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Something to Write Home About
_____hosted by Peter Howard
Writing can be a lonely occupation, yet paradoxically writers must draw on whatever and whoever is around them
for the stuff of their writing. And although writers are often champions of language and the way it is used,
their own use of language must also be influenced by the ways those around them use it; if they want to communicate, that is.
For an increasing number of writers, their environment includes the Internet, and the people around them include those who,
irrespective of geographical location or national identity, communicate via email and the World Wide Web. I wanted to examine to
what extent using the Internet affects what writers write, and how they write it. Will cultural and national influences be diluted
by this new medium, or are they sufficiently engrained to be impervious to it? If there are effects, will they enrich writing
by extending shared experiences, or enfeeble it by the imposition of a uniformity of language?
I was fortunate enough to be able to explore these topics with five perceptive and eloquent writers...
Douglas Barbour is the author of many books of poetry, including Visible Visions: Selected Poems (1984) & Story for a Saskatchewan
Night(1989). His criticism includes monographs on Canadian poets, John Newlove, Daphne Marlatt, & bpNichol, science fiction writer
Samuel R. Delany, & Michael Ondaatje (Twayne 1993). More of Mr. Barbour's work can be found online at Poetries of Canada -- a
special edition of The East Village Poetry Web.
Liz Forbes has trailed her husband as he is seconded by his multinational employer. She has three children and is presently living in
base camp on the east coast of Scotland, In the past fifteen years she has lived for three years in each of New Zealand, the U.S.A and England, and for a
year and a bit in Japan and over four in Scotland.
Danny Huppatz is a writer & artist living in Melbourne, Australia. In 1996 he founded TEXTBASE, a collective of writers who work in
contemporary art spaces and publish a regular journal of experimental writing. His creative writing is rarely sighted in Australian
and international magazines.
Jeffrey Alfier currently lives in Germany, holds an MA in Humanities (California State University, 1990), and has served as an
adjunct faculty member for City Colleges of Chicago - European Division. In addition, he is a member of the Society for Historians of
American Foreign Relations, and Phi Kappa Phi. His previous publishing credits - outside of professional journals - include
'Nieve Roja Review' (Colorado State University), 'Poetry Magazine', 'Pyrowords', 'Coffee Time Blues',
'Poetfest', 'Poetic Express', and 'Sauce*Box'.
Anne Berkeley lives in Cambridge, England. She has published widely in magazines, and in a pamphlet, The Buoyancy Aid and
Other Poems (Flarestack, 1997. She has also contributed a hypertext poem to Kettle's Yard Diarise website project.
1. How far and in what ways do questions of national or geographical
identity affect your poems and those of others you've read?
Why not begin with a hard one? Once I would have
'known' how to answer this easily, but now I'm not so sure. I do identify as a Canadian writer on some level,
yet I no longer know exactly what I mean by that. Something to do with how 'we' (Canadians as I understand them) see ourselves
in the world. On the other hand, having visited New Zealand & Australia a number of times, I find many areas of overlap in our
still somewhat differing senses of national self. But a lot of interesting interlocking aspects of the writing from the 3 countries,
all of which share a history of settlement, etc. There are some famous Canadian poems that expressly take up the national
and/or the geographical. But, especially as the century (& the country) aged, this kind of clear identification has become
less important. Still, I would argue that geography has played a definite role in my writing, indeed, in my whole aesthetic.
Raised on the prairies & having returned to them some 30 years ago, I have spent most of my life interacting with what many people
see as a landscape (or landspace) that is rather boring in its sameness. But, precisely because the changes in that landspace are
so small, I have developed a love of the minimal which affects my response to art & music as well as writing. Small changes can be
really exciting to me. I see something of the same thing in other prairie writers (but not all: one cannot make any grand theories
out of this feeling). The thing about Canada (& I would suspect Australia) is that these are huge countries, with just about every
possible geography somewhere in them: thus a clear connection between 'a' geography & 'the' nation just doesn't exist. Yet, if only
because I have read, studied, & taught Canadian literature, I have an emotional investment in it, & a knowledge that few outside
the country can have. There are students of Canadian literature in many countries now, but a lot of our best writing still has
not been published outside of small presses in Canada, & therefore has not reached an international audience (Phyllis Webb,
one of our finest poets, indeed [in my opinion] one of the finest writing in English in the past half-century, is almost
wholly unknown outside Canada, although (see below) some of us have been promoting her over the net...).
