Saturday, August 4, 2018

In Search of Internet Poetry (In Search)

Screen Shot of a Pin on Pinterest Web Site*
So already, next week, the Global Studies Outreach initiative at Harvard will present its annual summer institute for secondary school and community college educators. Like previous summer institutes, The Internet: Tangled Webs, Global Promise hopes to provide institute participants with the opportunity to explore the institute's focus topic from different regional and disciplinary perspectives.  

At one point last spring, several members of the planning group recognized that our plans to date gave short shrift to the arts as means of exploring the internet. How and when were visual artists choosing the internet as a tool, a subject, or both? Our first idea was to find a local internet-centered exhibition or installation. Though we had high hopes for the Institute of Contemporary Art's "Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today" exhibit, we soon concluded that it would not illuminate our topic as much we'd hoped.

Deciding to approach our art deficit literarily, I typed "internet poetry" into the Google search edit box a few days later--and discovered Sam Riviere and Kim Kardashian's Marriage.** I was too fascinated by the idea of this book not to buy it. As Iona McLaren of The Telegraph explained, the subject of the collection is Kim Kardashian's marriage to "the basketballer Kris Humphries, which lasted for 72 days,  . . . . There are 72 poems arranged in chapters named after Kim’s daily cosmetic rites: 'Primer', 'Contour', 'Highlight', 'Powder', 'Blend', 'Shadow', 'Liner', 'Gloss.'"*** You may not be able to make this stuff up, but you still may be able to makeup this stuff.

Things got even more interesting once I had the book in hand. Again and again I reread these sentences from inside the book's jacket:
"His [Riviere's] approach eschews a dependence upon confessional modes of writing to explore what kind of meaning lies in impersonal methods of creation. For, . . ., the process of enquiry involves the composition method itself, this time in poems that have been produced by harvesting and manipulating the results of search engines to create a poetry of part-collage, part-improvisation. The effect is as refractive as it is reflective, . . .."**** 
"Refractive" and "enquiry": those were the two words that most captured my attention. I seemed to be being warned: just when these poems might go deep, I could depend on them to bend--refract--and go wide. Furthermore, I could expect a quality of experimentation to be foregrounded: the poet was signing on to limit himself and his word choice by a research question he was posing: what will be the result if my choices of language and content are dictated by my chosen search engine's algorithms and activity?

And what did all of this have to say about Kim Kardashian? Frankly, I'm not at all sure. But I do know that I liked some of the poetry. It had a quality of randomness that rang true to me. I experience so many people as not only prone to be distracted, but eager to be. It's not that every random stimulus grabs their full attention; if anything, they remind me of myself when I'm intent on cleaning my house but not at all enthusiastic about it: I clean a window sill in the living room, then organize something in bedroom, then decide to de-grunge the kitchen counters under my toaster oven and microwave, then circle back to the living room to clean another window sill. I bounce from things, and so do they.

Just to make some of what I'm saying make some sense, here's the following poem from Kim Kardashian's Marriage, entitled "girlfriend pool":
She wanted to go for a swim          
even though I said 
it was going to be cold.

I was at a cottage.
I spied on my sister
and her girlfriend tanning

after running
last summer.

A few condoms,
a few minor mental issues
courtesy of the weirdos.

We're glad you asked,
It's a way of hanging. (30)****
That's what happens in many of Riviere's poems: the final line or two just brush away something as if it were nothing.

Speaking of changing the subject (kind of), one day while we driving, Scott and I learned that a 2017 Commonwealth Journal show entitled "When Poetry Meets Politics" was going to be rebroadcast the following Sunday on WUMB (UMass Boston radio). Jill McDonough, poet and director of UMass Boston's MFA program, was/would be the featured guest. I decided to listen in.

McDonough explained that over the past few years, she'd been fascinated by Americans' propensities to spend so much of their lives in front of screens, to admire "shiny, new technology"--such as drones, and to believe that patriotic behavior often involves some level of secrecy.

McDonough's interests led her to do google research and face-to-face interviews with drone pilots--and to write a villanelle entitled "Twelve Hour Shifts" [Note: Be sure to scroll down to read the last six lines of the poem on the page linked here]. Discussing her choice of poetic form on Commonwealth Journal,  McDonough explained, "If you can find the right form, you've got a head start." She elaborated on her need for a poetic form characterized by repetition in the "About This Poem" feature on the web page (click where it says "<more").
“Our secretive drone policy made me think a lot about drone pilots, which led me to read everything I could find from pilots’ perspectives. Real pilots like Brandon Bryant and Matt J. Martin, and fictional ones like those in Omer Fast’s film 5000 Feet is the Best and George Brant’s play Grounded. I was struck by the repetitive, tedious, stressful work they do watching perceived enemies from our killer robot planes, in a whole new way of war. The villanelle, with its looping repetition, felt like a good fit for the experience of weaving in and out of the work piloting UAVs over the desert in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and places we don’t talk about, then driving through the desert in Nevada to go home before your next shift.”*******
The line that gets repeated multiple times in "Twelve Hour Shifts" is "A drone pilot works a twelve-hour shift, then goes home." A very old poetic form chosen to represent a very contemporary phenomenon and the kind of contemporary life associated with it: I love it.

