THE ONLINE LITERARY MAGAZINE AS TRIGGERING DEVICE
“Discovery is the ideal. . . . When not writing a writer may search for a triggering device, and literature is one of several places to find it.”
– Richard Hugo, The Triggering Town
At a meeting of the Downtown Poets Club in San Francisco in June of 2010, the poet John Lane recommended Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town to me. He was talking about works that profoundly affected him as a writer and described it as a classic manifesto. The “club” consists of Lane, Alan Kaufman, William Taylor, and Kurt Lipschutz (nom de plume is “Klipshutz). They meet sporadically around the city for tea and impromptu readings.
A graduate of the Columbia MFA program and former masseuse, Lane works as a janitor who defends the rights of immigrant workers and writes his poems in a kind of self-imposed obscurity. He reads Roberto Bolaño (in the Spanish) on the freshly mopped corridors and caverns of Cal Berkeley in the middle of the night and cares deeply about printed books and their long-prophesized so-called digital extinction.
Out west on business, I traveled next to Salt Lake City in my role as director of Project MUSE and searched for Hugo’s book in Sam Weller’s independent bookshop downtown. I was there for the American Association of University Presses (AAUP) conference and to start recruiting publishers for Project MUSE Editions, a fledgling initiative to put several hundred eBooks on what had previously been a scholarly journals platform. This initiative has grown to 70 publishers and 14,000 eBooks as I write this. Project MUSE is not really a “project” at all, but a mature fifteen-year-old database of diverse scholarly journal content across 500 publications.
The helpful bibliophile at the information desk told me they had one copy left, but they could not locate it.
I took out my iPhone, downloaded the Kindle app, and searched for the eBook. Published in 1979, it was available on Amazon and I read the entire collection of essays on my flight back to Baltimore—thumbing away the business card-sized pages and resurrecting my own desire to write poetry with what Hugo calls “a genuine impulse to write so deep and so volatile it needs no triggering device.” The reading experience on the iPhone screen took a heavy toll on my eyes after a couple of hours, but it was worth it.
Busy with a new job and relocation, I hadn’t written a poem in many months, but was struck and inspired by these lines:
“An act of imagination is an act of self-acceptance…Writing is a way of saying you and the world have a chance….the real reward of writing—that special private way you feel about your poems…What endures are your feelings about your work.”
Staring out the window of the plane, I remembered my first publications and wondered if my favorite literary magazines had their own apps.
“It’s a trick, it’s a con, a little inside game.”
“Sounds like you’ve been rejected.”
“I knew I would be. Why waste the stamps? I need wine.”
– Charles Bukowski, Ham on Rye
During that summer, I thought about expanding the collection of literary journals on Project MUSE. When I lived in New York, Niko’s Magazine and Smoke Shop in the West Village carried the best collection of literary magazines from around the country along with Drum tobacco, clove cigarettes, and Gitanes. CityLights Bookstore in North Beach also had a great collection and a large room for poetry publications.
I want to create an online version of Niko’s or CityLights on Project MUSE. We already provide a digital home for Callaloo, The Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner, Ploughshares, Sewanee Review, and The Hopkins Review, among others. The journals appear in full-text HTML and PDF at no cost to the publisher. Most of these publications also offer their own dynamic and visually interesting websites—all of which are fully discoverable. This expanded collection would enable us to provide a sustainable model for these magazines to earn meaningful royalties from libraries and provide access to the emerging new voices of the next generation of writers in 60 countries around the world—just as we had done for scores of smaller scholarly journals being published in the back offices of universities.
Scanning the market, I soon discovered that online literary journals have triggered a sea change in the world of creative writing.
Publications like Drunken Boat, Blackbird, Ducts, and Beltway have transformed the landscape and built steady readership communities. Online submission systems have made it very easy to engage with these publications for editors to access poems and stories and make their comments. Rejection rates and quality standards remain high and costs are down.
Blackbird rejects 96% of all submissions.
In Ham on Rye, Bukowski’s character Henry Chinanski refers to The New Yorker and Harper’s as a “waste of stamps.” He submitted one story per week to those publications for years before breaking through. Gone are those halcyon days of sending poems as if by carrier pigeon to receive a handwritten comment from a well-known editor along with a rejection slip. I still have mine from Alice Quinn. Twenty years ago, there seemed like only a few places to send work to: River Styx, TriQuarterly, Poetry, Poetry East, Paris Review, The Southern Review and The New Yorker.
There were experimental attempts in the late ’80s to energize the writing scene such as The Big Wednesday Review which published a few volumes and would convene “The Wheel of Poets” in places like the Night Café on the Upper West Side where writers would receive a number and read when the serendipity of the wheel called them forward. Bruce Craven channeling Adam West played Alex Trebek and Jennifer Blowdryer, a disaffected Vanna White.
Poets from writing programs found refuge at the Nuyorican Poets Café which gave rise to the Spoken Word scene and can be traced to the current work of DC poet Sarah Browning and her “Split This Rock” conference and her “Sunday Kind of Love” series. On hiatus for the last few years, Lolita and Gilda’s Burlesque poetry hour in DC’s Bar Rouge involved writers auctioning a piece of clothing or an accessory.
