When it all clicks
Reviewing the year 2000 in statistics and accomplishments to a very positive effect.
filed 16 January 2001 | Chicago by Kurt Heintz
One of the things I do around e-poets.net is encourage the professionalization of poetry. This is not to say we all should run around in "downtown drag", with office clothes, briefcases, and business cards. (Well, maybe business cards, yes... Because they make finding someone really easy, when you compare reading a business card to deciphering the scrawl on a cocktail napkin...) But I want people to regard poetry as a respectable endeavor. I respect the worth of my audience's attention by fulfilling it with genuine discourse about our city's poetry and the people from whom it comes. No trash. No polemical gaper's blocks on the Information Superhighway. Just real writing by real writers.
This week, I tallied the e-poets.net hit logs from all of 2000, and man, do I feel ratified! What are "hit logs"? Professional Internet providers keep records that list who has logged into your website, what they looked for, and when they looked for it. One can't always determine the name of a person who logged in, and reading aspects of the hit logs is sometimes like reading tea leaves. Nevertheless, some meaningful statistics can be reduced from all this info. I've saved these records for all of 2000 and a very positive story has emerged. e-poets.net recorded 1,645,003 hits total for the year. People look to e-poets.net in numbers -- very considered numbers -- when they want poetry from Chicago and elsewhere.
Here are a few more statistics for year 2000:
The quality of the click
I've undertaken some work on the site with the interest of making the hit counts even more solid. What do I mean by "solid"? Bad navigation and superfluous pages can rack up unnecessary hits. In generating 1.6 million hits/year, it is in my own interest to economize. I don't want to be charged extra for handling unnecessary information. So I've made the "interface" of the site low key and high style, low noise and high function.
For example, most major features are often only a couple clicks away. In the Word Circuit, I've rebuilt the entire calendaring system to allow a Week at a Glance view. Readers can survey the next seven days at once, and view details of what they want. This page updates automatically every day from the server, without my intervention, so it's precise, regular, and reliable. Many of the venues active on a given day can be previewed right in the homepage without clicking away. This is part of a holistic approach to the site, one that appreciates the ecology between reader and artist. I set up the dialog, then stand back from it instead of creating distractions. Certainly the site's design and function is not the content, but the design helps maximize the public's aesthetic experience of that content. It also (key idea here!) advances that professional consideration.
From clicks to content
Site design aside, though, it is indeed the content that people are savoring on e-poets.net. Many people enjoy the Incomplete History of Slam, which continues to be a respected document on our city's hometown poetry movement. We've been well-cited by Britannica.com, Slammin' magazine, and WBUR radio in Boston as an authority on the subject. In 2000, the Book of Voices expanded from two authors' chapters to nine, and added scores of audio samples to the Archives in the process, including many from local readings.
The Archives, however, are also gradually becoming a repository for a broader collection of performance poetry. My expedition to Vancouver in 2000 allowed me to record poets on location there. The Archive has since acquired a gravity for more quality poetry media from all across Canada. Thus the site is putting our city's poetic voice in a national and international context. Sheri-D Wilson, one of Canada's foremost performance poets, has generously contributed a collection of her works for a new Book of Voices chapter. Look for this new feature soon.
Poetry video is a not-so-new genre, but it is new on Chicago's webscape. In 2000, e-poets.net was a pioneer in representing performance poetry as something the web world could watch anywhere on Earth. By June 2000, Quraysh Ali Lansana's "Passage" debuted online in RealVideo. By September, many more clips found their way to e-poets.net. I partnered with Zoomculture.com and the Words On Tap poetry series in Hyde Park to advance original videopoetry to our readership. I added a few old chestnuts from my own collection, too. Once again, this created more gravity for quality work. Jean Howard recently contributed her collected poetry videos which will be added to the Videotheque. Works by other local producers are welcome, too.
New features on e-poets.net in 2000 included: a website in support of Farrago Poetry, our associates in London; a study guide that introduces telepresent performance to young writers in grades 10-12; expanded authorship in Plain Text, including the first known review of a poetry performance in Chicago that actually cited the performance as playable media. Plain Text contributors included Shelly Nation-Rankin, Paul Nelson, Jim Andrews, Nate Freeman, Steve Seddon, Gretchen Steele, and Jason Pettus.
