“I cannot see any basic difference between a handshake and a poem”
Once upon a time I had a personal blog. I kept it for 7 or 8 years, until 2007. A combination of paranoia (constant talk in academia that potential employers and peers would always judge you negatively if you had a blog where you shared personal work) and the rise of Twitter made me reconsider the purpose of personal blogging, so I decided to close it down (I did not just delete everything; I exported and kept everything as XML files).
I see that era as a key period in my professional development as a writer, communicator, researcher and teacher. In that now-defunct blog I developed the poetic work (and the publishing contacts and readership) for several (printed) poetry books. I also acquired considerable experience and skills to write confidently and to be fluent in (X)HTML and CSS, which enable blogs to be. I also learned that loyal audiences are built through respectful and active engagement, and that a text only has a purpose if it is read, shared, discussed, in turn generating other texts, and sometimes not only audiences, but friendships and professional partnerships along the way.
I look back to those past days mainly with nostalgia, as some sort of salad days when we were learning the basics. Nevertheless, the fact that mainstream culture’s stubbornness in denying the cultural contribution of blogging prevails is proof to me that what we were discussing years ago is still relevant and is not simply something that we have left in the past.
Below I’m sharing with you an abridged version of a post I originally published on the 31st January 2008. By Internet standards it is a very old post. In the words of James O’Donell, “I am no longer the person I was when I wrote [it], but I am still somehow [its] author” (1998:41). Please remember this was 1998…
Throughout my years as an active participant of the blogosphere I have met very seriously interesting individuals. I use the verb to meet in the previous sentence without quotation marks or italics because that’s one of the magnificent things about blogging: it’s not just about reading and writing, writing and reading, but about deconstructing the opposition between presence and absence.
To be present, and therefore to meet is redefined by blogging. In a way, bloggers are freed from physical and geopolitical constraints and through multimedia communication traditional absence becomes not only presence, but encounter. Perhaps that Levinasian “entre nous” that John Bloomberg-Rissman referred to in a poem.
I have been lucky enough to meet offline (IRL, as they say) people I had previously only met online, through their work. Some others I have never met outside the blogosphere but it feels as if I did know them in person, even though I am pretty much aware this is only an illusion. And then there are those who blog and whom I met way before any of us dreamed of blogs.
What I think groups all this people together, all bloggers, all from different ages, gender and backgrounds, is that none of them represents the simplistic bipolar debate of “this will kill that”.
Many poet bloggers use their blogs as online notebooks and sketchbooks, live, open laboratories where their work is an everyday thing and is read and discussed by tens, dozens, hundreds, thousands of readers. So it does not seem to me, anywhere, that there are writers out there who truly see the digital/print relationship as an opposition. Many of them (including myself) have even published printed books (yes, “real” paper-based publications) out of the material we post on our blogs, often using online print-on-demand resources.
Still, most ‘traditional’ media seems both fascinated and anguished about the relationship between blogging and “literature”. In the 24 January 2008 issue of the London Review of Books, Thomas Jones writes:
Books and blogs, if they’re doing their jobs properly, are as different as two kinds of published text can be. For one thing, creating a book takes many months, not to say years, and the process requires the participation of a whole chain of people besides the writer: commissioning editors, copy-editors, typesetters, proofreaders, printers, distributors, booksellers etc. A blogger can have an unedited post up on the web and available to readers within minutes of the idea popping into his head. A blog is non-linear, always unfinished, ever open. It can be indefinitely added to, rewritten, cut from, commented on. But more than that, a blog should be dense with hyperlinks, sending the reader off into the blogosphere and the rest of the internet along a chain of endlessly forking paths. That may well sound like your idea of a nightmare, which is just one of the many reasons the internet isn’t going to make books obsolete anytime soon.
Publishing an anthology of blogs in book form, then, would appear to make about as much sense as broadcasting Singin’ in the Rain on the wireless: you’d still get to hear Donald O’Connor singing ‘Make ’em Laugh’, but it’s not quite the same if you can’t see him walking along the piano keys, dancing with the headless dummy and running up the walls. But that hasn’t stopped Sarah Boxer, a former New York Times reporter, from putting together a collection called Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks from the Wild Web (Vintage, $14.95) – on the face of it, an early contender for most pointless book of the year.
It’s funny Jones should think of “a nightmare” to be sent to different places of the blogosphere. Is he, I wonder, the type of reader who gets distracted by footnotes and blibliographies? Is he the type of reader that only needs the book he is reading in order to read that book? Hasn’t it been explained enough already how reading is always inter and hyper textual, even if all we read is paper-based material?
But beside this point, what’s interesting here is the reviewer’s need to distinguish blogs from books, to define what’s the ‘proper job’ of books and blogs and to prove the ‘pointlessness’ of a blog-turned-book. Just recently, my friend Pablo left a comment on this blog with a link to mathematician’s Terence Tao’s blog, where he explains the process of making a book out of his blog posts. A professor of the Department of Mathematics at UCLA, Tao exemplifies with his work an attitude towards technology that other people in the humanities, like most poets in my blogroll on this blog, also share: writers of the present do not need to oppose books to blogs, print to electronic media. They are true technoliterati.
But some people can’t see that. Media loves oversimplifications. It has to be the light versus the dark side, good versus evil, God versus the infidels, us versus them. Bob Thompson, from The Washington Post, offered a staple of this black-and-white view of the debate:
The clash is between what you might call the technorati and the literati. The technorati are thrilled at the way computers and the Internet are revolutionizing the world of books. The literati fear that, amid the revolutionary fervor, crucial institutions and core values will be guillotined.
This so-called clash is nowhere to be seen in the people I read and link to. A blog does not have to be, necessarily, “dense with hyperlinks”. (And supposing it is, hyperlinks can be easily translated to print using references. It will never be the same, but that’s translation for you). Even if a given post contains no hyperlinks in the body of its text, it has a permalink; the blog has a URL. Blogs are really useful tools for writers interested in publishing on paper. Writers who blog see both realms, print and digital, as related, different, but not opposed to each other.
The essence of reading and writing is that it can be indefinitely added to, rewritten, cut from, commented on. Texts and authors that overtly call for ‘finished products’ tend to be authoritarian, closed-up, deaf; they are often conservative because they wish to maintain the privilege of the non-ammendable status quo, rejecting the insight of difference and otherness. Built upon the notion of the hyperlink, a protocol whose essence is interconnection, blogging is mostly about engagement (enchaînement). Perhaps not all, but certainly many writers of the digital age, engaged in reciprocal, rhyzomatic hyperlinking, conceive their activity as a meeting: a handshake, an embrace.