Collective Verse

By Sandra Stephenson

In January 2007, I signed on to a Yahoogroup out of Toronto at the invitation of one of its moderators Conversation1 whom I had met on a discouraged Canadian site called Writers Against War. The group was a curious admixture of poets, theorists, graphic and collage artists, small and micro-pressers, essayists and the like, and I fell into it with a great splash and happily. Here was a medium I could really dig—instant gratification for the poet who likes to send poems sailing upon completion, guaranteed attentive readers (at least a half-dozen), and new poems by return mail within the hour or day.

Conversation, the art of collective verse, has been renewed by e-mail. The epistle is reborn. New horizons for the collective (un)conscious range at the fringes of blog and response; unravelling threads of social organization define emerging etiquettes and an unchiselled aesthetic which is the e-mail conversation transposed to printed page. The page itself transforms where line-length and indent scramble randomly as part of our daily visual diet, the word presented on illuminated plate.

The electronic conversation is a revealing experiment in the free-for-all. It’s the sound of the developed world clapping, clapping its hands over itself. Whether one uses it for practicalities or for joyous creative communication, singing the happiness of being connected in more-or-less random and selected groups, e-mail is sacred play, flirting at times with the profane, engaged always with digging out new realities. Some make bas-relief, others mine.

Spacetime1 There’s a type of salon for any taste, from the autocratic blog to the unmoderated listserve and the sporting forum. Participatory democracy, utopian once, is u-topic: everywhere. Nowhere.

Everywhere that cyberspace has leaked into, at least. Perhaps beyond. Original peoples tell stories from long long ago that tap cyberspace of another kind, and I suspect that collective (un)conscious intersects in a time/space vacuum with the pool now vibrant with e-thought. Out of that place, which I visualize alive with magnetic fields of Northern Lights, thoughts bounce into written reality before our eyes, and from there into what other contiguous reality?

My first inkling of e-mail’s power came about 15 years ago. I was talking to a geneticist from Canada’s National Research Council, who corresponded that way as part of his work, and met other correspondents once annually “to put a face to the name.” There seemed something Trekkian about it: I wasn’t sure at the time whether that quality came from the subject of genetics or the medium in which information and ideas were stewing. The cosmic cauldron has since produced cloning, isolation of genetic information concerning specific diseases, DNA identification and gene splicing. From the virtual to the lab to the real. Once upon a time a chance wind in an open window brought unhoped-for spores and gave us penicillin. Now different winds direct human activity: I’m guessing solar. Some scientists claim that information is like a 2D panel on a wall of a room we inhabit. Some linguists say language is paste on the face of what lies between inner and outer worlds. I think it lives.

Sometimes, on Yahoogroups, I feel as if I’m sitting with a bunch of people on the lip of a vast tipped plane surface in space, our legs dangling over the edge, watching a spectacular, curved sunset. Gwendolyn MacEwan is there. I wonder how she would have liked the videogames of today which capture the surreal element of space and motion. Others around me are less distinct in the crepuscular light, but knowable as correspondents on the list, now trusted friends with silhouettes of their friends and families collapsed into their own, sitting quietly tawking, swinging our legs.

I call it tawking, this real-time conversation. It’s real time not because of the linear progression of time, but because it’s “quality” time, not subject to the small interruptions of life, but prone to necessary suspensions of thought, as in: select “save draft”, go do the dishes, mull over it some, come back to it, send and lo! someone in Manitoba receives it an hour before you wrote it. Type thing. Thing.

In a poem posted on the London underground train, Don Paterson wrote:


The deftest leave no trace: type, send, delete,
clear history. The world will never know.
Though a man might wonder, as he crossed the street
what it was that broke across his brow
or vanished on his tongue and left it sweet

(New Poems on the Underground, Benson, Chernak and Herbert eds, Orion Pub., London, 2004)

I think the web is legitimate and transcribable. I find it fascinating. E-mail con-versing lends itself to creative work, co-operative as creativity needs to be at some points, acknowledging and celebrating co-operation as a few artists have had the opportunity to do in the past in more constrained contexts. Like the interminable credits that roll after a film, we are able to acknowledge our sources and influences with tributaries of links and archives available readily; only inaccessible by the volume of their own clutter, still relatively searchable.

Book publishing shifts – the time for deprecation of self-publishing is over, and the time for closer examination is here. Conversation is another kind of peer review and triage, renewing constantly its criteria and stretching to accommodate the unexpected.

In 2007, I produced an over-sized conversational chap-book with the permission of contributors to a poetry on-line group (Poots tawking, Laurel Reed, Ontario). It consists of snatches of e-mail conversations surrounding poems, which I thought could be brought out of the multi-dimensional echo-chambers of the listserve and placed on the printed page. Opportunities to distinguish voices via font selection presented themselves and dissolved as difficulties transmitting from computer to computer, program to program arose and were handled as a function of budget (ie. volunteer labour and barter economy). The product is some chapters of correspondence in and around verse, not so far removed from semi-auto-biographical and reflective published letters or poetics we’ve read before, most of us, particularly from times when letter-writing and billet-doux were valued as arts.

