Friday, December 12, 2008

Online And / Or Print?

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.

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  1. I just can't get with that mindset. Some of the best poetry being produced right now is in online journals. I've got a stack of print journals next to me and some of the work is so musty it makes me sneeze. Having a poem printed in a physical journal is not going to make the work "eternal." I find Offen's comments fairly offensive and definitely narrow-minded.

  2. Nice summary of the case. I highly doubt that any but the most widely circulated print journals approach the readership of the average online magazine (8,000 unique visitors a month is common). And e-zines offer the very real possiblity of reaching folks who aren't themselves poets, because they're so much more accessible. I never had too strong an interest in going to all the trouble and expense of putting out a print journal precisely because of my impression that "those who view them are chiefly the poets they publish and their friends and relatives." And I love how much easier it is to correct typos and make other editorial changes to published content online.

  3. I think you've both got it just right. Curmudgeonly, yes. And I suspect that the editor simply has not investigated the possibilities of online journals. I think that any poet who refuses to have poems in online journals is missing a big opportunity to widen his or her audience. Along those lines is the possibility of sending one's work to readers in other countries. Online journals are also able to intermingle different art forms in ways that print journals can't. But hey, it's a big world. Plenty of room for both online and print.

  4. In this time of slashed library budgets, and slashed university budgets, and rising postal rates, an online journal begins to seem like a safer bet.

    As a reader, I used to be dedicated to paper over computer screen, but lately, I'm beginning to change my mind. I can read material online at work, and it looks like I'm working diligently at my computer. In many workplaces, even if part of our job is to stay current in our fields, too much reading of books and journals might get you a comment about goofing off. Or maybe I've just worked in strange places . . .

  5. Diane, thank you for this balanced, well written post.

  6. I just received a journal with one of my poems which consisted of a stapled packet of crooked printouts. My address looked plastered on top of my poem, which was missing its last line. So yeah, anthing is better than that kind of slop.

  7. I don't read any online journals except one's which have a 'blind' editorial policy. There may be good ones out there but they are swamped by the vast majority of ejournals which are created just to pimp the works of people's friends. Unless the magazine makes sure the work is chosen on its own quality by only accepting submissions without the author's name attached, there is no point because everyone knows that most of them are just personal ego gratifications created because someone wants to call themselves 'Managing Editor'and 'publish' their friends. As I say there are some legitimate ones out there but they are tarred with the same brush in the public mind as the thousands and thousands of pointless ego exercises. The fact is most of them aren't read by anyone except the people who are in them. There's no point denying that, it's true. You can have a list of ejournals you've been in as long as your arm, it means nothing in terms of the quality of your writing or your progress professionally as a writer and every publisher and agent on the planet knows it. So I ask, what is the point of being in them?
    The internet is clearly contributing to "a dumbing down and degradation of poetry." because anyone who can schmooze can present themselves as anything. There has never been so much terrible poetry written and 'published' in the world as there is now. Thanks for bringing Ron Offen to my attention, obviously one of the few honest sane and rational poets around. I'll go look him up.

  8. But couldn't the same comments be made about print journals? There's favoritism and cronyism in both, I imagine. Few print journals ask for names to be removed. Why do you assume that there's greater objectivity in the editorial process? I'd like to think that most editors behave ethically, whether print or online. I'll still maintain that some online journals are outstanding and some aren't. But I'll make the same statement about print ones.

  9. The difference is, it is a difficult and expensive process to make a print journal. It takes time, effort and money. To make an ejournal takes three clicks of a mouse, that is why there is thousands of them. There are dodgy print journals out there and it is best to look for print journals with a 'blind' editorial policy too, or ones which have genuinely respected editors who didn't appoint themselves but were hired for their qualifications. As I say, on the internet, anyone can present themselves as anything. I think this week I shall Managing Editor of Blahblah journal. It takes me two minutes to get a domain name, import a wordpress theme, ask my friends for submissions and go around the web pretending I know something about poetry. That is what most ejournals are. It is much harder to do that with a print journal so most people do it with ejournals which is why the have no respect in any sensible company.

  10. Most journals print the same poets over and over and over again. Those poets don't submit their work -- the editors ask for it. There are many online journals that have more stringent guidelines than print. The dumbing down of poetry by the Internet is a sweeping generalization that many of the print die-hards and academics fall back on when their territory is threatened. It's the 21st century. Everyone needs to join it.

  11. Such concern that poetry not be "degraded" or "dumbed down." Is poetry such a fragile beast that we need to appoint ourselves as nurses and caretakers? There are many online journals that show just the opposite: a vibrant, healthy poetry that can withstand a lot. The argument that poetry is sickly and needs to be saved is as old as poetry itself. It's as false now as it ever was.


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