Friday, December 12, 2008
Free Lunch arrived yesterday—the journal, that is. Edited by Ron Offen, a fine poet, it's a small no-glitz chapbook-format journal, bare bones but with consistently good poetry. Offen distributes the journal widely and most often for free. He's a generous guy and one of the few editors who consistently comments on the poems submitted. You might or might not agree with his suggestions, but it's nice to know that someone is reading your work carefully. Each issue includes a spirited editorial. Offen has strong opinions, and again, you may or may not agree with him. The editorial in the current issue is one I found hard to swallow.
"Poetry and the Web: The Ephemeralization and Degradation of Poetry" is the second installment of a two-part editorial. Here Offen provides an explanation of why he believes that "by their very natures poetry and the Web are incompatible." He is not opposed to a journal having a website and Free Lunch has one; what he objects to is online journals. He argues that the Web is ephemeral while poetry "aims towards the eternal."
Now I absolutely agree that people do not read as carefully on the screen as they do on the page. And I agree that it's not as pleasant to read online as it is to hold a journal in my hands and work my work through the pages. In fact, I prefer print journals to online ones and only rarely submit to online journals.
Nevertheless, online journals are here and that's just a fact. And not such an unpalatable one. There are things an online journal can do that a print one can't: add lovely graphics, include links to other literary sites, correct mistakes. Some journals have added audio which is wonderful. I like reading the poem and then being able to listen to the poet read it aloud, especially if the poet lives somewhere far away from me. Now Offen makes it clear that he feels these additions detract from the poetry rather than add to it. I disagree.
The technical glitches that Offen cites as nasty possibilities—a hard drive crash; a bug; troubles with the hosting site, both technical and financial; the end of the journal and the disappearance of your work from the site—seem to me no worse or more worrisome than the possibility that a print journal will go out of business before your work is published (I've had that happen), that there will be delays in delivery (also had that problem, many times), that your work will be inadvertently omitted (don't even let me get started on this), that your work will appear with typos that can't be fixed and your bio with your name misspelled (again, don't let me get started).
I imagine that Offen is right when he says that some journals are online because it's less expensive than print. But if a journal simply can no longer afford the printing and postage costs, isn't an online version better than no journal at all? Less expensive doesn't mean that the poetry is less worthy. Yet Offen asks:
"Who then is visiting these sites? Given the content of many of them, which ranges from the highly questionable to the offensively inept, I believe those who view them are chiefly the poets they publish and their friends and relatives. One is tempted to characterize them as poetry dumpsters for poetry that has been rejected by the print magazines. A poet told me that he had stopped submitting to anything but ezines because it was easier to get accepted in them--as if this proved their value! So from my viewpoint what e-zines represent is a dumbing down and degradation of poetry."
I find the above statement difficult to digest. It's true that there are some mediocre online journals that are easy to get into, but it's also true that there are some terrific online journals with very high standards. Some of these journals are harder to get into than some print journals. I wonder if this editor really visited a good portion of these journals or if he merely snacked lightly from a small sample.
Things change. Poetry styles change. Journals change. We need to change, too. That's not a bad thing. I think it's okay to prefer one medium over the other, but I think it's a mistake to choose one and dismiss the other. Why must it be only one?
What do think are the qualities of a good online journal? I'll have some thoughts on that topic in my next post.