When Sir Phillip Sydney wanted a readership for his seminal sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella in the 1580s, he circulated it in manuscript form. By the time the 20th century rolled around, little magazines such as the Dial and Poetry were publishing poems that made figures like T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens famous. While these models succeeded in creating conversation about poetry and lasting reputations for poets, money and limited distribution constrained them all. Flash forward to the 21st century, when information travels faster than sound and when anyone with access to a computer can look up the phone number of a pizza place in New Zealand. Ever at the cutting edge, poetry may have finally found its ideal medium, one in which money, at least, is hardly a factor: the Internet.
Volumes of poetry have always been expensive to publish and are increasingly difficult to publicize: they're allotted little to no space in the review sections of most papers and magazines, and the literary publications—from storied quarterlies like the Paris Review to smaller endeavors like American Letters & Commentary—that do publish poetry and poetry reviews are hard to find and can be intimidating to the uninitiated reader. In recent years, poets and poetry enthusiasts have been organically developing a network of linked online poetry publications, blogs and other related sites, many produced at quality commensurate with the best print magazines. Some poets are even using Internet search engines to generate poetry by typing words into Google and crafting poems from what comes back, a more ironic take on L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, a school renowned for often unconventional compositional techniques. And thousands of readers are logging on. The Web is allowing poets and publishers of poetry—both the big houses and the many independent, nonprofit and university presses—direct access to their readers.
"I've had over 616,000 visitors to my Web log. Not bad for a guy who has never had a book that sold more than 4,000 copies," says poet and blogger Ron Silliman.
Webzines Go Legit
Foremost among poetry's homes on the Web are the increasing numbers of high-quality online literary magazines that have sprung up in recent years. New editors not wanting or unable to finance expensive print journals have designed engaging Web sites featuring new poems, book reviews and links to other poetry-related sites. These magazines are publishing a wide range of poets, from Pulitzer Prize winners to up-and-coming poets still in M.F.A. programs. Unlike print journals, they are not hindered by the problem of distribution—anyone with access to the Internet can read them. Of course, poetry publishers count on their poets publishing individual poems to bring readers to their books, and the Internet opens a whole new avenue for getting readers' attention.
These are not self-publishing ventures or scams. The editors of these magazines are often distinguished poets themselves, and they can be just as picky as their print counterparts. A few of these magazines, such as Jacket (www.jacketmagazine.com), founded by Australian poet John Tranter in 1997, have, by now, garnered an influential reputation and stand as models for newer publications. Jacket has had over 500,000 visits since 1997. A short list of well-respected online magazines that publish poetry might include Slate.com, Electronic Poetry Review (www.epoetry.org), La Petite Zine (www.lapetitezine.org), How2 (www.asu.edu/pipercwcenter/how2journal), and Octopus Magazine (www.octopusmagazine.com). These and other publications, like the vast Web-poetry archives UbuWeb (www.ubu.com) and PENNsound (www.writing.upenn.edu/pennsound) bring poetry to the screens (and headpones) of thousands of readers every day.
Octopus Magazine was founded in 2003 by Tony Tost, winner of the Academy of American Poets' prestigious Walt Whitman first book prize, and Zachary Schomberg, two young poets who had met in college and wanted to start a poetry magazine. After seeing another online magazine called Typo (www.typomag.com), the pair decided to give online publishing a try: "Typo seemed so simple to me, so doable and fun. And after further probing—inexpensive," says Schomberg. Money was a big factor in their decision to go online—maintaining a Web page costs a tiny fraction of the thousands of dollars required to publish a print magazine. Octopus is maintained for less than $100 per year. Since its inception, Octopus has published almost 200 poets, including Paul Muldoon, whose Moy Sand and Gravel won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize. The site averages between 200 and 250 visits per day. Because of the consistent traffic of readers and the perpetually accessible content, Schomberg is confident that his contributors "get a lot more readers than some of the larger well-funded print magazines over a period of time."
Publishers are beginning to hold magazines like Octopus in the same high esteem as longstanding print publications. While Jeff Shotts, poetry editor of Graywolf Press, acknowledges that publication in print magazines is still more prestigious than online publication, he sees that changing: "Publishing online by sites that have gained a reputation will eventually be every bit of an honor—perhaps more so—as publishing in what we today consider our most prestigious print magazines." Elizabeth Cochrane, poetry publicist at Knopf, cites Slate.com as one of the places she most likes seeing her authors' poems. Many online magazines also feature book reviews, another way they are valuable to poetry publishers. Shotts lists online journals alongside traditional sources of coverage such as newspapers and magazines as places he wants Graywolf books gaining attention.
If online magazines are the well-decorated entryway into the online poetry world, just inside, hyperlinked to them, is online poetry's fastest growing front: the blogging community. Poetry blogs became prominent in the first few years of this decade, taking firm hold around 2003. Precursors include the Electronic Poetry Center at the State University of New York at Buffalo (www.epc.buffalo.edu), a Web resource cofounded by poet Charles Bernstein, which features a prominent poetics discussion list. As to why poets are turning to blogs and how they are changing the face of contemporary poetry, Silliman, likely the most well-known poetry blogger, points out, "There's nothing like having an idea, writing it up and posting it, then having feedback all within the same hour." Young poets—some of whom have published books, and many who hope to—have seized on this medium to satisfy their cravings for constant dialogue about poetry, and as a way of making names for themselves. Beginning to capitalize on the phenomenon, even mainstream publishers are getting into the blogging game—HarperCollins recently launched its own blog (www.cruelestmonth.com), which features news about its poetry titles.
While most poetry blogs are maintained by poets in their 20s and 30s, Silliman, who was born in 1946 and played a pivotal role in the L=A=N=G= U=A=G=E poetry movement in the late 1970s, now writes what is arguably the most influential poetry blog on the Web. While he has been actively publishing since the late 1960s, his writing career is more vital than ever, largely due to his blog.