Actions, not just words
e-poets.net continued to support Young Chicago Authors by producing a sixth video link-up for YCA in as many years. e-poets.net lived big at the GiG, too. The GiG is an annual new media/literary/performance event benefitting the Electronic Literature Organization. e-poets.net helped coalesce and establish the Chicago School of Electronic Literature as something considerably more than a swanky name. Chicago's aesthetic in poetry video is renewed and broadened thanks to e-poets' partnership with the Edgewise ElectroLit Center, my host for workshops and panels in British Columbia.
On media tech and theoretical fronts, e-poets.net successfully bridged our videoconferencing technology to Radio Free Monterey's webcasting studio, and so presented live readings by Tara Betts and Tyehimba Jess. The webcast featured pictures and sound from Chicago and Monterey, California. It also supported simultaneous online chat. Thus it recovered the audience's voice from the former "one-way" (and theretofore autocratic) communication process endemic with traditional broadcast media. Viewers chatted back to us in text with comments and questions, and we spoke back to them, all in real time.
The e-poets network also took a most significant step from the personal to collective when we convened the first Geoconference in November 2000, a meeting of site directors for physical (instead of virtual) communion. The product of this is the Network Charter, which was ratified just this past week. The Network Charter is a constitution kept by all e-poets network partners. It is an ethical guide to our work, a covenant of our unity, and a blueprint for our collaboration across geographic and cultural frontiers. As new members join the Network, they will be required to sign the Network Charter, and so demonstrate their acceptance and understanding of the poetic and cultural communion we nurture.
Profits, publicly traded
I have undertaken all this in a non-commercial mode. No money is made from the website. I've been asked, and quite earnestly, too, "What's your exit strategy?" as if I'm supposed to build and then sell e-poets.net in order to make money for myself. I won't do that. It would feel like selling the Field Museum. We have an online cultural center here, something like a library, something like a TV station, that may live in all such modes at once. What a vehicle for culture it is! But it's the city's and the world's culture, and not mine to barter.
While at least one sizeable commercial concern offered to pay for the clicks it could generate through e-poets.net, I felt that the cost of those clicks would compromise us. Editorial integrity is paramount. As the online custodian of a growing number of artists' spoken and performed works, I will not accept anything that degrades the experience for the reader. This is returning to the idea of the worth of the reader's gaze, as something not to be commodified, diluted, or spent when engaged in aesthetic activity. e-poets.net does invest its profits, but the profits are intangible and go directly into the quality of the public's online experience. It's a matter of principle.
But to sustain our growth, we will need to raise capital. I have carefully polled some of the authors on e-poets.net, and found that there is indeed room for a responsible commercial presence in our web domain. However, we have some high editorial and ethical expectations for it. So a time may come where the support for e-poets.net comes from commercial or private sources. I would welcome philanthropic gifts to support the site's operation and the Network's activities. Frankly, I'd welcome most any kind of public funding, too. City, State and US public institutions can have a positive role in the financial development of e-poets.net. The business model for e-poets.net is similar to public television's -- you ask for donations, and a few come in; in the mean time, you strive for high quality programs with minimal commericial interruptions.
I can only gaze into the crystal ball so far for 2001, but I can see already that we have an interesting odyssey before us. I predict good things. I hope to see full collaborations in productions between Europe and Chicago, renewed with vigor from an infusion of new technology on both sides of the Atlantic. e-poets.net's partnerships will grow with local organizations, too, as we'll appear in more venues as a new media arts facilitator; operate as a documenting agent to record and transmit lit/arts events on the web; instruct and consult for schools and other lit/arts organizations; and produce original media poetry events. We will host Geoconference 2 in Chicago in August, and so convene poets and media artists from the US, Canada, and (possibly) England. We will continue to find new ways to engage audiences with poetry through new media.
And there is at least one rabbit in my hat which I hope will delight and surprise the public a little later this year. You'll have to wait for it, but it'll be worth the wait. A lot can be achieved in a year! So expect the best.
at your service -