Harriet Caught the Vapors

Originally uploaded by Pro-Zak

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about sharing poetry in different forums to help reach different audiences and how so many poems sound so similar because they are written for only one room. For me, one of those rooms include poetry blogs especially since they give a poet not only the opportunity to share their work but also give valuable insight into process, revision and recitation. Even though poetry blogs are still relatively young in comparison to the advent of the Information Age in general and incredibly new when compared to the Gutenberg Revolution, they’ve offered some great information about how poets think. They also offer a lot of crap about folks who seem to want to blog about everything except how they actually put a poem together.

One of the best places to see this mix of the dope and the whack in poetic action was the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Blog. I say was because as of today What’s New at Harriet is that it has gone from being a crossroad of dialogue to a dead end alley of news links making it no more better and probably less efficient than setting up a Google alert for: poetry, poetics, poems.

How did this happen? How did poetry blogs become the literary internet’s equivalent to Friendster? Like most things in the poetry internet, it’s apparently because Ron Silliman said so. Since I don’t read Silliman’s blog, I clearly missed the memo and have been going on fine with how poetry blogs kept maturing as their practitioners were refining their own practice.

I also missed the memo that “the more dynamic discussions of poetry, poetics, or politics in the past year knows that more and more of the most vibrant interactions have been found on Facebook.” Especially since I’m not on Facebook. But it’s so simple to join… c’mon jump in! Yeah, I know but I’ve been on Facebook before, it was called MySpace, MiGente, Live Journal, YahooGroups and AIM before. I know what’s going down and way too often it boils down to this: Person A posts a derogatory remark about Situation B. Person A’s 100 “friends” all agree that Person A is right without thinking twice since they want to stay “friends.” If someone connected with Situation B tries to share some information or defend themselves, then Person A rounds up more “friends” and drowns out the detractors. Or, they just start de-“friending.” I know cuz I’ve been one of the sycophants out to help out folks without having all the facts at hand.

So what did I do? I walked away from that mess and created an open forum where anyone can challenge my position, I call it “Intuitive Intertextuality” and I’ve approved every comment that isn’t blatant spam and have been able to dialogue with a great group of people through it.

Of course, my blog doesn’t have anywhere near the number of commenters Harriet had and I’m sure it was a pain to be the curator overseeing all those comments. But, that’s what happens when you’re an authority, you have to work to maintain that authority. Harriet quickly became an authority in US Poetry through a diverse series of bloggers published good reviews, highlighted up and coming journals and put their political viewpoints on display. Yeah, some of them ran as far as possible from politics but that’s just another way of showing your political and poetical stripes.

With all this valuable content, a great center to share it from and the resources of one of the US’s most well-endowed poetic organizations at hand who would have guessed that Harriet’s next move would be to retreat from this position and become a glorified newsfeed? I’ll take Squandered Opportunities to Bring Poetry Into the Internet Daylight for $200, Alex.

I’m sure regulating the comments on Facebook will be much easier for the Harriet Editors and having a blogroll will keep them “current” (though not relevant since some of the links are outdated) but the chance to expand opinions and broaden the definition of contemporary poetry is on hold for now. Declaring blogs irrelevant in favor of closed communities (if I have to input a username and password, it’s gated)  will probably go down as the poetic equivalent of deeming vinyl dead.

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  1. good points. i can’t help but think this is related to what folks in the indie bookstore documentary believe contributes to the indie bookstore’s demise – a general community apathy and corresponding inaction.

    the harriet blog wasn’t that old, so maybe they ought to have tried something else before abandoning discursive blogging.’discursive blogging’ is a weird term, esp. since blog was created in order to hold discourse.

    1. It’s definitely a self-fulfilling prophecy, “Tell folks the blog doesn’t matter first, then turn around and say ‘We’re just responding to popular opinion.'”

      I’m afraid “discursive blogging” is going to be the new web speak for “performance poetry” and “spoken word.” Poets who seek audience engagement (and a discursive blog is a great way to start that engagement) always seem to be the minority.

  2. I agree with it being a gated community. Not because of
    the password, but because people can indeed be
    blocked on facebook.

    1. hm, i hadn’t thought about this part, sheryl, about blocking others. does this mean blocking from reading your stuff, or from commenting, or? so definitely gated.

