Sunday, March 09, 2008

Blogs, Boutiques, and the Public Square

Here's the paper I gave on Thursday about poetry blogs at the "Markets: From the Bazaar to eBay" conference held by the University of Toronto's Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies. Special thanks to Jonathan Mayhew, Eileen Tabios, and Del Ray Cross, who emailed in response to my call for contributions and whose comments I incorporated into the paper. I didn't see Barbara Jane Reyes's response in time to include it in my paper, but I'll try to post a response to her remarks a bit later. Thanks also to the folks at the conference for their helpful questions and comments. Further responses are, of course, welcome.

In 1993, the poet Charles Bernstein created an email listserv for the discussion of poetry and poetics, hosted at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he was then a professor. The “UB Poetics discussion group”—later to become known as the POETICS list—focused on innovative and experimental writing, particularly work related to Language writing, a movement of the 1970s and 1980s of which Bernstein was a founding member. Beginning with a few dozen subscribers, the list quickly became an authoritative forum for poetics, featuring heated debates over aesthetics and politics, announcements of new publications, and circulation of original work. Today the list’s membership is estimated at over 1300 people; although most subscribers seem to be based in the United States, the list has a worldwide reach, and Canadian critics such as Peter Quartermain and George Bowering have been prominent voices since the list’s inception.

When I first joined the POETICS list in the mid-1990s, it seemed to be very much the center of discussion on avant-garde poetry. But in the past few years, the list’s hegemony has been challenged, most notably by an explosion of blogs devoted to the discussion of experimental poetry. In 2002, the poet Ron Silliman, a colleague of Charles Bernstein’s from the Language movement, started a blog on which he posted daily reviews and commentary on poetics. I started my own blog in 2003, following a number of my friends in the San Francisco poetry community. Soon the number of poetry blogs seemed to be growing exponentially.

For a time, the POETICS list took little notice of what was going on in the blogs, though bloggers often commented on things happening on the list. Gradually, though, it began to seem as if the center of gravity was shifting towards the blogs. Ron Silliman’s posts to the list became updates on what was new on his blog. List subscribers made increasingly frequent mention of blog discussions. But it soon became clear that the list’s dominant attitude toward blogs was one of discomfort, even resentment.

The exchanges that made this clear to me—and that put in play the terms that stimulated this paper—occurred on the list in December 2003. The poet Leslie Scalapino, having taken issue with a post Silliman made on his blog, posted her response to Silliman to the POETICS list, complaining that Silliman had refused to respond to her emailed critique. Another list member, Tom Bell, responded:
I think you've hit on the weakness of blogs. There is no need for
publishing dissent.
(A technical note: At this point, Blogger, the program used by most bloggers in the poetry community, lacked a built-in commenting function. A few bloggers, Silliman included, had installed third-party programs that allowed commenting, but they were awkward to use and often unreliable.)

In another post, Bell elaborated:
If I 'own' a blog I don't have to publish aything I don't want to publish. While this is true of other forms of publication it's most obvious when one person controls all.
Finally, subscriber Robert Corbett brought the metaphor to a head:
blogs are shops, while the list is the public square. you can control discussion in a blog, but not on list. (though a strictly monitored list becomes a mall). note: my capitalist analogies are not meant to be disrespectful, although at the moment they do seem appropriate.
Corbett’s “capitalist analogies” bring the poetry blog, perhaps surprisingly, into contact with the discourse of the market that is this conference’s subject. I say “surprisingly” because it is far from self-evident that contemporary poetry in North America has any significant relationship to the market at all. For decades, poets and critics have bemoaned the declining general readership for poetry. Fewer and fewer trade publishers produce books of poetry, and poetry is less and less frequently reviewed in the major book reviews. No poet expects to make money, much less earn a living, writing poetry. Indeed, poets often observe that much contemporary poetry operates on a gift or barter economy: small-press publications or chapbooks sent out free or at minimal charge to friends and colleagues or swapped for the publications of other poets, labor such as that of editing and printing done at the individual publisher’s own cost with little prospect of recouping one’s investment.

So why is the language of the market being injected so strongly here into discourse around poetry, and why should it be attached in particular to the specter of the blog? Although it’s true that a commercially hosted blog may have more obviously market-oriented elements than an academically hosted listserv—an issue to which I’ll return a bit later—I don’t believe that the debaters on the list had that in mind exactly. Instead, I think that the metaphor of the market was being used in a political fashion, to register anxiety about an apparent shift in the medium of poetic discourse.

