This essay examines an email poetry project, the Snapshots Project, as an example of poetries that work with dailiness as a form of serial associative writing. Using responses to a survey of some of the participants and some examples of poems written for the project, I explore the various ways poets can experiment with dailiness in their writing and the ways they interpret ‘the moment’ variously, from the report, the description and the anecdote, through a range of more formal linguistic preferences. Time and location markers attached to the email posts provided a kind of mapping or network for these poems. Many respondents noted the project created both a sense of communality, of network, by providing a long view of how a day unfolded across longitudes and latitudes, and a venue for responsiveness.
Keywords: poetry – dailiness – the ordinary – snapshots – location – co-ordinates – networks
This essay examines ways of writing as a practice made out of dailiness, of the ordinary, and as a form of serial associative writing. I will focus on a project with which I have had an on-and-off relationship with since 2001, the ‘Snapshots Project’. The poems that arose from this project, I would argue, despite their variety, operate as negotiations between aspects of the everyday real; these are ways of writing I like to think of as working with registers of change and temporality, be that through place markings (presumed or actual), locales and co-ordinates, reportage or anecdote, as well as in some cases in the syntactical play of language as it moves in a sentence or line, or the dislocations and relocations of texts through collage and found poems.
Given the ongoing nature of the processes and procedure I will discuss, in what follows, I raise questions both as part of my own practice—as a poet concerned with ways of writing in and about place—and also in the context of broader productions of writing, rather than trying to draw firm conclusions. In order to investigate ways of writing, it is my intention to focus on the ways in which ideas of dailiness may be interpreted and used by poets.
The ‘Snapshots Project’ was initiated by Alison Croggon on the email list poetryetc, founded by John Kinsella. The project was posed to members on the list, in its 2003 and continuing iteration, in the following terms:
Every Wednesday, poetryetc members are invited to post short poems. They can be of whatever shape or hue you like. The idea is to capture a moment, the poetic equivalent of an instamatic photo (remember them?) and to make a kind of collective picture of that day around the world. At the bottom of every poem, please put your name, where you are writing from, and the time. (Croggon 2003: n.p.)
Essentially, various list members posted poems to the list, in any form, to capture this ‘moment’, and they also included a note on the time and place of the writing. At its height there may have been 20 or so poems posted each Wednesday, and over the years more than 100 writers based in several different countries, including Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada, UK, Italy, Iceland, Japan, France, contributed to the project. These days, poetryetc is a much smaller active list but poets from Australia, Canada, UK, and the USA, and occasionally other countries, still contribute.
The project was, and still is, a kind of loose model for writing that is partly a way of drafting and developing work, and partly a form of publishing. In other words, it is not quite a workshop, nor an online magazine, but it shares some of the attributes of both: poems that may or may not be drafts, published in a semi-public space (i.e. requiring membership and/or subscription) that, from time-to-time receive comments and are reposted occasionally in revised forms. There have been more public online manifestations of some of these works, too, mostly still available in short extracts on websites hosted by some of the list’s members. The archives of the list are also still online, at Poetryetc Archives, hosted at www.jiscmail.ac.uk.
Couched in terms of a ‘snapshot’, a poem written for this project has the connotation of being a thing of the moment, quickly produced, possibly less rather than more deliberately artful. There is also the sense of it being personal in some way, that it matters to the poet. It also suggests writing about things that have happened or things that have been experienced. The snapshot title also connotes the idea of a frame, in this instance, the frame being both the member list, as well as the marking of each ‘snap’ with date, time, and place co-ordinates.