  3. Blogging hasn’t died, it’s evolved and yes, there was a culling process (i.e. blogs that were mostly links or look where I’m published naturally gravitated to FB and Twitter). I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

    Harriet was always uneven, but still, it was by far the best thing the PF offered. I am surprised to see how quickly they dumped it. Also, while I’m on both FB and Twitter, there’s majors limitations and issues. Especially FB. Why move to such a closed and problematic space? Why hand over the keys to an increasingly out-of-control corporation?


    1. You’re right, Reb, the newsfeed and Me-Myself-and-I blogs all have a place in the web and as long as they serve the authors purpose–more power.

      Why move the Harriet discussion to FB? Simpler comment moderation, it’s easier to oversee a discussion among friends then it is to moderate an open forum. I’m sure the Harriet editors have the best of intentions but I wish they had actually consulted active poetry bloggers instead of going by current web trends.

    2. This was my thought as well– particularly now, when Facebook is so clearly being disrespectful of its user privacy. I barely maintain a presence on Facebook, as stripped and locked down as I can get– mostly for family members who use it. I certainly don’t participate in FB communities these days.

      I like and use twitter quite a bit, and I find the discussions useful as a supplement to blogs, but not as a replacement of same.

  4. hi again, so reb’s made a really good point, something i hadn’t thought of, re: what kinds of blogs have transitioned over to FB. i agree this isn’t a bad thing. i guess it just is what it is.

    i’ve been thinking about blogging as writing an editorial column. i think of what you’ve said about roger ebert, and whether our cultural lives are enriched because of his regularly published reviews. i’ve always dug him because he’s always put himself out there, however unpopular his take on things, whether or not i agree with him.

    i also think if herb caen were still alive, his sf chronicle column would have translated over to a blog. it’s the longevity of these two, and others, some kind of well-built cultural base for us.

    so, taking what reb has said, my question is this: as authors (and in the case of harriet, communities of published writers), why are folks not willing to put themselves out there and really think of themselves as cultural bases? i thought that’s what authors do by virtue of our author-dom.

    1. I always think about it the other way around–Where will our new Herb Caens, Studs Turkels and Djuna Barneses come from? The blog is the modern day Op-Ed column complete with Letters to the Editor.

      The Poetry Foundation got it right when they initiated Harriet and gave new voices and established voices a chance to share their poetic perspective. Now that Harriet has gone the route of reticence it will be interesting to see who fills the void.

      1. The real problem with the PF blog was that it hadn’t found the next Studs Turkels or Djuna Barneses – and that as a blog, it failed to get to that level of excellence that you find on say The Atlantic monthly blogs. (Ta-Nehisis Coates is an excellent example of community and intellectual dopeness on a blog). But that’s more politics, more general interest. PF only reached that level of engagement for me with Reginald Shepherd and A.E. Stallings. It’s too bad that they couldn’t choose better, more engaging bloggers. Harriet became a platform for aesthetic opinions and back room arguments

        1. And – after looking at the new set up in action – I’ll say that I don’t mind the change. It sort of recognizes that PF isn’t really an arbiter of taste in terms of commentary. That’s why it was so hit or miss. The current move, hopefully, will allow PF to send traffic to others, who just might be the arbiters of taste. It doesn’t feel like Siliman’s blog either. It feels more like Slate or the NY Times Iphone app.

          1. Thanks for the thoughts, Dwayne.

            Harriet did become a home for circular arguments and navel gazing but it was also the home of live discussion with poets who believed poetry could and deserves to be high in the U.S. consciousness. You mention Reginald Shepherd and A.E. Stallings and I’ll add Rigoberto González, Patricia Smith, Barbara, Camile Dungy, Javier Huerta and Kwame Dawes to the mix of poets who saw the potential in actively blogging at Harriet. With time, I think more voices could have kept pushing the envelope.

            I’m looking at their new setup and am cool with it for the simple reason that it’s the Poetry Foundation’s toy and they will do with it what they please. So, best of luck to em and their new format.

            Though I am thinking about an article I read more than two years ago that predicted this would be the way of Web 2.0–that even in the most specific of subjects, there would be a ton of user generated content; the sites that could aggregate best would prosper. Here’s hoping Harriet has a focused vision and doesn’t just post everything that comes their way, cuz that would be a waste of everyone’s time.

  5. Another “practical” consideration is that FB changes its format on a regular basis, with little feedback from or concern for its users. So the PF could set something up there and then one day sign on and find that FB added more super-fab “enhancements” and now their forum doesn’t work the way it once did. They’ll have little, if any, recourse to change the situation. I find it strange, especially considering its history, that the PF is so willing to hand over it’s control.

