e-lit' flashback: The Boston T-1 Party
page 2, continued...
A couple weeks ago, I received a series of e-mails from someone whom you may know if you follow electronic literature very closely. The correspondence read:
I really dislike letters like this because they're often quite literate and blind in the same stroke. I wanted to reply, "That's nice, but when I work in a medium, the audience owns it." because it's really important that the audience connect, or at least have a fair chance to access, a given artist's work without the artist's ego demanding satisfaction in the process. Beyond that, the artist should own it, because the work is an expression of themselves. If you can't deal with other people taking the bow when you publish them, you probably ought not to be a publisher.
I didn't have trouble with the criticism about "pretty pictures," because I know I don't publish a vanity website. I don't pick just anybody's work to publish, poets can and do get rejected if they approach me about publishing work that lacks merit, and I don't publish people just because they're friends. I simply don't serve needy poets. In fact, I've tended to make new friends with people whom I've published, even though we may not have been that well acquainted in the first place. I've sought out esteemed writers and performers around Chicago and the rest of the world. My experience has been positive, as I've gotten acquainted with the authors and their work. Interpreting and mediating their poetry for the web has taught me and the poets something about the medium, their writing, and their relationships with the audience.
What actually got under my skin from that e-mail exchange was the suspicion that the writer, himself an authority in the field of electronic literature, didn't think literature from non-web-literate authors was as good as that from web-literate ones. This struck the anthropologist in me, as a highly relative thing to say, and immediately raised questions of class and representation. And while I don't have an exhaustive library of work from any given quarter, the ecumenicalism upon which I've built e-poets.net has served me with some interesting conclusions about the web and poetry. I reached these long before I read the e-mailed comments I just cited.
For one, the issue of the Digital Divide is a real concern for writers, and particularly for me, as I deal a lot with people who are writers and performing artists first, and have little spare means to address technology. That doesn't make them lesser artists, simply less web-enabled. Furthermore, the environment I come from, Chicago, has a particularly strong disposition for performance poetry, which demands A/V expertise. So I've brought this to the body of writers I know, and have used it to recontextualize their work regionally, nationally, and internationally.
For another, my work has given me some opportunities to observe what I'd term gravities, to find what the web "likes" to see, based on digesting the domain's hit logs, popular reactions, anecdotes, and reader response. In calendar 2000, e-poets.net attracted over 1.6 million hits -- nearly 200,000 page views, and where enough performance poetry in either video or audio form was served to be the equal of a vigorous poetry venue hosting 25 readers for 40 to 50 guests, running steadily for nearly two weeks straight. That would be a significant poetry venue or festival in most any city in North America... not a huge one, but a well-known one. And no one had to pay admission to see it. It was all click to listen or, as we prefer to say in e-poets.net, "Click to think."
In these effects, I discovered the web likes spoken word with a particular preference for African-American artists. Without a question (and this may come at some chagrin to you Bostonians) Patricia Smith is the most popular poet featured on e-poets.net. Tyehimba Jess and Tara Betts are also very popular. It's not that white poets can't jump, but that people seem to appreciate the quality of African-American poetry as it relates to spoken word -- the lyricism, colloquialism, musicality, inflection of narrative, and many qualities that don't always relate well to the printed page, often do relate very well online where you can publish them as time arts. In other words, African American poetry speaks amply between the lines, and the web is a capable medium for this speech.