Let’s think a bit more carefully about the opposition Corbett sets up: between the “shop” (or, as he would put it in a later message, the “boutique”) and the “public square.” The contrast here is not between two different kinds of commercial spaces (say, blogs are Starbucks and the list is Wal-Mart) but between a commercial space and one understood as non-commercial. The “public square” is, of course, the space not of commercial speech but of political discourse and rational debate; its alliance with the Habermasian “public sphere” of print culture is evident in Tom Bell’s remark, which notes that the blog does not have to “publish dissent” (presumably in contrast to a newspaper, which prints divergent opinions and publishes letters to the editor). Placing poetry and discussion about poetry in this “public sphere” makes it a species of rational discourse.

In contrast, the notion of the blog as “boutique” frames blog discourse as purely instrumental speech, with its contents a commodity to be purchased. It brings poetic speech into the realm of private property—the blog’s author, as Bell puts it, as the “owner” of its contents. The blog, in this opposition, is a privatized and commodified space in which reasoned debate is replaced by monologue—an accommodation of poetry to the market that it seems we’re not meant to welcome.

How should we evaluate these claims? Well, one can see at a glance that the blog may appear to be more permeated by market forces than the POETICS list. Although most blogging services are free to both authors and readers, nearly all are hosted by commercial providers. If you had gone to a typical Blogger page in 2002 or 2003, you might have seen small banner ads, tailored to the page’s content, at the top of each page; shortly after that Blogger’s success attracted a buyout from Google, and the ads largely disappeared. While more widely read blogs are supported by author-solicited advertising, I have never known a poetry blogger to seek out advertising for the blog. In short, the “commercial” element of the blog is structural and technological rather than proprietary. But perhaps that’s the point. The blog template is certainly far slicker than the plain-text format of the POETICS list. And the list is hosted on an academic rather than a commercial server.

I would argue that it is this residual nature of the POETICS list—its protection from any signifiers of market penetration—that allows it to be a site of nostalgia for a “public” that predates the commodification of everyday life. But if the POETICS list offers a backward glance at the mythical “public square,” the picture it paints is not always flattering. Just as the ostensibly “public” sphere turns out to be almost entirely the realm of white men, so it has often been observed that cyberspace—particularly in the 1990s—is an overwhelmingly white and male realm. And the POETICS list has been no exception. My experience of the list has always been—to put it crudely—that of a bunch of men arguing with each other. And although things have certainly improved in this regard, a rough count I’ve done of messages posted to the list just in the past month suggests that the gender imbalance is still severe.

My estimate—going simply by the names of posters—is that of over 600 messages posted to the list in February 2008, 132 were by women, and 515 by men. In other words, men posted nearly four times as many messages to the list as women. Furthermore, every one of the group I would call “superposters”—those who posted more than 10 times over the course of the month—were men; 13 men posted more than 10 times, and 6 posted more than 20 times. Only one woman—the list’s moderator—posted more than 10 messages.

So clearly, the “public square” of the POETICS list is one that continues to be dominated by male voices. And—as the ranks of superposters suggests—by loud male voices. If the idea of the public square is now summoning up images of speakers on soapboxes trying to shout each other down, you’re not far off. Like nearly all listservs, the POETICS list has been plagued since its earliest days by “flame wars”—ad hominem or otherwise vicious attacks and counterattacks that have caused many prominent members to withdraw from discussion.

It’s a bit harder to make an authoritative statement about the racial makeup of the list, though it certainly seems to be overwhelmingly white. What I can say about this topic stems mostly from unpleasant incidents around race I experienced during my time as a subscriber. In two instances a subscriber posted poems with images I felt bordered on anti-Asian racism; when I posted critical comments, I found myself quite aggressively attacked, almost entirely by white male subscribers, and only one or two other poets of Asian descent made themselves heard in the debates. After the third incident—in which list members were rather unbelievably having a blithe conversation about whether or not a certain anti-Asian slur could be used in polite company—I left the list. (After leaving, I received messages from a number of women and writers of color saying that they had left the list due to similar experiences of racism or sexism.)

