Saturday, April 15, 2006

I was just talking to a poet friend, who is not a blogger, about the blogosphere. He brought up a point that I think is a very good one, and he phrased it very well. He said that each person’s experience of the blogosphere is inherently subjective. That made me think of the past week’s discussion about how the scene should/shouldn’t be represented. Each reader is drawn to the blogs that feature writing styles and subject matter that matches his/her taste. From those blogs, they are led to others that match that blogger’s interests, and it goes on like that forever. Characterizing the blogosphere accurately is impossible, as it’s entirely different for each person.

And that notion points the way toward thinking about what really makes the online poetry scene so different from the print-publishing one: there isn’t the same kind of branding on the Web that there is in a bookstore. (There is, of course, a different kind of branding: each blogger has his/her own brand, which they must establish, update, and maintain. The same is true for each web mag.) Rather than associating a poet’s work with Knopf or Verse Press or Faux Press or The Canary or The New Yorker, each poet has a stronger hand in determining how they will be seen, in terms of what they write. The web mags of course establish their own brands, but it’s still new enough that those brands don’t have such a hold on how a reader thinks of the work they find on each particular site. I think the same rules apply, however, as the web-branding takes a deeper hold, but at least now the poets get to make the rules themselves, steer the course of their own reputations, in something like real time. It’s not entirely different from reinventing the printing press.


This new issue of Cutbank is really a stunner. So many good poems. I want to look for a sec at the first stanza of the first poem in the issue, which is by Britta Ameel, a poet whose work I knew nothing about until yesterday. Reading this poem got me thinking about the problem of finding subjects for poems. Here’s the first bit:

The moment after begins. Birds on your sill
offer themselves. A flock of thumbs. Flight. No question
of ascending. Speed. After. What did I do?
An act I remember but can’t place. Something small.
The turning of the faucet. Afraid to move the papers that stack like layers of earth.
Not—glow, not—light, something silver and sticky.
After water. Smoke. After gauzy curtains blowing in the middle of a hot day.

What got me going here is the invocation that takes place in the first sentence. Rather than immediately setting up a scene, the first sentence locates us in a general idea of time. We know we are located at the beginning of a moment that takes place just after another moment that does not take place in the poem. Ameel then goes on to shade in a few aspects of a scene—birds, a house, a kitchen, a desk, the speaker’s memory—but the subject here is really the simultaneity of things, the way perception places things in time that don’t happen in time: “The sugar still sweetens in a blue bowl on the counter.”

The poem goes on to roam at lightening speed (“We are fast as highway nerves”) across an array of disassociated landscapes, landing on a campsite, a pasture with a cow. The poem asks questions (“Is there anything to know”) but doesn’t come to a conclusion more definite than its lovely last line: “We are water and it’s a wonder we do what we do.”

Through examples, images, and questions, the poem tries not only to think about “what we do”, but to enact it. The mind at work is by no means a new subject for poetry, but the way this poem gets into that subject—by wondering what a moment is—is thrilling to me. The fact that a poem can start with such an invisible abstraction as a moment and find its way to the concreteness of “We are water” helps free me from my habit of writing poems that have to be about someTHING.

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