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.

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