The possibilities burgeon: a book with fold-out and fold-down pages (Harold Rhenisch’s idea, following traditions used by Laurel Reed books and others) using coloured inks, papers in 3-D (origami! Why not?) to distinguish speakers, to imply simultaneity and coincidence, the drip-echo phenomenon of kaleidoscopic e-tunnels. I begin to see what Carlos Castaneda is on about with his tunnels of the mind. There are, granted, many visual, temporal and spatial effects of virtual reality that the book in re may not be able to reproduce, but which the word in any medium seems able bravely to carry through.

Anik See does a marvellous rendition of such effects in her 2007 short story “binary.” She describes in computer-analogue language the effect of individual/collective experience of random (but masterful) beat-mixing at a night-club amid smoke and strobe-lights, tangible-intangible instants “where the possibility of possibility is overwhelming”: “We sense some sort of power, a gestaltist power. A collective power greater than all of our own put together, because everyone who is here is thinking the same thing, as individuals, and there is no one else to say otherwise… A roomful of people feeling the same thing, every sensation made sharper by the music, and yet flowing into one seamless episode.

binary combinations + music (implosion + explosion) 
        = individualityn

where n = the number of people in the room, and 
the possibilities of binary combinations are infinite 
        and in<p
 (where p = collective power of the individuals)
        therefore, in= ∞
        and p= ∞

…Because really, where’s the truth in identity, beyond a truth that exists in a moment?  Sharing something can eclipse it, in a good way…
There’s a collision of sorts going on here, but I’m not sure of what.  Something just slightly out of reach.  It makes me light-headed.”

(The Fiddlehead no. 232, NB, summer 2007, pp. 152-3),

Then there’s the question of respect.  Deference by e-mail is not the same as deference once was.  This is where many cybernauts run into trouble:  the restrictions are pretty much self-imposed if they are there at all.  Intent can be ambiguous and startlingly transparent simultaneously.  If respect of others gets transgressed, either it’s redressed through dialectic/dialogue, or the conversation and sometimes the conversants melt away.  Dematerialize in a sprinkle of settling star-dust.

A healthy interlude here would be to get cynical. The e-mail chat-book [sic, I know]  Poots Tawking is intended in part to discourage taking poets’ selves too seriously.  The title might make a reader think we were going to a small hamlet in back-roads England, where Margaret Atwood’s heroine and escorts were waylaid by vagabonds who felled a tree across the road in "The Hand-maid’s Tale"–or was that in a book by PD James? dang, one does get those intellectuals mixed up.  Anyway, Atwood clearly refers to herself on at least one memorable written occasion as “an old poop” so the precedent is set. 

Even here many people do not have access to internet, or do not know how to use it rather than be used by it. For every political demonstration where e-mail has facilitated 1000 people’s participation where ten years ago, there might have been only 100, still the gap in democratic governance gets wider.  Governments can hardly keep up a real pretense to represent the public that elected them when it is visually obvious that large, active sectors are motivated enough to move out and protest their decisions:  and of course governments have seen this and have responded, curtailing even the appearance of significant participatory democracy by designating protest zones and developing, issuing and authorizing the use of increasingly threatening deterrents to all forms of physical protest.

Nevertheless, we do have the advantage of e-mail, and with it, perhaps, the responsibility to use it. The Email interface between the printed page – the book, the magazine – and the electronic page is what I’d like to hear your thoughts about, dear reader.  My tool of preference is e-mail and the listserve: others use and dabble with blogs and e-zines (enthusiastically funded now by Canada Council for the Arts).  In all these media, issues of: intellectual property, permission to reproduce (text, that is), organization of materials (like reading backwards or in inverse order, as e-mail threads tend to lead to) and fidelity to the spontaneous, casual spirit of contributions are blown into a new tentacled dimension. 

When one writes on a listserve, who is the “target” audience?  Is the tone really intimate and confidential, knowing there are unknown quantities lurking backstage?  Is it like talking loudly on a cell-phone in a public place?  Is speaking to an unseen audience or to an individual via listserve different from speaking to an auditorium of friends and strangers?  Is the presentation challenge like putting on a play, pretending to be two or three people in a small room on stage – perhaps a bedroom or kitchen – while speaking knowingly for the dark-stretched audience to hear?   Is the public-private distinction folding?  I suggest we have interesting newness here.  Have we tawked about it enough?

If you’re interested in commenting on the implications of mail, I recommend you join with others who do the same.  To set up your own blog leaves you out in curved space free orbit, waiting for someone to hit on your site, or wishing to become the next rob mclennan.  Join a yahoo or similar group with people you can trust not to bite you in half, and writewritewrite by day or nite in black or white, and then take a step back to admire the cultural community you’re part of.  Don’t bite anyone yourself, and if you get bitten too many times, deregister and try another group.  Keep in mind Joan Finnigan’s observation to Al Purdy:

“Poets in drawing rooms are always fair game.
Surely you came here expecting to be propositioned/and prodded.”

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