    There are a number of “group” poetry and literary blogs although I can’t think of many that have revolving contributors (the BAP blog has a weekly guest blogger and invites different poets to edit certain features) or an especially strong emphasis on diverse poetic backgrounds (I’m drawing a blank here). There seems to be a prime void and opportunity.

  6. Hi Oscar,

    I’ve never talked with you virtually before, but have appreciated this and a number of your other posts here. I am also disappointed by the PF’s retreat to FB. It is beyond reticence IMO. It actually runs counter to the mission of the gigantic endowment they got in the first place, something about making poetry more accessible to the public or something wacky like that?

    Thinking about what you and Dwayne have said about where are the Herb Caens, etc. now, I think definitely yes, great question. I just want to add that part of what I appreciated about blogs & group blogs is that they’re not just about the “star columnists,” they’re about keeping the big conversation alive publicly so that anybody–a somebody, a nobody, of the community, not of the community–can participate. Open blogs have a great leveling power, and even though I’ve opted not to host one myself I have benefited greatly from being able to join conversations as a commenter, having dialogue both with people I know and don’t know. I’m sorry to see more of these public forums go.

    Here’s a piece of a comment I just posted to Lemon Hound’s post on this topic (awaiting approval):

    “I have been invited to join Facebook by both poet and non-poet friends in the past and have declined not because I hate Facebook but because I find the idea of yet another online forum, esp. an online networking forum, overwhelming to say the least. But when I hear about poetry/poetics discussions largely happening on Facebook, my gut reaction is I don’t like it. Unless a good number of these discussions are happening on walls that are accessible to the public, I don’t like it because it is taking something that was once part of the public commons and privatizing it. It’s like saying poets and poetry are members of a closed system (no big whoop), and it’s saying that this is how it is and how it should be (hmmm). What about Nikki Reimer’s excellent points below, about finding and keeping oneself open to audiences beyond one’s coterie zone? Isn’t this, like, the point of literature?”

    1. Well said, Pam. I agree with all your points, you just gotta wonder what the Poetry Foundation’s thought process really is? Every tech column I’ve ever read has advice that is so counter to PF’s move.

      Like you, I don’t hate Facebook, I just want my thoughts out in the open that way I can be held accountable to what I’ve written.

  7. Hi Oscar,

    Sorry to be familiar, as we’ve not met, but I must ask if you are joking when you suggest that Silliman said something indicating that poetry blogging was dead?

    I do read that blog, and can’t remember anything that he’s written that would suggest he’s equated poetry blogging to Friendster. It’s actually quite the contrary, in my opinion.

    Poetry is a Big-Money operation. As such my working assumption is that those In Charge were uncomfortable with the blogging thing they’d set up in that the multiplicity of voices (both via poet-bloggers and peanut-gallery comment-boxers) created hassles and spins that they just didn’t need or want to worry about.

    The void will be filled, if at all, by individuals.

    1. Hello Steven,

      No, I am not joking when I mention Silliman’s reaction to blogging. Here it is from Harriet:
      Ron Silliman wrote on our site that the ongoing revolution in communications technology has upended the power dynamics of the community as well as the way poets interact. “Poets blogging,” Silliman wrote, “is just a symptom.”

      After reading the actual article <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/journal/article.html?id=238430>, I believe that Harriet has just used a random quote and used it to justify their decision to stop being a center for dialogue and just be a roadmap to where the dialogue is happening.

      The void will be filled by poet bloggers who value conversation over networking, and by literary organizations who won’t settle on just reporting trends but would rather set the tone for discussing contemporary poetics.

      1. yep, I agree that Harriet / Poetry Foundation supported its decision to do away with its blog by scraping out a Silliman quotation that had nothing to do with his views about blogging and poetry.

        Silliman very much supports blogging and poetry. As an example, I first learned of “Intuitive Intertextuality” — this blog — because it is included (under your name) on Silliman’s lengthy and well-maintained blogroll.

      2. But it’s not possible to set the tone of discussion with a group blog written by a rotating roster of writers with has an open comments section. The conversation goes on with or without organizations and spins out of control and back in control as it will. Blogs were born as a forum for individual/unaffiliated voices. I might have a bad memory, but I think it’s only in their later incarnation that they became co-opted by organizations and institutions who saw them as traffic drivers. I actually prefer blogs written by individual people to blogs administered by newspapers, magazines, companies etc. I trust them more.

