Post-internet poetry and the self

This paper argues that recent post-internet poetry has seen a return to a ‘confessional’ self, distributed across various forms of social media. Using my current manuscript-in-progress Newcastle Sonnets as an exemplar, it also considers the relationship between real and virtual places, in this case the city of Newcastle, NSW.

 

Keywords: Poetry – Post-internet Poetics

This paper contextualises my current manuscript-in-progress, Newcastle Sonnets,[1] in terms of post-internet poetry and the self. Newcastle is a post-industrial coastal city, 160 kms north of Sydney Australia. Unlike the American poet Ted Berrigan, who arrived in New York in 1961 from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and wrote The Sonnets, my relocation to Newcastle in 2006 (to take up my first academic appointment) was away from the metropolis of Sydney. Like many other regional cities globally, however, this period has witnessed something of a transformation in Newcastle’s cultural approbation; what was once a working-class heartland now appears in ‘listicles’ as one of the top 5 hipster cities in the world.[2] Such taxonomies, of course, mask much more complex cultural, economic and political issues around gentrification, and it is against this backdrop that my sonnets enact a poetic rather than strictly sociological engagement with Newcastle’s transformation, as well as the transformations, mediations and uncertainties of self in our increasingly networked lives.

The sonnets in my manuscript are predominantly composed from my online engagement with social media happening locally (the equivalent, perhaps, of spinning my nose around to find my face). For years I’ve been fascinated with the ways that others aestheticise Newcastle online, becoming a serial voyeur of local place blogs, Tumblr, Instagram and Facebook groups that somehow made it feel like I was browsing Newcastle at a necessary distance.[3] At a certain point, however, my disembodied spectatorship collapsed and I decided to create my own Newcastle homage, using sonnets as a vehicle. This could be conceived of as a form of literary architecture, creating a poetic city out of both real and virtual engagements, a tradition stretching back to Guy Debord’s theory of the dérive, defined as ‘a mode of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences’ (Debord 1958: n.pag.). While my aims may not be as explicitly revolutionary as the Situationists—and in this they are more overtly aligned with Berrigan’s American Abstract Expressionism influences, where the personality of the poet grounds the literary authority—there is an enmeshment with the micropolitics as well as the micropoetics of the city.

The period of composition for my sonnets has been roughly five years (2012-2017), and it’s possible to trace fragments of both global and local politics along this timeline, as well as the intersection of the two. In my sonnet ‘Calliope sits’, for example, Donald Trump ‘monsters’ Jennifer Hawkins, a Newcastle born and bred Miss Universe (a beauty pageant that Trump owned at the time).[4] The reference comes after one to ‘Shok’ (an infamous Novocastrian known for disrupting a number of Australian social and political events) that implicitly questions which one is more of a ‘serial pest’. Above all, however, my sonnets are intrinsically an autobiographical act, which as Maria Takolander argues in ‘Confessional Poetry and the Materialisation of an Autobiographical Self’, sees the autobiographical subject destabilised and ‘profoundly distributed’ by ‘the agency of the materials involved in the creative act of life writing’ (Takolander 2017: 372).

In a similar way to Berrigan’s sonnets, my poems are ‘sonnets’ only in so much as they are fourteen lines long, and they do not follow any particular rhyme scheme or pentameter (relying heavily on sampling and found phrases and text). Arguably, ‘communication’ and ‘sociality’ pervade the phrases in a similar way to many of the works by Australian poets writing in the 1970s on whom I cut my teeth, such as Ken Bolton, John Forbes and Pam Brown, who themselves had been influenced by the earlier ‘personism’ of American poets such as Frank O’Hara and Berrigan. The John Forbes reference in my title is taken from my sonnet ‘What Would I Say?’ (Glastonbury 2014: 98), which was loosely composed from a Facebook status update generator. So many of our conversations and correspondences are screen based (whether directly messaged or indirectly posted), and as Australian critic A J Curruthers argues:

Most of us chat online. All of that language, or ChatLang (what you say on Facebook, Messenger or text message) is now emphatically the contemporary vernacular. (Curruthers 2015: n.pag.)

