Friday, September 30, 2011

The poet as content provider

Poetry and the Web go together remarkably well. It's a good fit, for several reasons. The average length of a modern American poem is just about one screenload of text.  Then, there's the money. A Hollywood producer who sinks $100 million into a film can't afford to give it away on the Web. But since it costs next to nothing to write a poem, publishing it to be viewed for free on the Web is not such a big change from previous methods of disseminating poems. Poets have pretty much always given it away.

But the thing that impresses me most, and this is going to sound perverse, is the relative permanence of Web publishing over print publishing. How can I say that, when everyone else is bemoaning the evanescent nature of pixels compared to good old corporeal paper and ink? 

I've published some poems in printed "little" magazines, all of them now out of print. Occasionally a copy will turn up in the catalog of a rare book dealer. But so few copies of literary journals are printed to begin with,  and so few kept, that you might as well seal a poem into a bottle and cast it into the ocean.

On the other hand, nearly every poem I have ever published on the Web is still instantly available, anywhere in the world. The very first was in an early ezine called Blue Moon Review, and here it still is  

A large group of poems came out in 1997 in Riding the Meridian, from web publishing pioneer Jennifer Ley. And it's all still there to be read, and has been read far more times than it ever could have been if immured in the pages of low-circulation little mags. 

The real reason poetry and the Web are a perfect marriage--there aren't many people who care about it, and before the Web it was labor-intensive for them to find each other. In this they resemble enthusiasts of nearly every other small-niche interest. What the Web has done is create truly vibrant and growing communities of people who share the same rare allergies, collecting hobbies, obsessions, and kinks.

I don't think poetry is just a kink. It's a mother art, a wellspring of all of our literature, lively arts and culture. But now, with the Web, poetry never had it so good.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Army Termite Midget Dream

Halfway through my 10th year, for the first time ever, I noticed myself. All at once, I knew that I was me, a person, different from and separate from all the other people. Just as quickly, I knew that I had to grab this sudden feeling and secure it so it could not get away, and to do that I had to put it into words. Fiercely, I said to myself, "I am me and I know I am me. I must remember this moment."

Not long after that, I had a dream, a regular sort of night dream, with jump-cuts and shape-shifting and all the nonsensical stuff that happens in dreams. What made this dream different was that I gave it a title, and started trying to sell it on the playground. "I'm selling dreams," I said. "I just had The Army Termite Midget Dream and I'll sell it to you for a dime."

My friends, my two best school friends, made it clear that this was silly and not the least bit entertaining and that nobody was going to pay me to tell them my dreams. Even when I revealed tantalizing details of the dream, like our classmate Bonnie Peterson wearing a suit of armor, nobody was buying it.

What the hell was I doing? I've never understood that incident or known what to call it, until now. Four inches up the screen from where I am typing this sentence, on Blogger's dashboard, is a clickable tab that says MONETIZE. I haven't clicked it yet, but someday, someday  I will. And then I'm finally going to sell somebody that dream.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Poem: The Names We Took

Slow Turtle, Sitting Bull, I envy you no more.
These are the names that we took:
Garden of Trees, Almond Leaf, Shooting Star,
Grapeleaf, Grapevine, Grapeblossom,
He-Who-Prunes-Vines and He-Who-Sells Wine,
a River of Wine, Wine Glass, Goblet, White Cloth,
Grain-Grinder, Bread, the Guest-to-Whom-Wine-Is-Served,
Gift of Wine, A Field of Corn, Shining Corn,
White Bread, Son of the Earth, Petals of Stone,
Little Flower, Big Mountain, Silver Nail,
Silver Ingot, and Gold, Always Gold,
A Flood of Gold, A Brook of Gold,
He-Who-Fishes-for-Gold, A Grove of Gold,
A Roomful of it, its Shine, its Joy, its Clang,
its Grumble.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Hoozajew? How I defeated an online Nazi

Today is Google’s birthday. With as much as I use Google and how totally the search engine and all of its subsidiaries have changed my life, today ought to be my birthday too. And why shouldn’t it? This is America. You can have any birthday you want. That’s what my grandfather, Leon Weinstock, believed when he immigrated. He didn’t change his name, but he wanted an all-American birthday, and chose, what else? The Fourth of July.

My name is Weinstock. Let me spell that for you, I say. Spelling out my surname, which I must do constantly, is a minor annoyance. People named, e.g., Ann Jones, have no idea what we go through, unless they impulsively commit hyphenation somewhere along the way.

We are foreigners on this earth, no matter where we go, no matter how long we stay. Forget for an instant and your name will remind you. Once, when my father bought a lake house in South Jersey, a neighbor remarked that his name might be too long to fit on the mailbox. Nine letters? Give me a break. He would never have said that to a nine-letter WASP, not even to a ten-letter one. The implication was clear: we simply didn’t belong.

My interest in Jewish names quickly brought me into contact with a brilliant anti-Semite. It started when we traveled to New York for a bar mitzvah. In our hotel room I picked up the Manhattan phone book and started to browse. Immediately what caught my eye was the astonishing variety of Jewish names. There were all the usual ones, Gold this and Silver that, Wein this and Rose that, but also others, unfamiliar but in the same onomastic vein, full of references to shiny metal and jewels, pretty flowers, delicious food and drink. I wrote down all my favorites. After the trip I pulled down my German dictionary, looked up the names, translated them into English, and wrote my poem “The Names We Took.”

