E-Literature as a Commons

Every semester when I begin teaching, I tell my students that literature, unlike many other disciplines that require specialized study or training or language to access, is an intellectual commons.  I point out that everyone can contribute to a discussion of literature and that everyone can benefit from participating in a discussion of literature.

I have complete faith in literature as a commons, in poetry as a commons, even the poetry that some would argue is inaccessible to the novice or to the lay-person – conceptual poetry, sound poetry, language poetry, avante garde poetry.  Accessibility is a myth created by those who seek to create a division between poetic traditions of narrative or lyricism or protest or activism and poetic traditions of experimentation and innovation.  I do not champion working-class poetry because it is accessible; I champion it because it is important, and often moving, and often grounded in experiences critical to the formation of a larger social identity.

This isn’t to say that I don’t privilege openness in a poem, the idea that a poem invites its readers in instead of shooing its readers away.  I think Rodrigo Toscano explains this well in his recent blogpost on Harriet ¡ONLY TWO TYPES OF POETRY! when he makes a distinction between come-to-me poetry and go-to-you poetry (and then expands on this idea delightfully when he includes fuck-you-both poetry and fuck-me poetry – a premise that Julie Carr riffs on when she introduces the wanna-fuck poems in her blogpost Shame and the Shape of the I).

And so.  Electronic literature.  Is this the commons’ new frontier?

Take, for example, Your World of Text.  It is a digital model of a commons.  An infinite tabula rasa that invites everyone to take part in its de(con)struction, and everyone has the power to create new tabula rasae, new worlds in which others can generate text or type art.  It’s fascinating in places and filled with gobbledygook or dross in other places and I found a castle which was populated by other people’s text which was so cool…but is it literature?

It’s not fair of me to start there because that isn’t really the question I want to explore.  I’m more interested in the media and whether or not the digital realm (which combines the public and the private/the political and the personal in ways that I believe we are just beginning to understand and negotiate) is conducive to the creation of a commons as opposed to isolating or exclusionary practices.  There is so much electronic literature that I love, like almost anything by Andy Campbell (Spawn and Dim O’Gauble) and Stephanie Strickland’s The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot, Jason Nelson’s Wittenoom and almost everything I’ve experienced on The New River and on SpringGun.  And I think the poems themselves are open.

But does the advanced technology leave some people out?  And it that important?  A book is exclusionary in that it is available only to those who are literate and who can negotiate a library or a bookstore.  Digital literacy is increasing at a rapid pace and is, I suspect, not much of an issue for anyone born after 1980.  There is the question of access to the medium, the need for computers and software and at least a rudimentary understanding of navigating through a digital poem, which may present a larger challenge to a larger population than I can readily grasp.

I also wonder about the experience of reading electronic literature.  I mean, reading a book is, for the most part, a solitary activity, and consequently isolating, and the reader must seek community in the commons to share her experience.  But printed text provides no illusion of interactivity, and so the reader must seek it out, must participate in the commons to have an interactive experience.  Does digital poetry bypass a reader’s need for a commons?  Or does it merely bypass a reader’s need for a traditional commons and instead provide a new commons, one in which a reader can have a public exchange/experience while remaining private?

I’m not sure.  I’m really not.

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1 Comment »

  1. carol dorf said

    I’m not sure it you’d define it as “working class poetry,” but there is certainly poetry by working class people that experiments with form and structure. Class can get blurry — because often intermediaries like universities are involved in poet’s work becoming well enough known for them to have a wide readership (i.e. Doug Kearney and USC.)

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