I suppose I think my writing doesn't have a national accent - but then I don't think I speak with an accent either although most
people seem to be able to guess my nationality the first time they hear me speak. We are inseparable, me, myself and our
nationality. I'd divide others in to two groups - those whose native tongue is English and those whom I've read only in translation.
With the former, I'd say yes, their writing is of their nationality as it is of any part of their personality but it affects
writers in different ways - some are overtly Irish or whatever but others don't talk about their geographical origin/location
but are just of it. With writers I've read in translation, I am much vaguer - a reflection of my knowledge of non-English speaking
countries - Paz, Neruda, Borges have a magic for me that is foreign, but ask me to be more precise?
As far as my own writing goes, I used to cut & paste a lot of material from mass media sources - international
news & events etc - but have recently been interested in focusing intensely on particular geographic locations, tracing the
various histories (written & suppressed) that run through a place I've lived in or visited. In that sense it's particularly
Australian in that I've been researching Australian history, but trying to trace "other" Australian histories that run through
I agree with what Douglas was saying about Australia & Canada being so vast that any easy geographical identification is
difficult (in the way that poets from Scandinavia are always described as "icy" or "cold" - gee that must be annoying for
them) and yet national identity is something that's hard to get away from. I guess you grow up learning a "national" tradition,
and in the case of Australian literature, a tradition that's little known outside Australia. It's also a tradition that seems
to be insecure in its relations to the perceived centres of English poetry - England and the U.S. The centre/periphery problem
is one that seems to be still around - that is, the centres (New York, London) set the pace, the margins follow but will always
necessarily be "behind". With the flow of information one way, the best chance you have for global coverage on the margin is to
produce a kind of international poetry "with an Australian accent". I think Australian culture in general still suffers from
the "cultural cringe" - the idea that culture comes from the U.S. or Europe & anything produced here must be second-rate.
But having said that, I think the search for particularly national traits is a little pointless - it brings up the idea of
"imagined communities". I think some of the most exciting writing in Australia is being produced by people who are in some sense
"outside" the mainstream white Anglo culture - poets such as Ania Walwicz, PiO, Ouyang Yu, Lionel Fogerty - whose work often
provides an implicit critique of simple notions of national identity and stereotypes.
I write with Western perceptions, which I think is a somewhat inescapable feature. This would incorporate certain
moral, cultural, and ideological perceptions, although I would be careful about categorizing 'Western.' Like the problematic of
defining 'Canadian' -- as discussed above -- some categories are too vast and beg stereotyping or generalized taxonomy.
My recent poem, 'Anthem for the Snare of the Fowler' was constructed using grist from reports of the World Health Organization,
CNN News, religious organizations, and UN extracts. In short, for the sake of good historiography, I try to do my homework,
and 'weed out' if you will, sources that are biased (then again such sources may be selectively veridical at times, and hence of
I hadn't seriously considered how 'English' my own poetry was, until I was invited to take part in a netcast. Until then,
my work hadn't been read by anyone outside England, except for the occasional Australian, Irish or American already publishing
here and well-accustomed to English noises. The thought that it could conceivably be read elsewhere brought me up short:
suddenly it all seemed very parochial, and probably many of my references would be baffling. Would an American know what a
Goldcrest is? Would an Australian know about houses being requisitioned in WWII? Would a Canadian have ever used the Eurostar?
So on a really basic level of subject matter, it would seem that yes, my writing is affected by location: I tend to write
about the things I'm familiar with and my poetry tends to assume a reader is familiar with those things too. In fact, it often
concerns itself precisely with a de-familiarisation of those things. But that is not a national or even linguistic
particularity - it's a question of geography.