The subject intrigued me, so with Google as my tireless research assistant, I swarmed the net to learn just how we got such names. To make a long story short, we took them, en masse, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, at the behest of European civil authorities who were finding it damned inconvenient to keep track of (and tax and draft and control) people who had no surnames at all, instead using patronymics of the “David Ben Schmuel” variety – “David son of Samuel.”

But as my search expanded, I also found a website called On the site was offered, free for downloading, a piece of software called “Hoozajew 2.0” whose stated purpose was “counting Jews.” Just feed in a list of names and back comes the list with all the Jewish names flagged. The site owner had already performed this data analysis on dozens of lists, and had discovered, with alarm, that Jews were taking over the government, the law, the banks, the media, the arts and sciences, and more.

From my research, I knew that the anonymous site owner probably had not developed the software, but had adopted a program devised for a much different and more benign purpose than uncovering the workings of the worldwide conspiracy. No, it was developed by Jews for fundraising purposes, a quick and efficient way to sort a prospect mailing list for Jewish charities who wanted to target the tribe with appeal letters, rather than wasting postage and printing on unconnected strangers.

The site, perhaps a dozen pages in all, was very matter-of-fact, quite understated as anti-Semitic ranting goes, but still hateful enough for me to want to know exactly who was sponsoring it. I searched for days, checking domain name registries and every search engine I knew about, looking for clues.

Lucky for me, the Hoozajew founder had other hobbies than Jew-bashing. He carelessly included a traceable email address on the hate site. The address included the name “dimona.” Dimona is the location of Israel’s secret nuclear facility, the place they developed and build their still-unacknowledged atomic bombs.

But the Dimona address also appeared on a site about the physics of the trebuchet, a medieval war engine, a sort of catapult popular among technically minded Ren Faire geeks. On the trebuchet site, he freely gave out his real name and location. He was a scientist, living in central New Jersey. I found his address, his phone number, the names of his wife and children and brother. I found out that he had once run for the Senate as a Libertarian candidate, and that he occasionally posted consumer book reviews on Amazon. In other words, he wasn’t a solitary kook; he was a man with a job and some standing in his community, and who would have strong reasons to keep his hatred hidden.

So now I knew, but what was I going to do about it? I didn’t really object to his having his site. I didn’t write to his domain host and demand that the site be taken down. What bothered me most was his anonymity. I wanted to expose him, or something.

At that point, my quest slowed down. I just didn’t know what to do next. I dithered. I called New Jersey’s Anti-Defamation League; they listened but offered no action. I called a newspaper in the man’s town, but they did not seem interested in the story either.

Eventually, I realized that I would have to do something myself. I began to email the man, as if I were a sympathizer who wanted to chat, using an email address that did not give away my own identity. We exchanged several rounds of email over a few days; he was cautious, but once he was convinced that I was on his side, his comments grew more virulent.

And then I overplayed my hand. I told him I knew exactly who he was, using his name and everything else I had found, and challenging him to come out in the open. At that point, he panicked. He did not write back, but immediately, within a few hours that same day, scrubbed both his sites of any identifying information, and soon after anonymized his domain registration. continued for a few months after that, and then eventually disappeared.

Did my emails force him to skedaddle and contribute to shutting down the site? I hope so, and I’m glad I did what I did. I do notice, though, that the site name is in use again, this time as a sort of links page on the topic of free speech.

The poem "The Names We Took" can be read in my Sept. 28 post.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Sliver Time

You say you have no time to practice your art, and I bubble over with advice. I say “Choose a different form, one that is better suited to the precious slivers of time you still have. Write haiku or flash fiction. Paint watercolors. Compose etudes instead of symphonies, snapshots instead of studio shots. Make raku pots. If you can’t roast, stir-fry. Maybe art can’t be central, but it can be interstitial.” That’s the kind of thing I say.

I am sorry for all that advice, you may ignore it. Actually, you already ignore it. But worse than that, I ignore it. In all these years, I have never been able to settle on an artistic endeavor for myself that fit permanently and productively into my life.  And yet, when asked who I really really am, I say “poet.” I say “writer.” I say “artist.”

And then there is this blog, which I announced four years ago, and about which I blithely used the word “diary.” If this were actually a diary, there would have been nearly 1500 posts by now instead of 40. It hasn’t been daily, it hasn’t even been monthly.  My track record on that kind of dailiness, on any kind of dailiness, is poor. I never do the same thing two days in a row, never have done.

Still I suspect that it is now time to make art every day, because all I have is every day. So here’s a new idea. I will write here every day, and there will be only one excuse for not blogging, and that will be writing poetry. If I’m here, I hope I will bring you entertaining prose. If I’m missing, there will be a poem in the works. Feel free to ask for the poem, and if I don’t have it, give me a hard time about it.

Last week I started asking friends, colleagues and students to give me poetry assignments, and I’ve already received dozens. I’ve got my work cut out for me. Gotta go work. I'll see you tomorrow. Or better yet, I won't.