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The reading experience got weird for me when, seeking to learn more about this "breakdown of community," I entered the POETICS archives at SUNY Buffalo. I sat at my computer until my eyes were shriveled and my carpal tunnel numb, until the bad vibes were so palpable I was sweating adrenaline.
POETICS is an email list, a space where poets, many of them well-known, correspond. List participants assist one another in finding information about other poets, scholarship is shared and even born, readings, awards, and publications are announced, and original poems are occasionally offered.
The POETICS archives, available and free on the Web, is a compendium of scholarship well worth reading, comparable to the best print anthologies of issues in new poetry (except that it is updated constantly, free, and not "out of print.") However, it is not organized like any book. The POETICS archives is pure hypertext: there is no simple way to read this. You have to make decisions about which thread to follow, which author to follow, and which direction to proceed chronologically. You cannot read without making these decisions and its very easy to click the wrong thing and get lost, to read the responses before the original posts. It is content-driven. It is collaborative to the worst extreme. There are a multiplicity of conflicting perspectives and writing techniques. There is no map. And it is fascinating and, at times, awful.
I am slowly drawn in and, as I became immersed, every bad feeling I have ever harbored about being a writer - all the bitternesses and jealousies and fears and arrogances and desperations and angers and competitions - are all hammered into resonance in a slowly crescendoing chord of utter psychological discomfort. The poets call each other jeering, sniveling, fascistic, insulting, vacuous, amateurish, clownish, asinine, apolitical do or kno-nothings, physically threatening, leeches. They compete for legitimacy through publication records, youth, age. They disagree about whether Susan Howe is "opaque" and whether "brillig" was coined by Lewis Carroll or Humpty Dumpty. Real military atrocities are used as metaphors for one another's behavior, trivializing those atrocities. Some of the posts are really quite nasty. Misunderstandings abound. A fun example is when Charles Bernstein sends a cryptic email to the list. The message (actually a two-word command to the listserv computer missent to the people on the list) receives not only some decent criticism, but an anagrammatic poem, demonstrating that many regret Bernstein's withdrawal from the fray.
In the midst of the tempest, "Let there be community" becomes a common sentiment.