Jan/Feb 2017  •   Reviews & Interviews

On Eclectica Anthologies, Mind Dances and Such

Commentary by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

The president-elect is tweeting. It keeps him in the headlines each day. In the final analysis, that is the purpose behind it—the purpose behind pretty much everything he does. Any other result is extraneous. Sinatra and Nat King Cole are singing the Christmas song in the background. Now the Roskilde Cathedral Boys' Choir is singing Praetorius's Puer Natus in Bethelehem.

A couple of days ago I heard the delightful swing version of John Kirby's delightful Bounce of the Sugar Plum Fairy for the first time. A computer with a bit of a sound system and Christmas just ain't what it used to be. It's better and worse all wrapped into one inextricable mess.

A couple of days before the Bounce, I received the four new volumes of the Eclectica Anthology (Best Poetry, Best Fiction, Best Nonfiction, Speculative), "Celebrating 20 Years Online." I always begin by reading from the author bios in anthologies first. When I need a break from lives that cannot help but blend together for all they are fascinating, I start on the introductory matter. It will be a while before I have read any considerable portion of the works themselves.

Of course that's not set in cement. I have read the first poem: "My Wishing Star on a Long Ride" by Rachel Dacus. Jennifer Finstrom, the poetry editor, speaks of learning to become "part of a vibrant community of writers" and that has long been the single most salient trait of Internet poetry. Though I've never met Dacus, I am familiar with her from years of seeing her name and work in the better online venues. The same can be said of any number of other poets: Taylor Graham, Penelope Scambly Schott, William Lantry, J. P. Dancing Bear, others.

It seems to me that I published a couple of poems by Simon Perchik when I was the editor of a paper journal ages ago. I know Grzegorz Wroblewski better, perhaps, having reviewed and interviewed him, but still have never met him face-to-face. It seems likely to me that most Internet poets are physically scattered far enough from each other that their community is almost entirely virtual. Familiarity becomes acquaintance becomes appreciation, by virtue of reviews, interviews, publishing each other's poems, exchanging emails.

Wroblewski is unusually persistent in a community of the insanely persistent. Living in Copenhagen, he has had a small amount of government support from time to time to go with a natural talent at selling himself and his projects to potential translators, the editors of occasional high-end paper journals, and the owners of galleries who might give his paintings a showing. He is one of the poets, here, with a video posted on YouTube (in which he speaks—if I'm not mistaken—in his native Polish).

J. P. Dancing Bear can actually be seen reading his poems, on YouTube, for about 11 minutes, in a rundown venue of the sort surely recognizable to us all. Taylor Graham reads hers in a clip lasting about three minutes. Scamby Schott has about a minute and a half on her book about Ann Hutchinson. There are probably others I will discover eventually, their videos amateur enough that they also feel like personal encounters. The world as it is (videoing anything that moves), I'm surprised not to find it a bigger part of the online poetry esthetic.

Actually, I have met one of these poets personally. I spent a delightful day with Jared Carter a couple of years ago. As dense as I generally am about cues and body language, I think I left him feeling a little underappreciated for all that we went on about the old days and encounters with this writer and that. Add to my social disabilities the fact I'd spent many hours every day for a month and more reading his poetry, toward a study of his life's work (The Ties of the Railroad Tracks Home), and chatty as a Trappist monk, and the wish to talk a lot about anything but the poetry is pretty understandable. For my part, I was thrilled to be able to talk shop and laugh about the strange and delightful way lives fit together. It must have been exasperating to meet one of his most appreciative critics only to discover he just-a-wanted-to-have-fun. My sense of the moment has never been good.

I feel some confidence Jennifer has met more of these poets in the flesh over the years than I. I gave up attending open-mic poetry readings now some 20 years ago and have not lived in those coastal cities that tend to host featured poets to readings. Most of the poets and readings in my life are longer ago than I care to admit. All the way back to those primitive ages which Jennifer invokes: "In 1996, I was still buying each new yearly edition of Poets Market and memorizing how query letters should look and everything about SASEs."

Ron Currie, a writer of some reknown whose fiction first appeared in Eclectica, describes those days at greater length in the Introduction to the Best Fiction anthology:

Back in those days, submitting stories to magazines was a decidedly analogue process that took right around forever. Plus it cost money. There were manuscripts to print over and over again, manila and business-size envelopes to buy, postage to be paid both for sending out the story and for its return. If you were at all serious about submitting your work, these expenses were not inconsiderable—all told, sending out ten copies of a particular story might cost you $20, and then you waited, month upon agonizing month, for the response to arrive in a Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope, or SASE.

I, like Jennifer, "like the publishing world that we have now ever so much better." At least the logistics of submitting, anyway. The old experience of sending out a submission and waiting for six months for a reply was a miserable one. To not receive a reply at all was still worse. Many thousands of poets were competing for a few hundred pages editors needed to fill. Writing poetry was a tough game.

I was late coming to the Internet experience. Just prior I had lived several years as a quasi-hermit in a broken down cabin in a patch of tropical forest. It had no telephone and no television, limited electrical, and the finest neighbors. My bookshelves were the nursery for the local anole lizard population who passed freely in and out of the chinks in the walls. The eggs were carefully hidden behind the books. The bathroom featured live geckos suction-cupped onto the wall. Tree frogs huddled between the screens and window panes for warmth on cold mornings (although the cottage had no heating system). The cardinals in the black cypress stayed year round, as did the jays, but most of the bird population passed on their way north in the spring and south in the autumn. There were scores of species of every color and behavior, high in the trees, low in the underbrush, in holes in the eves, on the tops of telephone poles, everywhere. That little plot of land was a four-star avian B&B.

My time in the cottage was one of two magical periods in my life. It was there that I wrote many of the poems that appear in my volume Mind Dance, like "Unshriven":

It turned out it was the upstairs neighbor. She'd
slid down the awning reaching for a branch
and hung there upside down, composedly,
for possums always seem composed; one glance
revealed the state of things – hers, that is,
towards me. We'd known each other for a year,
me scratching down below, she in the attic,
and each grown used to have the other near.

We kept an etiquette within the house:
I did not trouble her nor did she me.
We merely passed from time to time, about
our business in the night, she grubbingly,
or on the roof a moment, peering back,
me free from questioning some poem for just
the time to smoke a cigarette. Her lack
of courtesy had left her hang nonplussed.

She needn't have been mortified. I'd lived
that year back from the common thoroughfare,
no human neighbor either side, the gift
of a landlord's unconcern to leave me there,
as stranded as Crusoe. I'd seen the jay
fall off its branch, to see a gnat fly close,
the snake panic in its haste to get away
and dash its head against a wall of stones.

Some of those poems and translations were managing to find a home the old fashioned way in journals such as Orbis, Poetry International, and Grand Street. It was part of the magic of the place and time that I was part of the literary world from within an obscure little cottage filled to bursting with the finest books that years poring over piles of books in used book shops and thrift stores could provide.

Then I inherited scads of slightly outdated computer parts. I'm still not sure it was a blessing. Nevertheless, I cobbled together a unit, popped in a hard drive loaded up with an already outdated Windows 95 operating system, and took it to the nearby office where I sometimes worked. There was a DSL connection there no one much used. Years before, I'd made my living by building computer-based process control systems. The transition from programmer interface to an Internet browser was pretty much problem free.

The idea had been to expand my publishing. For all it worked admirably, voluntarily shackling myself to the world at large, even through an Internet connection, was difficult. In short order I was hooked and hating every moment of it. Still worse, my time in the little cottage soon came to an end. The forest was cut down and a row of identical houses arose in its place. The cottage was refurbished, the overgrown environs converted into a regularly mowed lawn, and a new, more normal resident gratifyingly installed. Life was no longer in the least magical, but at least the logistics of publishing had become much easier.

The migratory birds arrived one autumn to discover their stopover no longer existed. All of my neighbors were gone. If anyone knows of a broken down caretaker's cottage anywhere (with an Internet connection) looking for a caretaker (who no longer smokes)...


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