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Bringing poetry into a centralised space

More newspaper culture section column inches are spent decrying the state or status of poetry than actually talking about poetry itself. Contemporary poetry is seen by many as difficult, disconnected, esoteric. Most poetry taught in schools is over a century old, and the few modern poets that do make it to the curriculum are those that follow in those traditions. It’s as if Modernism never happened. But it did happen.

In 2006, I met Steve Willey. Our friendship grew out of a university course on contemporary poetic practice. We were exposed to a whole new field of poetry. This was a vibrant field where poets used language in ways that had never occurred to us. It was like spending a whole education in the National Gallery and then encountering the Tate Modern. Wait: not quite. Imagine the Tate Modern not as a giant institution of concrete, but instead as a network, clustered in small pocket communities that exist throughout the UK and worldwide. Our challenge was how to bring this dispersed structure into an online and centralised space; to share work and create an online platform from poets such as Sean Bonney, Allen Fisher, Redell Olsen, Maggie OʼSullivan and Keston Sutherland and a whole range of others who are utterly unknown other than amongst their poetic cluster, while maintaining the individuality and independence of their projects from Openned. They get almost no mainstream attention from the media or the press. They write, and read, for these communities built out of a common attention. 

Back in 2006, our goal was to create a magazine for these works, but we quickly realised that this was an attempt to introduce a mainstream publishing model for a type of poetry that most people were unaware of. The poetry that we are interested in operates, necessarily, on small scales. Its concerns are socio-political; methods of publication are important, politics of publication are important. How a work is received is part of the work. The machinations of mainstream publishing are inherently in conflict with much of the content of the work itself. Seeking an alternative, we turned to the internet.

Establishing ourselves under the Openned name, we created a free-to-attend reading series at The Foundry, a pub in East London. We publicised by word of mouth and via the internet. Our website gave us a foundation on which to introduce ourselves into the community – a place that we could send people. It established a dialogue between between offline and online spaces, allowing us to interact with the community in ways that an unwieldy, expensive magazine would not. Our goal was to allow new and established poets to read alongside each other, to give this community a chance to grow, to introduce new people to this kind of poetry. Our reading series and website became a success. We started to film the readings and uploaded them to the site so that those unable to attend were still able to see the poets read. We uploaded poetry PDFs and audio files, created a comprehensive links page to map out the poetry community online, encouraged collaboration and utilised social networking technologies like Facebook and Twitter in order to freely publicise the events.

Because of the internet, we have been able to avoid the trappings and spoils of traditional publicity and marketing and engaged with the poetry community in a way that allows us to keep our events free, to make available recordings to those who cannot attend the readings and to publish poets at little to no cost, to get their work out there, to allow new and established poets to co-exist in the same physical and online spaces. Technology has given us an outlet for this work that sits alongside the traditional methods of small-run publishing and handmade publications that the community once depended on. The internet has not usurped anything in the poetry community that was already there. Instead, it has become another outlet for the community, one that is easy to access and easy to interact with. This was more than a marketing exercise; it was an effort to make such a diverse scene seem tangible and contactable.

Our forthcoming project, Table @ Café 1001, is a good example of this. One Saturday every month, Openned will be hosting a book table at Café 1001 in London’s East End, just off Brick Lane. We have been given the space free of charge on the condition that those who attend bring a book of poetry to contribute to the Café’s Book Orphanage, a free-to-use bookshelf that everyone has access to. How have we publicised this event amongst the community? A combination of word of mouth, blog posts and e-mails – community and technology working together, online and offline spaces in dialogue. The internet has given the community a way to disseminate its work as widely as possible, and in innovative ways, without disrupting what is already there. Community and technology have become inextricably linked.

It is important to remember that technology is not replacing anything in what has been described. The community, and its small-run and handmade books, still exists, in physical spaces, as strongly as it ever has. Poets continue to read to small groups of people in pubs and lecture halls, chap books and handmade books continue to exchange hands. This physical interaction is the lifeblood of the community. What the internet and technology has given the community is an extra layer of interaction, a place where massive ‘print’ runs are possible, a place where engaging with each other’s work can be done in detail and rapidly, where half-formed thoughts can be shared, interpreted and elaborated upon with a consistency that was not possible before. Most of the concern over literature and technology seems to stem from this idea that the internet and its modes of distribution will somehow overcome or replace what is already there, that print will be killed by the digital. Through our experiences with Openned, we see a different outcome. The printed work will be enriched and expanded upon by digital reading technologies, social networking sites, hyperlinked poetry works and more, and this will feed back into the face-to-face meetings and readings and friendships so important to poetry communities that, while small, stand for and mean something.

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