Another way of conceptualising the project is that of the poem as ‘field note’, of work that is not only observational but is involved in an environment, filled with specifics. Thus, there were many poems that referenced weather, the climate, or offered poems that tracked pathways and locales on a specific day using markers or coordinates. There is, of course, a long history of observational poetry, going back to the Romantics at least, when famously William and Dorothy Wordsworth would walk regularly through areas of the Lakes District. William wrote a guidebook to the District in 1810 and Dorothy’s diaries could be said to form the basis for some of William’s poems (Wilson 2008: 155-8). In the mid-1960s, Lorine Niedecker took around 300 pages of notes before, during, and after a trip to Lake Superior, ultimately combined into ‘a vast documentary apparatus’, according to Jenny Penberthy, and used for writing her poem ‘Lake Superior’ (2008: 64). These are but two well-known examples of poets using various forms of research, including observational and diaristic writings, to provide details for a final, formal poem. Interestingly, one of the ‘snapshot’ poets surveyed, Mark Weiss, published a book entitled Fieldnotes in 1995, many years before the snapshot project began. In a much more recent book of his, As landscape, Weiss includes a statement on poetics which, among other things, talks about writing poetry as a form of attention to the world and the moment, ‘named at the moment of being seen’ (2010: 110), that ‘the poem grounds itself in the particular because that’s all there is to hold onto’ (2010: 106). Weiss observes that due to him being subject to, in the early 1980s, a series of seizures leading to a form of aphasia, his writing changed, and became less self-contained. He began writing fragments in notebooks, a form of field note, and out of that process, developed a way of writing using these notes and fragments (2010: 108).
The poems in the ‘Snapshots Project’ stand as themselves, as a recording of whatever specifics the poet has written (or not), but they are also situated within the ongoing temporal moment of posting—that is, within a network.
In 2008, I compiled a set of responses about the project from a number of the participating poets, for some research I was undertaking at the time, in an attempt to understand how poets negotiate the real (world) through writing poetry. These poets expressed a variety of ideas about how they undertook writing a ‘snap’. Canadian poet Douglas Barbour describes this process succinctly, capturing the idea of dailiness and quickness:
On the whole I’ve tried to write the poem that day (or quickly when a ‘snap’ has occurred to me [over the years various poets have chosen other days than Wednesday to date their efforts]). I don’t think we have managed to quite construct that one day’s picture around the world, but that’s mainly because only a certain number of poets have participated, & also because various of us have interpreted the possibilities of ‘capturing a moment’ (see Barry Alpert’s for example, where he tends to extract linguistic possibilities from films he’s seen). (Jones 2008)
Barbour’s response raises the question of how one might write a snap of the moment, or of a series of moments, in which a thing or things happen; whether the writing is simply a matter of a seemingly transparent recording of direct observations from within the moment, or whether it has more to do with imposing more specific constraints on the way the recorded moment is written.
For instance, a number of poems posted by US poet Stephen Vincent were based on walks around his San Francisco neighbourhood, using what appears to be direct reportage and often including directional and location markers, such as in this extract from a 2005 ‘walk poem’:
… Tank Hill down Twin Peaks to Clayton to 17th
To the stairs up Ashbury Heights to Terrace
Down Terrace into Corona Heights
The trail up the rocks over the cap and down
The amazing gray bellied hawk feathers slightly a-twist—
Atop the pine on the north a fearless mocking bird attacks
The hawk shifts his head to repel, regains a silence
I sit down to look up and share: … (Vincent 2005)
To give another example, many of the poems posted by US poet Barry Alpert, which often recounted films, music, exhibitions, etc, that he had seen or heard that particular day, made use of various constraints (such as the acrostic form). In the poem below, initially titled ‘while viewing for the first time Lars von Trier’s 2003 “documentary” on another Danish filmmaker, Jorgen Leth’, he restricts himself, as he says, ‘to a vocabulary pool of those words which exited Lars von Trier’s mouth during the film’:
Of understanding in a few days:
but I don’t think it followed the rules.
See where we can goad you and analyse it.
There’s no doubt about it.
Ready to show me / ready to watch.
can give you
that feeling of a tortoise on its back—
just out of his head came this idea of a cartoon
of the kind we don’t like.
Refuse to? We must make something out of it!
Going to watch your little film.
Eat the damned caviar.
Narrate a script.
Barry Alpert / 4-7, 4-14, 4-21-04 (Alpert)
To speak of daily experiences, of course, raises different interpretations of subjectivity and of being ‘present in time’. For some, it means that experience is the sum of many occurrences, events, incidents, private encounters. For others, it means more the way one acts in the world, or the way one is in the world (an ontological approach).
