JMW: I think a great deal about technology and poetry, perhaps because I began writing and publishing just before we became as glued to computers as we are now. With respect to technological “advances,” what’s your hope for the future of poetry?
PO'L: I love computers for the way they can manage poetry and facilitate me sharing it with other people. I can send a poem to a dozen friends as a PDF and get feedback from them in a few days. I love the internet for its archival properties: an exponentially growing resource of recordings, videos, and texts. I can study Dante on the Princeton Dante Project website by reading the lucid translation of the Comedy by the Hollanders with the original alongside, click to read antique commentaries from Boccaccio, and listen to a canto recited in mellifluous Italian. Incredible.
Poetry these days, in my mind, requires three technologies: the book, reading, and, to a significantly reduced degree, recitation. The technology of the book is still relatively recent. In terms of human culture, some version of the book or its analogues (think codex or scroll or tablet) has been around for centuries. But the book itself, as something available to a reader, is an essentially modern technology. Right now, the book as an object in poetry is bizarrely static: 50-75 pages long, divided into three or four sections, with maybe some notes and acknowledgments, and an author bio. This feels like some kind of neutralized mean between Whitman’s and Dickinson’s notions of the book I mentioned already. I guess I’m saying I don’t yet think we’ve fully explored the possibilities the book as a technology for transmitting poetry provides us.
Reading: Guy Davenport once said to me that reading is the strangest thing as humans that we do. The power of the book as a poetry technology is the opportunities it provides for reading: you can keep books for years and years, you can carry them with you, and you can write in them as a way of interfering with your reading or remembering things from past acts. There are things I like about reading on the internet, especially being able to look things up as I’m going that it would be interesting to see translated back into the physical book. But then I think: why not just get up and look that word up in your dictionary? Arthur C. Clarke famously quipped, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” (I just searched that on Google to make sure I got it right!) Reading as a widespread activity among humans is still so recent (the last two hundred years or so?) that its technology still comes across as magic for the most part. We’re only at the beginning of understanding this act.
Recitations of poetry are enabled by the internet and computers, for which I’m grateful, whether it’s YouTube videos of Charles Olson reciting poems from Maximus or a recording of Susan Howe and David Grubbs performing Souls of the Labadie Tract. And from here on out, we should have an evolving archive of what any given poet sounds like reading his or her work. That’s going to be an incredible asset for the future. It already is an incredible asset.
That said, poetry-wise, too much shit makes it into the world because of computers and the internet. I think this especially evident in poorly designed books printed cheaply on demand in ugly, unappealing editions that everybody seems to accept because, oh, well, it’s just the way things are. Really? Says who? And since when?
Hopes for the future of poetry: better made, more interesting books that make their way into the hands of committed readers who, following the channels of their curiosity, might seek out some more of your work or recordings of you reading it or videos of you reciting it on the internet.