Widening the Community
My online & print zine Otoliths is entering its fifth year, but the reality is that it's been fifty years in the making, almost as long as I've been writing. The first involvement in the world of literary journals was at Victoria University, in 1960. A couple of years later I assumed a year-long stewardship of an existing journal before passing it on; & at the end of the decade, I brought out a single-issue roneoed foolscap magazine called Love / Juice.
I would have loved to have done more, but the reality was—ironic, since I seemed to be surrounded by poets—that the only NZ poet I felt fitted in with my vision of where poetry should be heading was Dave Mitchell. What is even more ironic is that we weren't really friends, weren't all that enthusiastic about each other's work, but we both appreciated what the other was doing.
Fast forward forty years. I'm living in isolation, there's barely another poet within a 1000 kilometres, but—another irony—I have a feedstock of writers to publish that I dared not even dream about all that time ago. The world is now my catchment area.
How has this come about? Obviously a great deal has changed, both personally & poetically, during the intervening time. But my core stance, & the stance that now drives Otoliths, hasn't changed. Set in the context of this symposium, it is that we shouldn't content ourselves with building bridges across the Tasman, we should be building bridges to the rest of the world.
Participating in what was going on in the wider world was difficult years ago when you lived in New Zealand &, probably, Australia also. Leaving aside stylistic things, I'd put it down to two main reasons. One is that we didn't have knowledge of the little magazine scene in, say, the US so how did we know where to send stuff to in order to build up a more global reputation? The other was the tyranny of snailmail submissions anyway—who wants to send stuff off knowing that it's probably going to be a year before a response is received?
Maybe my Rip van Winkle years were a good thing, because I emerged from them to find a world that the web had changed. Print may have still held cachet over the digital word, but the electronic medium was expanding exponentially, & in amongst it were an increasing number of poetry magazines, many of which carried work that interested me.
The downside of Rip van Winkle was that I didn't really know what was going on in poetry at the time. The various e-zines helped me reconnect. I noted that the poetry contained in the Donald M Allen anthology of 1960 was still influencing much of the writing that was around, even though it might be at a second or third generational remove. What that meant was that my poetry, the way I wrote, was still reasonably contemporary, & could still find a home; a home, in fact, that was more compatible than any I'd known in the past.
The e-zines also provided a launching pad. I'd read something I liked & then Google the author to see what else they had written, where else they published. The e-zines themselves carried links to other e-zines, & I'd trawl through them to identify places that attracted me, that I would submit to, that, more & more regularly, I'd be accepted by.
It was, however, the advent of weblogs that brought everything together. One in particular, As/Is, a group blog started by two editors, both of whom had published my work, & who both invited me to join. It became a community, interacting through comment boxes, through poems to & from one another. As those who didn't already maintain one moved on to create their own blogs, complete with contact email addresses & links to yet more blogs, the community widened.
It came at a good time for me. I had left Sydney & moved to Rockhampton, essentially the redneck capital of Australia which meant there was no-one around to socialise with. I had retired, so I had time on my hands. I had the Rip van Winkle years to make up for, so I was as productive as all hell.
Two years of it. But two years with little live social interaction—electric correspondence, I discovered, can't replace face to face conversation—meant I had forgotten how to talk to people. I went back to work, four days a week, regained some of my social skills but found I no longer had the time available to maintain my then-current blog at the level I wanted it to be at.
So I did a kind of swap. I hadn't thought about doing a journal for years, but it suddenly came to me—you know all these people, why don't you sound them out? I sent off about 60 emails to ask if the recipients were interested in contributing. A 75% positive response within 24 hours. So the creative side was fine. I was familiar with Blogger, knew enough html code to be able to do a bit more than the ragged right edge format, created a new blog, fiddled around with the template to remove almost all of the standard blog features, structured it to replicate a printed journal—cover, contents, separate pages. I was in business.
One of the things I had noticed about the web, & the e-zines on it, was that there were definite lines of demarcation. If you wanted to read poetry influenced by the West Coast poets of the 50s & 60s, you went here; if you wanted to read third generation New York poets you went there. If you wanted to see vispo, then you brought in a fine-toothed comb to scour the web with. My tastes have always been quite eclectic, so that became my first editorial rule: publish anything you like, don't differentiate.
The first issue was diverse, but it contained only a few people who I didn’t know, who had submitted as a result of a couple of postings to lists or to blogs. It was reasonably well read, well covered. The second issue continued the diversity, included a few of the people I’d asked earlier but who hadn’t had work available at the time, brought in some new writers via normal submission lines, &, through the kind reaching out of Michael Rothenberg in California & Leevi Lehto in Finland, began the continuous association with writers from these two geographical regions.
Otoliths has continued to grow without compromising anything. It maintains its diverse stance, does not follow any particular school. A number of the writers & artists who make up an issue are contributing for the first time, sometimes for the first time anywhere. It’s become a home for many, a first-stop shop, because they know the integrity of their work will be respected by the editor, that things like complex formatting will be as intended. It’s influenced other e-zines; an example can be found in how much visual poetry now appears in places it never did before. I know editors are supposed not to be influenced by where submitters have been published before, but it’s interesting to note that an appearance in Otoliths opens up many doors.
It is, in fact, a community now, sans frontières. & it’s that last bit that is the important bit. Certainly, physically, writers will group together for discussion, conversation, occasionally they may even talk about their work with one another. But the world we’re living in, that we’re creating in, shouldn’t be bound by national barriers. We shouldn’t just look to our local journals to publish in, or push across the Tasman in either direction to increase that locality. I downloaded Firefox the other day to use as the web browser on the notebook I brought with me. The first site I was directed to for the download was in Turkey. I had problems with the download, cancelled it, went back to try again, & this time the download came out of Singapore.
That’s the universality of the world we’re living in. It’s not just what you see out your window when you wake up, it’s what you find when you turn on your PC.