One of the snapshot participants, Italo-American poet, Anny Ballardini, addressed the material experience of the writer:
We write about what we think we know best or would like to investigate further on the basis of our daily work. I do not think we can disjoin our physical doing into a metaphysical work. ... Here is the snapshot. The rest is invention. Here is the experience, the day piercing through. In a deconstructivist way, the Snapshot Project or the day as an emblem, or daily experience[s] tout court, are nothing but us in front of a [PC] typing down words. (Jones 2008)
Ballardini’s formulation suggests that the poems come quite explicitly from the materials of this world. They are contingent upon them, drawn, on the one hand, from the technologies of language and its productions, and, on the other hand, from the body of the poet, and all she or he brings, thus, from paper and memory, screen and search, ink and typing hands, blindness or seeing, etc. Even at a conceptual or virtual level, the thing is materially produced. The link between material circumstance and the experience (and technology) of writing, draws attention to the necessary and inevitable circumstances of its material and temporal production.
For instance, one of Ballardini’s poems reads:
windy and cold—the rain last night cleaned today
an inside one—papers and people—a screen
I also remember a fall—
I’ll take out its paramount colors
& project them on this white word page
add to it different characters
a new collage with a fireplace and screeching wooden stairs
books without alarm clocks or homework to correct
while the still green leaves embrace the air
& the white geranium tolls in the void
upward and elegant its hitching scent
with peaks briefly viewed in-between squared concrete
while cycling black ribbons from here to there
this morning—the power of a day in my hands
tonight—rest for a consumed end
Bozen, Italy, Anny Ballardini (Ballardini)
The project’s framework—‘capture the moment’—was accepted by those who took part, but the ways in which momentariness, dailiness and the quotidian were made manifest in the poems was various.
Charles Bernstein, in his essay ‘The Art and Practice of the Ordinary’, canvasses a number of ideas about ‘the representation and objectification of everyday life’ in poetry (2011: 174). Although he is mostly concerned with the question of diction in American poetry, referring to Gertrude Stein’s writing, he points out that:
… the relation of the ordinary to speech is not necessarily one of transcription, idealised or empiricised. Take Gertrude Stein’s poetry as an example. Stein is not interested in the transcription of the spoken language, but she is committed to using everyday words … She works with ordinary American words and with everyday objects. She repeatedly uses words like ‘this’, ‘a’, ‘one’, and ‘the’ or ‘belly’ or ‘button’ or ‘tender’ or ‘shutters’, and rarely uses anything but such everyday words—but not as a way of representing anything. Stein is emphasising the everydayness of the vocabulary rather than emphasising what the words are used to represent, the everydayness of their referent. … But because it is not representational in a conventional way, it seems odd or opaque. It does not appear to be ordinary, yet its aim is to present the ordinary. (2011: 174-5)
This is also, I take it, one of Bernstein’s concerns in his work, or as he says: ‘What’s ordinary is an enacted process, not the product’ (179).
There are many ways of experimenting with dailiness, including but also other than the representational, which can be detected in and amongst responses to the snapshot project. I do not recall any expressed need or wish for those involved to come up with diverse ‘experiences’, or even ‘confessions’, to share each week. I didn’t detect any kind of simplistic notion such as experience being akin to a lot of ‘running around doing things’. Naturally, the everyday nature of the project encompassed the humdrum doings of a day, staring-out-a-window ruminations, old-memories-triggered-by-the-day poems, the anecdotal, the humorous, recounting of dreams, responses to something in the media and big events, what-I-am-thinking-at-the-moment poems, but also included formal experiment, collage or found poems, responses to just-posted poems by others, as well as rants and nonsense poems. As Douglas Barbour noted, some poets explored linguistic possibilities from the visual or the remembered which did not claim an overt mimetic—here meaning a mimicking of the corporeal/non-artificial—status.
There was only one poet, the late Candice Ward, who responded to my survey by claiming she did not write from experience, for this project or in any sense, saying: ‘I don’t think my daily experience has influenced my writing much. I live in a dream (as a friend once remarked), and my poetry tends to reflect that stubborn unreality’ (Jones 2008).
Most poets both claimed, and accepted the implied claims of the others who wrote every Wednesday, that the poems were written out of or as a result of experiences, however that may be construed, on or around the day in question; that they were poems of the everyday, an occasion. As noted, they were usually published with a date marker and often a location marker, as can be seen in some of the poems reproduced here. Many of them contained either overt description or simply traces of everyday occurrence, including eating, sleeping, dreaming, writing, reading the news, looking out a window. Thus, Australian poet Andrew Burke says: ‘I walk and water a garden in the morning, and write my Snap in the morning most times, so walking and images of the garden feature often in my output’ (Jones 2008). US poet Sheila Murphy notes something improvised or unrehearsed in such writing: ‘The occasional pattern, the daily-ness of the concept, the casual approach, all worked to draw forth something less labored, perhaps.’ (Jones 2008).
