Another Anonymous Poet by John W Sexton
(Poetry Ireland News, July/ August 2010)
For some time I’ve been interested, in common with many poets, in the possibilities of the internet as a poetic community. To begin with, however, I suppose I should define my terms. I’m not too concerned with the communities that are already thriving and organised, but with the one that is still fairly anarchic in its relative infancy. Online poetic journals have already established their legitimacy amongst poets in the last decade and there are also specialist groups of poets and poetic disciplines thriving well; but what has been gaining my interest is the blogosphere, that wobbling universe that contains both the intelligentsia and the naïve beginner in the one room.
It has long been claimed that the internet, and the blogosphere in general, is the last democratic frontier of poets. It holds, theoretically, no distinctions of class, creed, sex or colour, so that tremendous freedoms are beckoning those who dare to cross its threshold. The truth, however, is far more mundane. The blogosphere, like any space containing human activity, is as full of prohibitions and prejudices as one could find anywhere; but, theoretically at least, it is still seen as the last unconquered land.
Most poets now use cyberspace quite extensively, in the way of personal blogs and online journals, and many of the fears and snobberies of the past have long since dissolved. However, the revolution long-promised, that the blogosphere would break down boundaries and create a new space for emerging poets, never really happened to the extent that was hoped for. This is mainly because established and semi-established poets won’t contribute new poems to the blogs. And why should they? A new poem posted to a blog is a wasted poem.
With this dilemma in mind I decided, exactly a year ago, to embark on an experiment in poetry and to enter the blogosphere and start posting new, previously unpublished poetry. My criteria were as follows: the poems would have to be of the highest quality I could write; I would write under an assumed name and would be, to all intents and purposes, an emerging poet among the many millions; I would create a new persona, be a poet with a definite and very personal idea of prosody; I would be someone else; I would try to change the world. Written down, this sounds totally absurd, and that’s exactly the point. I wanted to test the claims made for this new frontier, I wanted to be naïve again.
For my first testing ground I arrived at a blog hosted by the Guardian newspaper called Poster Poems, which is overseen by the Irish experimental poet Billy Mills. Ironically, Poster Poems is as far from experimentation as you could possibly get, and poets post new poetry that responds to a theme posted every month or so. Thus, on the 15 June 2009 I began my career as the poet Jack Brae Curtingstall, posting under the user-name of Martianisms. As the user-name suggests, Jack is something of a Martian, and the first poems were certainly characteristically Martianistic in approach. Sadly, although this particular blog does occasionally give a home to decent poetry, it is in reality a rough-house of the washed and the unwashed in equal measure. Saying that, some interesting poets can be found there; all of them anonymous, all of them anti poetry-establishment, all of them dabblers in verse. Many of them are suspicious of poetry and some of them even despise it, so it’s a place of paradox. It’s exactly the kind of place I like to be in.
When friends ask me why I write under other names I always reply that I can write twice as much as two people as I can as one, so the exercise had the first advantage of increasing my productivity. In the past year Jack has posted over 150 poems between the various blogs. Despite my attempts at quality, inevitably many of the poems fall far short of my own expectations, but nevertheless, I now have a file of over a hundred fairly decent ones which can be further whittled down to a good collection. But here’s the rub: poems posted on the blogs are deemed published and so I can’t now seek to publish them in journals; and blog-published poets are looked down upon by publishers who have no interest in publishing such work. So the collection, as such, is unpublishable. And that, in essence, is the true freedom of the blogosphere for poets: when publishing on it you are giving your work away for nothing, and once given its value is then lost even to yourself. It is the last truly radical act left to us. It is the ultimate waste of poetry.
Of course, I knew all this before I began, and it was the hopelessness of the enterprise that actually drew me to it. Only in hopelessness is there true adventure. These days Jack is currently a minimalist and posts his poems, or, if you prefer, throws his poems away, on Facebook. Jack's philosophy is that Facebook is like the endless rows of factory and warehouse walls that stretch out on both sides of a city railway line. On these walls you will find mile upon mile of street art or graffiti, and that's how I treat Facebook. Facebook is simply a derelict wasteland of noise and has no editorial control, and writers there have to be their own editors; and like graffiti artists, we have to share the space with the mindless scribblers and the urinating drunks. Posting new poetry there is, by turns, exhilarating and wasteful, and I find the whole experience subversive and liberating.
In essence I now treat the internet as my graffiti space, and like graffiti my poetry can be ignored or read in equal measure; and oftentimes my poetry is simply a form of background noise, like some mysterious radiation.
John W Sexton’s most recent collection of poetry is Petit Mal (Revival Press). In 2007 he was awarded a Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship in Poetry.