  8. Hello Oscar.

    The closing down of the Poetry Foundation of America’s blog Harriet to comments, is an interesting development; and unless I am completely deluded and on the wrong track entirely; think I can provide some of the real reasons the editors of Harriet, Travis Nichols and Cath Halley; made this decision.

    Harriet closed their comments down, co-inciding with the editor Travis Nichols, discovering I could not be prevented from commenting there because my isp isn’t fixed. Rather than risk having me appear; he decided to close the blog.

    Basically three bloggers were targeted by Travis after enjoying ourselves too much there last summer; and on first September last year; we we’re dumped off the blog without warning or reason.

    The blog Scarriet was set up by two of us, who I’d only met on Harriet months earlier, discovering only later of their involvment with Alan Cordle and the Foetry scene.

    I managed to get back on Harriet in the New Year, after discovering my isp isn’t fixed (because of the cable company who provides my internet) and was having great fun ‘undercover’ – first as Eric Landon and then as another, female name I can’t quite recall at present.

    This did Travis Nichols head in, and he decided to close the blog down rather than let me appear there as myself having fun.

    As I say, I could be deluded; but let me give you the story.


    Last year I ended up on Harriet, and met two American bloggers; Thomas Graves and Christopher Woodman; and the three of us spent a six-month summer of love, spamming as mad possessed-by-imbas dreamers (imbas means poetry-fizz in Gaelic), being contemporary critical show-boats whose pizzaz and snazz stopped traffic; cut ‘the cloth and talk of honest men’ (as Kerry poet James Kelly has it) into small square silences, blocked off time caesuras in the posting of and halting because – what we wrote achieved the goal of being Read – not skimmed over.

    And it was there I learnt – from Graves (a poster I knew then only as the pseudonym Tom Brady, discovering after Brady’s the Beckham of America) – that all my tussle with myself about one’s Name in print I’d been writing through for the last few years; was misplaced and but the imaginative paranoia of a blogger with ideas above his station.

    This was because the Anonymous poster who I knew only as ‘Brady’, was writing and starring as the best text in what passed for critical debate there. I spent weeks tracking down his writing and came across three years of Tom Brady, Monday Love, The Earl of Devon and a handful of other nom de guerres ‘Brady’ had been performing under; online in American poetry chat sites, most of which had banned him for being a spammer.

    Unlike me, he never made a spelling mistake and his thoughts were well ordered, rational and his obsession, was Edgar Allen Poe – which all talk eventually turned toward.

    I saw that he and the other chap, Christopher Woodman, had been up to exactly the same thing as I had for the last few years at the Guardian and other sites in the UK; but in America.

    ‘Brady’ was writing by far the most cogent stuff in the cut and thrust debating atmosphere of Harriet 09, and after two months of us three running amok; acting, being passionate, reaching toward the itch and slowly attaining what poetic capacity the good Lord, God, Creator, Cosmic Consciousness Co-Ordinator – put in to make us be – spirituality: all there was in the four month affair when we made Harriet and it took off as a blog; was honest omarbhágh na bhFileadh (bardic contention) and free debate.


    Travis Nichols, the Harriet editor; after two months of what he publically purported as the thing the Poetry Foundation wanted to see on their blog; Free Speech freely talking; wrote to me a mail I immediately suspected was written, not by a force of ‘best wishes’ he signed it off with; but by that old devil called humanly competitive jealousy; arisen out of a general pissing off of him by three windy spammers, not playing a game of suck-up ‘n say-nice, and in such a manner as to be a continual reminding presence that the poetry world wasn’t turning how Travis wanted it to.

    He said, because I was appearing a lot there; he was writing to flag up the fact some ‘changes’ were shortly going to be introduced for the ‘benefit of the members’ – and also asked me if I could post a bit less often, before signing off ‘best wishes’.

    My instinct thought it was alll rubbish; a man writing to me who was unable to get to the point of not wanting me there; but not having the ability to say it in Letters. I wrote back a two page assault about Free Speech; getting into the groove in my head, acting the part and denouncing him. This did the trick of getting it out my system, and thinking if I sent it he would love that kind of thing, because it would give him a perfect excuse to ban me; I didn’t send it and opted instead for the double bluff.

    ‘Of course Travis, that’s no problem, thank you very much for giving me an opportunity to talk at Harriet.