The group sense, or collectivity, was part of this as well, so that there was quite often discussion of the ‘moment’ of a posted poem on the list. English poet, Liz Kirby says:
In the beginning I saw it as a discipline that was about focusing on the experience of the day, and finding some kind of language and shape in it, that was worth working up on the page. As time went on I think it also became about responding to the way others posted, or what they posted ... A more communal activity. (Jones 2008)
Other poets explicitly worked with an idea of transforming ‘what happened’ into a narrative that took the poem beyond a moment or experience, to be fashioned into something the poet saw as worthy of publication, and by implication, beyond the ordinary, the potentially boring, or beyond something lacking coherence, according to a specific poetic. Andrew Burke, in referring to a ‘snap’ of his, ‘The Wanalirri Used Car Yard’ that was redrafted to become a published poem, retitled ‘The Ngallagunda Used Car Yard’, says:
everything about it happened, although I imagined the cop car chase. (Sometimes you must imagine the real.) Strange at times the huge difference between what was scrapped and not sent as a Snap because it was too disjointed and maybe too abstract and what eventually became a poem. (Jones 2008)
In an even more focused way, Stephen Vincent noted that the project intersected with his way of writing, serially and about a real-world, real-time activity, that of walking: ‘I am a walker, and many of the poems that ultimately became a part of my book, Walking theory, found their first home as a Snap. Gradually I discovered many people, whether they were participating or not, really enjoyed following and commenting on my walks’ (Jones 2008). This was the case, in a slightly different sense, for Liz Kirby, who saw what she wrote for a Wednesday snapshot being mirrored in the writing she was doing for a separate project: ‘I was working on a sequence of poems that had their ground in Lorca’s Songs .... I think some of that did come through in the short, song-like quality of what I did for the Snapshots. But on the other hand the Snaps were much more provisional, and more unmediated than the rest of the work I was doing’ (Jones 2008).
Mark Weiss identified the real—as a phenomenon external to the poem—very specifically for his own writing and poetics: ‘As a poet I’m involved with phenomena. In this I usually follow [William Carlos] Williams’ dictum “no ideas but in things.” The things are as often internal as external, and sometimes a thought may be a thing. With that caveat, my snaps are indeed “snapshots” of what I’ve encountered in my daily life’ (Jones 2008).
The way of conceiving experience could be visual, as Douglas Barbour puts it: ‘Many of mine have been visuals, ‘taken’ so to speak as if I had a camera with me when I saw the sky, or the bird in the tree, or whatever…’ (Jones 2008). It could be a fractional sampling of moments, in Sheila Murphy’s approach: ‘I began with a literal adoption of what was asked: capture a moment and go with it in language. This seemed very natural, and a good excuse to savor a particular fraction of experience’ (Jones 2008). It could involve a sense of sharing daily thinking, such as English poet Patrick McManus says: ‘it started as a picture of where one was at but pretty soon changed to whatever people were thinking about (real inside head ??)’ (Jones 2008).
For some, the poems written of the moment wouldn’t ever be considered worth developing or preserving, though it is hard to imagine a poet throwing away lines, consigning them to an ecology of the ephemeral. This makes one wonder how hard or how easy is it to throw away the ephemeral, the results of our own actions.
Others, including myself, saw the idea as a fertile field for poem-making and, in fact, published much of the work later, either substantially revised or predominantly in the form as it came on the day. It was interesting how surprised some were at how much they had written and how much of it was, in their eyes, ‘good’, worth preserving. This was common to poets at various stages of a poetry practice or poetry career.
