|Jan/Feb 2006 Book Reviews|
The academic world woke early to the uncharted territory of cyberspace and began immediately to claim its share of literary domain names and sites. Millions of dollars and innumerable PhD’s later, the collegiate presence is ubiquitous. Whole departments are now in the process of being developed dealing with creative writing and the internet. Is such influence becoming increasingly dominate and influential? Will literary sites begin to measure themselves in terms of the latest trendy MFA department? Unlikely. So far, there's enough room for everyone. Some of the worst and best writing on the internet is academically inspired. A little gem is Huck Gutman's Modern Poetry. Huck Gutman is a professor of English at the University of Vermont. With the implied disadvantage of a name like Huck, you've got to produce. He does. All verbs, adjectives and nouns are designed to enhance understanding rather than obscure it. Gutman targets his comments and refuses to waste your time. His welcoming paragraph states: "Modern Poetry's home page serves as an introduction and gateway to some of the richest and most wonderful poetry ever written." He's right. As of this writing, 11 poets are included. These range from Akhmatova to Wallace Stevens. His links are well chosen and rich. The juxtaposition of the poets included so far is fascinating. A manageable but heady brew.
Cross Connect describes itself as "a tri-annual electronic journal for contemporary art and writing based in philadelphia at the university of pennsylvania (sic.)." Notice the trendy non-capitalization of proper names. It's also associated with the Kelly Writer's House, an important literary center associated with the University of Pennsylvania. Material from the online journal is selected to be featured in its print volume. Cross Connect started in 1995 and is still going strong. It's good. Very good. Even excellent. What do I like about it? I believe it to be one of the best college-oriented, creative writing internet zines available in English. I believe the student editors play a primary role in its development, and it reflects their tastes. Layout and navigation is always professional and sophisticated. What don't I like about it? This is purely speculative and subjective, but I believe that while it does take chances, the awe of shock and surprise tends to be missing. One gets the impression that some kind of formula exists with specific slots allocated for a good this and that. I don't, however, believe that literary excellence is the sole criteria used for inclusion. The authors appearing in Cross Connect are established academics or up and comers framing themselves in a similar mold. Of course, Ryan Van Cleve's imaginative work in Issue 23 could be said to contradict the ambivalence noted in my previous sentences. On the other hand, it might make the case. Either way, I do enjoy this zine and visit the site regularly. You should, too.
Archipelago literally sings. It is one of the most intelligently conceived and well presented literary sights on the internet written in English. It is tasteful, pertinent, fascinating, socially aware, and fastidious. The editorial vision of its editor, Katherine McNamara, is reflected on every page. She appears to be very politically minded as well as an establishment intellectual with university and cosmopolitan connections. This is reflected in her choice of material. I picture her donning white museum gloves when she handles the site. Fortunately, she is artistic and has good taste. Page set up and typography are exquisite as is the material presented. It shouts of significance but does not shout about its own significance. It could make any writing contained look more important than it might actually be. In the case of Archipelago, the writing is excellent and does command your attention. Of special note is "The Great Book of Gaelic," which is composed of poems by many contemporary Irish and Scottish writers. Both content and form combine to provide a fascinating and personal experience. Katherine McNamara might be a little burned out with the site as the degree of concentration needed to produce something as exceptional as this must be considerable. The archive section is worth perusing. This site could be updated more often. The problem with excellence is that it takes its own generative time and can't be rushed.
Compared to Archipelago, Blackbird seems insecure, even a little bellicose in implying its significance and role. That's not true of the work it profiles. The work is exceptional, and there is certainly a lot of it. As a joint venture of the Department of English at Virginia Commonwealth University and New Virginia Review, Inc., it's ear is remarkably well tuned to the collegiate and N.E.A. scene. At times I got the impression that it had a split personality. I felt like it secretly wanted to be a print journal. It maintains in its editorial policy the statement that online media is still an experimental tool for literary publication. I've got news for it, innovative work is to be found where the innovating is going on, and if you're ambivalent regarding the medium you're using, your product is going to be flawed. Don't tell me you're going to impress me. Just impress me. Blackbird is not innovative, but the magazine on the whole is a good one. It is certainly not experimental and is formalist in its approach. I was hard pressed to find one inadvertent contraction on its informational pages. It appears to have a large staff, which suggests that the magazine is well represented at numerous literary conferences where, indications are given, some of the work featured in its ezine is either solicited or individuals met and approached. It likes names for the sake of names. Mark Strand is an example. Blackbird is pretentious, a little too precocious, and in spite of all that, significantly entertaining to read. It sometimes fails but attempts a lot. When the bios tend to be as long as poems, though, it gets a little suspect. Strangely, in the final analysis I think Blackbird overdoes it. It gives us too much of a good thing.
If a secret fascination for emotional disaster and voyeurism is your forte, Neurotic Poets is well worth a visit. While not academic, it can be favorably compared to most of the academic sites. Byron, Shelly, Poe, Dickinson, Wilde, Dylan Thomas, and Plath are included. Essays on the seven poets are featured as well as quick links to their work. This site shows how effective hypertext can be when used intelligently. This appears to be the individual site of editor Brenda C. Mondragon. It first came on line in 1997. As Mondragon cunningly states, "Madness takes its toll. Please have exact change." Don't expect an indepth psychological investigation of these poets. You'll have fun here. Enjoy the clear prose. Compare and contrast particular writers profiled. Each essay is neither too long or short. You can explore the site at one setting or surf from its links for a week. It's certainly better than People Magazine. It's definitely more fascinating. I got a kick out of it.