The figure of the poet remains a proxy commentariat, in a voice that shares a lot of the inflections of social media, together with a certain stance, arguably akin to the hipster’s reflexivity, irony, self-knowing and ambivalence. Perhaps writing these sonnets is the closest I’ll come to being a bearded Novocastrian barista.

Post-internet poetry is a term that implies that there has been a shift since poetry’s initial fetishisation of the internet’s strangeness and novelty (as typified in early 21st century poetic movements such as Flarf[5]). The internet isn’t ‘over’, but it has become ubiquitous. As the critic Charles Whalley writes in ‘This Has Been A Blue/Green Message Exiting The Social World’:

And so as the boundary between off- and online disappears and as the internet flattens into reality, the novelty, fear and excitement fade. The distinctions between the author and the internet disintegrates, as the internet becomes no longer the source of waste material for a detached poet to process, but a collaborator in the active, endless work of self-creation and expression. It is no longer a separate medium to go to for information, but the medium in which we are ourselves. (Whalley 2015: 52)

In literature, the term ‘post-internet’ has become associated with a number of primarily young American and British writers who are also often associated with ‘Alt Lit’, ‘for whom writing is an extension of, or even indistinguishable from, their social media presence’ (Whalley 2015: 54). There are also a number of younger Australian poets whose work is explicitly influenced by post-internet aesthetics, such as Oscar Schwartz (whose debut collection The Honeymoon Stage contains poems written to communicate with online friends whom he has never met, engaging with ‘the flattened syntax of internet language, registering its awkwardness while bringing human qualities to the centre’ (Schwartz 2017: dust jacket), through to Holly Isemonger, whose poem ‘OK Cupid’, named after the online dating site, was the joint winner of the 2017 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize for New and Emerging Poets. In his review of the prose-poetry novella Danklands by Holly Childs, another emerging Australian writer engaged in ‘digital semiotics’, Carruthers invokes the idea of an ‘online aura (Facebook, Twitter, etc.)’, which he describes as:

Similar to a psychotheoretical split between our Symbolic and Real personae, the ‘contemporary aura’ is something like the sheer secondary quality of everyday life. (2015: n.pag.)

In post-internet poetics, poetry arguably operates as a language-based medium to cathect that aura, giving it a secondary literary quality, in a similar way to what John Forbes did with television’s ‘milky white fluorescent glow’ (Forbes 1988: 10). Although Forbes clearly positions the poet on the couch in ‘Watching The Treasurer’, the distance between the screen and self is now somewhat negligible (exemplified, for example, by the fact that the ABC’s Q & A now runs a live twitter feed across the bottom of the TV screen). While I’m yet to see a tweet quite as poetic as Forbes’ ‘Paul Keeting’s / bottom lip trembles then recovers, / like the exchange rate under pressure’ (1988: 10), as Meghan Morris notes:

What “Watching the Treasurer” does do, I think, is tell a story about someone using television as a way of becoming “involved” (in Michaelle Rosaldo’s phrase) in a “social world”’, where arguably the poem “acts” by matching the Treasurer’s performance with one of its own. (Morris 1992: 40-41)

In this way poetry, as a form of literary techne, remains responsive to other technologies over time, and in our ‘post-truth’ era it’s a reminder that literature, like both ‘old’ and ‘new’ media, similarly relies on ‘beautiful lies’.

