Inside and Outside the Box by Stan Sanvel Rubin
For the past two years, our poetry reviews editor Stan Sanvel Rubin has wondered what impact pandemic-related isolation and online reading events will have on the future of writing. Like many of us, Stan found comfort and community from attending virtual events, but these events also created new expectations placed on the shoulders of readers and viewers. As we prepare for a second annual reading with a virtual component on December 3, this time under the lens of what haunts us, we invite you to read this essay Stan wrote for us, and to reflect on another year of resilience and grace.
Now that the long crisis is hopefully fading into the “good riddance” category, it’s worth thinking about what we’ve been through and where it leaves literature. Certainly, we will continue to want to connect our work to the world, to seek response and validation, but the way we do that might have changed more than we know.
During the pandemic, I experienced the three key positions (other than tech) in the “Zoom” system: reader, host, audience. It was eye-opening to realize how each differs from similar roles in the world misnamed “normal.” To start with the obvious, the venue is different. Audience is transformed into a composite of separate boxes, replacing a physical collective. “Presence” at such events depends first on audio and video systems whose functioning is subject to the vagaries of electronic connection. If you do make it “there,” it can be an oddly isolating place compared to the energy of an in-room, live group response. (Think how one laugh in a movie theater can be contagious.) Your “place” is not established in a real space, but in your box–and out of it at the same time.
Never has the line between inside and outside this box been more sharply delineated for most Americans. This fits literature. What is a poem, a story, or an essay, after all, but an attempt to draw meaning from a personal “inside” and to bring it, in the shaped way we call art, to an audience “outside?” Literature begins with the interior sounding of words. By shaping and uttering them, the writer hopes to make a “value-added” contribution beyond the commonplace miracle of speech. The field to do so now has suddenly expanded.
That the “two-way screen” is changing the familiar was illustrated to me by a June 2020 announcement from Rattle that their weekly “Rattlecast” will include: a live “Poets Respond” segment before the reading, prompts for poems to be read after it, “or anything else the audience would like to share.” These interactive events are livestreamed on major social media platforms and recorded for posterity on various podcasting apps. Rattle does state a notable caution: “Remember that these poems will be broadcast and archived in audio and video form. We don’t believe this should count as “publication” for literary purposes, but other magazines might.”
New digital platforms appeared almost immediately. Entropy added the category “Virtual Readings” to its valuable “Where to Submit” list. The pandemic has also posed a special challenge for arts organizations. Events that need planning well in advance have been particularly at risk. Residencies, workshops, conferences, and festivals went virtual. There were also strategies for literature to reach “outside” with new forms of community, for instance The Academy of American Poets’ ambitious “Shelter in Poems” virtual reading project.
Whatever is underway, it has to do with the economy of literature in the broadest sense, the function of the poem, story, or essay in the exchange between writer and audience. Just as radio did long ago, “Zoom” and its peers have shifted the scale of communication in the direction of an inclusive, limitless horizon rather than the “closed loop” of limited seating and access. This change is one of locality, or scope of participants included, which differs from any specific location. The presumed common point is “the screen,” but it’s pretty mind-blowing to consider the expansive geography behind this virtual meeting place.
Thanks to this new inclusiveness, I was able, while at home, to be present at regular episodes of an international poetry gathering, enjoy national readings whose viewers and presenters were in many states, and, through the good offices of our local public library, remain active in (and occasionally host) the monthly poetry group I have participated in for several years. The latter specializes in sharing poems by other poets, well known or not. It is individual and celebratory, a good way to keep poems alive person-to-person. When we finally got together again, in a circle in the founder’s garden, we were obviously glad to see and hear familiar, fully present humans. The setting was alive with the flowers and sounds of spring. We saw each other’s faces and living gestures. One word for this is proximity. It’s what “poetry of place” draws on. An imperfect comparison might be seeing through the longer end of the telescope versus the shorter end. Distance offered revelation, scope and a sense of adventure, while the near offered relief, a return to the familiar, the intimacy of shared space.
Has everything changed? A cautionary note was provided in widely circulated comments of poet-professor-editor Gerald Costanzo on the occasion of his retirement:
“Poetry can do many things. But I’m not sure it can account for or articulate adequately what has happened to us. And you will be disappointed by the limits of human communication — especially as these apply to the ones you love. But you will know because you have experienced some of the worst that can happen to us.”
