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Sunday, February 15, 2015

Ten Years of Pages

This blog has now been running for ten years! In that time there have been at least 100,000 hits. (It hit that target over Winterval 2014-15). A decade ago today I posted my first comments here. (But I find that my now abandoned blog Network of Experimental Writing Tutors (NEWT) was begun a few days earler on 8 February 2008: here in particular and here in general.)

This blog, though, began by positing itself as the editorial of a revised online version of my 1980s magazine PAGES:

This third series picks up on a long-standing small press tradition, that of utilising available technology and subverting it – if that isn’t putting it too dramatically -­­- to the needs to [sic] editing, and to work with its disadvantages and limitations: in this case, the blog format. Perhaps the fourth series might be a proper website, with graphics and audio links, and whatever the technology affords, but Pages has always been fairly spartan in its presentation, and I see this as a tradition. I will also continue the tradition of numbering each posting as though it were a page, as I did with Pages. The technology has outstripped my nomenclature, even the metaphorical use of‘pages’ on the net...

Read the rest here.

It appears not to be the earliest post when you look at this blog now because I moved it to the top of the then currently viewable page after a week or so. But it was. (How technology changes and our relations to it. Look at this early 'index', here!) Ron Sillman got it right when he commented on his first blog post:

Blogs have been around for awhile now, but to date I haven't seen a genuinely good one devoted to contemporary poetry, so it may prove that there is no audience for such an endeavor. But this project isn't about audience. The fact that the blog has the potential to carry forward the best elements of a journal and seems inherently prone to digressive, if not absolutely plotless, prose gives me hope that this form might prove amenable to critical thinking. August 29th 2002.

In 2008 I was interviewed about my blog, slightly bemused to find myself mooted as a 'literary blogger', when I thought of myself as no such thing. A short version of this appeared in print (ironically), but here's a longer version of it (with links added). It's quite instructive.

Creative Environments: an interview between Graeme Harper and Robert Sheppard

GH: Can we start talking about your Blog (which you set up in February 2005). I notice some interesting discussions with Chris Hamilton-Emery of Salt Publishing, for example; and quite a deal of discussions about contemporary British poetry. These seem interesting discussions to have ‘out there’ in the ‘virtual’ world.

RS: It’s interesting you call it a blog; I coined the term ‘blogzine’ – only to find Martin Stannard had used it before me as ‘blog-zine’ - to imply that I was appropriating a modern technology to use as a little magazine (much as previous generations had borrowed office technologies such as the duplicator and photocopier for such purposes). It was all quite modest and I carried on the title (and pagination, with some difficulty) of my print magazine Pages, begun in 1987, at and proceeded to post its third and (recently) fourth series.

GH: You are interested in exchange and discussion and, oddly, there’s little of that on Pages.

RS: I discovered very early on that the ‘send a comment’ facility was immediately filled with spam so I was forced to block that, unfortunately. The magazine had, in its first two print series, been quietly influential, not least of all in promoting the ugly little term ‘linguistically innovative poetry’, by providing, in series one, the first use of the words (by Gilbert Adair) and in the second series by presenting poetry, essays and poets’ statements under a ‘resources for the linguistically innovative poetries’ strapline. That last resources aspect was very important to me, and at first the zine half dominated, but Mr Hyde’s blog-like influence took over, as I began to present not just bits and pieces of critical books I was working on (for example, the historical chapters from The Poetry of Saying appear there as a serial ‘History of the Other’, although I also found room for some excluded material), but entries about my being 50, reading ‘Smokestack Lightning’ to my friend’s blues band, and links to various web published works of mine. The realisation that I could post photos only made it worse (or fun): there’s even a photograph of Django Reinhardt’s guitar! So it all become less of a virtual discussion – my critical offcuts juxtaposed with the poetry and prose of others – from Iain Sinclair and Bill Griffiths through to newcomers like Dee McMahon and Alice Lenkiewicz, more of a blog, so I stopped it (temporarily, but for longer than I’d intended). I also realised the process of editing and posting could go on forever; the entries get less frequent. I wish I could keep it up like Ron Silliman does on his excellent blog, but I don’t have the time. 
            The current fourth series is strictly going to be answers to a simple question: what’s been going on in alternative forms of British poetry since 2000. My first ‘reply’ is not a reply at all: it’s an edited version of Chris Hamilton-Emery’s contribution to an email discussion list. That’s where virtual discussion is meant to happen, isn’t it? But it seldom does. In the early days (1997) of the British Poets’ list, for example, I remember printing off some of the splendid answers critics like Marjorie Perloff and poets like John Wilkinson posted, little mini-essays. But at some point they left off, perhaps disenchanted with the medium or its processes. Disenchantment set in for me when I realised that the same argument had started up for a second time; the list’s open-endedness offered no conclusion, its supposedly linear ‘strands’ caught in some cyber-eternal return – a little like blogs themselves. Coming back to Pages, I decided to post answers to that one crucial question, one I don’t know the answer to, but whose answers will prove to be a resource for the future. Already Adrian Clarke’s characteristic abrasive response to Hamilton-Emery has injected some fire into the exchange. But it’s been going very slowly; I’ve lost the verve for it, particularly as blogging has become so everyday.