While it would be easy enough to attribute the facts I have described to a particular listserv, or even to the listserv form itself, it’s also true that the racial and gender makeup of the list reflects a long-held sense among many critics that avant-garde writing continues to be understood as a white male practice. In the late 1970s, poet Rae Armantrout authored an essay called “Why Don’t Women Do Language-Oriented Writing?”, and more recently critics have worked to incorporate women and black writers into an avant-garde tradition that has historically neglected them.

It’s my sense that blogs have provided a space where a wider variety of voices in experimental writing have been heard. Again, it’s hard to provide concrete numbers, but in the list of blogs maintained by Ron Silliman, the gender gap does seem a bit narrower: my rough count suggests that Silliman lists 277 blogs written by women to 575 by men. There’s also a striking presence of blogs by Asian and Latino writers, including well-known figures such as Lorna Dee Cervantes and Nick Carb√≥. And particularly in the earlier days of poetry blogging, many of the most influential and prolific bloggers, from Stephanie Young to Eileen Tabios, were women or writers of color.

Now how does this apparent fact—the blogosphere as more welcoming to diverse voices—square with the commercial metaphors that surround the poetry blog? In order to understand that, we need to turn to the bloggers to see how they frame their own practice. The question of the blog as marketing tool arose as early as May 2003, when Ron Silliman took note of the emerging network of “the 50 or so active poetry bloggers [who] have fallen into the process of referring obsessively back & forth to each other’s daily posts." The result, Silliman suggested, was that each of us could “now count at least 50 other bloggers who are probably intrigued at whatever else they might be writing.” Silliman called this building an audience, but it might also have been called marketing: the blog as a teaser introducing people to your work.

It’s true that there are some poets who use blogs in this fashion: as places to post announcements about their readings, samples of their work, hints about what they’re writing. But such bloggers rarely build much of an audience, because they are not fully realizing the potential of the blog form as a new medium. The most interesting poet blogs tend to be engaging hybrids—some combination of the essay, the review, the notebook, and the diary, with generous helpings of gossip and social networking thrown in. Perhaps the most telling sign is that relatively few of these blogs by poets are blogs of poetry; in other words, poets are not simply seeing the blog as an electronic version of print publication, but as something else entirely that seems to be shifting the bounds of poetic discourse.

So if we want to understand the “blogs are boutiques” metaphor, we have to look beyond the idea that they are a conventional marketing tool. Instead, I think we have to understand the opposition between the “public square” of the listserv and the “boutique” of the blog as not merely a commercial metaphor but a spatial metaphor, one that is particularly relevant to space in the era of globalization. If the public square is understood as a central space for mass civic gatherings, boutiques suggest a decentralized public space that has been parceled up into individualized spaces of consumption. And we can certainly see how this maps onto the list vs. the blog. On the listserv, all communication must pass through a central node—the listhost—thus ensuring that every member of the list receives the same information. In contrast, the dizzying array of poetry blogs appears to have no center at all; each reader chooses the particular blogs she wishes to read, which may have only limited overlap with the constellation of blogs chosen by her peers.

Isn’t it possible to see, in this anxious narrative of transition from list to blog, an allegory of the advance of transnational capitalism? We have the shift from a centralized public space, whose boundaries are defined in the political terms of the state, to a decentralized landscape of consumption in which political boundaries have given way to the imperatives of commerce. And if we continue along those lines, understanding the ways in which blogs might represent a gain for poetic discourse—if we are to see the diversity of voices presented in blogs as something more than a wider range of consumer options—may be analogous to seeing the potential for a deterritorialization that allows new kinds of networks and communities to emerge.