Technology continues to drive new channels of engagement between writers, readers, and editors.
Thomas Beller’s Mr. BellersNeighborhood.com is a digital expansion of The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” section. The stories are accessible on an interactive map of New York City by neighborhood. Online salons and workshops offer real-time critiques for those trying to hone their craft. DC poet Gregory Luce uses Facebook to workshop his poems in a closed group.
What about poetry readings via Webex?
Along with an abundance of MFA programs, literary journals have exploded to the point where hundreds of publication tables at the annual AWP Meeting can barely be contained in two massive halls. MFA programs are actively recruiting the best students. Literary journals are becoming digital villages or communities around a particular aesthetic.
Upstart journals like Smartish Pace (the Wilco of literary journals) and 32 Poems have employed all forms of digital media to rise to the top of the lit mag heap in a relatively short time. They exist purely for the love of the game—stripped of pretension—for good poems in all their forms.
The online literary journal embraces the possibility of what it is coming.
Imagine a linked digital “mitochondria” of literary journals, eBooks of poetry and criticism, fiction, non-fiction, along with scholarly journals, monographs, and reference works linked and discoverable. Envision a database of publications as the mechanism or “trigger” of discovery where you will be able to trace the first instances of a poet’s publications to the criticism and the book reviews and even the original manuscripts and the marginalia. Writers, teachers, researchers, and students could thus share reading lists, facilitating collaborative research projects and other forms of social reading (e.g. book clubs, guided reading lists).
I could have used such a product when reviewing the New Directions reissue of Spring and All by William Carlos Williams last summer. The first 300 copies of the book had been destroyed in the 1920s and it was released after his death in 1963. My first instinct was Kindle—no such luck. The facsimile edition arrived in its original 1923 cover—light blue with black type. I found an article about Spring and All on Project MUSE and utilized my print copy of the collected volume filled with the hazy marginalia of my undergraduate years.
I found myself wanting to see the original digitized manuscript and the criticism side-by-side with annotation functionality and an option to generate commentary and access ratings from the scholarly community—all on my iPad.
“The transition from the codex to the presently evolving electronic book, the fourth form of the book in history, will not happen overnight . . . to take one example, the roll-form book persisted for four centuries after the successful introduction of the codex.”
– Frederick G. Kilgour, The Evolution of the Book
In Campbell McGrath’s new book The Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys, “The Custodian” describes a conversation with his long-time friend and poet John Lane. In it, Lane worries about the death of the book.“But books have been my whole life, he said. What will we do without them?” Lane would applaud the efforts of the Tampa Review, one of the only hardback literary journals still published today. Its editors believe “that contemporary works resonate most powerfully within a great tradition.” With an emphasis on visual arts, it’s also referred to as “a gallery space in print.” Tampa Review also features an online submission system and a new online identity—the Tampa Review Online (TROn). Will TROn eventually replace the Review in print? No tablet, Smartphone, or e-reader has come close to replacing the “quidittas” or the “thingness” of the hardback book. The printed book and journal still provide the most pleasurable browsing experience in existence. Usage statistics confirm that scholars and writers prefer the PDF versions of articles and chapters, essentially “the pages of the novel on television” as a colleague of mine once referred to it, versus the HTML.
Tenure committees in the humanities and the social sciences remain wedded to print for advancement. Aside from the portability and convenience of an eBook, it has yet to prove more useful than the printed book. And, truth be told, it has to be turned off for take-off and landing—a good thirty to forty minutes of lost reading time.
I might one day allow the organizers of my estate to remove the fiction and non-fiction from my shelves, but not those precious divining rods of poetical expression such as Ariel, For the Union Dead, The Lost Pilot, Gathering the Bones Together, The Book of Nightmares, The Country Between Us, Quoof, The Other Side of the River, A Perfect Time, Pictures from Brueghel, The Vandals, and Capitalism.
I will take these to the grave.
TROn which ironically sounds like something from the Transformers will undoubtedly attract a larger audience on the web, be accessible to search engines, and expose the content to aspiring and established writers, students of creative writing, networks of its published authors and artists, and other literary journals within its growing cohort.
It may also serve as a catalyst to a young writer, or “a triggering device.”
Dean Bartoli Smith’s poems have appeared in Poetry East, Open City, Beltway, The Pearl, The Charlotte Review, Gulf Stream, and upstreet among others. His book of poems, American Boy, won the 2000 Washington Writer’s Prize and was also awarded the Maryland Prize for Literature in 2001 for the best book published by a Maryland writer over the past three years. His fiction has appeared in Minimus, The Patuxent Review, and Smile Hon, You’re in Baltimore. His prose has appeared in Patch.com, Zocalo Public Square, The Baltimore Brew, Baltimore City Paper, Baltimore Magazine, The Catholic Review, Indiewire, and the Woodstock Independent. He received an MFA in Poetry from Columbia University and is director of Project MUSE, a leading provider of digital humanities and social science content for the scholarly community.