GH: If we broaden out from that question: how do you view, and indeed use, the creative space of the blog – you being both poet and critic?

RS: One of the private functions of Pages was to teach myself to read poetry on screen. I failed: I still can’t do it. I believe my students can. One of the reasons I decided – against earlier prejudice – to publish (now quite widely) on the web was seeing how readily my students used it to access poems and poetry information, and I wanted a part of the action. The production of links I found very liberating on Pages, particularly where I was drawing together a virtual collection of my work by merely pointing to its locations. (Linkage is, of course, part of my poetics, and it’s part of the very structure of my project Twentieth Century Blues, which is a pseudo-hyperlink of 75 titles and dozens of interrelated strands of sub-titles!) I enjoyed posting disguised parts of critical books too: I am aware that my literary criticism often exists – for economic reasons – outside of the creative environment of the poetry world – and I wanted to make it cheaply and immediately available to my creative peers. But currently I want it to exist as a critical space within that poetry world, in order to affect it, not just to reflect it. Again I feel a responsibility to diminish the blog aspect: the nonsensical furnishing of instant opinion or even trivia that dominates the medium (or is it now a genre?).
            I haven’t theorised the use of webspace, like Hazel Smith, John Cayley and cris cheek have done (the latter in a great PhD he did with me on writing technologies). I don’t see a democratised informational utopia, but a simple tool, sometimes creative, sometimes merely instrumental. But maybe in some ways my fumblings with the technology are more interesting, precisely because I’m not an expert. Indeed, I have a small but unjustified reputation as a technophobe: can’t drive, don’t have a mobile phone, don’t use Powerpoint – but I do have a blogzine and other web presences as part of my creative environment.

GH: And from the broad to the very narrow – there’s an interesting comment you make online about not being a ‘binary opposition of the avant-garde’. What’s that about, I wonder?

RS: To me that’s not narrow at all, but central to my role as a poet-critic, while my blog – though more extensive than I remembered it when I scrolled through yesterday – is only a narrow, or marginal concern. This doesn’t mean I think it’s unimportant or that I have edited it haphazardly. I haven’t. I’m proud of publishing the many poets and artists I have and of most of my own contributions.
One element of our new cybernetic creative environment is that I could Google that now-forgotten quote of mine you’ve used and find its location in a way we couldn’t ten years ago; the very words ‘blog’ and ‘Google’ would be meaningless (or carry other meanings, and they are not recognised by my laptop, which still puts red wavy lines under them).
            Perhaps I’m a cybernetic structure myself, because I have fallen into the binaries of ‘mainstream’ and ‘avant-garde’ (or ‘linguistically innovative’) myself, but I do seek to avoid them. My critical book at one level accepts this division between the Movement Orthodoxy and its opposite(s) in a historical sense, but it also theoretically poses the Levinasian distinction between a poetry of the said and that of saying, one of ontological violence and closure, the other of ineffable openness and evanescent eternality. They can’t operate as a binary, since the openendness of the saying can only be embodied in the fixity of the said. I am suspicious of my own critical concepts, though I am forced to use them (on the blog and elsewhere). My unease with the blog and the nature of discussion lists can be seen through those Levinasian lenses: the unending saying of the cyber-discussion needs the fixity (even violence) of the said of conclusiveness and closure, perhaps, but technologically and experientially the media lack that. Imagine the horror of a poem that would speak itself forever. Or a blog that would last a thousand years, with teams of dynastic neophytes trained up for the job.
GH: Based on your critical and creative work, and using your blog as a ‘sounding board’ perhaps: what would you consider some of the most significant or, indeed, most interesting developments in contemporary British and Irish poetry?