As far as nationality is concerned, I'm aware in my own work of the allegedly English vice of being tight-lipped, avoiding
the embarrassment of emotion or sentiment. 'Understated' is a term of praise in popular English criticism. 'Emotional' is not.
I'd like to resist that a bit, just to see what it's like. My writing doesn't concern itself with English nationality - that
isn't important to me. My father is an Australian who lived most of his life in England before emigrating to France and taking
French citizenship. I consider myself European, English-speaking, western, liberal, literate, female &c and all these and other
assumptions must permeate my writing though I'm unlikely to be aware of them all myself.
Linguistically - as opposed to politically - I relish being English. I don't feel at home in any other language, though I can get
by in French, and have translated bits of that and others. Differences of language, the demands and opportunities of those
differences, are what I tend to notice in reading French, rather than issues of nationality per se.
As for other writers, yes, you can spot the Irishness of Seamus Heaney or Brendan Kennelly a mile off, because that concerns
them and they write about it. Les Murray usually but not always 'sounds' Australian. Peter Porter hardly ever does... Like Liz
I enjoy the foreignness of work I read in translation...I suspect these traits are easier to spot in other people's writing than
in one's own. (how much of an essay do you want?)
2. Does using the Internet, with its absence of national or geographic boundaries, affect the way you write, the language you
use, the subjects you choose?
It has certainly brought me into contact with many writers elsewhere whom I might never have otherwise 'met.'
Since I continue to learn from everyone whose work I admire, it has, in terms of new influences, had its effect. Canada has
always been known as a country of people who lead the way in communication technologies, so I think 'we' have always reached
out beyond our boundaries in various ways. certainly, I do so with pleasure & for artistic gain. I think the Internet has
affected some of the subjects I choose. I am something of a 'poor fool' on the technology, so thus far I have not learned
enough about how to use that technology to have started writing differently (no 'hypertext' yet).
Decidedly the internet has affected my writing - it's made me write more because it has brought me in to contact
with other writers on a more regular basis. It has affected my style of writing - a transatlantic prose with the grammar of
speech has developed. But I think for the most part my vocabulary remains unchanged, along with my spellings. My poetry has
changed more to accord to the tastes of the writers I've met, but I've seen that happen in writers' groups where we were all
of the same nationality.
Like Douglas & Liz, I've found the internet invaluable for making connections with writers around the world &
for opening up opportunities for my work that would not have existed before. I run a writing collective called TEXTBASE &
we've got a website with many of the art projects & writing we've done - a documentation & promotional tool that can reach a
much bigger audience than we could just here in Melbourne.
But I find the idea of the internet as completely free of national & geographic boundaries a little problematic - after all,
aren't most of the internet users in the world from the U.S. & most of the sites? But then again perhaps a better way of
thinking about the net is in terms of capitalism - it's certainly a tool of the affluent West. I was recently in Vietnam for
a month & was surprised to see so many internet cafes - not set up for the local people (who couldn't afford to use them) but
for the Western tourists. I think it does break down certain national & geographical boundaries but for "global communication"
I always read "affluent Western communication".
That said, as far as affecting the way I write, no I don't think it has. I've dabbled with hypertext but in the end I think
I write for the printed page.
The internet is heuristic, but I'd be careful in handling the information. Of course as adult writers, probably none
of us are taken-in by everyone out there who creates a webpage. I recently read an excellent article from a women's website
that discussed 'internet identities', which brought up some of these issues: what is genuine, and what are the 'masks' we
wear? (a la Shakespeare, or Oscar Wilde).
Secondly, let me speak to the issue of topic selection. I would say the internet helps quite a bit, as long as there is an
academic quality to the information out there. For instance, look up Poe. here, one will find a website from the Washington
State University English Department, one listing papers by students of the US Naval Academy, and many others by fans of the
man's dark or gory features, having little interest in comparative literature. Of course I don't begrudge 'fans' their surface
level interest simply because they are not history or English majors...it's just that sometimes the information on internet
websites can prove chimerical.
