Essay: Ali Jane Smithon poets online

Plain Text, Real Time

Ali Jane Smith is a recipient of a 2016 SRB-CA Emerging Critics Fellowship. This is the third of three essays by Smith that will appear on the Sydney Review of Books, alongside essays by other fellowship recipients, James Halford and Ben Brooker. Read all the essays here

On a Friday morning I planned to spend in the library working on this essay, I had to stay home instead, hovering awkwardly while a friendly and efficient technician set up my connection to the National Broadband Network. It wasn’t a life-changing event. The life-changing thing happened, for me, 25 years ago, although I didn’t quite notice at the time.

It’s hard to make the beginnings of the internet sound interesting. The settings for this history were academic institutions, corporations, suburban garages. The props were grey or beige, and the costumes – there weren’t many snappy dressers. The photos show big computers that fill rooms, or people in large-framed spectacles perched on the edge of a desk beside a robust plastic box. I was an undergraduate living through the beginnings of the uptake of the internet, but my memory of what it was like then is foggy. I had a secondhand Apple Mac Classic, and a 14.4 kilobytes per second dialup connection over my phone line. I checked my email. There might be nothing, there might be one or two messages from people I would probably see the next day.

My friend Sandy O’Sullivan knew the internet was a big deal. She spent hours online, pursuing her intense and varied interests, chatting to people all over the world, finding out everything she could about how the internet worked and what it meant. I was lucky that Sandy was so generous with her knowledge. She was determined that I, and the many other women she helped get online, were not going to be left out of this big, exciting, life-changing, world-changing thing. At her prompting, I tried Internet Relay Chat for about thirty seconds – back then I was too shy to talk to strangers. I peeked at the Usenet. The discussions about TV shows were more interesting than the discussions about poetry. I remember the first time I saw a web browser, and marvelled at the prospect of hypertext online. It was probably Sandy who helped me subscribe to a couple of electronic mailing lists, at least one of which was about poetry.

Electronic mailing lists are made possible by a piece of software that can automatically add and remove individual email addresses from a master list of email addresses stored on a server. Anytime a person who has subscribed to an electronic mailing list sends an email to the list, their email arrives in the inboxes of every single other person who has subscribed to that list. Anyone subscribed to the list can send a response that goes out to the whole list, or send a new email about some other topic. Before social media, electronic mailing lists were a relatively simple, low-bandwidth opportunity for a group of people to communicate in real time. Some participants understood what was going on, how it worked, how it fitted into the rest of the internet. Others, like me, followed the careful instructions of friends and tech support to get themselves subscribed to whatever it was that came on the email.

The programming that automated the process of subscription to an electronic mailing list did not mean that the list could run without human intervention. Some lists are moderated, that is, an administrator has to approve a post before it is sent out to every subscriber on the list. But even unmoderated electronic mailing lists need administrators to take care of the technical housekeeping, and sometimes to act as leaders, whether starting projects, prompting discussion, or weighing in to remind subscribers of any special rules that apply to that group.

The American poet Charles Bernstein was one of the initiators of the Poetics electronic mailing list that came out of the Poetics program at the State University of New York, Buffalo. He has described what the Poetics list was like when he and others set it up in 1993,

There was no web interface and no way to filter messages. Emails were read and written via on-line ascii systems. During the first six years of the list, a deep and wide ranging discussion developed among the few hundred of us actively participating. I asked that the list address not be publicized so that we could keep the discussion to those with shared interests and that the list not become a general interest poetry forum.

The Poetics list was set up with the intention to talk about a specific kind of poetry, described variously as postmodern, avant-garde, post-avant, progressive, experimental. Sometimes poems were posted to the list, but the aim of the list was not to workshop or discuss specific poems. Sometimes book publications or readings were announced on the list, but it was not primarily a tool for promotion. What the Poetics list made possible was a community of interest. It was not uninflected by existing institutional, social and real world community connections – New York and San Francisco were well represented in the relatively small group of subscribers to the list in its early days. But the existence of the list meant that New York poets could talk to San Francisco poets, frequently, and over an extended period of time. This wasn’t a visit, a peek at somebody else’s scene, it was a scene. Poets scattered here and there, in groups or singly, could be part of the community, too. Poets from Europe, from Canada, from Australia, indeed Anglophone poets from anywhere, could potentially be part of this community of interest.

Bernstein again:

you didn’t have to be at a bar in New York or a cafe in San Francisco, or to know anybody on a scene, or to be enrolled in a program: all you needed to participate was an active interest.

