Why “Internet Poetry” Is No Joke

Recently the techno-friendly poet Steve Roggenbuck posted this video of himself making a presentation at a poetry conference at Duke University. The video quality is poor, but I found the talk fascinating because Roggenbuck comes out from behind his curtain of ironic appropriation, deliberate misspelling, and esoteric references to speak articulately and informatively about the ways he and others are using social media to create and distribute poetry.

Creative writing has taken longer to establish an online foothold than other forms of writing have (news reporting, business correspondence, etc.), in part because people think of the Internet as being for the sharing of information, and poems and short stories don’t necessarily seem much like “information.” But of course they are, and as social blogging sites like Tumblr and the increasing prevalence of high-speed Web connections make the sharing of visual art more common online, artful prose and verse are slowly starting to nose their way into the party.

People don’t know what to do with fiction and poetry online because those forms are still strongly associated with the traditional publishing market. You expect to read fiction and poetry in a book—at least in an e-book if not an actual, physical book. Of course people have been putting fiction and poetry online for years, but to continue the party metaphor, fiction and poetry labeled as such always seems like it’s sitting awkwardly in the corner. Do you follow any poetry blogs? Short story blogs? I didn’t think so.

Blogs—this one included—have had success in the last few years publishing creative writing online, but most of what people read these blogs for is humor and personal perspectives. I’ve posted a few short stories on The Tangential, and they’ve dropped like lead balloons. It may be the case that fiction isn’t my métier, but I also think that when people run into fiction or poetry on the Internet, they think, “Meh. If I wanted to read a made-up story, I’d go get a book.”

This fall I launched an end run around this problem in the form of Unreality House, a fiction blog that’s designed to be read and related to as if it were nonfiction. The large majority of our followers on this blog—The Tangential—have never met us and never will. How do they know “Jay Gabler,” “Becky Lang,” and “Katie Sisneros” aren’t fictional characters? Would it matter if we were? That’s the territory I’m exploring with Unreality House, which at least one friend has been genuinely convinced involves people who actually exist and who I’m somehow funding with a massive hidden nest egg.

But Roggenbuck is more radical: he suggests that we’re all de facto involved in creative writing all the time, every day. Every tweet, every status update, every chat, every text message, every blog post: why not regard that growing mountain of written language as creative writing, even poetry? Is it preposterously pretentious to refer to yourself as a “poet” if your primary medium is status updates? Only if you think of “poetry” as something that must appear in books or on broadsides, argues Roggenbuck.

Pushing the point even farther, Roggenbuck and his like-minded “alt litsters” take the post-Dada step of incorporating found language into their work. As Roggenbuck points out in his presentation, you can be a poet without even writing: you can appropriate words from any source and put them in a new context online to highlight their poignance or absurdity. In the same way that fans of outsider art have long scoured yard sales for strange home recordings and trays full of mysterious Kodak slides, some online litsters have become connoisseurs of spam. The spambot Twitter account @Horse_ebooks has developed a cult following and has even inspired a Facebook page with over 1,000 fans—but some fans, including our staff writer Marcus Michalik, have become convinced that the @Horse_ebooks spambot has ironically been hacked by a real person and now prefer to follow spambots that remain pure, like @WineEbooks.

One reason Megan Boyle’s new book Unpublished Blog Posts of a Mexican Panda Express Employee feels so fresh is that it takes this alt-lit aesthetic and binds it between covers, where one doesn’t expect to find such offhand thoughts as “i want to go to the gym/ and pretend the weight machines are drums/ and play the longest drum solo on them.” It’s worthy and important that publisher Muumuu House is putting this kind of work in print, both because it’s a refreshing contrast and because there are still established gatekeepers who mock the idea that anything that doesn’t look, smell, and feel like Literature could possibly be literature. It’s about time, argues Roggenbuck, for those reactionaries to wake up and smell the Internet.

- Jay Gabler