Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Making "books" in 2006

In one of my classes, I've been reading Elizabeth J. Eisenstein's The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. It's an incredible book reviewing the social and political implications of the new technology in producing books.

It's almost eerie to be reading this in the current moment because I feel rooted in history in the 1600s and 1700s (which I am woefully ignorant of) that is profoundly resonant today in light of the internet and digital publishing.

One of my primary projects as a poet and writer is to figure out how to get my work out in the world to an audience that will appreciate it and react to it. I've always had the easiest time getting my essays about gay and lesbian life and culture out into the world primarily using our local press and organizational newsletters as the vehicle. It is quite profound, actually, to realize how important local GLBT newspapers and newsletters are to spreading ideas and information among the self-identified group of gay and lesbian people.

Reaching people with poems is more difficult. For example, each article I write for the Washington Blade generates email to me and often letters to the editor whereas I've published more than a couple dozen poems online and in print magazines and rarely receive comments from readers. It may be simply that there are different norms for discourse in the two world. In the political world of readers of GLBT newspapers and newsletters, discourse and reaction are the norm. Often the intent of the piece is to provoke a reaction. Although the provocation remains the same if I look at my writing over the past fifteen years, that is, my intent to provoke is the same, but the delivery of the reaction has been radically transformed. Ten and fifteen years ago, people would either tell me face to face what they thought of my ideas, and quite often of me as a consequence of those ideas, or they would call me on the telephone. Equally, many people never told me what they thought about my writing or ideas, but they shared with other people - friends, colleagues, or, I must assume strangers. Today, most feedback comes to me via email. A quick click on my name and presto--an email address that delivers thoughts, feelings, tirades, to my inbox. Whatever people say, it is always gratifying as a writer to have people talk back to you. Even though my most recent article generated more vitriol than praise, it feels powerful to be able to provoke - anger, rage, or respect. Thus, it is ironic that the writing which to me seems the most obvious and even rote, my essays, my political analysis, provokes the most reaction whereas the writing that is more intentional, even painstaking, is the writing that often provokes no response at all. Still rather than bemoan a situation of perceived declining readers of "fine writing" such as poetry and fiction, I chose to look at it as a challenge of how to reach readers.

That challenge of how to reach readers is both a question that I bring into my writing studio with me, which is to say I think about who will be reading this and how to connect with those readers, and a question that I bring to my submission practices. There is a revolution in the creation and distribution of literary magazines. It is happening on the internet. While the Washington Post can wax nostalgic about the Paris Review in its pages, I would argue that the real revolution is happening online.

I've been involved in a few interesting publishing projects that have a technology component to them. I share them as a way of starting to think about the technology revolution that we are in the midst of and how it is affecting authors and readers. First, and now most familiar, there are a variety of online magazines. My publications in online magazines are here. They demonstrate a wide variety of the online publications that are out there - some are new journals; other older. Some appear to have published only a few issues; others keep at it. Some print only new work; some reprint work from published books. Some use simple web technology; others utilize more cutting edge technology. All are run by people interested and invested in contemporary writing - publishing it and helping it reach an audience.

Second, is a new publication for me in a unique format. Stimulus Respond publishes a bi-monthly "glossy magazine" in the format of a PDF. Filled with pictures and color, it's an impressive object, even though it only exists in its gorgeousness on the screen. They've now published fourteen issues. It's interesting as a reader because I am really taken away by the design; I would even say that I am enamoured with it. That's appealing as a writer, too. It's an honor to have my work, which I labored over, given such a gorgeous package to enter the world. Do I appreciate it more than other online publications? In some ways, yes. There is an immediacy of other web-based publications that I appreciate. It is easy to share a link with friends, for instance, but it is more fleeting, where as this PDF feels hefty - like receiving a copy of the journal in the mail. Almost. Other publications have been using the PDF format - The Midwest Review and Mot Juste. I like the way it combines the distrbution ease of the internet with a "physical" product that feels like something we would encounter in the "offline" world.

Finally, more and more people are using the Print-on-Demand technology to create their own presses. I'm a fan of what the women at No Tell Motel are doing. The website publishes new poets weekly and last year they released their Bedside Guide to the No Tell Motel through Lulu Press, a print on demand publisher. It's a fantastic combination of technology resources to reach readers and writers. Of course, I'm most thrilled that they selected one of my poems for the Second Floor Bedside Guide to be published in January.

This nexus of writers, readers, and technology is one of the overarching themes of my semester, perhaps not by chance as it's a persistent area of interest for me. I was looking at a journal of mine from twelve years ago in which I confess that I want to own my own press like Virgina and Leonard's Hogarth Press. I still want that. It amazes me how little changes across the lifetime.

No comments: