Friday, January 08, 2010

Every once in awhile, somebody says or writes something so over the top that it makes you stop & ponder what the real content of the message is. Thus, when I see a tweet such as the following by M. Alt., the pseudonym of an apparently Anglo male (big surprise) in Korea, that

Ron Silliman: your blog is a fucking graveyard, you morbid fuck.

I stop to ask myself what it is that I’m doing & why. And this was before yesterday’s note, memorializing Lhasa de Sela & Kenneth Noland, or even the mentions in Tuesday’s linkstream that Don Belton, Jaromir Horec & James Kavanaugh had died. What does it mean that I’ve noted eight deaths in one week?

One thing it invariably means is that I’ve missed some folks. When I read Poets & Writers, I note their lists of the recently departed & always discover a few writers either that I’ve never heard of before, or whose passing managed to skip past my own information resources, mostly because they never received an obit in a medium that touched the net.

I do hear, maybe two or three times per year, some negative comment about my memorializing the passing of poets and other artists whose lives & work I think relevant to the poetics focus of this blog, such as musicians & painters. But for every negative comment, I receive somewhere between 20 & 30 positive ones, including long heartfelt messages from family members of the deceased thanking me for taking the time to note their loved one and put up a few relevant links. That’s a ratio I can certainly live with.

I did not envision doing this when I began this blog back in 2002. I began rather by accident when I noted the passing of Robert Creeley. All I did when the news came from Marfa that he had died was put up a photo and a couple of links, but I noticed very quickly that my readership that week rose something like 40 percent. I was personally too upset by Bob’s passing to write any more right away, and yet people kept coming back to that blog note as if I had done something meaningful. My readership never went back down to its earlier numbers. Obviously this was touching people in a way I had not anticipated.

This forced me to recognize that the nature of my blog had changed somewhat, and was changing still. It was no longer simply me & my opinions, even if that’s all I had wanted it to be. It was becoming more of a community institution, an online z√≥calo, a web plaza to which people might come for news & information, not simply to hear me on my soapbox preach about the evils of Quietude. That was the point where I began to take adding lists of links to news items related to poetry (& more generally the arts) seriously. And I realized that I needed to cover more than just “my kind” of verse, nor just American, English language or western poetics. Just as the world of poetry is no longer the white male enclave it proclaimed itself to be 50 years ago (the year that The New American Poetry was published containing 39 white males, 1 African-American male & 4 white women), the idea that English language poetry can operate ignorant of the poetries in that language of Africa and/or India is going to seem ludicrous soon enough. Why not acknowledge that right now?

So my sense of this endeavor evolved, and with it the idea of noting significant passings got added to the mix. When you think of the fact that there are – to use the low-end figure – 20,000 publishing poets in the English language, and perhaps that many substantial artists in relevant other media, what you get is a community of some 40,000 adults, about what you might expect of a small city (Wilmington, Delaware or Berkeley, California, for example). When you plot out what 40,000 lives between the ages of 25 & mid-80s might look like on an actuarial table, you would anticipate something close to 800 deaths per year. Fortunately, this community skews quite young. There were only a few hundred such poets in the 1950s, which means that the number now in their 80s is disproportionately small when compared against an “average” community of similar size. My response to M. Alt is that it could be a whole lot worse than what you see here. And in 30, 40, 50 years, it most certainly will be.

As my sense of this blog evolved, I began to do some things differently. Not only did I do some things you might expect more from a community newspaper, such as include memorial notices & links of resources, I began to get some help. Lynn Behrendt does the remarkable job of keeping over 1200 blog addresses current each month and is the person who thought up the addition of collective blogs to that list (which several readers have told me is the best part of it as well). Don Wentworth contributes at least a quarter of the links you read each week. I’ve gradually shifted away from using bots & alerts to gather news to the point where maybe 80 percent of the links you see on the link lists have been sent to me by someone. Including personal friends and colleagues of Vic Chesnutt & Lhasa de Sela who felt they deserved to be acknowledged here.

And, I should note, this blog & the arts community it serves is not the whole of my life any more than it is yours. In the past week, the two most significant deaths in my life were of friends whom I have not mentioned here until now. Mark Helwege was a colleague of mine at IBM who was the VP of worldwide sales at Brainware when he died of a heart attack last weekend. John Irwin was a one-time armed robber who made himself into one of the best sociologists of prison life in America. Through his books, his work at San Francisco State & especially his role as the Gandalf of the Prisoners Union in California, John was perhaps the single most influential figure in the prison reform movement in California during the last half of the 20th century.