A few years later in 1997, Australian poet John Kinsella, himself an early subscriber to Poetics, set up the Poetryetc list. While Poetics aimed to create a space to talk about a particular kind of poetry, Poetryetc was intended at least in part as a means of exploring the globalising aspect of internet communication. Kinsella wanted to take things further than the creation of a community of interest, and use the list to find out something about regionalism and internationalism. As he wrote in 2010:

The internet is recognised as the stimulus for the rapid rise of an international consciousness, and for a consciousness that exists in a non-geo space. A parallel world. A place of community where the boundaries are more flexible and language more fluid. But is this the case in reality? Boundaries and territories exist on the net as much as anywhere else. Prejudices of the real world persist and multiply in cyberspace.

While Kinsella readily acknowledged that an electronic mailing list did not provide a utopian space, he did see Poetryetc as a place where ideas could be talked about, but more specifically, where language itself could be ‘invigorated’, where new, albeit imperfect, communities could form, and where an attempt could be made to bring together a simultaneously international and regional poetic consciousness. The Poetryetc mailing list ran featured poets, and projects for generating new work. One of these was the Interactive Geographies Project. Here’s what Kinsella wrote in his announcement of the project:

I’d like to invite Poetryetc participants to assist in the creation of a geo-text. The aim is to break down territories, boundaries, demarcation lines etc. by creating an interactive regionalism. If people would send to the list responses to their immediate surroundings – responses to location, demographics, spiritual signifiers, gender, and so on – I’ll work the collective effort into a single text and publish it as a Salt book. Your responses should be without punctuation and in continuous text – no line breaks. You will be appropriated, altered and mixed.

In an interview with publisher Ralph Wessman, Jill Jones described the effectiveness of participation in Poetryetc as a stimulus for new work:

one of the projects I’ve used to keep myself writing is a poetry project generated through the poetryetc list… Every Wednesday a core group of people write what we call a ‘snapshot’. The original idea was write about what’s going on for you either inside or outside, wherever you are – on a Wednesday – anywhere in the world.

Australian poets found connection on the lists. Sydney poets, Melbourne poets, Brisbane poets, Armidale poets, academics, students, poets living in little towns without resort to social or professional contact with likeminded writers could join in a rolling conversation, talk about books and journals, have arguments, make jokes, develop alliances, become friends. The organisers of lunchtime readings and Sunday arvo book launches, the promoters of workshops and residencies and competitions, the people cranking the handles of small presses, could put the word out. Australian poets could talk to each other, and they could also participate in discussions with people from everywhere.

Australian poet Chris Mansell has lived in regional Australia for much of her career. I emailed her to ask her about her use of electronic mailing lists. Mansell sees electronic mailing lists as one of a number of avenues for accessing ideas – ‘whatever source, one would hightail off to find a book or look up a reference’ – and and for providing the context she sees as necessary to poetic practice:

a sense of your poetic context is really important – even if your main relationship to that context is to reject it, it’s still important to have some idea of what’s out there… One thing about having such a variety of sources, then and now, is that it stops the too-cosy. And there are some damnedly brilliant minds out there.

One of those damnably brilliant minds belongs to Alison Croggon, a fantasy novelist, poet, opera librettist and critic who also served for a time as an administrator of the Poetryetc list. I contacted her via Facebook to ask her about her involvement in the life of the lists. She told me that her practice as a poet was profoundly affected by her participation in a number of electronic mailing lists:

The first list I joined, probably around 1995, was British Poets, which was then in full swing. For me, it opened the door to innovative British poetry, in particular. This was a poetry, or a number of poetries, which had been sidelined in mainstream publications since around the 1970s, and discovering it was a revelation. And suddenly I found all these exciting poets, like Geraldine Monk, JH Prynne, Peter Manson, Sean Bonney, Maggie O’Sullivan, Trevor Joyce, Douglas Oliver, and so on and so on, who all represented a wide range of poetries and poetics that rocked my world. Later, of course, I met these people too, and in many cases we became friends.

In the mid to late nineties, electronic mailing lists hosted vibrant, lively discussion. This was also a period of speculative utopianism, with thousands of words devoted to dreams and discussions of what the internet might be or do.