Is it possible that an extended experience of literature on screen at a distance can transform not only a writer’s relationship to audience, but our relationship to the writing? During this time, the writer who wanted to participate as a reader had to become a performer as much as a composer of words, regardless of prior inclination. The gap between spoken literature and written literature, originally initiated by the printing press, has been further breached. Now it’s “back to the future,” due to the effective removal of the page from the center of the process.
Despite Romantic and universalist aspirations, the “value” of writing always has been more or less specific to a given culture. In ours, the printed work derived its value from an economy of scarcity: the editorial scrutiny of many, and the selection of a few, followed by the delayed gratification of publication. The value of publication was in turn determined by some ranking of “prestigious” or “quality” or at least recognizable journals. In academia, a list like that can still be exchanged for tangible reward. Recognition for the sake of reputation can be had now in both worlds: for example, Pushcart Prize and “Best of the Net” nominations. The fracturing of a university–based hierarchy has been in process for many years for many reasons, not least the American impulse toward equality and inclusion, and the flourishing of performance-based and digital work as their own genres.
Our new reliance on technology has accentuated the amorphous status of “publication,” including the meaning of the word. Reading one’s writing on screen to a geographically diverse audience puts the writer not just “on display,” but literally face to face and “word-to-word” with distant peers, some with achievements and reputations of their own. Is it a stretch to suggest that having your work appreciated in such a setting may offer a form of validation approximating a journal acceptance? Attaining the “finality” of print no longer carries an aura of secular sanctification. Nor is it, if it ever was, Emily Dickinson’s “auction of the soul.”
Despite glitches, the immediacy and fluidity of an on-screen reading is actually closer to the temporal flow we live in and create from than is a “stage” or auditorium presentation. Some of the events I participated in were followed not only with the familiar question and answer period, but also spontaneous conversation among whomever stayed logged in long enough, including the featured writers. Some offered “open mic” time as well. Given the ability to come and go as needed, the difference from a physically present experience becomes as significant as the similarity. If “the medium is the message,” the message has altered. It reaches to the “quiet” writer, the one not looking for audience beyond the page. The fact that comparatively few print or online magazines reach a truly broad audience, despite how much creative work is being written, suggests that the “new” screen promises further transformation. The onscreen poem, story, or essay can live many lives.
In the decades when writing was centered on the university, “permanence” was conferred by inclusion in key anthologies and being on the list of so-called major publishers. The rapid proliferation of screen poetry in particular has worked, like the explosion of small presses, to undermine old hierarchies. Impermanence is the new mode. Audiences for these readings can be as unpredictable as the events themselves; a few seemed to occur in almost “flash mob” fashion, with little notice and accommodating last minute sign-in. All could be recorded for easy link access later, another similarity-with-difference from the traditional archive where recordings, if available, are accessed via bureaucratic procedures, often at a fee.
Events I attended were free, or at a nominal contribution to a sponsoring independent bookstore, non-endowed literary program, or advocacy organization. The fact that such readings create possibilities for outreach to everywhere and, at the same time, can provide a stream of small (but theoretically unlimited) revenue is one reason “distance” readings won’t disappear from the scene. Well-established organizations that have “Zoom’d” only out of necessity will have decisions to make about their future.
So has the game really changed? Wait and see. But the outlook for literature is far brighter than it seemed at the start of the crisis two years ago. Adaptability having been proven yet again. Writing is still alive and well.
Stan Sanvel Rubin, a former director of the SUNY Brockport Writers Forum and Video Library, retired in 2014 after a decade as co-founding director of the Rainier Writing Workshop Low-Residency MFA program. His fourth full collection, There. Here., was published by Lost Horse Press; his third, Hidden Sequel, won the Barrow Street Poetry Book Prize. His poems have appeared widely in magazines including The Georgia Review, AGNI, Poetry Northwest, Kenyon Review, The Florida Review, The Shanghai Literary Review, and others, plus two recent anthologies: the 25th Anniversary Issue of Atlanta Review, and Nautilus Book Award winner For Love of Orcas. He received the 2018 Vi Gale Award from Hubbub. He lives on the North Olympic Peninsula of Washington.