Opinion: The poets and the geeks
With the launch this month of a national organisation to promote Australia poetry on new platforms, Susan Hayes, Director of Literature at the Australia Council, goes looking online for excellent poetry.
Personally I prefer my poetry longer and more lyrical, but it’s impressive seeing award-winning writers like Margo Lanagan branching out into Twitku. Here is a version of the haiku, shortened to the Twitter parameter of 140 characters. It’s yet another facet of the literature industry’s engagement with the digital environment and shows again that, no matter what the means of production, you just can’t keep a good artform down. Just as Geoffrey Chaucer reckoned he’d have a much bigger home readership if he wrote in English, rather than French or Latin, so today’s writers and publishers are coming to the conclusion that if you can’t beat digital, you must in some form or another collaborate with the Geeks.
Since joining the Australia Council less than three years ago, I have seen digital writing and publishing moving rapidly from the margins into the mainstream. I remember a meeting of Australian publishers in 2008 where only a handful of publishers truly believed in on-line publishing. They could see that the internet presented exciting opportunities for marketing but couldn’t quite contemplate the migration of print text to an on-line readership. At that stage they were ill-prepared for the onset of hand-held readers and the growing dominance of on-line bookstores and cloud distribution. This is certainly not the case now. As bookshops close down across the world and each month sees the birth of a more user-friendly and sophisticated hand-held device, Australian publishers know that they have to digitize or lose the plot and, for the most part, they are ready for the challenge.
Curiously, poetry has been a forerunner in digital publication. Poet John Tranter started his on-line magazine Jacket in 1997. Within two years it had achieved 140,000 visits and this figure rose to over 600,000 by 2007. As Tranter said in his article The Left Hand of Capitalism, “..it sure beats trying to edit, print, publish, distribute and sell a print edition of a literary magazine.” Tranter worked this out twelve years before the Meanjin editors announced, as they did recently, that they were headed towards fully digital publication.
Having said this, it surprises me that in general the poetry book publishers are dragging their heels. Poetry books have always been a hard sell and even with the most modest of print runs, these bound publications rarely make a profit for the publisher or a substantial income for the writer. In 2009, the Australia Council’s Literature Board commissioned the University of Western Sydney to explore the effectiveness, both critical and financial, of our subsidies to Australian publishers between 1995 and 2005. With few exceptions, poetry publishers admitted that they would not survive without some form of subsidy.
As one of our more successful poetry publishers, Susan Hawthorne, commented, “The only titles we made contingent on getting a subsidy were a few poetry titles because making them viable without a subsidy was almost impossible”.
Today, more and more readers, and particularly students of poetry, go straight to the internet for their verse. It’s quicker and easier to enter the name of the poet or a title into your search engine, than to reach for the anthology and go through the index. Yet when Literature Board staff talked to poetry publishers as a follow-up to the UWS research, we found a strong resistance to digital publishing, despite Tranter’s ground-breaking work.
Of all the publishers, it was the poetry sector who believed that there was nothing to replace the touch and smell of a good book. It could be argued of course that poetry is the most aesthetic form of writing and its appreciation carries through to touch and appearance. On the other hand, online poetry publication can be thoughtfully illustrated and presented. Indeed, the establishment of a digital list doesn’t mean that poetry publishers must abandon their standard of excellence, and there is a clear difference between the on-line presentation of conventional poetry and what is now known as digital poetry. Digital poetry, like other forms of digital writing, involves a degree of interactivity where the text is part of a more complex creation that may involve other artforms.
The Literature Board recently introduced a special category within its New Work grants for digital writing. In line with the growth of digital writing and publishing over the past five years, the Board is receiving an increasing number of applications from writers working in this area. It has the challenge of how to assess these projects alongside more traditional writing forms such as the novel or a literary biography. Board members were the first to confess that they didn’t have the necessary experience to isolate excellence in digital writing from the surrounding ‘noise’ of the digital environment.
To help define these merits and set the same standard of excellence in writing demanded from other genres, we called on digital poet Jason Nelson to work with us as a peer assessor of applications. As Jason pointed out,
‘truly innovative and dynamic new media works attempt to use most of the new media/technical aspects as literary texts. For example, the sounds and animation within a digital poem should work with the words as near equal poetic elements. Otherwise what you get is simply some text on the screen with an image backdrop.’
However, in any cross-media work the most important component for the Literature Board remains a strong narrative element and a degree of sophistication in the writing. Narrative strength is essentially the ability of the writer to capture the reader’s interest and engagement. This can be by anything from post-modern disconnection to a straight linear story, and this definition also encompasses poetry. The new national poetry organization, Australian Poetry Limited (APL), is firmly behind the idea that good poetry can take many forms. As an organization, it combines the more traditional membership of the Poets’ Union, with a groundswell of new poets who go to poetry slams and often link their artform to digital media.
It has the challenge of pleasing not only the established and highly-respected poets who make up their core membership, but persuading a new generation of readers that poetry is something that relates to their understanding of what is meant by a work of art. They are accompanied in this by organisations such as the Red Room Company, who have put poems on the side of trucks, on the legs of pigeons and as cargo in merchant ships. And you can see some of this imagination at work in the current poetry exhibition on display at the Australia Council premises.
These different concepts of poetry are part of that old debate on the relationship of so-called ‘heritage’ art to the new media. And in the same way, those of us who prefer the more traditional forms should not be excluded from contemporary debate. The rise of new media in the ‘noughties’ has democratized the arts in many ways. Now you don’t need to know your Bible or the finer points of Greek mythology to read literary fiction or verse; but no-one will blame you if these remain your points of reference. But you can’t have the same relish for the past when it comes to the means of distribution. You can’t un-invent the computer or the e-reader, and writers and publishers who ignore changes in technology will simply be left behind.
Director of Literature
Australia Council for the Arts