There are, however, certain inescapable difficulties that arise in a mailing list environment, whether moderated or not. There will usually be a group or groups of regular posters who are familiar with the culture and conventions of the list. Newly subscribed members will likely find some of their conversations impenetrable or intimidating. New users might introduce themselves, tentatively or boldly. Others will join and read what’s posted but never, or almost never, post anything themselves, a mode of usage known as ‘lurking’. While some participants prefer to keep the peace, others see the oppositional mode as necessary and productive. Sometimes the argy-bargy of discussion and mild irritation blows out into heated and confrontational argument. This kind of temporary heat usually abates, but the problem of deliberately abusive, or otherwise destructive posts, can become intractable. For some users, a conversation can only be open and exploratory if all contributors are treated with courtesy and respect. For other users, courtesy and respect are suffocating conventions that preclude open communication. Administrators learned through experience that if spam, flaming and trolling are left unchecked, the conversation is overwhelmed and large numbers of participants will unsubscribe. And sometimes a conversation had run its course, and the list got dull.

What happened after electronic mailing lists was blogging. Perhaps it was just the next available, readily accessible technology. Perhaps it was in part a reaction to the frustration of lists that were divided by conflict, overwhelmed by spam, or had run out of puff. A blog allowed a kind of broadcast communication, with an author or authors, but lively conversation could run on in the comments, and connections could be made by linking from blog to blog. Alison Croggon’s Theatre Notes is still mentioned as an exemplar of its kind, and Croggon sees the success of Theatre Notes as resulting at least in part from what she learned from her engagement with electronic mailing lists.

My review blog Theatre Notes, with its emphasis on debate, was pretty much an evolution of my experience running Poetryetc. I applied the very simple rules we used there – basically rules against ad hominem attack and any kind of bigotry. Provided those rules were followed, everything was up for grabs in a discussion. It permitted an openness and attentiveness in debate which was I think very fruitful. And I guess my use of social media is kind of shaped by those experiences too.

Jill Jones is one of those poets who had spent time on the lists and then took to blogging. On her blog, Ruby Street, she has written,

In the heyday of blogging, in the early to mid-2000s, the platform was alive with poets and poetry, and certainly exchanges (who remembers web 2.0?). This included comments and responses amongst us all. Times have changed, as they obviously do. I’ve not had one comment, nor sign of one, since coming back to this in 2015. Nor, I admit, have I gone to other blogs and commented…

By 2015, when Jones made this statement, commenting, linking and promotion of books and events had moved to Facebook and Twitter, fast, accessible, and highly connected platforms for communication and connection. Electronic mailing lists still exist, as a means of leisurely, sociable, though still poetry-focused conversation amongst persisting participants, or a free and convenient way to announce the publication of a book or a call for submissions. Evidence of their earlier, fervent and hectic existence remains in the publications that resulted, sometimes directly, as in Poetryetc’s Interactive Geographies project. When the State University of New York Buffalo’s Poetics list wound up (later to be reactivated as the Poetics list 2.0 by the Chicago School of Poetics), American experimental writer Ron Silliman wrote about the impact of the list on his blog:

The Poetics List was the first poetry tool to make serious use of the internet. Prior to the existence of the net, geography really mattered in ways that younger poets may never appreciate. If, in the 1970s, you were a post-avant poet in someplace like Kent, Ohio or Tucson, Arizona, you were at a serious disadvantage.

Australian poets who remember life before the internet might agree with Silliman about the impact of geography, both artistically and from a career point of view.

Electronic mailing lists, with their long, often rambling and incoherent threaded discussions, their skirmishes, their pages of plain ASCII text and paragraphs from previous posts indented with multiple ‘>’ characters running down the left hand side of the window, aren’t much to look at. Some are archived online, but trawling through old posts is dull work – the excitement of the discussion was in being there, in not knowing how it would turn out, who would say what, and what was going on ‘back-channel’, communicated privately by email one to one or in small groups. The jokes have deflated and twenty years have blunted the pointed barbs. The conversations on the lists were held in the present, live, responsive, often ephemeral. But they played a key role in what has happened to Australian poetry in the last twenty years. The invention of electronic mailing lists made it possible for Australian poets to talk to poets from everywhere, and to talk to each other. Some of the time the conversation  was vicious, or tedious, but the efflorescence, the internationalising, the diversity and quality that we see in Australian poetry now comes in part from the thoughtful and generous communication, the careful listening, that also happened on those lists.

Works cited

Charles Bernstein, ‘Poetics List (1994 – 2013), Jacket2. Last accessed 20 October 2016.
Jill Jones, ‘Late night thoughts on the blogging thing’, Ruby Street. Last accessed 20 October 2016.
John Kinsella, ‘International Regionalism and Poetryetc’, John Kinsella. Last accessed 20 October 2016.
Ralph Wessman, Interview with Jill Jones. Last accessed 20 October 2016.
Hartmut Winkler ‘The Computer: Medium of Calculating Machine’, Uncanny Networks, ed. Geert Lovink, Cambridge Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2002.

The SRB-CA Emerging Critics Fellowships are supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.