toward a more flowing culture: lit 2.0 + the online "total work"

this blog post is a complement to my vlog, "am i even a poet anymore?" /// in order to make the vlog funnier and more exciting, i sacrificed some of my clarity. this post is an attempt to make the ideas in the video clearer to anyone really interested in them. it also serves as a more complete introduction to my new website LIVE MY LIEF and what i'm trying to do there


ever since i started writing poetry, i've been very interested in style (voice, visual formatting, punctuation). all my favorite writers have had highly differentiated voices and, often, visual styles. in the case of gertrude stein, for example, it didn't seem to matter at all what she wrote "about"; it was almost entirely about how she wrote it

as i've suggested for a long time and recently explored more deeply, aesthetics (for me) is strongly connected to identity. i don't just like certain poetry books because they're "good." i like them because they're relevant to who i am, who i want to be, how i understand the world, or how i want to live. often the relevance (the "how to live") is usually in the overall style of a book just as much as the specific poems or sentences. it's a fluid voice or overarching design that suggests a personality or demeanor

there are a number of terms referring to this idea of individual texts and stylistic moves relating to larger ideas:

memeplex: my favorite of the terms, a "meme complex," a grouping of associated memes that are consistent and which support each other. "meme" here is understood to be a unit of culture and/or anything that is spread by imitation (stylistic moves included). a poem is a meme, a slogan like "live my lief" is a meme, stylistic choices like using all lowercase in conversation is a meme

(personal) brand: generally associated with business. "personal branding" is acknowledged as important by a lot of bloggers who strive to unify their tone, design, and ideas. successful brands are often centered around a mission and have been described as belief systems. cultural/lifestyle brands aim to embody a way of life or a cultural myth/archetype. it's understood that voice and design/style elements contribute to the effect of a brand

discourse: usually on a broad/social level—there are different discourses based on social class, gender, and subcultures. Discourses have been described as "the combination of language with other social practices (behavior, values, ways of thinking, clothes, food, customs, perspectives) within a specific group," or "ways of being in the world" (source: wikipedia, too lazy to find the original articles at the moment)

ethos: usually about presentation. how do you use your appearance, language, demeanor, dress, and other things to affect the impression you give, your ethos, in a certain situation?

stance: used in a book i read by harold bloom to discuss a poet's overall philosophy and how that is reflected in their specific stylistic moves

there are also other things like the sapir-whorf hypothesis and liguistic determinism that draw connections between language usage and worldview


in 2007 i read the first two volumes of poems for the millennium, which contain a wide range of international experimental poetry. an idea mentioned several times in PftM, which has continued to excite me, is that of a "total work"—an all-encompassing Book—usually a hybrid between overt literature and other forms of writing or even visual art

along with that, i've been talking to stephen dierks and some other friends about my ambition to create a "magnum opus" as my next book: 400 to 1,000 pages, with many diverse forms, maybe including essays, poems, and image macros. something excites me about creating a gigantic book where i'm free to include anything i want—something that has little structure or precondition except being what i like

when planning this project, i had to acknowledge that a single book might not be the best medium for an expansive "total work" in 2011. so i considered building a website that would be the main work itself—not just a promotional tool for the "actual books." the more i considered this, the more i liked it

after a certain point, i got the idea that my ideal online "total work" would have the depth of something like hipster runoff: multiple content streams, all updated regularly; images created/edited specifically for the project, not just stock photos; podcasts, or probably videos in my case; ongoing themes/memes and characters; and a "applied" component, including news or cultural criticism as a side aspect of the work (past "total works" have blended poetry and journal/diary forms, poetry and philosophy, etc.)

i haven't quite achieved that broadness yet with LIVE MY LIEF, but that's what interests me the most as a writer/creator right now: creating an active, varied, and prolific source of culture, allowing me to fully develop and enact a memeplex or a set of memeplexes


"i am living out the logical conclusion of my books" - john wieners

whether or not you think poetry has adapted itself to the internet in general (with online lit mags, sites like htmlgiant, ebooks, and more writers with blogs), i'll assert that poetry has not really adapted to social media in any major way beyond that. and maybe it doesn't need to, but i'm curious what could be achieved if it did

i've praised @horse_ebooks, @tao_lin, and @hipsterrunoff for their twitter streams, which have a lot of humor and stylistic continuity. but even those accounts neglect the two-way interaction that characterizes a lot of social media. i mean that none of those accounts will respond to your tweets: it's still just one-way publishing, a writer broadcasting out to an audience

this is the case for a lot of other prominent sources, too. htmlgiant has a twitter account that just sends out links and occasional 1-liners. my own work with @internet_poetry has been kind of passive, i'll admit, just linking to new posts (look for that to change in the future—i'm working on some new stuff for IP)