In my interests, the internet as a research tool waxes and wanes between vital adjunct and sole source. Sometimes it's simply
a matter of using an internet encyclopedia for a fundamental datum, but at other times I must research a topic to be a little
more comprehensive, to ensure that I have my terms straight. Last month I wrote a short poem with a Sufi mythical theme, but I
took several hours on the internet researching the topic in order to set the context and subsequently inscribe the mystical
themes or terms.
No. I'm not sufficiently a netizen yet. (No-one really uses that word, do they?) The 'poor fool' - c'est moi. I don't use
the net for research. But I too have dabbled in hypertext, and it won't be the last time. Most people who read my stuff are
not net users, and so I'd resist the tug of netlanguage, probably even in hypertext poems, unless I wanted the poem to comment
on that language itself. Having said that, I am conscious of using a different writing style in emails from ordinary letters.
3. Do you think better communications will affect poetry generally, or will any influence be confined largely to a minority
of poets and other writers?
Hard to say. There are so many sites with so many different 'poetics' at work. But I suspect that many people tend to visit
those which most fully support their beliefs, their poetic ideologies. I am as guilty of this as anyone: I have checked out
some zines, read a few poems, found them not to my taste & passed on. On the other hand, I return to Jacket, for example,
regularly. It is interesting that so much 'poetry' is being published on the net, but I wonder how many of the writers are
really learning from a wide range of poetries, or simply continuing to write the same old way for a wider version of their
same old audience. I do not know. Certainly, the potential to affect writers is high. Will it be realized? There are other
ways of achieving an international impact: a few years ago Phyllis Webb was invited to festivals in both Australia & New
Zealand. I am not sure how she was received in Australia, but in New Zealand, she was a revelation. I was there the following
year and many poets told me how her work had excited them. Indeed, in her third, & I think fabulous,
book, Water, Leaves, Stones, Dinah Hawken wrote a sequence of poems strongly influenced, as she says in her notes, by
Phyllis Webb's Water and Light: Ghazals and Anti-ghazals. For bibliophiles such as me, this speaks to an older form of
connection and influence that I still warm to.
I do. We have more writers at a local level and more interest in poetry events. I wonder though if speech usurps
the written word on the internet, poetry will retrench - but perhaps it would actually be more attractive to those who like
to perform their poetry. Really I think we are seeing a cyclical resurgence of interest in poetry, but long may it last.
Like Douglas, I'd say it's hard to say at this stage. I think people are still learning how to interact in
cyberspace. On a couple of the poetry mailing lists I've noticed a lot of misunderstandings that are merely due to the
fact that email is quite a new & different form of communication (tone - irony, sarcasm, etc, is hard to pick). So I think
internet communications are not necessarily "better" - different, faster maybe, but not better. But back to poetry I think
there are some interesting hypertext projects out there & a few writers starting to use the language & forms of hypertext in
printed work too. Again, I think these comments need to be located in the affluent West, at least for the moment.
Better communications will positively affect poetry. The internet -- to borrow a term from Baudelaire -- is as seductive as
fallen angels. For one, its speed and accessibility (speaking with a Western bias) simply makes its transmission potential
incremental, especially through e-mail. Even journals that still require hard copies of literary submissions to be sent through
the postal mail have websites listing their requirements and addresses. Having this info, one loads his Word program and begins
printing, subsequently heading to the post office. In other cases, submissions are accepted on-line. I cannot descry the minds
of all potential editors out there as to why they prefer one method or the other. Suffice it to say that most accept hard copies
only, which may prove best for their editorial reviewing process. As to other communication media, the fax machine is also kin
to the internet in the case of speed.
Now -- having said that, I would enjoin Danny's cautions regarding tone, etc. in electronic communications. Sometimes I find
myself, in normal day-to-day email communication, circumscribing my writing to eliminate perceived nuances. This often results
in overstating the case on a particular issue.
