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Thursday, 23 August 2007

Smelling the iCoffee

Britain, according to the BBC, is in love with digital media.

And, as we know, Britain is not quite in love with poetry.

It doesn't take a [insert rocket scientist here] to make the leap and begin to think that perhaps poetry should begin to reconsider its relationship to said digital media.

However - and sadly - despite a few publishers throwing some big bucks at fancy bells and whistles on their sites - and a few innovative places like 57 Productions and the Poetry Archive - the intersection of poetry and the net (and beyond) isn't nearly as busy as it might be. As the poetry editor of one of the only respected, and long-running (half a decade now) British online magazines that actually publishes poetry by good poets regularly (quick, name another nine) - nthposition - I find myself constantly bemused, if not frustrated, by how few "mainstream" poets - young and old - entrust the web with their poems. Even now, blogs and personal sites are somewhat suspect. Much of this has to do with two things: a) the British poetry establishment can be sclerotic and b) the British feel faintly silly when tooting their own horn, and the net has a lot of evangelical self-promotion.

Still, neither of these really makes sense - there are ironic and modest ways of using digital media, and the publishing industry is aware of how it needs to manage a transition to a more and more electronic way of accessing information and text. Many poets think that poetry is a) something to be on paper, to be in books and b) are afraid it will be stolen on the net. I say this to that: a) poetry has an oral / aural and post-paper role to play, too, which in no way invalidates its written, formal felicities (late Milton was blind but enjoyed composition of, and listening to, poems) and b) copyright protection for material posted or published electronically is increasingly robust.

I suspect a graver series of evils hinder a more comprehensive engagement with digital transmission of poems and poetry, in the UK. Namely, a) the prize culture and b) the marketing culture. To become a "name poet" in Britain is a more and more competitive career-track kind of game, and many younger poets know that (whether they opt in or out is another matter) to get considered by a mainstream publisher they may well have to win a national prize, or an Eric Gregory Award - and their first collections will need to be shortlisted for Forwards or Eliots to secure their reputation, and invitations to major festivals. As such awards and prizes are currently designed to entirely avoid consideration of material posted on the Internet (ebooks are not up for Eliots), the natural inclination is to (p)reserve one's (best) material for print. I blame Britain's celebrity-driven marketing culture for this transformation of poetry from an art that delights and instructs to one that aims to sell and seduce. So long as poets are sold - and poetry seen as a commodity (see Zamyatin) in the UK - the fearsome freedom of the net will be more of a threat than a promise. However, poetry should be like water - a resource made available relatively inexpensively (whenever possible) and as essential to life. Digital dissemination of poetry would boost poetry book sales, ultimately, as books would be quality records (the Evian) of the appreciated experience. But while hope springs eternal, the poetry springs of Britain are too-often shut off at the mains - the stream controlled by gate-keepers with less interest in the flow and fountain of poetry - and more in having their own little rock pool to drop their glasses in.
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