Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Left to right: Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, Ruth Witt Diamant,
San Francisco State University 1958


This is a test. I want to see if I can use an online program entitled Writely to write a note in lieu of doing my first draft in Microsoft Word, then having to do a lot of HTML-patching in the Blogger editing tool before I post it. Just the idea of being able to get away from a Microsoft Office product is sufficient motivation. I've already converted from Outlook to Gmail &, at least for now, Yahoo mail as well.1 One problem that I see right off the bat is that the program doesn't offer a "print view" or "page view" version of the screen, a device I use to get a visual sense of how text will appear before I try loading it into Blogger.

All of which makes me think of the problems of platforms and electronic publishing in general. I've been mulling the subject some already over the past few days, ever since I downloaded the tenth issue of W, the literary mag of the Kootenay School of Writing in Vancouver. As you will notice if you download W, the publication is in Adobe Acrobat's PDF file format. That makes it portable - you can read it offline - and ensures that the look of it will be consistent across operating systems, an important consideration for some of the poems included in the 116-page issue, especially those by Leslie Scalapino & Jordan Scott, texts that take explicit advantage of the page's spatial potential. W (dix) is subtitled a Duncan Delirium and seven of the ten features are either explicitly by or about Duncan or by authors, such as Peter O'Leary & Lisa Jarnot who are closely aligned with an emerging "Duncan industry" that is only just now starting to take wing in the academy. The three remaining contributions, by Scalapino, Scott & Kim Duff, are all poems clearly in the spirit of Duncan's own work. For a journal that neglects to list any of its editors, W is remarkably well put together. For those of us who care about Duncan's work, this issue is a great gift.

But. Always with the buts here at Silliman's Blog, never the glass half full. One wonders just what percentage of people who visit the Kootenay site actually download the file &, even more, what percentage of those who download it then sit down & read the thing. It can of course be loaded online, but PDF through the filter of a browser is a great way of slowing down even a souped-up PC. Adobe doesn't help itself any with its basically gray formatting of viewing screen, perhaps the dullest & most boring presentation of any major software program out there -- I'm sure that they must think of it as "neutral." And it's true that in the corporate world, PDF files tend to have a lot of color. But most web publishers involved in poetry appear to follow the metaphor of the physical book, treating the cover as an opportunity to invoke color, but leaving everything else black & white. The folks at W go one step further. It consists of the five words in the issue's title, the school's (new) address & contact data & the Kootenay logo, the silhouette of what appears to be a bear (tho, in fact, it could be a woodchuck or some similar woodsy rodent as well - it's hard to say).

The result is that W (dix) is a terrific issue, but one likely to be read only by those who already know they're serious in thinking about Duncan, and in thinking about people who think about Duncan. I wonder just how many more readers this issue might have if it were run as a feature within, say, Jacket. Case in point: a quick search of my own hard drive turns up 1152 PDF files, perhaps half of which involve poetry & poetics, with the other half all over the place - the September 11th Commission report, Hardt & Negri's Empire, stuff I've done for my day job, documentation for software, the grand jury report on the cover-up of sexual abuse by the Philadelphia archdiocese for the past several decades. But do I ever, ever, scan through all these files the way one sometimes scans a book case looking for something interesting to read? Have I ever done that even once? Not even in the manner with which I've been known with a journal like Jacket or How2 to just scroll around & see what's there.

No, PDF publication is publishing in the technical sense only. It's really more like the small press publisher - I've had more than one of these - who thinks having a box of books in his or her garage means that the volume is published. And has no clue about the mechanics of distribution. Not that HTML publishing is perfect by any means - it exposes just how little some people know about graphic design & it too requires marketing, missives to the Listservs, etc. But I suspect that the chances of an HTML page being read must be about ten times what is ever likely to happen to an Acrobat file. In a way, PDF publication is not unlike the situation one finds in certain branches of the academy, where a book that is typed (versus typeset) can be "issued" at a cost exceeding $100 with the expectation that a certain number of professional libraries will still be compelled to buy the volume. It's there on the shelves for sourcing something should anyone track it down, but will it ever be read? Sigh.

So let me admonish you that this issue of W is worth the extra time & effort, that Duncan's talk on a "life in poetry," from the Vancouver festival of 1963 is absolutely fascinating, as is Pauline Buntling's memoir of Duncan's visits to Vancouver, that Leonard Schwartz, Stephen Collis & Miriam Nichols all add measurably to the critical work now starting to build up around Duncan, and that some of the poetry here (Scalapino, O'Leary, Jarnot) is first rate indeed. But you'll have to work to read it.²


1Yahoo is in the process of beta testing a new version of its mail program currently. It looks - and behaves - far too much like Outlook for me. Its output in "plain text" mode caused lots of hexadecimal garbage insertions when I tried using it to post to Listservs. Even there, however, it refuses to create truly plain text apostrophes, which leads me to some interesting wordings for posting a note to a listserv. Gmail, tho, is even worse in this regard. So I will continue using the current "old" Yahoo mail program until they rip it from my cold, dead fingers. Or something to that effect.

² As it turns out, I had to convert the Writely file into Word in order to get it to format properly. That might be something I could learn over time, but it’s not immediately obvious.