Guest Blog: The Internet Poetry Movement

by Guest Blogger Perrin Carrell and Steve Roggenbuck

Here’s how poetry normally works: poets submit their work to journals and lit magazines en masse, get rejected mostly and accepted some, and end up with a very small, largely homogenous academic audience. That’s how it’s worked forever. And it’s no fun. It is often limiting and antisocial. And it’s slow. You might send out a submission and get a response several months later, and if it’s accepted in a print publication, you might have to wait for another several months to see it.

The Internet poets are a self-feeding, self-viewing, self-publishing subculture that is very often the opposite of this. They create online lit magazines and publish each other’s work. They have blogs and forums. They inject poetry into the mainstream via social media. And they host live streaming poetry readings online (a few of them even did a reading piled in a bathtub).

Steve Roggenbuck is one of them. He published a collection of 100 flarf poems called Downloadhelveticaforfree.com, which is available at no cost on a website of the same name (www.downloadhelveticaforfree.com). He also seems to be one of the epicenters of the movement, if that’s what it is. I interviewed Roggenbuck, who offered some insights into the Internet poetry culture and how it might be defined.

 

Sometimes the phrases “online lit” and “Internet writing” are used to loosely refer to a whole generation of younger writers. Usually these writers have blogs and twitter accounts; they may have published e-books with a publisher like Pangur Ban Party or Bear Parade; they might post or comment at HTMLGIANT; and they might edit or publish frequently in online lit magazines.

When I created the tumblelog INTERNET POETRY, I wanted to promote a more overtly Internet-based literature. More than literature posted on (static) webpages, I’m looking for kinds of poetry whose models (of distribution, of medium, etc.) borrow from Internet culture just as much as they borrow from past poetry.

Specific avenues in Internet poetry might be certain kinds of image-based poetry (screenshots, image macros, poems paired with photos as if they’re captions); certain kinds of video-based poetry (vlogs, or something like music videos for literature: “litvids,” “liteos”); and poetry blended with social interaction (poems as comments, tweets, wall posts, emails). The intuitive feeling I have for a lot of these avenues–although other writers could take them in a totally different direction—is that they are often accessible and kind of attention-grabbing, which I hope will help these poems spread faster and further than poems usually have in the past.

 

The proliferation of the writers, the speed of the delivery, and the open-arms culture are defining characteristics of the movement. A lot of the time, the poetry created is based on fun because fun is what happens on Internet poetry’s primary medium: social media. Poems commonly include images and video; many are funny; and work often references, pokes fun at, or involuntarily includes other internet poets.

The web address of Internet poetry forefather Tao Lin’s blog, for example, is http://heheheheheheheeheheheehehe.com/. Here, you can find pieces like this one, which is set to appear in The New York Observer, or these, which were reblogged by Internet poet Frank Hinton. Another example, Marco Sparks’ “Captured, part 02,” is a series of pictures of a TV screen that uses closed captioning as the text of the poem; it was posted on the open-source poetry forum www.letpeoplepoems.com.

Internet poets write as if instant messaging their reader. There’s little capitalization, lots of social-media acronyms and purposeful mispunctuation. In this way, Internet poetry depends on a kind of hyper-self-awareness, appropriating the fast-paced, sometimes ignorant language of Internet users and presenting it as “real” writing by finding legitimacy in the sheer power of its pop culture relevance.

Internet poetry is a form of play. It can be called a subculture for both its irreverence and the uncanny force of its inclusion. It’s like street racing or graffiti art: you have to be in the know to catch wind of it, and if you know about it they’ll take you in. But it’s more than that, too. While traditional underground or avant garde literary movements might only include like-minded artists who want in, because inclusion and play are axioms of the writing, Internet poetry pushes outward and brings people in (even those who never asked). For example, Kat Dixon of Divine Dirt Quarterly wrote a rather harsh review of Internet poetry, calling it “cliquey, crappy work.” Shortly after, dozens of Internet poets flooded her with friend requests, bantered with her on facebook, and included her in their writings; in a matter of hours, she became part of the movement in perhaps the least likely way one would imagine: criticizing it.

It’s poetry as Woodstock. Everyone loves everyone. And this kind of environment encourages both self-promotion and friend-promotion. Roggenbuck, for example, named his friend, poet Poncho Peligroso, “2011 Poet Laureate of the Internet” and created an “SEO bomb” for those search terms; so now, if you search for “2011 Poet Laureate,” Peligroso’s website is the first search result—it’s poets promoting each other by manipulating the Internet itself. Another example is writers DJ Bernt and Shaun Gannon, who created Let People Poems (letpeoplepoems.com), an open poetry forum that allows anyone to publish literally anything, making promoting your work easy, fun and interactive, especially for nonprofessional or unpublished poets. It may be that the comfortable estrangement provided by the Internet amplifies impulses like self-promotion, pride, or even egomania by making sharing such an integral part of the process. Admittedly, it’s hard not to post a poem you just wrote if you know 50 people are waiting to read, love and retweet it.