    I then took the step of making contact with Christopher Woodman, who I had only exhcnaged with in public on Harriet prior to contacting him. He is a seventy year old ex Harvard Oxford English lecturer, with a life and wife in Thailand, whose own itch to speak on Harriet and involvement with the Foetry scene; was because he believed he’d been ripped of by Joan Houlihan and was agitating for fixed manuscript competition coteries to be exposed.

    He informed me he’d also had the same e-mail from Nichols, as had Tom Brady (Thomas Graves) and in his mind, it was clear that we three who’d been spamming the most; were the only ones to get this heads-up from the Editor.

    I told him I thought the mail was a ploy by Travis; written in such a way as to get a windy response; which would then give him an excuse to put us on moderation. Woodman however made the mistake of falling into the trap and wrote back trying to debate with Travis; in a polite and passionately felt e-mail that gave Trav the excuse to promptly put him on moderation: his strategy to take us out one by one, clear in hindsight – as it was only me, Woodman and ‘Brady’ who Trav wrote to.

    The upshot was he introduced the recommendation icon of ‘thumbs’ up or down, that he referred to as a ‘neat expereiment’; and after seven clicks negative, the post was hidden from view. It was clear we were really doing his head in, but because we were also obviously sincere about our love for ditties, he had to go the long route instead of just being honest and telling us to **** off.


    With Woodman on moderation; the cat and mouse with Travis, Graves (Tom Brady) and myself, continued all summer; and on 1 September 2009, with a new cohort of bloggers coming onto Harriet; Travis showed his true hand and just zapped all three of our accounts. No pre-warning, explanation or any communuication with us as to why. His silence an eloquent statement – ‘you win, I lose’, bcuz Trav couldn’t compete intellectually he more or less said: ‘**** off, I’ve had enough it’s nothing to do with poetry and everything to do with controlling how we act, what we say, all the phony shit.’

    I felt sorry most for Graves (who I knew then only as his nome de guerre Brady); because he was the one who didn’t put a foot wrong in print there; never lost his cool, was unfailingly polite, and bcuz his argument (obsession) is waffling on about a shadowy diaboloical pact he posits the earliest Transandentalists conspired to life (and he is there to expose), that they and their offspring would one day control all of American poetry – he wound up the squares somthing rotten with this dotty position; tho there was none of em there at Harriet who could whup him. Even tho it’s obviously a laughable argument.

    Indeed it was great reading him tying all comers up in knots.

    This is why Travis kicked us off on 9/1 last year.


    Indeed Oscar; I have had a chat gaffe in place for something like this, since the last time I had to go in and do a bit of public duty; after the main poetry gulag in the UK, controlled, like Harriet; by more or less one person; who the story is too long to tell; but the upshot is; here is a brand new space if you fancy dumping owt.

    Poetry Society

    I’ve had three chat gaffes in my time, and set up this fourth one two years ago; as a poetic act, after returning to the main UK stage and taking revenge in Letters on its owner, Jane Holland.


    It was in the third one, called Literature Lovers; that I turned into a tosser who thought I had power just because I controlled a pane on a chat gaffe.

    Not that I knew it at the time. I got too deep into the acting, and because I knew things other members didn’t, like how to make things appear and disappear with the click of a mouse, I confused this with having real power. The truth was within two months of setting the site up, I had turned into a dictator.

    It had about six months and then died, when everyone left because I was such an arsehole, and once the effect of being a chat gaffe arsehole wore off, I thought, how very lucky I am to be back on the ground, because what happens is, I would have turned into Travis Nichols or Jane Holland and her little pony bridage; a ruthless deluded person with control of a mouse and hiding from myself the desire to be telling everyone else how to behave.

    grá agus síocháin

  9. Oscar,

    Desmond is the holy fool who speaks the truth and thus makes others uncomfortable…I see he ended the discussion with his remarks…but the irony is he does speak towards the truth…(if only he were less long-winded he would do better) Travis banned me and others on September 1, 2009 and Travis was obviously uptight re: different voices. We can speak at length re: abstract principles, but the truth tends to be about actual people and actual events.

    Scarriet is the website formed in Sept. 2009 after the Harriet Massacre. We quickly formed our own identity and I see Reb Livingston on this thread: she was in Scarriet’s March Madness BAP Poetry playoff and finished second! That was great fun.

    You can read my response to Harriet’s decision to ban comments on its blog.


    Thomas Brady

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