'Poetry generally' is such a huge baggy concept. It should include everything outside the net as well. I just hope that the
definition of poetry - what's worth reading and writing and talking about - doesn't become concentrated solely in the hands of
people who use the net. There's other stuff out there, and something primitive in me wants it to escape.... On the whole, it's
healthy to have a lot of different types of poetry available. There was a time when what got published in UK seemed predictably
joined-up writing with a justified left hand margin. In the 60s Penguin started their 'Modern European Poets' series of
translations. I think that had a huge influence on younger writers in the UK. And thanks to enlightened publishers, in the
past 10 or 20 years, the readership for US poetry in the UK has expanded enormously ... you can see the effects in sloppy
imitations of O'Hara (we're sometimes way behind the times) Ashbery, Olds - (I'm talking printed page, now) - and also a
greater willingness to experiment. The good thing is that with the Internet, interesting work can find its way round the
world instantly on personal recommendations. The exciting thing is that experimental/controversial/unpopular stuff isn't
going to have to depend on finding a publisher. The hard thing will be for the ordinary browsing reader to find any poetry
on the net that's going to engage attention for more than a gnat's blink. Cue for a gateway, and gatekeepers...
4. Will increased availability of international communications affect the language we use? How could this be a good and/or bad
thing for poetry?
Oh, it will, it will. I think of all the cyberpunk novels I read & their generally bleak but often energized visions of how the
net will eventually make peons of us all. But the writing itself is so energetic & sharp that even that dark vision has an edge
of odd glory about it. As with most such technological advances, the results will be both good and bad, depending. I guess we'll
have to wait to see what kind of 'writing' emerges from the generation that grows up 'reading' only the web, never braking the
spine of a book, always reacting to pixels, light, etc. Then remembering that there will always be a few throwbacks who actually
still love books, whose sense of their own 'literacy' will be 'bookish' thus relegating them to the past in which I still live,
I guess I think that (even as today) there will continue to be such a wide variety of reading & writing habits it will be
impossible to reach a firm conclusion about the good and/or bad effects on whatever it is we define as 'poetry.'
Douglas has made me really smile. I am the total throwback - a well-bound book draws me in and holds me by the
feel of the paper... He is right too on the language - and I have to say I like it very much - it has an energy and freshness.
I hope that survives and prospers.
I agree with Douglas that it certainly will affect language. My worry is that international communications might
simplify & formalise language further. That would be a bad thing for poetry. But then at the same time it could open up further
possibilities - the link between images & words seems to be to be one that the internet is perfect for exploring & extending. &
if you throw in hypertext with sound & moving pictures too, perhaps pure printed poetry as such will become rarer in a
multi-media environment where the possibilities for linking artforms are really exciting.
Although the link between imagery and words could prove a pleasing literary and artistic synergy, I think print journals
will always be with us (thankfully). However, I think we will find that when available, people will download more of what meets
their particular interests and discard the rest. We do that now with on-line journals. Of course this is nothing new; formerly
we photocopied only the hard print articles that met our needs. As for printed media, no printer paper has the ineluctable
draw -- as Liz brings out -- of a bound book. For me, curling up before the fireplace on a winter night with a computer or
downloaded excerpt presents a certain vacuous image akin to 'diet sex' if you will.
If we carefully use the best websites out there we can reap the benefits of positive enhancements, such as the proper
use of terminology or the advice of on-line experts. For poetry, the technology of the internet presents a mixed blessing
potential: good for transmission of our submissions to journals, or the possibility of downloading poems by our favorite
poets (I recently found the entire edition of Sandburg's 'Chicago Poems'). On the other hand, despite the volume and
quality potentials, we will find the specious out there as well, such as poetry scams and their associated proliferation
of vanity publishing.
There is a difficult balance to be struck between being considerate to the reader and tending to linguistic homogeneity.
Personally, I'm grateful to writers like Tom Leonard (who writes in Glaswegian dialect), Stephen Knight (who uses Welsh
dialects), Derek Walcott and other Caribbean writers... for demonstrating that it's worth the effort to overcome heterography
and get the ear in for the accent, and that there are readers prepared to make the effort. It's good to have a glossary
sometimes, but with these examples, I'm encouraged that one can honour one's own version of the mother tongue without
alienating serious readers. And with the widely spoken and documented dialect of English that I speak and write I feel
more confident that I can say what I want to say, and what the poem wants to say.