Originally a form of Italian love poetry in the 14th century, it appears the sonnet persists as a medium for emotional mediation, despite the fourteen lines now seeming to be an indulgence when compared to the brevity of meme and #instapoetry covering the same thematic, if not stylistic, territory. In many of my sonnets there is also arguably a trace of the ‘bitter personal invective’ (Martin 1991: 24) which featured in the sonnets written by the 15th century Italian poet Domenico di Giovanni (known as ‘il Burchiello’) and his barbershop ‘burlesque’ followers, who arguably undertook a process of ‘literaturisation’ of popular verse in a not dissimilar way to what I am doing with social media, ‘alla burchia’ (at random):

The poet creates enigmatic jigsaw puzzles out of disconnected words and phrases written largely in fifteenth-century Florentine slang. They are a jumble of incoherent sounds and crazy images, and burlesque allusions. (Martin 1991: 24)

Although post-internet poetry may arguably resemble pre-internet poetry in many ways (just as my poems echo the generation of ’68 in their conversational style), the term ‘post-internet’ is still necessarily quite provisional. It may not be as obviously ‘cyber’ as the hyptertext or code based poetry associated with ‘internet-poetry’, but it can still seek to gain traction through its ‘newness’ (for example, Tao Lin and Mira Gonzalez have published a book of Selected Tweets).

While my sonnets contain explicit references to Instagram, Facebook, and Google Maps, it is not necessary to know that many lines have been appropriated from status updates, comment threads, or Instant Messenger, yet neither has this been edited out. That said, the following sonnet also references a handmade flyer that my next door neighbour slipped under my door as an April Fool’s day joke masquerading as an invitation to an ‘open day’ at the Nomads motorcycle clubhouse on my street, which was recently sprayed with bullets from a drive-by shooting.

Skye is a 2 bit whore

‘The Nomads Motorcycling Club are inviting local residents…’:
jumping castles on Chinchen Street filled with April fools.
Walking down the drain as a form of object oriented ontology (ooo)
eventually finding every piece of a child’s rubber jigsaw mat,
as the local kids obliviously, trick or treat their HQ.
When I need to flatter it I reference South King Street twenty years ago:
the pebblecrete poles of the East End speaking to an historicist melancholy
plastered all over Instagram. The soundtrack still Bob Hudson in the 70s,
‘eh geday’, or mythic 80s youth working at The Waratah Philadelphia
Cream Cheese Factory listening to ‘How Soon Is Now?’
These days you can catch a straight-edge punk food-blogging his morning
eggs benedict or a coal ship called ‘Fiction’ loaded with speculative realism.

The newspaper tells me that, in America,
nine little baby girls called Pistol were born last year.

This poem takes its title from an image on a (now unavailable) Tumblr blog, Tabitha Tempers Trash, which consists of photographs of Newcastle graffiti.

KG-figure1.jpg

Photo credit: Fiona Whitton

 

This particular piece is a reminder that Newcastle hasn’t been completely gentrified with bespoke signage, and that the ‘bogan’ still has a voice of its own (though, of course, as soon as I engage with making these kinds of distinctions, following Pierre Bourdieu, I classify the classifier in terms of class (Bourdieu 1979)). ‘Skye is a 2 bit whore’ is a poem that directly infuses Newcastle’s past and present, where pebblecrete poles can be instantly aestheticised by amateur photographers on Instagram, framing and filtering the ‘authentic’ in a way which calls to mind Walter Benjamin’s understanding of the mediated aura in ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, as well as Florian Cramer’s ‘What is “Post-Digital”’, which rejects the ‘techno-positivist’ associations of new media and instead considers hybrids of ‘old’ and ‘new’ media as one of post-digital’s central aesthetics (Cramer 2014: n.pag.). In a similar sense, the above photograph can be read as a liquid paper version of an illuminated manuscript or as a precursor to the insult meme. In the context of my sonnet title, the ‘2 bit’ speaks of a pre-internet vernacular, both a ‘cheap’ woman that can be had for pocket change, as well as the now retro style of ‘2 bit’ graphics found in early computer games. If these are post-internet sonnets, then like much other post-digital art they incorporate the revival of analogue media in content, but also in form (in terms of poetry’s vast pre-internet genealogy as an oral and print medium).

