|Sometime in 1997, John Kinsella sent
email. He wanted to
start a new listserv to discuss poetry and the things pertaining
thereof – which, as was pointed out many time over the years, includes
pretty much everything. To reflect its inclusive intent, the list would
be named Poetryetc. Was I interested in being a member? My reply was
some variation of “sure!” And so began a decade-long association with
one of the most stimulating and lively poetry discussion lists of its
When Poetryetc was founded, listservs were a vital engine for conversation, exchange of information and argument among contemporary poets. The big daddy was Buffalo Poetics, founded in 1993 by Charles Bernstein, which attracted a large number of innovative poets, including Kinsella himself. There was also British and Irish Poets, run by the English poet Ric Caddel, whose members were a who’s who of alternative British and Irish poetry of the time. And there were many other lists catering to the various sub-communities of poetry – Subsubpoetics, the woman-only list WOMPO, the Slam listserv, and so on.
Poetryetc was unique. To begin with, it was consciously international and eclectic in its approach. As Kinsella says: “though i thought the buffalo list and brit-irish lists fascinating the former seemed too institutional (however sub the poetics at work) and the latter too parochial – [I] wanted something somewhat independent.”1 What made Poetryetc distinct from the beginning was Kinsella’s internationalism, and his vision of its being a space for collaborative projects as well as dialogue and exchange. It’s a vision he outlines in an essay written in 1999, International Regionalism and Poetryetc.
With his characteristic energy, Kinsella set about generating a dizzying variety of collaborative projects, as well as a series of Featured Poets consisting of a statement by the author, a selection of poems, and a biographical note, which ran into four series. It included, as Kinsella explains, “poets as diverse in technique and voice and location as John Tranter (Australia), Michelle Leggott (New Zealand), Alice Notley (USA via Paris), Nils-Ake Hasselmark (Island of Arholma), Jo Shapcott (UK), and dozens of others.”
Among the most ambitious of the projects Kinsella initiated was the 1998 Interactive Geographies Project, which was “one of the most dynamic exchanges on the Poetryetc email ‘dialogue’ list” over its early years.2 “Basically the creation of a large prose poem on the notion of ‘place’, the ‘geo projects’, as they’ve become known, are spatial texts, mappings of virtual and ‘real’ places.” His invitation to list members explained further: “The aim is to break down territories, boundaries, demarcation lines etc by creating an interactive regionalism. If people would send to the list responses to their immediate surroundings – responses to location, demographics, spiritual signifiers, gender, and so on – I’ll work the collective effort into a single text.”
Interactive Geographies perhaps is representative of Kinsella’s vision for the list: he saw in a listserv the possibility of creating a collaborative space where “internationalism becomes more than the mixing together of names from diverse parts of the planet, more than hybridising poets with different attitudes to form and language, with different ethical and political views; it becomes a voice in itself.” As he recognised, this was an idea often at odds with the stubborn individualism of poets, and this tension, often fruitful, sometimes destructive, was the central dynamic that drove the list through its various incarnations.
There were other projects under Kinsella’s watch – the Gallery Project, Poetry and Music, Poetry and Architecture, the Translation Project and the 2001 Walden Sonnet project – many of them suggested by list members. They generated a staggering amount of creativity, quite aside from the dialogue that was the putative purpose of the list. Kinsella gave over his list ownership in 2001, handing it to three list owners – myself, Chris Hamilton-Emery and Candice Ward – to make it, as he said, more “indy”, and to prevent the problems of it being identified with a single person. “In the end, it was the pressures of dealing with the frictions and factions that led me to move on,” he told me recently in an email. “The list had become something greater than its parts, which is to be celebrated. it had become its own space and needed an egalitarian and pluralistic team to run it.” 3
Candice Ward and Chris Hamilton-Emery resigned co-ownership after a few months, although both continued as active list members, and Randolph Healy was invited to the board. He and I ran the list together for many years, until he was forced to resign due to his other commitments in 2006. He was a stalwart co-manager: rational, just, sensible and a harbour in stormy times. Except for a month when the list was run by Rebecca Seiferle while I was overseas, I continued by default as a solo list owner. Finally, feeling that the list had become moribund and that I had neither the time nor the will to revitalise it, I resigned in early 2007, hoping that it would find new life under Anny Ballardini and Joe Deumer. They managed the list for a year before themselves resigning in August 2008.
In the years from 2001, Kinsella’s original internationalist vision inevitably evolved. Listservs were no longer new, and in the early years of the new century, after a number of prominent lists imploded in flame wars, the intellectual energy moved to blogs. Cyber-collectivism was replaced by bloggish individualism, a privatisation that some saw as the failure of the original utopian vision and others took as an inevitable evolution. It’s fairly generally agreed that the early years of this decade saw the end of the real, generative energy of listservs, but Poetryetc continued as a lively community for several years, in large part because of its diversity and the projects it engendered.
