Online Poetry in Motion

The Pennsylvania Gazette
March 2011

High Hoax: movie poster from a Jacket issue featuring made-up poet Ern Malley.

It was one of the first online poetry magazines, and it came from Down Under. Jacket magazine was the product of a "rash moment" in 1997 by its founding editor, Australian poet John Tranter, who sustained his literary rashness with flair and energy for 13 years. The Guardian called it the "prince of online poetry magazines," and while the value of that sort of encomium is debatable (the same reviewer also called Jacket’s design "beautiful," which is even more debatable), its description of the contents as "awesomely voluminous" is spot-on.

Jacket was crammed with interviews (more than 100); book reviews (upwards of 650); feature articles on everything from cyberpoetics to a tribute to Kenneth Rexroth; and, of course, poems—lots and lots of them, by authors ranging from John Ashberry and Penn English Professors Charles Bernstein and Bob Perelman to Marjorie Perloff and the late Carl Rakosi SW’40. (There was even a special Hoax issue revolving around a fabricated poet named Ern Malley that included forged poems and letters, a radio interview, even a movie poster of The Ern Malley Story—starring, among others, Dennis Hopper in the title role, Kim Novak as Sappho, and Galway Kinnell as Hugh Hefner.)

"The Internet broke it all open, and Jacket was the first missive from Down Under—though it didn’t feel like it was from Down Under," says Al Filreis, Kelly Professor of English and faculty director of the Kelly Writers House. "What set John apart was the persistence and the capacity to spend all the hours doing his own HTML, huge amounts of material."

When Tranter announced that he was retiring in 2009, Jacket’s fate was uncertain. Into the breach stepped Filreis and assorted members of the Writers House and PennSound staff.

"When John was looking to retire, and he wanted to make sure the old Jacket would survive, it seemed vitally important to us, just because we believe in archives," says Filreis. "We’re academics. How could we let Jacket disappear?"

The short answer to that question is that Jacket is now moving to the Writers House, to be reborn (any day now) as Jacket2. Its entire archive—thousands of Web pages—will be moved to servers at Penn. The venture will be jointly hosted by the Writers House and PennSound, and given the overall literary dynamism of the former, and the latter’s "vast and growing archive of audio recordings of poetry performance, discussion, and criticism," Tranter and Filreis noted in a joint announcement, the "synergy in this three-way relationship has great potential."

So far, the response has been extremely positive, says Filreis:

"The poetry world is huge, vibrant, full of odd and interesting and brilliant people all over the world—and they follow everything in the field. So while it might seem like the announcement of a change in a magazine is not going to rock anybody’s world, it did. There was a big response to it, and almost all of it positive."

Jacket2 is going to be "pretty much the most robust place where you can look and find stuff about poetry—modern, contemporary; particularly contemporary," he adds. Including, of course, poems. He describes it as a "fully integrated site" that will play off the raw material of spoken poetry provided by PennSound. "Between the two, we’ll have a whole lot covered."

The decision to take on a project of this scope was not one Filreis made lightly.

"My first reaction was, 'No way—we have too much we’re doing right now,'" he says. "This is a major project. It’s going to require staff and funding and focus and my time, none of which we have in great supply. So I said to John, 'Look, this is intriguing, and we will consider moving all the stuff over to our servers.'"

But it’s one thing to take on the archives; running a vibrant international literary magazine is another altogether. In January 2010 Filreis convened a group of about 15 trusted faculty members, staff, writers, and students (including two undergrads)—at the Writers House, and laid out the challenges.

"I can't snap my fingers and have a full-time staff of a magazine," he explains. "So we're depending on volunteerism, people paid part-time who are youngish and on their way elsewhere." The excited response convinced him to proceed.

"I went into high gear and appointed some editors and recruited a team," he says. "And then we were able to write to John and say, 'We're going to do this. We don't know the details, but we're going to do it.'"

In addition to Filreis, who will be the new publisher, KWH director Jessica Lowenthal G'07 will take on the associate-publisher duties. Michael Hennessey (manager of PennSound) will be the editor, while Julia Bloch Gr'09 will serve as managing editor. Tranter will still hold the founding-editor title, and longtime associate editor Pam Brown will stay on in that capacity, from a considerable distance.

Though the nature of the magazine’s contents will stay "more or less the same," there will be some significant changes to the format. For one thing, there will no longer be individual issues.

"We're going to be running it more like a Web newspaper, or a non-issue Web magazine," Filreis says. "It will be updated regularly, and the newest article will be the first thing you see in the large space in the center. There'll be departments—a commentaries department, a reviews department, a new-media department. There's going to be symposia and features, such as on one poet or one theme. And we're going to have commentators that we recruit for six-week stints that will report every other day or so."

He promises that it will be well edited, noting that despite all the contributors, there will be "one central editing area where a few of us will be looking very closely at everything that gets published."

At some point, "everything in Jacket1 will be available for searching and reading in Jacket2," Filreis notes. "That's a huge job—thousands and thousands and thousands of pages that have to be coded. But the old Jacket eventually will all be tagged. And tagging is a very powerful way of searching."

In addition to augmenting the pedagogical offerings of the Writers House, Jacket2 represents "the perfect instance of what I call the 'gift economy' of the university—which is a hidden gift" to the world, Filreis says. "There’s no way of measuring it."

And, he adds pointedly, it’s about time something like this happened at this university in particular.

"Let's face it—how many literary magazines have come out of Penn?" he asks. Years ago there was the Penn Literary Review, which was published in association with the English department, and more recently the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing has been publishing Peregrine. But that’s about it.

"So why is it that the birthplace of the poetics of [William Carlos] Williams [M1906 Hon'52] and [Ezra] Pound [C1905 G1906], and H.D. by adoption, I guess, has never created a real literary magazine?" Filreis asks. "It’s time, you know?"