5. Is it true that American English is becoming a common language of the Internet? What are the good and bad points about this?
I don't know, is it? I would suspect that this is so, but the feedback effect is probably affecting American
English almost as much as it is affecting others. Whatever the 'common language' of the Internet is becoming (& I suspect that
it will always be becoming in that sense, always be in a process of growth & change), it is becoming more international even
as certain national tongues appear to be most powerful in influence. If American English is becoming the common language, it
is more because it is already the common language of science & technology. A more interesting question, therefore, might be:
are the various lingos of science & tech becoming ever more a part of the languages of poetry? And, if they are, is that not,
at least partly, through the power of the Net? I do worry that certain kinds of language, especially technical dialects of
English, are creating limits more than possibilities, especially metaphorical ones. That's a bad point: that the language
(a smaller English) is losing too much vocabulary. The good point complements this: that all kinds of new metaphors may arize
from the various 'worlds' of science & technology. As always, it's how writers respond to the challenges presented by the
common language(s) of the Net that will eventually tell the tale...
It probably is but America is no way homogenous and the language manages to cope so I think that
there will be room for all of us. It seems to me that netlingo is quite a comfortable tongue, slippery, slidey and
sedate are all possible. English English? The English will always be English.....(G)
I don't know about American English but at the moment English certainly is the common language of the
internet, & as Douglas mentioned, the common language of science & technology (& global commerce). Which makes me a little
skeptical of the internet - it's hard not to see it as the common language of the new world (digital) order of global capitalism
(with the U.S. at the forefront). The question is certainly one of asserting power (- the centre/periphery debate again) -
keep up with new technology & science (& keep up in English, cause that's what we speak) or fall behind. I'm trying to think
of some good points ... Well what Douglas said is right I think, writers will find a way to make it interesting.
In my research, professional or avocational, I would say the short answer is 'yes.' Rightly or wrongly, it may come down
to a proverbial, 'he who writes, wins', and in most cases -- due to the sheer economics of capitalistic affluence and
accessibility -- equate to those variations of our American and Commonwealth English. I notice that many websites offer
dual or triple language translations of the data on their websites, which is good. I'm a lover of the poetry of the
Italian poet Ungaretti, but I notice that several websites featuring his poetry are only in Italian. Although such can
be frustrating, as an English speaker I can't give in to a jingoist temptation to think this a bad thing. However,
unfortunately I don't think many Americans share my opinion, and the vast number of web surfers out there will demand
texts and hypertexts be made available in English. This is fine as long as respect the rights of non-English websites to
print in their own language. As in the case of Ungaretti's poetry, I had to find a hardbound book and purchase it (which
I'd rather have anyway, than downloaded excerpts placed in to my ever-increasing library of un-aesthetic black notebook binders!).
In addition, if we are learning to speak a foreign language, non-English websites can help us -- and students in general --
to enhance our language skills.
Probably it's not even American English, but American English-As-A-Foreign-Language. Good for explaining how to download
a program. Bad for your poetry, unless that's a tongue in which you happen to be proficient, which has the words for what
you want to say, instead of dictating to you what you can say. Bad for the linguistic gene pool - unless poets, being
poets, continue make it their business to do to any language What Comes Naturally...
I think we could be too pessimistic about it. It's got to be good that
we're all talking like this! As for writing poetry, the green concrete of
an International English can be an opportunity as well as a threat. So long
as poets are writing their own poems they'll use whatever means are at
their disposal. Fear, rather, for the controls placed on readers...
Please use our discussion forum, Riding the Meridian,
generously provided by Sue Thomas at trAce, the
Online Writing Community, to add
your thoughts to this dialogue. You will have to register in order to post to the forum, so the first time you visit you'll find a screen to set up your user name and password.
Back to the Dialogue