Despite the far reach of the internet, my Newcastle Sonnets are, paradoxically, poetry that comes out of the mediation of nearness, becoming that which can never be entirely encompassed by either the virtual or the actual. While the provocative title of the recent Michael Farrell poem, ‘The bush and the internet are interchangeable’, is yet another reminder, to reference Whalley again, that the internet has flattened into reality (2015: 52), a closer reading of Farrell’s poem evokes a similar paradox. The poem begins as a satire about ‘tree-changers’, where:

A wife looks at a husband; a treefrog at a modem.
They view the bush from a comfortable position: enjoy wifi
By the campfire like a Manet…

Yet ‘five years later the scene becomes unrecognisable’, as the poem also disintegrates into surreal and dissociated phrasing:

Suddenly, after pages of sympathy, to see a yam like
an idealized bull pizzle. (Pizzle a word not often mentioned
on the internet). (Farrell 2015: 76)

The ‘comfortable position’ where modernity is seamlessly incorporated into a painterly frame has fallen through by the poem’s conclusion: ‘Beware a flash cattle grid: cluey/ trolls will tuck up their swags and roll right over it’ (2015: 76), a reference to internet trolls perhaps, and also the mythical creatures who strike fear into the hearts of children. Farrell’s poem is using poetry as a medium to deterritorialise the recurring bucolic fantasies of our Antipodean and post-colonial imaginations, but also as a reminder of its deliberate anachronistic qualities with regards to language: ‘Pizzle a word not often mentioned on the internet’. The poem resists the ‘flattening’ of language that inevitably happens online, and it suggests that poetry can be deployed as a linguistic interlocutor to fracture, on the one hand, the landscape tradition in Australian poetry (the bush) and, on the other, utopian screen-based hyper-realities (the internet). The sense of contemporary connectivity that is meant to prevent isolation doesn’t prevent a surreal dystopia of flood, drought and unresponsive ‘air con’, and there is an on-going slippage between the imagination and the real in relation to the environment.

My sonnets aren’t simply mining the internet for autobiographical source material, nor are they quite reducible to it, in any strictly procedural way. If, as Whalley suggests, the internet ‘is the medium in which we are ourselves’ (2015: 52), it makes sense that the digital intersects with the ways in which I construct myself and the place that I live. Just as Berrigan stated that ‘one of my principal desires is to make my poems be like my life’ (Berrigan 1991: 113), while at the same time being less focused on internal introspection and more on his external environment (‘If I can make everything around me be the way that is, presumably I can create the shape of the self inside the poem’ (1991: 113)), I relate to this desire in terms of constructing a post-internet poetic city. Without drawing an absolute distinction, one of the central arguments of this article is that one of the main shifts between ‘internet’ and ‘post-internet’ poetics is a return to poets putting themselves on the line (or in the lines), while recognising that the composition of that self is implicated in the social, particularly in the new technologies of the social.

On a stylistic level, my sonnets are also indicative of the kind of easily distracted perceptual experiences now familiar to everyone with a mobile phone or internet browser (with the caveat that the repeated assembling of units of language in Berrigan’s The Sonnets makes his New York collection perhaps more strictly ‘post-industrial’ than my Newcastle Sonnets, and in this way style can be read as both instigating and encoding the prevailing modes of cultural production). If the formal volta of the traditional sonnet has now collapsed into constant swerves between phrases, as I’ve suggested earlier, this tradition can be traced as far back as the 15th century Italian burlesque. Yet, as Sameer Rahim asks in his review of UK poet Sam Riviere’s collection 81 Austerities, if poetry was once considered a ‘reflective’ medium, how might it cope with ‘the swift promiscuity of online experience?’ (Rahim 2012: n.pag.). While I may feel generationally displaced in the field of post-internet poetry, as one dominated by younger poets, so-called ‘digital natives’, the whole idea of post-internet poetry is itself exploiting the ‘out of time’ quality of poetry to paradoxically bring us into the present. And while poetry may be considered an anachronism in relation to technology, so may the self—yet as Whalley argues, the lyric ‘I’ persists in post-internet poetics as poets continue to ask fundamental questions of literature: ‘What effect does this technology have on how I think of myself, on how I express my identity through language, on how I communicate with others?’ (2015: 58).