all this still resembles web 1.0 more than web 2.0. it's still just individual writers or magazines broadcasting their writing and links one way, out to everyone else. if you're not familiar with the distinction between web 1.0 and web 2.0: "a web 2.0 site allows users to interact and collaborate with each other in a social media dialogue as creators (prosumers) of user-generated content in a virtual community, in contrast to websites where users (consumers) are limited to the passive viewing of content that was created for them" (source)

i'm interested in further exploring the potential of things like my energetic facebook presence, which my classmate jessica dyer has referred to as "social making": social interaction/exchange as part of the cultural experience that i work to create. (whether you call it "literature" or not, it seems indisputable that it's culture at least, including the way you talk, the mood you pass along, etc)

this idea excites me—synthesizing literature and everyday communication. but why? what is at the core of my excitement?


maybe it's because i grew up with the internet and social media, or maybe it's something else about my disposition or values, but i want my writing (/ my memeplex) to be an active, integrated part of (at least some of) my readers' lives

i've made comparisons between my ebook pageviews and the average press run for poetry books, suggesting the value of an online presence for a writer.. but i think there is an even better reason to establish a presence online: you can talk to your readers every day. you can build two-way relationships with them. you can help them and matter to them in a much more integrated way, while still radiating the same memeplex and also gaining attention for your more overtly literary projects

i think it's weird that it took me years to find any contemporary poets i like, because really, contemporary poets have great advantages over dead ones. if i'm inspired by walt whitman's poetry, i can't even tell him about it. i can't send him a tweet, an email, or a comment about it. we can't have an extended conversation about anything in his book. all i have is the static text from 150 years ago

living writers can offer a lot more than static texts. they can offer a living (if inevitably inconsistent) incarnation of the poetry/memeplex. this might sound kind of involved or difficult to produce, but i don't think it is; it just requires transparency. i'm already expressing myself in my poetry; now i can just give my audience myself more broadly and openly, beyond the poetry as such

i've been trying harder to respond to every tweet, every wall post, every email, and every comment i get, although i still miss some because facebook notifications only count up to 99. maybe this isn't the life for many other writers at the moment, but i really enjoy it. i want to be your poet. i want to give you something really valuable and ongoing. i want to inspire you and talk to you. in many cases, i really want to be your friend


when i saw lil b's video "am i even a rapper anymore," it really resonated with me because i've been feeling the same things about poetry. i've felt alienated by experiences with the literary world—lit journals, some teachers and feedback in my mfa program—and i've thought, "if people are so upset that i'm writing poetry like this, maybe it's not poetry. maybe i'm not really a poet"

i've tried to weigh the different options, calling myself a "poet" versus saying i'm a designer or something. much of the difference is just on how the work gets distributed (books versus gallery showings, etc) and what kind of publicity it can get (big helvetica might be boring as design but shocking as poetry)

my current sense is that "poetry" and opposing categories are ultimately arbitrary distinctions within culture or just life. what we think of as "poetry" (as opposed to other artforms) is so dependent on historical details, i don't think it can accurately divide up our human activity

poetry was originally oral and memorized. then it started to get written down. eventually poets started considering the visual arrangement of the written poem, and most poets today acknowledge the validity of breaking linea for visual reasons. then some people pushed it further and created visual poetry. still today it's generally expected for the poem to be "on the page" and something that can be read aloud at a reading. we still treat poetry like a script for something oral, but we're also open to its visual appearance—but only to a certain degree, rarely specifying fonts or letter spacing, rarely adding overtly graphic elements

it seems like a weird combination of expectations and norms that mainly exist just because that's what we inherited from the past. if you look at the actual texts, prose poetry and flash fiction are often indistinguishable, and visual poetry and graphic design are often indistinguishable. these categories are so sloppy i really don't know how they've managed to cause me so much anxiety: should i refer to myself as a "poet"?? what do you call something broader, a "cultural artist"? maybe just a "blogger," when it's put in the online context?

there are different critical traditions with each artform too, but i'm not deliberately engaging with many specific traditions. i write so that non-poets can appreciate mostly everything there. as poncho peligroso wrote, "i want people who never read poetry to read my work." i'm just engaging with people and with culture broadly. i'm trying to figure out a way to live that i hope will help people live and enjoy their lief in 2011, engage with (post)ironic culture enjoying things like justin bieber, and do things in their life and not feel overwhelmed or worried a lot

thank you for reading this. thank you caring enough about my writing to come here. i really appreciate that a lot

check into my memeplex like an effing hotel. follow me on twitter + friend me on facebook