And that’s one of the funny things in this strange little world: no one really criticizes each other. It’s as if the Internet poets have a kind of reverence for the collective attitude they’ve created; it’s an attitude of confidence and playfulness and a little rebellion—it’s a place where no one can really do any wrong. What seems more clear than anything is that it’s not the work that’s important, although a lot of good poetry is made there; rather, it’s the creation of a space of acceptance where virtually anything—video, image macros, screen shots of your desktop—can be poetry.

The question, then, is: if everyone loves everyone and no one criticizes each other, can we really give this kind of poetry any credence, especially if very few of them are publishing books? Roggenbuck had this to say:

 

If you’re judging Internet poetry on its own terms, then it won’t matter if writers have published books. With viral websites, popular blogs, and webcomics, printed books are often more of an after-thought, collecting the best posts from a certain span of time; often, print books are just a way to monetize the content[…] In any case, there was never a metric to quickly assess the value of writing anyway. The surface-level markers of success might be different for poets online–moving from book sales and deals, maybe, to something like blog followers and hits–but that’s all.

 

However, the poets themselves are often professionals. Many hold MFAs or are MFA candidates, have published in “real” literary journals, and a few have books or chapbooks in circulation. Some, though, are more interesting than others.

Take Frank Hinton. Hinton is the editor of a literary magazine called Metazen and the author of the chapbook I Do Not Respect Female Expression. She also never shows her face. In a community where people do live video readings, cross national boarders to visit each other, and are all facebook friends, no one knows what Frank Hinton looks like. And she knows it turns them on, which is probably why her facebook photo albums sport faceless (albeit artful) pictures of women (who may or may not be Frank herself) in little more than panties. And she can write, by the way (i.e. http://issue2.popserial.net/frank-hinton/). Her prose confuses gender conventions by using male narrators in the first person; she ventures into meditative, surreal situations to mine real human experience; and she forces base romantic instincts to the surface, exploiting them with simple diction and child-like pace. All of this, and all her audience knows of her is the small of her back in black and white, her lingerie, and a few too-smoky pictures of her face. She is a master of showing just enough. Frank Hinton is a social media geisha.

And this is part of the appeal of the Internet poetry community for a lot of us who like their work: seeing, interacting, and befriending them without ever really knowing them.

Roggenbuck himself should be counted among the most notable Internet poets. His poems are so beloved by some they have been blown up, printed out, and pasted to bill boards (see it here). And perhaps more than anyone, he is interviewed and his work referenced (and reblogged and retweeted, of course). Roggenbuck talked briefly about other notable personalities:

 

Poncho Peligroso may be the only poet other than me who has really openly owned the label/identity. Omar de Col produces image macros very frequently, as do some other writers from the U.K.: Crispin Best, Ben Brooks, and Alexander Allison[…] There is no official listing of “Internet poets,” though, and what’s actually much more common at this point is writers who post some overt “Internet poetry” (screenshots or macros, usually) as well as more standard plain-text poetry. These would include all of the above writers, but also Spencer Madsen, Jackson Nieuwland, M. Kitchell, Christopher Kelly, James Duncan, Cory Stephens, Erik Stinson, Jacob Steinberg, and many others.

 

Internet poetry really is a kind of rebellion. It rejects traditional publication processes (sending your work off to be judged by a handful of faceless editors) by creating an expanding web of writers who have the technical know-how to create a literary journal overnight and the social connections to publish the work of their favorite poets the next morning—curriculum vitae candy in a poetry piñata. It rejects the processes that have traditionally oppressed greenhorn poets, empowered the academy, and excluded popular audiences. Instead, Internet poetry pushes the craft outward by doing what everyone in the corporate strata is clamoring to do: embrace social media. Roggenbuck:

 

In business, advertisers talk about “going where the eyeballs are,” about moving from print to online venues to follow the eyeballs. Well I want to put my poetry where the eyeballs are, too. It’s really hard to get eyeballs on a printed poetry book now, especially non-poet eyeballs. Even if you can establish a big name for yourself, there’s still a barrier of price and convenience—people have to go buy it. Also, poetry publishers have largely accepted that their main market is other poets, so their usual marketing routines are not really going to get you outside of the established community […] The potential market is broader, though–at least with the right work it is.

 

For my part, I didn’t even mean to get involved with the Internet poets. I simply met one in Chicago, and when I friended him on facebook all the others started friending me, too. If you’ve seen Star Trek and know who The Borg are, it was a little like that. Next thing I knew I was going to their parties, publishing work in their magazines, chatting with them online, and generally enjoying the steady stream of art that my facebook news feed became. Am I an Internet poet? Maybe. But maybe everyone is—anyone who posts their work online or thinks about how their audience will receive their next tweet. I certainly believe in what they are doing because I can see people getting excited about the art I’m dedicating my life to—people like my mom and my brother and my best friend and my boss—people who would never buy a book of poetry because they’re not poets but who are members of a population that has grown to accept what the Internet provides: unfiltered expression with no gatekeepers to speak of.

Is Internet poetry important? Maybe. Maybe not. But even if it’s not important, it may be unavoidable.

* All opinions expressed by Guest Bloggers are solely those of the Guest Bloggers. Any opinions stated by Guest Bloggers do not represent the beliefs or views of The Editors of Straight Forward.*

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