Poetryetc cycled between three distinct modes: periods of intense creativity and impassioned discussion; periods of intense, even bitter argument (which often resulted in a renaissance) and periods where nothing much was going on at all. But there was always a strong sense of continuity from Kinsella’s ownership. This was evident in the list’s diversity – it was never identified with any particular strand or “school” of poetry. Its members ranged from widely published poets to beginners and included poets from all over Australia, the US, the UK, Ireland and Europe. Where Kinsella’s influence continued most hardily was in the list ethics, which were designed to create a space in which, ideally, difference and passion could be negotiated. The list rules were simple, but were enforced if necessary, and difference and discussion were encouraged and welcomed. Kinsella again:
The reason this list was set up in the first place was to illustrate that different poetics/pov/geographies/cultures etc (the etc. being the most important part to my mind) can find common ground for dialogue…. poetryetc is a "neutral" (and) safe space - at least that's what it's working towards... The grounds rules for poetryetc were: no racism, misogyny, or bigotry of any kind.4
While the list was most active under Randolph and myself, between 2001 and 2005, it averaged between 200 and 300 members. The projects, always at the heart of the list’s vitality, continued; and also, for a short time, the Featured Poets series, which included contributions from Rosemary Waldrop, Drew Milne, Kate Fagan and Matthew Francis. The most popular project was Snapshots, which I initiated in 2001 and which proved to be unkillable. The idea was that list members posted a poem every Wednesday, a poetic snapshot of their present moment, which were then collated into a kind of poetic collage of that particular day. The first run went for four weeks. A second run, in 2003, continues to the present day. Archives begin at Wild Honey Press and continue at Rebecca Seiferle’s ezine The Drunken Boat. I archived a further 70 weeks’ worth here, and finally Roger Day archived a number at www.poetryetc.org/ .
There were other projects as well – the Dream Project, the Voices Project, the Biography Project and the Speech Project, all archived on Randolph Healy’s Wild Honey Press web page. From 1997, the Poetryetc Projects collectively represent hundreds of poems by dozens of poets, by any measure an extraordinary explosion of collective creativity.
This anthology is the most recent of the Poetryetc Projects. Edited by Candice Ward and Andrew Burke, with a downloadable e-book designed by Peter Ciccariello, it represents a selection of poems written by list members over the past few years. It includes many distinguished poets side by side with new or little known voices, and demonstrates the diversity and stylistic openness that was always a major strength of Poetryetc.
In the decade since Poetryetc was founded, it has evolved from its anarchic and utopian beginnings. This has often meant forgetting or erasing its past. And although this forgetting can prompt some regret, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Poetryetc was started on Listbot, a private, non-academic mailbase, and then moved to Mailbase before it landed at Jiscmail in 2000, its present home. In the various moves, about 40,000 posts were erased. This prompted Kinsella to coin the term “netdeath”, and to contemplate the tensions between the illusory permanence of a page and the “quick and fragile” nature of email dialogue. Like me, he leaned towards the mortality of oral dialogue, rather than the faux immortality of the page, and thought it better that list archives were erased. He valued living energy, not dead monuments. And what made Poetryetc special through those years is something that can neither be retrieved nor desirably preserved. For all the voluminous archives on Jiscmail, its real energies live in its present. The poems in this anthology are pebbles thrown up on a littoral, the traces of energies that have restlessly gone on into other lives and other activities.
To leave the last word with the man who started it all:
Poetryetc has been through many phases… We collaborate on ideas to “stimulate” discussion, to make it more than a conversation, or space for simultaneous alternative conversations whose crossovers create “cyberspatial” text, hybrids that might or might not prove fertile. The deterministic language here IS ironic. The list, in reality, is linear, and no matter how many forms of indexing or multi-directional movement are created in the process of archiving, it remains linear. The language itself might reject linearity, but the package is linear. Technology strives to overcome this linearity — virtual, three-dimensional, depth of field — but it is still confined to the sensory limitations of human perception. But poetry never was — it’s always been about containing and breaking out of these confinements. It is a paradoxical use of language that has never been confined to the page, and nor will it be to the screen.
The moment a medium becomes prescriptive, the moment it becomes a repository for achievement and replication, it loses integrity. This doesn’t mean the poets/writers/artists/conversationalists etc have lost integrity, but the space is compromised. That’s what social interaction is, a process of compromise and adjustment….Confinement is death, and the page wizard is solid, even with glitches, and the computer virus is solid, and the flawed software is solid as well as the patch that repairs it. The nicotine patch, the pseudo solid, the placebo field. Netdeath is the rejection by text of the materialism that makes it. The archives hang there, mimicking stasis. As vulnerable as the book is to fire. Lost in the attic, it burns undiscovered, but there.
Thinking landscape rather than portrait here… of ash and flow. Let’s undo it all: linguistic disobedience. 5
Poetryetc can be found here
1. Email from John Kinsella to Alison Croggon
2. Interactive Geographies: geo-text as simulacrum, by John Kinsella, introduction to Interactive Geographies: A Poetryetc Project
3. Email from John Kinsella to Alison Croggon
4. International regionalism and Poetryetc by John Kinsella
5. Netdeath and the Loss of Page Style: Working “Off the Page”? by John Kinsella
Back to Contents