RS: Of course, this is the very question I am posing my Pages contributors – I’m aiming to get a range. The reason I am asking it is that I don’t know the answer! I’ve reached an age where I’m not sure what younger (and sometimes older) writers are up to, and I want to find out what others think. I suspect that within ‘linguistically innovative poetry’, or whatever you want to call it, the influence of the Performance Writing course that John Hall and Caroline Bergvall set up at Dartington College of the Arts is widespread, particularly through a dispersal of its staff and graduates nationwide: Mark Leahy, Dell Olsen and others. Their expanded sense of the performative and visual aspects of language has revived an interest in (old) concrete poetry but also in (new) cyber- and web-based works: the two strands that meet utterly in the work of Maggie O’Sullivan, for example. There is a visually oriented audience out there, and the ease of the web as part of the (not just creative) environment has had something to do with that. It’s not the direction I’m going creatively, so I’m interested in other trends too. At the same time, print-on-demand technologies and selling books over the web – the Salt and Shearsman approach that I have benefited from – has made publication easier, and has particularly led to the production of major collected poems – John James, Lee Harwood, David Chaloner – that allows us to reinvestigate whole the oeuvres of major veteran figures in this scene, and re-write our histories.
GH: You archive your blog? I’ve recently spoken to Jamie Andrews of the British Library about archiving of writers’ works generally. But a relative personal blog – what’s the archiving purpose, in your mind? Personal? Personal reference? Community based?
RS: A blog archives itself, doesn’t it, which, of course, is deceptive. I was talking to Los Glazier about the marvellous Electronic Poetry Center at Buffalo, and he said that the University which hosts it could pull the plug at any moment. The same could happen with any blog, but we behave as if it won’t. Look at all the links on Pages that no longer work: dead-ends. I don’t think that will make me save it, even now. However, when the great poet Bill Griffiths died I saved a lot of the images from his web-site because I knew they would go, and perhaps are not part of his archive held at Brunel University. I think the poetry audio archive begun by Andrea Brady is not only a superb resource for the future; it has a suggestive and relevant name: The Archive of the Now. We’ve got to save that ‘now’ before it becomes a vanished ‘then’.
GH: And, of course, you discuss your own poetry on your blog and link to pieces of it that happen to be online?
RS: I do. As I’ve said, I like linking. Again, I want the zine to win out over the blog. Maybe I need to separate these functions, but some readers might find this combination charming, like the title of Jeff Nuttall’s magazine of the 1960s: My Own Mag! I miss not being able to point readers to my latest books, but I also distrust the self-publicising aspect of this. Again, the reason I stopped.

GH: Let me be provocative: your blog identity is out of date? So it’s the blog that’s taken over and the writer’s real presence has disappeared? Or am I off base?

RS: Cyber-ageing is an accelerated process, isn’t it? Cyberspacejunk litters the blogosphere, of course. What will it look like in ten years time?
Identity is only the shadow of existence, in any case. But too much of me was appearing on my blog! But the me that is left is probably the me of 2005-6, when I was most furiously posting the blog. (I did post the news that I’d been made a professor, by the way, which is what you are thinking of. Incidentally, the fact that a lot of people emailed me immediately to congratulate me taught me that there was an audience for the blog!) Series four will not involve me at all. I was tempted to post a single link to Twentieth Century Blues, my most recent and biggest book, but I won’t. My blog has always been less personal than Tom Raworth’s, for example, where he more or less photographs his breakfast and posts it by lunchtime. It’s fascinating.
GH: The blog is not all you do. In fact, it is perhaps a minor part of your own creative and critical writing. But do you think it has had any particular effect on your practice?

