Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The RealPoetik email zine imploded over the weekend. The way I read the process of what happened is roughly like this. Editor Kirby Olson announced a contest for a one-line poem to the list, then headed out for two weeks in Florida, at least part of which was to be spent with 700 other college instructors and high school teachers grading advanced placement exams. While he was South & functionally removed from his regular connection to email, somebody replied to the contest and somehow included the “secret” email address than lets an administrator send a message out to the entire list, an address that Olson had not given in his initial solicitation. Then a second person replied to that email, including their own one-line poem. At which point the list had transformed from being an edited email zine to becoming a conduit through which anyone could send out their email to however many folks were on the list.

Not too surprisingly, this generated the first “Remove me from this list” message, sent not to the administrator, but to the entire list. That generated the second such request, followed by a third. At around this point, the breakdown in the process hit an inflection point – over two-plus days, I received more than 170 messages. A half dozen folks sent multiple messages & one sent over twenty. Many of the messages were ill-tempered, some were amazingly rude.

Interestingly, instructions on (a) how to unsubscribe from the list and (b) avoid spamming everyone else were sent out fairly early in the process. That the hysteria continued showed that people were not reading their emails, just responding blindly & wildly in an attempt to extricate themselves. It was like watching people try & put out a fire by pouring gasoline on it. Olson, list owner Sal Salasin & Guy Koehler tried to shut down the outgoing email address but didn’t get an immediate response from the service provider as a key individual apparently was "in flight." Such is the state of computer services for non-corporate users circa 2005. The stream of messages finally stopped mid-day on Monday.

Like many people on the list, I never asked to subscribe, but I always enjoyed seeing what first editor Mike Topp & later Kirby had to offer. Like Halvard Johnson’s “Poems from Others,” it’s an interesting experiment in poetry publication, far more effective, to my mind, than earlier attempts at email zines that tended to include way too much work to be followed within the tight constraints of the email format. Indeed, when I switched my primary email address, I made sure that RealPoetik went to the new one. Like Poetry Superhighway or Rob Read’s “treated spam” poems that also arrive this way, I’m always intrigued to see what they’re doing, even if it’s not necessarily central to my own activity as a poet.

So I was sorry to see RealPoetik collapse in on itself like that. Even more sobering was seeing the abusive language so many respondents seemed to feel was suddenly their privilege. The funny thing of course is that messages to this list were hardly private. Hundreds of readers could see just who was behaving just how badly.

I really do believe in poetry as an art form that organizes itself through communities, rather than through markets (one of the basic differences between the poem & the novel), but that presumes – or at least hopes – that these communities hold themselves to a higher standard than the kids in The Lord of the Flies. And that is not what I saw in the flame war over the weekend.

A big part of the problem lies in how the list was originally put together – not as an opt-in process, but rather as a fait accompli that required opting out instead, something that can confound PC users who don’t have a strong sense of how the technology works. It raises the question, however inarticulately, of using email as a publication medium altogether. Had this been a blogsite, emails would not have been posted unscreened. Nor would people have been forced to read or delete them if that was not what they wanted.

As a technology, email predates the World Wide Web by some 30 years. Yet email is still the most widely used tool on PCs, but it’s one that increasingly has become compromised. In good part by spam – and this was a group self-spam if ever there was one – but also because email itself has not evolved at the same pace as the net over the past decade. Between work, poetry & my home life, I get fifty or sixty personal emails a day to which I ought to respond – add to that a few hundred spam items & the several listservs I participate in, and it’s easy to become overwhelmed. That’s why a well-meaning project like Poethia never quite worked for me – even if I saved the text to my hard drive, its association with email placed in the lowest possible priority category, and its length kept me from going back to it. But the one poem per email model, especially if it’s only once or twice per week, is easily incorporated.

It may be that the email zine is a form whose time is past. Even the listserv seems under quite a bit of stress in 2005. At the same time, the blog flourishes, and so do online zines. Yet, if everything is moving forward, as this might seem to suggest, why is it, nearly eight years after John Tranter first introduced Jacket, no other HTML journal does it half so well?