My sonnet ‘Just Quietly Babe’ directly references Berrigan’s style in The Sonnets (in this case using a Berriganesque ‘time stamp’—Berrigan famously wrote The Sonnets on amphetamines and pills and was often up in the early hours).

Just Quietly Babe

Dear Hamish, hello. It is 5.15am. Guess we’re more West Coast though our
purloined letters remind me of one of those Japanese novels that we’re
serialising (active 5 m ago). You’re secretly ‘emo’ underneath the footy jock
facade, as you start to warm to the circumstances that have been thrust
upon you and I dream of a stomach scar trailing down to a strap-on.
You’re totally rat-packy, she’s totally mind-gamey, the poor school ‘mom’
doesn’t stand a chance. Went to one of those new bars the other night in the
city, it was a diabolical disappointment (so much salt on the lamb I thought
I’d die of a cardiac arrest) and the owner had a kind of deep Bob Carr voice
that echoed like a parochial spirit undoing all the top knots on the waiters.
Why won’t my drugs work in this town?
   Guess I’m kind of used to it now,
                           the chicanery,
                                       the chiaroscuro of coal dust and sand.

Like a modern day Agnes Varda I have been composing a form of poetic documentary by ‘gleaning’ my social media feed. There’s an uneasy interpersonal ‘ethics’ involved, a tension Jen Webb poses when she writes: ‘Writers are always making representations: materialising the world and relationships within that world’ (Webb 2016: n.pag.). Post-internet poetics, especially post-internet confessional poetry, may be bound up with questions of the self, but the ‘social’ vectors implicate the other, the collective. Ideas of authorship are also complex—who has the copyright on online comments or particular phrases in articles in a newsfeed? Yet it’s similarly arguable how much Berrigan ‘authored’ his sonnets, which are at once highly autobiographical and yet the cut-up technique simultaneously makes the author less prominent.

There’s also the tension between an assumption that a contemporary networked self would produce a more ‘global’ confessional, yet in Newcastle Sonnets, despite the post-internet dimension, the lyric voice is intensely local (again in a Benjaminian sense, ultimately retaining some of the density of local knowledges that may otherwise be assuaged). My claims to being a local are also intrinsically provisional, however, in postcolonial terms and also, arguably, in terms of class, which is something I explore poetically:

Rough & Tumblr

Disturbingly indicative of a blow-in blow-hard generation
—the changing of the guard in a discipline meeting
little more than a cargo-cult radio of coconuts and straw.
The poets/songwriters of the 80s are now in churchy bands,
bespoke gold leaf surfboards poking out of Sandmans.
Post-war, when wanting to be something other than a boiler-maker,
a nurse or an engineer, was to be a pariah. Looking wistfully
up towards Segenhoe (no longer precariat, but never
proletariat). I just met an ex-Castanet Club member
on a lesbian dating site, with ties to a group of MILFs
who I’ve bracketed off as missed friendship opportunities.
Jennie Brockie’s not really much of an empath,
like that screen-writer guy who up and moved to LA
when the vigilante squad outed him as Sylvia Plath.

Along with Florian Cramer, and other critics such as Sianne Ngai in Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Ngai 2012) who cast the new aesthetic categories of digital cultures as intrinsically symptomatic of late-capitalist consumerism, post-internet poetics are similarly implicated in both an aesthetic production and (ideally) a critique. If internet poetry tried to parody this, while somewhat absenting the self and assuming poets were able to retain their footing outside the material, I have taken Charles Whalley’s slippery slope dictum that the ‘internet is the medium in which we are ourselves’ somewhat to heart—it’s at once a scary thought, and yet it is one which demands that we examine the implications in terms of how we poetically construct our lives.

