Thursday, March 05, 2009

Let's Talk Poetry: Part Three

The Internet was different back then.

First of all, things didn't look as glitzy as they do now. Often when people did try to spice up their pages with graphics, the results were schmaltzy at best.

Second was that there was still this underground network vibe that was a hold-over of the old BBS days. I sort of feel like the BBS posters were the Ham Radio operators of the Digital Age. But, they were the ones who laid the foundation for what we now call the Blogosphere.

So, devoid of all the commercialism and crap that's all over the Internet today, those stoic early days were actually pretty cool.

Because I was trying to place my lousy poems with various online sources, I started running into like-minded folks in other areas of the arts. One of the biggest influences on my thinking to this day was my encounter with the Mail Art Network. Having begun following the Fluxus and Happening Scenes of the 1960's and inspired initially by the work of artist Ray Johnson, Mail Art was (and is) an informal network of artists who share and collaborate via sending small pieces of art to one another via the postal service. A spirit of collaboration and freedom exists within the network which is by turns kitsch and naive on one day, and profound on the next; much of this is fostered by a tradition of collaborative art exchanges and unjuried exhibitions. Things may have changed, but at least back then there was no money in it and the focus was often on the network itself.

While there were certainly more than a fair share of vanity projects, occasionally a truly inspired show would pop up such as an anti-death-penalty exhibition in an old Spanish castle that brought together work by hundreds of artists across the globe or such as a simple postcard show in 1999 at Chicago's Peace Museum that asked the simple question: What are your thoughts going into the new millennium?

Behind all of this -- for better or worse -- was a spirit of networking. Not in this case for the purpose of getting a better job or making more money, but just for the sake of being a creative outlet.

I remember in those days that many people involved in the network were teachers. I sent a small piece in to an exhibition that took place in a school in France; the kids organized and curated the show; I can only imagine the kinds of backflips proponents of Project Based Learning would do to have kids organize an international art exhibition as a class project.

I say all of this for one purpose. And that's to bring up the notion of 'network' and what that means.

There's been a lot of talk lately about '21st Century Skills' and whether or not this is some ploy by software companies or computer geeks to take over the minds of our youths. Well, as I see it, the most important 21st Century Skill is the ability to navigate in a connected global network. This is something that I learned as a guy back in the '90s just trying to get his poetry published and it's something that I see every single day in my students' blogging activities.

Yesterday, I posted a sort of manifesto/philosophy/quasi-policy thing. But, I'm not philosopher. I'm no policy wonk. I'm just a guy in a classroom. A guy in a classroom who's been engaged in that global network in both the most ridiculous as well as occasionally sublime ways for well over a decade now.

Yet I don't consider myself a Digital Native. Digital Natives are kids who were born after 1990. Us folks who were born between 1970 and 1990 are more like Digital Slackers. We used the stuff for what we needed to, but we didn't really see how it would be the prime source of our 'intellegence gathering operations' ;)

We grew up with LPs and then cassette tapes and then CDs. Technology was a blur, but it was a physical thing. You could break an LP. Or a cassette. Or a CD.

Try breaking an MP3.

What I'm getting at is that Y2K marked a shift away from the Analog Age into the Digital Age. And even though I was unwittingly taking part in that shift, it didn't really hit me until blogs and RSS technology and Web 2.0 came along. It didn't make sense until the power of technology caught up with the power of human networking. I considered technology with a healthy dose of skepticism. While friends were signing up for MySpace, I was working in an old bookstore. For me, the networking aspect of the Web and the conversational aspect of real life were the same thing. But, what I didn't realize and what many folks didn't realize was that this fusion of self-publishing, instant communication, and networking was in fact laying the foundation of what would be the 21st century's true break from the 20th.

Back to poetry.

In 2003, my buddy Phil and I started a short-lived online poetry journal. There were millions of these e-zines hovering out there in the cloud, but we were doing something different.

We were going to take this global network thing and this bookworm thing and bring them together in a way that would be unintelligible even to us. He was a French scholar. I was a Latin and Greek geek.

We were going to start a multilingual poetry review devoid of translations. be continued...

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