Warrick Wynne’s Poetry Pages

reading, writing and the connections

The Web and Me; A Personal History

What excited me about the internet when I first began exploring it around 1995 was the possibility to publish. It’s the kind of thing that probably excites most writers when they first encounter the net and begin to think of just what the possibilities are.

After years of being force-fed like battery hens, here suddenly, I thought, was a two-way medium. Sure, you could tune into CNN or a watered down version of the ‘Sunday Times’ on the internet, but anyone who had an internet account and could word-process could also contribute, could publish and their work could [theoretically] be read by millions. The traditional top-down media approach, the lack of diversity of media ownership in Australia, the lack of general interest in poetry, the tyranny of distance … well, they could all be remedied by this new boundary-less, democratic, owner-less world where communities of interest could come together in new and unexpected groupings that would empower and enlighten. Or something like that.

About this time in 1995 my second book of poetry was about to come out, with Five Island Press. It seemed like the ideal time to put up a ‘poetry site’. You probably know the kind I mean: Warrick’s home page, a picture of the thoughtful looking author, a description of the book and where to buy it, a ‘mail me’ button and a list of ‘cool’ links. Which is what I did. And which is what the site remained for a long time. I put a counter on the site, and sat back and waited for the orders to come rolling in. And waited.

I suppose I should be clear that I wasn’t interested then in the internet as a new form of poetry. In hyper-poems or hypertext forms or cyber-poetry. I’m still not really, though the work of poets like Kominos alert us to the possibilities and remind us again just how flexible and resilient poetry really is, making itself contemporary again for each age. I wasn’t even aware then that this could be a medium of interest and potential for its own sake, not just to promote another older medium. I was merely interested in giving the book a push along, contacting some readers, helping distribution. Distribution; the bane of poetry publishing in Australia. A brave idea called Australian Writing On Line, aimed at helping the distribution of small press in Australia, had similar ideas on a bigger scale, but eventually succumbed. But more of failures later.

I found that putting up a web site isn’t hard. It might help to have some nerdish friends, but most modern word processors can save documents as html, the web language, and with a couple of scanned pictures you’ve begun. If you’ve got an email account you’ve more than likely got some free space for a web site with it. And, if you haven’t, then there are a number of sites on the web like Geocities or Fortune City that give free web site space, up to ten megabytes sometimes, more than you’ll need for twenty books of profusely illustrated poetry. Net access can be bought relatively cheaply if you hunt around.

The real interest for me in the web site came after ‘The Colour of Maps’ was released and I began thinking about shapes for new poems. I also began to think that there were more possibilities for a poetry web site than what I’d established so far. I read Schama’s ‘Landscape and Memory’ and was impressed. I began to think that here was something here that could shape a collection of poems. I searched for other sites dealing with landscape and couldn’t find many. I found the New Jersey Landcape and Memory Project, Landscape Theory, reviews of Schama’s book, but nothing talking of the landscape in contemporary poetry.

So I started a new section on my poetry site; A Landscape and Memory Project, where I began gathering together thoughts on what I’d been reading, notes for new poems, some pictures of landscape that I’d been taking and more. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I wrote at the time: ‘The aim of the project is to bring together some of the disparate ideas in some of the books I’ve been reading, along with my own ideas, into an ongoing poetry project on landscape, but that may change as it grows. I’m not sure yet whether the project will be a long poem, a series of poems, a mixture of prose and poetry or perhaps this web site itself. I don’t know whether this is the plan for a new book or if this is the book. I’ll know more as it comes about. The poems will be shuffled around until I find a shape that works.’

In retrospect, what did evolve wasn’t a collaborative project at all but a personal project; a collection of sources and thoughts and images that I was trying to make into poetry. What evolved was a kind of on-line poetry journal, a public version of the kind of thing many poets do when they fill a scrapbook with quotes or pictures or images for poems. What I eventually discovered was that I was doing the planning and thinking for a new collection of poems on the web site. So it’s success for me was that it was helping me clarify my own ideas and understandings about landscape for new poems and whether anyone else contributed, liked it, or even ‘got it’, became less and less important. Which is, oddly, when some people began commenting on how they enjoyed some of the ideas there. Oddly enough, or as you might expect, the things I was most reluctant to commit to the site were the poems themselves. I was happy to include the photos, the notes, the reading, but the poems themselves were rarely ‘finished’ enough, and for some reason I couldn’t put the drafts of poems there in the same way.

