I want to comment briefly on a special phenomenon I’ve seen and experienced with regard to Ron Silliman‘s blog. It seems that to some degree, poetry’s youth is being trampled, discouraged and undermined with a potential long-term detrimental effect on Poetry.
First I want to point out that Silliman’s blog is not, in and of itself, the problem. Silliman does the Good Work of discussing, reviewing, pointing to, and otherwise engaging with some three generations of living poets– everyone from the the last remaining elders (over 70) to Language and Post-Language poets to us more fledgling poets (in our 30s) and our juniors (those just emerging from college). He can’t write about everything, but he does try to assemble and disperse information about poetry and he comments in depth when he can. One can disagree on a scholarly level with the way he engages with poetry– everyone has their own interests and ways of engaging, and Silliman has been criticized, for instance, for inventing names for “movements” and “groups” of poets that don’t necessarily exist or accurately describe poems. But overall, Silliman’s blog is undeniably a major and constant source of information about experimental poetry.
The problems with Silliman’s blog and its effect on contemporary poetry are in the comment boxes. Now, as we all know, comment boxes are notorious for being a place where a few self-appointed “experts” on any subject can whack off listening to their own voices. Comment boxes are more often frequented by men, and they’re usually angry, aggressive men looking for an argument. This is true everywhere on the internet, not just on poetry blogs. A few years ago, Silliman’s comment boxes were especially poisonous; I’m not entirely sure what changed, but they seem to be less active now. However, when active, they are still poisonous.
To be reviewed or simply mentioned by Silliman is double-edged. On the one hand, even a mention can increase web traffic and sales. On the other hand, a positive mention brings furious backlash, both in the comments box and in other venues. I experienced this when Silliman reviewed Organic Furniture Cellar. On the one hand, Silliman was probably single-handedly responsible for selling about 200 copies of the book in a short period after the review came out. On the other hand, in both his comment stream and in other reviews, people seemed irrationally angry about Silliman’s review and turned their fury on me instead of on the book. I know it sounds wimpy and whiny (to such people) to say this, but the experience has made me disengage with the poetry community (not write, not publish, not participate actively in a wider conversation). When newbies to the blog/poetry scene show up fresh-faced, craving a few words of positive feedback or attention, I want to warn them about just how awful people can be. If you succeed at all, even in one person’s eyes, you’ve unwittingly set yourself up as an object of cruelty. It’s like the cyber-bullying one reads about high schoolers enacting upon each other, but in the case of poetry and Silliman’s blog specifically, the bullies are grown people who, through some lack of ability to empathize, will lash out at anyone who receives attention they think they themselves should be getting.
I am not, of course, the only person who has experienced this with Silliman’s blog, and although I am not in any way “authorized” to defend two other objects of comment box wrath, I will. The less recent example regards Amish Trivedi’s Museum of Vandals, published by Cannibal Books. The gist of the criticism was that the format of Museum, a folio designed by Cannibal Books, was an inadequate way of showcasing the work. Like most small press publishers, especially chapbook publishers, the Cannibal Books editors spend an inordinate amount of their own time and money designing and hand-making their wares. Like most young publishers, these editors do not publish because they have scads of money and time to spend on pet projects; they do it out of a love and need to publish poetry. (I cannot stress enough how important chapbook and zine publishers are to the growth of experimental writing and how much time, money, and effort go into publishing a single issue or single chapbook. If you are not such a publisher, you have no right to complain about anything related to publishing. If you think something ought to be done differently, do it yourself– with your own time, money and sweat.)
Like most publishers, Cannibal Books has faced its share of diva poets and criticism, the kind of whiny self-indulgent bullshit that poets seem particularly likely to inflict upon their editors. So I cannot say that the negative public commentary on Silliman’s comment box was the last straw. But I imagine that it was probably a contributing factor to the message that now, sadly, heads their blog:
Cannibal no longer takes submissions of any kind and will complete the books it has in its catalog before disbanding at the end of 2010.
Although the Cannibal editors will probably continue to be active on other projects, the death of Cannibal as a publishing platform is a substantial loss for poetry. Besides celebrating the work of their elders, the publishers have printed the works of many fledgling poets and have been at the forefront of introducing the world to these younger voices.
The more recent example of the negative effect of Silliman’s blog stems from his recent review of Joseph Massey’s work. Silliman’s attempt to favorably review Massey’s poetry and place it in a larger critical context is admirable; even if one disagrees with the critical commentary, one cannot fault Silliman for reading and thinking critically about the poetry (one can only hope for such a reader). But some of the comments, which are largely from Silliman’s usual suspects, are positively putrid, and reflect very poorly on their authors.
Let’s keep in mind, however, that most of Silliman’s usual suspects are simply (and possibly clinically) narcissistic sociopaths and that there’s no real point in engaging with them or acknowledging their (usually insipid and underinformed) claims. The real problem is how their commentaries affect their object, who in this case is Massey. Good poets are a sensitive, melancholic people– not to reinforce a stereotype, but we have to be sensitive in order to be observant in new, interesting ways. To be the object of unmerited scorn and immature but hurtful comments (that are evidently made by those with little experience with the work itself) is psychologically detrimental to a poet, as it would be to anyone with a modicum of respect for other human beings. I’m not saying that Massey’s reaction to such commentary would be as extreme as mine, but I do think that no one escapes unscathed from these brutal and inhumane comment box wars. If a talented young poet like Massey is turned off of writing for even a few days or weeks as a result of being skewered by a few robotic-hearted cyberbullies, even that brief interlude is a loss for Poetry.
Something that Massey, Cannibal and I have in common is that we are all fairly young, relatively unknown operatives in the poetry world. Like all young poets, we need and deserve the occasional positive or constructive feedback, and we are discouraged from doing our work by such floods of negative feedback. Although an apocalyptic statement such as “Silliman’s comment boxes may silence an otherwise important group of upcoming young poets” may seem hyperbolic, I worry that it isn’t.