Last year, Silliman's Blog (www.ronsilliman.blogspot.com), launched in 2002, hit the 500,000-visitor mark. Silliman is something of an elder statesman to other bloggers and a model for the kind of rigorous dialogue blogs can create. Almost every day, Silliman posts lengthy reviews of new books, arguments about phenomena in the contemporary poetry scene and responses to postings by others bloggers or to issues in the media.
Silliman first became interested in blogs through his nephew, a college student who posted philosophy papers on a blog. "I also was dissatisfied at that point with the level of critical discussion by poets about poetry—there seemed to be relatively few venues, and most of those were academically confined," he says. He started modestly in his first post, on August 29, 2002: "My idea is to write briefly from time to time mostly about my writing and whatever I might be thinking about poetry at the moment." Expecting only a few readers, Silliman was surprised to find that he had 140 that first day. Now, his site averages over 1,100 daily visits. A typical post contains his strong opinions about poetry, such as "99.99 percent of the time [rhyme and regular meter] simply pose a large red flag of incompetence, a sign that the writer is not paying attention either to language or the world."
Silliman says he has "fairly regular readers in Trinidad, Turkey, Egypt, Taiwan and elsewhere." He adds, "There is virtually no way that my work can reach those places save over the Web."
Another highly influential blog is written by Joshua Corey, a poet in his 30s, who has published two well-regarded books. Corey is very much a part of the young poetry scene. Like Silliman, he frequently writes about what he's reading, and his posts are deeply engaged with discussions of aesthetics and the influence of blogging on poetry.
Corey began blogging in 2003 and traces his roots as a blogger to the SUNY Buffalo poetics list. His blog (www.joshcorey.blogspot.com) has had more than 200,000 visits in the last three years, and at this point, he gets about 350 a day. Like Silliman, Corey was eager to talk about poetry with other fans, but he also had another motive: "My first book, Selah, would be published that year, and I thought I'd try blogging as a means of developing the public persona and thick skin that I imagined to be the necessary attributes of a published author." But Corey cites benefits to blogging far beyond strengthening his reputation and skin: "I've made friends (and a few enemies) from literally all over the world; I've discovered poets, books, and journals I might not otherwise have encountered; and above all I've participated and in some small way helped to steer the conversation about poetry and poetics." Lately, his blog has been the forum for a debate about the relationship of poets to readers. He recently wrote, "I'd like to see the gap between poets and readers erased... readers are made, not born."
Aside from the types of poetry blogs that Silliman and Corey write, which basically feature in-depth criticism about poems and poetics, there are many other varieties—some are written for insiders, almost like notes between members of a family, while others invite new readers. Poet Jim Behrle (www.thejimside.blog-city.com), for instance, posts humorous, often vitriolic and controversial comics about goings-on in the poetry world; one caption, over a comic depicting Behrle's stereotype of a ruthlessly ambitious young poet reads, "Oh whatever! No one can tell I'm a hideous phony." The Poetry Foundation, publishers of Poetrymagazine, has also recently added a blog to its site (www.poetrymagazine.org). Farrah Miller, director of new media for Knopf and Pantheon, says, "A positive comment from a blogger can go far in convincing readers to buy a book." And publishers are coming to see blogs and Web magazines as not just places where their books are reviewed, but also as breeding grounds for poets they might publish: "We might start to see some mainstream poets coming up from these sites," says Cochrane. The "blogosphere" may begin to compete with writing workshops and conferences as ways that new poets come to the attention of publishers.
Other sites, which are less grassroots in nature, also broaden poetry's Web presence. The Academy of American Poets, which sponsors National Poetry Month, maintains an ever-expanding Web site (www.poets.org), with varied content including author profiles, book reviews, events calendars and essays by contemporary poets. This site gets roughly 750,000 monthly visits, a number that doubles in April. The academy works closely with publishers to help promote new books. Right now, for instance, poets.org features a lengthy list of spring poetry titles from major houses and independent and university presses, each linked to its publishers' Web site, where books are available for purchase. Poetry Daily(www.poems.com), which reprints poems from print journals and new books, averages between 40,000 and 50,000 daily visits, and links send readers to Amazon.com where they can buy featured books. Poetry Daily co-editor Don Selby notes that publishers "report excellent results in terms of the traffic to their Web sites flowing from ours." Knopf and Graywolf also stress the importance of their own Web sites for promotion. Knopf relies heavily on its Poem-A-Day program, through which it e-mails a poem by a Knopf poet to subscribers every day during Poetry Month. According to Shotts, Graywolf uses similar tactics: "The Graywolf Web site continues to be a strong publicity tool, and we feature our poets prominently there, with pages devoted to readings, tours, award announcements and our popular 'Poem of the Week.'" Weaving the various threads together, Shotts continues, "We also work to ensure our poets are featured on Web sites—Poetry Daily, the Poetry Foundation, the Academy of American Poets and others."
So is all of this online activity resulting in the sale of more books? There are indications that it does. "I buy more books than I did before, in good part because the distribution system for printed poetry is so abysmal," Silliman notes. "But that really doesn't matter when every small press can sell direct, or at least can get their work into the online catalogue of Small Press Distribution." Mary Matze, publicist for Graywolf, observes, "We find that Amazon numbers spike after a poet is selected as a poet of the day" on Poetry Daily. Schomberg, who is an avid blogger as well as an editor, says, "I buy lots of books because I read rave reviews on blogs. I am constantly clicking on links to find out what is new, what is being sold and what is coming out." Poetry books are still far from mass consumer products, but just as the language in which poems are written is ever evolving, poetry's capacity to find its readership is adapting to and flourishing with the new medium.