Screen shot of Project Zero web site home page
McDonough views poems as documentary as well as art--hence her commitment to online and offline research. Her Commonwealth comment about the poetry's function in her own politically motivated learning process reminded me of Project Zero's Teaching for Understanding framework's performance view of understanding: "Creating something that I think is beautiful in its sound or in its image helps me be sure that I've understood the materials I've been confronting."

For both McDonough and Riviere, poetry is related to inquiry and consciousness-raising about the technologies that are much shaping our world and world views, maybe even our psyches. 

The day I shared my internet poetry "research" with our summer institute planning group, a member of our group remarked that a recent Poem-A-Day email she'd received featured a poem about the internet. Rachel Richardson's "Questions" is about what "we" search for--those things that we can both find and not find--on the web. In laying out what some of our most-asked questions are, Richardson raises the topic of not only what questions the internet can't help us answer, but what questions we ask it frequently and "successfully"--and what they tell us about ourselves and our lives.
If we want to
   know what 
   percentage of
   America is 
(as it seems
   we do)
what percen-
   tage of the
   is gay
(as it seems
    we do)
what percen-
   tage of the
   earth is water;
the engine is
   ready for our 
But as "ready for our desire" as that Google search engine may be, it can't always deliver. When Richardson's narrator praises the "goddess of the internet search" a few lines later, she does so ironically: no internet search can tell her "where are you now," nor can it compel "you" to "come back" if only to reply to the "things I wanted to ask you." The internet can't help us find the missing pieces of our hearts; furthermore, our latest inquiries into Kim Kardashian's life won't fill the void we feel, though they may help us pass time.

But that doesn't mean that the internet isn't a great place to find poetry, and poetry can help us heal our hearts. When asked by the moderator of Commonwealth Journal where she finds exciting new poetry, Jill McDonough named Facebook as a great source of "fresh work"--because many contemporary poets post links not only to their own new work, but to that of other poets whom they admire, creating "a living, breathing network of the poets who matter to you."

For the last couple of months, I've been spending time with The Poetry Porch,********* an online literary magazine edited by Joyce Wilson, who runs the monthly poetry discussion group at the Scituate Town Library. I'm especially drawn to its "Sonnet Scroll" feature. If it weren't for the internet, where I've found McDonough's thoughts about villanelles and Wilson's sonnet scrolls, I probably wouldn't be thinking about--and enjoying thinking about--the relationship between poetic form and content. 

Like Wilson, McDonough chooses to share others' as well as her own poems. In fact, the poem she left listeners with in the final moments of Commonwealth Journal was not her own. Instead, she read "The Capacity of Speech" by Austin Smith. I loved it, and it had nothing to do with the internet, but everything to do with human nature.

If it's one thing the internet has to teach about poetry, it's that poetry is alive and well as a genre and that many people love to read it, listen to it, and write it. What poetry has to teach about the internet--well, that's something I'm still trying to figure out. I think my next move will be to read Sam Riviere's 81 Austerities. The critics say it's a less obscure than Kim Kardashian's Marriage, but it's still much concerned with the effects of the internet on our lives. Stay tuned!

* eNursePulse. (n.d.). Poetry ~ A Blessing. Retrieved August 03, 2018, from
* Screen shot of an image on Sam Riviere's web site:
*** McLaren, I. (2015, March 06). Kim Kardashian's Marriage by Sam Riviere, review: 'great wit'. Retrieved August 03, 2018, from 
**** Riviere, S. (2015). Kim Kardashian's marriage. London: Faber & Faber. 
***** Screen shot of collage poem in the following blog: Curran, D. (n.d.). How to create collage poetry [Web log post]. Retrieved August 03, 2018, from 
*(6) Screen shot of image on this site: 
*(7) McDonough, J. (2017, March 13). Twelve-Hour Shifts. Retrieved August 03, 2018, from (Web site of the Academy of American Poets)
*(8) Richardson, R. (2018, June 15). "Questions". Retrieved August 04, 2018, from (Web site of the Academy of American Poets)
*(9) Wilson, J. (n.d.). Poetry Porch. Retrieved August 04, 2018, from