything in print. I was thinking about a conversation I'd had with Laura Moriarty at the books exhibit at the MLA last month -- she had told me, in so many words, that my contention that the chapbook was the primary unit of exchange or of production -- I can admit to being vague here -- in contemporary poetry was so much hooey. She sees, as she noted, so many more books than I do -- and of an aesthetic breadth that I can barely imagine (indeed, I could never work at an operation like SPD precisely because its view into the world of poetry, not unlike that of institutions like Poets & Writers or CMP, would depress me to the point of psychic paralysis). Bookstores hate chapbooks for obvious reasons -- the cost of retail space argues against presenting anything not a best-seller face up to potential consumers. But, even with perfect binding & high-format covers, "nobody wants journals, either." On this, Laura & I were forced to agree.


This puts the print magazine into a curious double-bind, one from which I'm not at all certain it will be able to emerge. The expense of publication is prohibitive. Distribution borders on the impossible. Unlike a book, back issues become an albatross of storage. When I was with the Socialist Review in the 1980s, we struggled with finding the right balance on any given print run between enough volume to drive down the cost per copy & literally having to bring in dumpsters to handle overstock that was crowding us out of our four-room office in Berkeley.


Jacket, with its strategy of publicly building each issue up from scratch on-line, actually solves one of the inherent problems of the online journal: how to cope with the out-of-sight/out-of-mind issue that can make "distribution" online even more of a challenge than getting bookstores to carry little magazines. Where most other online zines have to start from scratch getting a readership for each & every issue, Jacket gives its readers a reason for checking in with great regularity -- there's almost always something new. This I suspect makes it not only the most well-edited poetry journal online, but the most widely perused as well.


Journals exist for a reason -- yet in the print world, the most common path for a small press publisher has been to begin with a journal & to shift at some point into doing books. A lot of presses go through a both/and stage, but sooner or later, it's usually the journal that gets jettisoned. Publications with the lasting power of Jacket do exist of course -- think of Sulfur, let alone the institutionally based journals like Chicago Review -- but by keeping all 5,000 web pages (some of them quite long) online, Jacket demonstrates how the online journal can even trump the availability of something like Sulfur or Poetry. Too often e-zines keep only the current issue online -- Jacket really is the example of how to keep material "in print" electronically. Against this, I look at the one narrow bookcase I do devote to journals (plus a stack of still-to-read ones atop another bookcase). The reality is that there just isn't enough real estate in my bookshelves to accommodate everything. I have ready access to anything in Jacket in a way that will never be possible with, say, boundary2.


All of which I was about to write on Wednesday, when Verizon's DSL service to the Philadelphia region ("and the state of Delaware"says the tech support hotline) went down for over ten hours. Which reminded me of the weak link in this process altogether. Sigh.


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