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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Tom Jenks

Amongst the many interesting things on the Great Works website is Peter Philpott’s explanation of why he publishes on the internet. In it, he states that those who remain “emotionally involved with words on paper…have as much future as trained scribes post-Gutenberg.” I agree with his overarching assertion that the internet is changing the way we access poetry and talk to one another about it. After all, you are almost certainly reading this on a screen, which is where I am writing it. I don’t agree, however, that the printed page is doomed. Rather, I think information technology can reinvigorate it, both in the way that it is created and the way it is distributed. I also think that this applies particularly to experimental and innovative poetry.

I am just about young enough to say that I grew up with computers. I can certainly say that they have been around for all of my adult life. Yet I still, to use Philpott’s phrase, remain “emotionally involved” with the book as artefact, with the physical rather than the virtual text. So too do the people I know in and around Manchester who are engaged with contemporary poetry - editors and small press publishers who all, whilst using the internet, still see the printed page in general and the book in particular as valid. What information technology has done, however, is to give us the keys to the citadel. I was reading recently about the upheavals in the Poetry Society in the 1970s, when Eric Mottram et al somehow sailed their Black Pearl through the reefs and under the radar, boarded the ship of state and seized the wheel. One of the most radical things they did was to make the presses, the physical machinery for producing texts, available to anyone with the ideas and inclination to use it. Such an act now seems impossibly romantic and oddly archaic, like a sit in or a march to Aldermaston. Yet we are now in the very situation Mottram was trying to engineer. Anyone with ideas and inclination can produce a book and, more importantly, thanks to the evolution of print on demand, they can produce the book they want when they want it. By chance, I happened to appear on a Radio 4 programme about the small press scene a while ago. One of the other participants was Michael Schmidt, who declared himself of the opinion that the proliferation of publications facilitated by technological change is a bad thing. His argument seems to be that there should be an elite, a crack team of cultural arbiters who decide what to blast and bless, who know where the ladders are and know when to lower them and when to pull them up – gatekeepers, keymasters, curators, custodians. On one hand, you can see his point. Print on demand and the vanity press are, if not exactly bedfellows, certainly roommates. On the other, why should writers always have to seek approval, to be supplicants holding out bowls for a ladleful of gruel? Visionaries and innovators are, by definition, out of synch with their times. They are not the sort of people who find their way into Waterstones or onto the library shelf amongst the Armitages, Duffys, Copes and 100 Poems To Clean Your Teeth To. I am not saying that such people have not had an outlet before – far from it. But technology has made it easier than ever to produce high quality texts which can be the stuff from which alternative worlds are constructed, the currency of local scenes with their own phenomena and epiphenomena, their own flora and fauna.

In addition to changing the way that the printed page is distributed, technology can also radicalise the way that is created. Philpott’s reference to scribes is oddly apt, for in some ways that is what technology has made us . I grew up around the corner from the site of St. Peter’s monastery on the banks of the Wear where Bede spent his formative years and I’m beginning to think all those childhood trips to Durham cathedral to stand next to what may or may not be his bones did something to me. After years of seeing the page as simply a place to put words, my increasing familiarity with computers has gradually transformed my practice to the extent that I now view myself as a producer of illuminated manuscripts, incorporating images and non-verbal figures to work in a way that is as much about the eye as the ear and the voice. The screen, far from being a stifling, standardising influence, can be liberating, making the page a playground and a palette. Technology can make new forms. It can also make the old forms new.