For instance, here is one of my own ‘snapshots’ which was later retitled and published as ‘Broken Hour’, in the April 2005 issue of Jacket on-line magazine, and later in my 2010 book, Dark bright doors:
I cracked it into ghost
sleep in a corridor
a broken hour
I had to slap up morning
a lame johnny that I
am I just disappearing
into the sweet grey
rain and rain and
anything the heart
touches rib roar
jostling a wing
dream on inbetween
catching up with
the joke in the day
results leaders questions
what I cannot get
a grip or it stops
beating an old drum
its art as fatalist
Jill Jones 12.37pm 3 December 2003 (Jones 2003)
What is also revealing is the way participants in the snapshots project negotiated the ‘real’ or the idea of change at and/or in a specific place and time. The concept of a snapshot wasn’t merely to record a literal image, or a daily report, though it often took in that notion whether through reportage, diary style writing or a conceptual framework, but tapped into where that poet was at a particular time, in their thought or writing process, in beginning or in shaping a poem.
Andrew Burke explicitly refers to how the snapshots project intersected with his ideas of ‘the real’ in the poem, specifically through the image: ‘The Snap project at poetryetc is a weekly exercise in presenting the real in sensory images. I deal directly—typed in the body of an email—with what is happening that day to me. Only very occasionally will it be an actual poem that I have just written and that I want feedback on. If I’m lucky this first draft will get a response and I will work on it to make it a “real” poem’ (Jones 2008).
Not every poet maintained such a clear link. The poems made under the rubric of the Snapshots Project are not autobiographical, necessarily, or a form of writing that is documentary, authentic or ‘sincere’—though some poems/writings recorded births, deaths, illnesses, job changes, even ‘confessions’—nor were they precisely geographical, though there was a focus on locality.
Thus the idea of dailiness, ordinariness, or perhaps ‘realness’, could be approached through syntax (as in Stein’s work), or through a use of techniques such as collage, or in a more documentary or phenomenological approach. Thus, it is not simply the aboutness of the snapshot, even with its date and time zone, that necessarily makes it real, or not only that, but the finding, within the everyday, new words, new grammars, new syntaxes, and new ways to write in the real.
The project entailed, along the lines Anny Ballardini was suggesting above, a way of writing in the real which comprises people in front of the computer, doing something that could always be erased, but instead letting it, this daily work, become a shared thing, made under the sunlight and moonlight of one place and read, very soon after, under different light and time zones and seasons. Most of the respondents noted that the project created for them a sense of communality, not just for giving and receiving feedback, but in providing an overview of how the day unfolded across longitudes and latitudes for poets around the world, as the posts came in. As well, it created a kind of energy around their writing practice. Irish poet Randolph Healy, noted: ‘In my own case, I found the snaps project a pleasant source of pressure … I did find that the party atmosphere of the weekly project, shared with so many others, provided streams of energy that would pop up unexpectedly in other ways’ (Jones 2008).
The process, by being public, becomes a ritual, an unveiling in language where location and language, story, concept, recycled and collaged material, even or especially nonsense become the myth, the play, the witness, the refreshment of change.
Though the words are put together by the writer in private—and we can’t truly know if they relate to the experiences of the day—we can assume that most did, and thus, the words are written out of the moment as though they will encounter or be read alongside other pieces, to potentially speak to them or with them. Perhaps place and time allows writers to get outside of themselves. The time and location markers attached to posts provided a kind of mapping or network for these poems, a lateral association or correspondence as well as in the temporal plane in which they appear.
This reminds me of Jack Spicer’s words and, in a sense, method, in After Lorca, a dialogue and a form of translation across time, although a different kind of time scale, between the living and the dead, Spicer and Lorca. Spicer writes: ‘A poet is a time mechanic not an embalmer. Objects, words must be led across time not preserved against it’ (Gizzi & Killian 2008: 122). Thus, poems are not so much objects to preserve, they are temporal connections. He writes later in the piece: ‘Words are what sticks to the real. We use them to push the real, to drag the real into the poem. They are what we hold on with, nothing else. They are as valuable in themselves as rope with nothing to be tied to’ (123). So, he enunciates that paradox: words reinforce the real, but words cannot make the real permanent.
The Snapshots Project, therefore, could be seen as one where poets variously interpreted an idea of dailiness, and how, with the continuous circulation of time and place locators attached to poems, a network of real world experiences was provisionally and continuously made from a succession of brief moments and makings, rendered through a variety of poetry practices and procedures. In doing so, they were—we were—taking part in a provisional and processual reticulation of changing ‘reals’ through the ‘earth’s diurnal round’, its networks, zones and climates, negotiating the shifting and sometimes wobbly framing conceit of ‘the snapshot’ and the time mechanics of the continually updated email list.
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