RS: Very minor. And a tool, not really a writing technology. I thought maybe I could use the colour facility to write specifically for the blog – I was looking at Jacques Roubaud’s multi-coloured and multi-voiced Kyrielle – but I never did. I didn’t find it very creative, actually, since it was difficult to format and indent etc., and I had doubts about people not being able to read poetry online anyway. That’s one reason for the fourth series being prose. Web-work can be liberating, but you also have a web magazine like Jacket, whose editor, John Tranter, says: don’t send me stuff with indents and crazy typefaces, I can’t handle it, and I don’t like it anyway, which is an interesting counter-example to the technologico-utopianists, from one of the technology’s earliest and consistent users.
            Critically, I was parcelling out bits and pieces of other work (my book on Iain Sinclair, for example). Whereas the way I am using it is now: this question on what’s happening in British poetry is as much a resource for me as for other people. It’s going to be fascinating. I’m glad that your questions are prompting me to get on with it! The fact that the blog was cited in Edge Hill University’s RAE entry, much to my horror and against my will, also motivates me, although Pages blogzine was meant to be a relief from the academic world and a re-connection with my primary creative environment. I’m driven also by the fact that I am setting up and co-editing a print academic journal on this poetry and realise that this will mainly operate outside the poetry world again, reflecting it but not influencing it, whereas Pages is within the creative environment.

GH: Your final thoughts: the creative environment of contemporary British poetry? A community of difference? A conglomeration of similarities?

RS: I do think some of the old binaries have broken down. But I am as suspicious of my distrust of the binaries as I am of the binaries themselves. At the end of the last century there was a spate of critical works and anthologies that I looked at for my historical chapters of The Poetry of Saying, but which largely were left out on space grounds, but which found their way onto the blogzine (to give a further example of its usefulness to my critical project). These anthologies announced a true democracy in British verse, kow-towing to various correctnesses, the end of the poetry wars, that sort of thing. However, despite the consensual rhetoric, these anthologies completely left out most of the writers in whom I am interested – the ones I’ve named here so far, for example - and the various creative environments that have sustained them, their reading series, their publishers, etc. I admire figures like David Kennedy who can bestride a much larger compass of poetry, but I say (to myself as much as anyone): beware the commentators who declare their catholicity while secretly operating according to proscriptions which they hide (not necessarily deliberately). Better the oppositional openness of somebody like Don Paterson. 

GH: Finally, when confronted with the term ‘creative environment’ (as you have been, with apologies!), what springs to mind?

RS: I see concentric circles outside (and inside) the writer, of activities and support systems. What Bourdieu calls the field of cultural production, I suppose. Some parts are obvious: publishing, reviews, time, peers, creative writing workshops even. Others are less obvious: poetry readings, one’s Mum, bars of chocolate, or the coffee that fuelled my latest non-sonnet sequence day after day. I see sustaining networks of communication too, and blogs (zines or not), one’s own or others, are parts of that. Thinking of Pages I remember the Poetry Buzz event for Allen Fisher’s 60thbirthday; I posted photos of the day and used them also as illustrations for postings of work by performers from that day: readings for Allen at three locations in London, and on board the poetry bus that transported us. All very communal and under the shadow of the July 2005 bombings in London too. 
There may be negative circles too: time (again, appearing as a lack of it), a lack of appreciation of the work by critics, peers, and – just as important – one’s employer, one’s family, the cat. One’s reticence, one’s bad habits. At the moment, I am writing a critical book on the speculative discourse of writerly poetics. In it, I examine John Hall’s essay ‘Writing and Not Writing’ (it’s in Denise Riley’s 1992 edited volume: Poets on Writing) which is partly about the loss of his creative environment: extrinsic economic necessity and intrinsic absorption in teaching squeezed out modalities of writing, which turned into dull reportage or professional writing. It’s a limit case of poetics, a gentle horror story. It has a happy and instructive ending because Hall later returned to writing a very different poetry precisely by being involved in the deliberate development of a new creative environment at Dartington College of the Arts (of which he was principal): the very performance writing that I mentioned earlier.

 An earlier interview with me on Pages may be read here. In reference to the archiving of the blog it is archived by the British Library here.

My other posts celebrating the decade of blogging are, in order of compiling and posting:

I've realised today is another anniversary: it's 19 years since I was successful at interview for the post of Senior Lecturer at Edge Hill College of Higher Education (as was: see Wikipedia link where I am not listed as a notable academic, although my own page - I've no idea who posts and updates it - mentions Edge Hill.)