 

Endnotes


[1] This article contains a number of unpublished poems from Glastonbury, K Newcastle Sonnets (forthcoming, Giramondo).

[2] http://www.seattleglobalist.com/2012/04/13/five-global-hipster-cities-cooler-than-seattle/2296

[3] Keri Glastonbury, ‘Rough and Tumblr: Blogging Newcastle’ LiNQ 42.

[4] http://www.theherald.com.au/story/4259263/jennifer-hawkins-defends-donald-trump-after-awkward-video/?cs=12

[5] The term Flarf was coined by the poet Garry Sullivan and describes kitsch poems composed from the detritus of the internet.

 

Works cited: 

 

Benjamin, W 1935 “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Hannah Arendt (ed.) 1968 Illuminations: essays and reflections, New York, NY: Schocken Books, 217-252

Barrett, A. 2012 ‘Five global hipster meccas even cooler than Seattle’ The Seattle Globalist, at http://www.seattleglobalist.com/2012/04/13/five-global-hipster-cities-cooler-than-seattle/2296 (accessed 13 December 2017

Berrigan, T 2000 The Sonnets, Harmondsworth: Penguin

Berrigan, T 1991 ‘To propitiate the gods’ (Interview with Anne Waldman and Jim Cohn) in A Waldman (ed.) Nice to see you: homage to Ted Berrigan, Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 104-15

Bordieu, P 1979 Distinction: a social critique of the judgment of taste (trans. Richard Nice 1984), Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Cramer, F 2014 ‘What is ‘post-digital’?’, APRJA 3: 1

Curruthers, A J 2015 ‘A J Carruthers reviews Holly Childs: writing written over writing’, Cordite Poetry Review 50, at https://cordite.org.au/reviews/carruthers-childs/ (accessed 13 December 2017)

Debord, G 1958 ‘Definitions’. Internationale Situationniste #1 (trans. Ken Knabb) athttp://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/definitions.html (accessed 13 December 2017)

Farrell, M 2015 ‘The bush and the internet are interchangeable’, Overland 220, 76

Forbes, J 1988 The Stunned Mullet & Other Poems, Sydney: Hale & Iremonger

Glastonbury, K Newcastle Sonnets (forthcoming, Giramondo)

Glastonbury, K 2016 ‘Rough and Tumblr: blogging Newcastle’, LiNQ 42, 6-21

Glastonbury, K 2014 ‘What would I say?’ in Christopher Kelen and Jean Kent (eds) A Slow Combusting Hymn: poetry from and about Newcastle and the Hunter region, Maco: Flying Island Books, 98

Isemonger, H 2017 ‘OK Cupid’, Overland 226

Lin, T & Gonzalez, M 2015 Selected Tweets, Ann Arbor, MI: Short Flight/Long Drive Books

Martin, A L 1991 Cervantes and the Burlesque Sonnet. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press

Morris, M 1992 ‘Ecstasy and Economics (A Portrait of Paul Keeting)’, Discourse, Vol. 14, No. 3, pp 3-58.

Ngai, S 2012 Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Rahim, S 2012 ‘81 Austerities by Sam Riviere: review’ at  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/9509381/81-Austerities-by-Sam-Riviere-review.html (accessed 13 December 2017)

Schwartz, O 2017 The Honeymoon Stage, Sydney: Giramondo

Takolander, M 2017 ‘Confessional poetry and the materialisation of an autobiographical self’. Life writing 14: 3, 371-388

Webb, J 2016 ‘Ethics and Writing’, https://theconversation.com/ethics-and-writing-63399

Whalley, C 2015 ‘This has been a blue/green message exiting the social world’, The Poetry Review 105: 2, 49-58