I take the latter idea not only from my own experiences but from the thoughts of other bloggers on this issue. Take the standard practice of linking to other poets’ blogs in your own posts. In the absence of a central channel, this is the primary means of keeping a conversation going; but it’s one that must be done consciously, with a careful sense of how one is positioning oneself in a discourse. In a response on the POETICS list, one blogger, Chris Murray, puts a different spin on the “shopping” metaphor:
in blog writing there is also the sense of being part of an arcade, of wandering-via-writing…perhaps the Walter Benjamin kind of arcade?
Murray refers, of course, to Walter Benjamin’s unfinished Arcades Project, which takes Paris’s glass-covered shopping arcades as its central metaphor but extrapolates that consumerist trope into a textual wandering through an encyclopedia of sources, creating a new literary landscape of the nineteenth century. It’s that sense of unexpected, underground connections through decentralized wandering that I think can be drawn from the market metaphor of poetry blogging. Back in 2003, here’s the take I gave on linking in my own blog, in response to Silliman:
Linking is conversation; linking is courtesy; linking is acknowledging that you have readers, most of whom are lonely bloggers themselves. And linking is multidirectional; it's usually several different people talking in different directions at once, which may be disorienting but is also exhilirating and keeps things moving. It's what keeps the blog from being a monologue or a book review.
In preparing this talk, I solicited input from other bloggers as well, particularly from those who had been blogging since the early days. Jonathan Mayhew, who was among the first bloggers I read, said in an email to me about the “market” metaphor:
I'm not selling anything and haven't made a dime by blogging…Far from being isolating, I've found blogging to be a way of making connections with people I'd otherwise never meet. Some I end up meeting and some I don't, but NONE of them was anyone I had laid eyes on before I began blogging. The personal blog doeesn't replace any other format: journal, book, listserve. It comes closest to journal, if we take the journal/diary/newspaper connection seriously. I don't really know what the connection is between the market and blogging. Blogging would be advertisement, then? It's more an advertisement for oneself than for one's books, though.
Another prominent and prolific blogger who wrote in was Eileen Tabios, who is an editor and publisher in addition to being the author of numerous books of poetry. Tabios, a Filipina American writer, agreed that blogs have been helpful for writers of color:
blogs are a means of drawing attention in ways not otherwise covered by other media. One thus can say MOST DEFINITELY YES to the impact on writers of color as a category...because one can say that just for individual authors. I am not the only obscure writer who is just a tad less obscure today because I blog...and that has affected my book sales as well as poetry reviews!
Tabios expands on these ideas in an unpublished essay called “Thoughts on Blogging.” Precisely because poetry blogs offer a dizzying array of voices, Tabios argues that
poetry blogland more accurately mirrors the nature of Poetry than has traditional canon-making poetic machinery… There is no center – or there are many centers – in poetry.
In contrast to the relative absence of Asian American poets participating on the POETICS list, even a cursory survey reveals an astounding number of Asian American poet-bloggers. Ron Silliman’s blogroll contains at least three dozen Asian American writers, including Nick Carb√≥, Linh Dinh, Cathy Park Hong, Barbara Jane Reyes, and Patrick Rosal.

Tabios also edits the blog-based book review Galatea Resurrects, a mixture of original reviews and reprints of print reviews that she regards as a form of “cultural activism” because it calls “more attention to poetry in all its forms, schools, approaches and other variety.” She also argues that blogs may allow “poetry to expand its audience beyond other poets”—in part, I would add, because most blogs do not require one to be a subscriber to read their content.

A final set of remarks came from poet Del Ray Cross, editor of the online journal SHAMPOO. As I mentioned before, most poets’ main blogs do not, in fact, consist primarily of poems. Cross’s blog, anachronizms, is an exception, but one that is not uncommon among poets: a blog dedicated to a specific, ongoing writing project, a way of writing in public. Of his blog, Cross says simply:
there is no economy here, really -- i get very few readers. i opt not to put up links there. so it's a very hesitant or ambivalent way for me to be part of some community. mostly it's just a record, a work in progress, and a motivating factor for me.
The ambivalence of which Cross speaks is actually, I think, central to the blog’s appeal to poets and its role in forming poetic communities. While the solitary work of writing has always been counterbalanced by forming communities with like-minded writers, many poets remain ambivalent about the constraints and demands such social ties can bring. For every poet who remains a member of the POETICS list, I can think of several others who have quit the list after finding it exhausting.

Blogs offer a far more provisional and decentralized model of community, one that may shift with each set of links. The nostalgia for the “public square” that I have described speaks to the anxiety such deterritorializations may engender. But they may well, as the bloggers I quote suggest, create a more open and free-wheeling environment that is especially well suited to poetic practice, while also opening up new lines of connection across aesthetics, gender, and race that might not happen in more conventional forums. “Shopping” is not the only metaphor for the aimless, unprofitable, and occasionally exhilarating wandering that constitutes the world of poetry blogs. Like any other space of late modernity, it may be conditioned by market forces, but the surprising new connections it forges across previously rigid boundaries is a promising example of the new communities that may emerge in the global bazaar of cyberspace.