What I’ve discovered in this interaction with the web is that old hierarchies aren’t supplanted so lightly, and that, like poetry, powerful groups tend to reinvent themselves along the way. No one can do a ‘search’ for your book if they haven’t heard of it, and readers still want their books on paper. So that, while Japanese computer experts work on refillable ‘electronic books’ that can synthesise the feel of paper and download a new novel overnight, the reaction in the book marketplace was to reinvent the book as a beautiful hand-made object, a kind of craftsman-piece that didn’t have anything to do with damn computers. I’m thinking of gorgeous little books like Dessaix’s ‘Night Letters’, or Jennifer Strauss’s ‘Family Ties’ from Oxford. These are the book as object, as tactile and sensory and traditional and proud of it. Which is where I think books may go, if they go anywhere. In diverging directions; with those who want news or magazines or temporary Airport novels getting them in increasingly electronic formats, and those who want the ‘real thing’ wanting them in a product that is beautiful or well designed and reeks of permanence.

The internet has failed to revolutionise media ownership. Nor has poetry found a new place in the sun, though poetry is certainly prominent on the internet, probably rating just below sex and sport in sheer numbers of sites. Anyone who’s written a couple of heartbroken diary poems can publish them on their poetry page. So confused readers can spend hours looking for ‘quality’ writing. They began to feel they need someone to sort through it all for them and guide them. Perhaps package it up in neat parcels. Re-enter the publisher.

Neither am I convinced that the internet is helping to sell real hard copy books of poems, though it has allowed me access to poets and magazines I couldn’t find in Australia. And to new Australian electronic magazines that don’t even exist on paper, like the ‘Australian Humanities Review’ and John Tranter’s ‘Jacket’, which have become regular places to revisit. If I dare to reveal my credit card details to a person on the other side of the world I can order just about any new book of poetry I like at amazon.com, though I feel guilty not ordering from Gleebooks or Collected Works or my local bookshop: Robinsons in Frankston. And, as the poet Kevin Hart revealed to me recently, Bibliofind is an excellent place to find rare and second hand books. I’d been looking for a copy of Gwen Harwood’s first book for ten years and found one in ten minutes; an old library copy from Virginia, USA. It’s on its way to me now.

Which is getting away from reactions to the site and what has it achieved. I’ve established some positive contacts. Other poets who I irregularly email. I’ve had 3000 hits! I’ve had feedback from writers in Texas and Germany. The National Library of Australia has included my site in its Pandora Project: a project aimed at ‘preserving selected electronic publications of lasting cultural value for access by the Australian community now and in the future.’ I’ve become an on-line cyber mentor for a girl [?] known only as Candy who asks me poetry questions that she can’t ask her teacher, the latest: ‘What is change of perspective?’ More importantly for me, it’s become a way of shaping and reshaping my ideas and thoughts for new poems. I’ve got this idea for an online project on suburban margins and the places at the edge of the suburbs where farmland becomes street. I think there’ll be some poems there eventually.

You can expect the unexpected: Recently, I received a single line anonymous email which read in its entirety: ‘You write pretty good poems!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!’ The only reply I could possibly give: ‘You write pretty good emails.’

Warrick Wynne

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Sites referred to in the article include:

Amazon – http://www.amazon.com

Australian Humanities Review – http://www.lib.latrobe.edu.au/AHR/home.html

Bibliofind – http://www.bibliofind.com

Cyberpoetry – http://www.experimedia.vic.gov.au/cyberpoets

Fortune City – www2.fortunecity.com

Geocities – http://www.geocities.com

Gleebooks – http://www.gleebooks.com.au

Jacket Magzine (John Tranter) – http://www.jacket.zip.com.au/

Kominos – http://student.uq.edu.au/~s271502/

Pandora Project (National Library Australia) http://www.nla.gov.au/pandora/

Shama’s ‘Landscape and Memory: http://www.ot.com/skew/seven/bookmarks/home.html

The Invisible Border between Art & Nature http://panther.bsc.edu/~jtatter/borders.html

[This article was first published in the Poets’ Union magazine, ‘Five Bells’ in April 1999]

Written by warrick

December 24, 2007 at 2:38 pm

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