A Sorcery of Circuitry: Behind the Screens of Online Magazines

Katherine Swiggart

The Iowa Review and the Iowa Review Web offer an example of how a print and online journal can happily merge and then peaceably diverge; while IRW began as an offshoot of the Iowa Review, the two parts are now under different editorship and share only the first page of their Web sites. But although the two journals are now bound formally only at their point of departure, Hamilton, who continues to edit the Iowa Review and who, together with Martha Conway, Joe Ranft, and Brian Lennon, gradually put the Iowa Review Web into motion, sees them as “complementary, not antagonistic.” For Swiss, it is important to continue to emphasize the connection between print and screen: “The relationship between print literature and digital literature is not one of rupture, dilution, or extremity, but of haunting. That’s why we bring print literature into the site in every issue…to show relationships, to make the site a place where you can see print lit, digital lit, and digital art as all of a piece.”

In many cases the line between print and screen is more rapidly blurring, and many print journals have also developed online identities. One of these is Conjunctions, whose online incarnation is Web Conjunctions. Bradford Morrow, editor of Conjunctions, thinks of them as equally legitimate publications, noting as an example that references to Shelley Jackson’s and Christopher Sorrentino’s work, which appeared only on Web Conjunctions, were included in the Twentieth Anniversary Issue. He and the volunteers who oversee Web Conjunctions view the two journals “holistically,” each “extending and complementing the other.” As proof of how well the two media work together, he offers the example of John Moran’s Everyday Newt Burman, “an authentically innovative music-theater performance piece whose script you can read in Conjunctions: 28, Secular Psalms, while listening simultaneously to a production tape online.”

The Exquisite Corpse is another print journal that has created a second, more fluid identity for itself on the Web. Its 12th cyberissue, in fact, is devoted to celebrating the Mississippi River. In an e-mail written on a plane as he was flying to Baton Rouge, editor Andrei Codrescu described how the project came about:

It began with a call to our contributors and subscribers along the Mississippi to send ideas for a documentary film about the river, ideas that somehow engage the river artistically. The response was tremendous: everything from music written specifically for the film to conceptual-environmental events, and, of course, poetry, art, and fiction. We posted every response with e-mail addresses so that the contributors could begin writing each other and developing their ideas further. This is an ongoing issue we keep adding to as replies keep coming in, and the issue itself is the evolving script for the film—which will be shot this year and finished hopefully in time for the 200th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase on December 20, 2003.

One clear advantage that the online magazine has over its print counterpart is its ability to contain more material and to reach a wider audience. When asked how the two versions of the journal differ, Codrescu explained, “The printed and cyber Corpses are different creatures in many respects: While the editing is just as careful, we are able to present entire novels (we serialized six novels), artwork in color, ten times as much poetry, and instant reader responses.”

Online magazines have both their nostalgic skeptics and their enthusiastic champions. After all, both Birkerts’s “Sense and Semblance,” in which he rather mournfully predicts that “specialization and teamwork—the game plan of the sciences—will become the procedure of art as well,” and Rebecca Seiferle’s essay “Illuminated Pages,” in which she observes that “the advantage of limitless space is that the Web lends itself easily to projects, to the passionate obsession,” were inspired by the same new medium. Whether or not this passion will dim, as novelty settles into necessity, remains to be seen. But perhaps Paul Valéry envisioned our new need for the World Wide Web, if not for new media writing, when in 1928 he offered this prophecy: “Just as water, gas, and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to a minimal effort, so we shall be supplied with visual or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign.”

And he might have been interested to hear of the innovative American Sign Language project being planned for Slope’s fall issue, which will include movie clips of ASL poets signing their poems. Ethan Paquin, Slope’s editor, believes that the ASL poetry contest that Rita Rich and Chris Janke have coordinated may be the first of its kind. “Although there’s a lot of talk in the literary world about making sure underrepresented groups of writers have venues in which to express themselves,” Paquin remarks, “until now ASL poets have, to our knowledge, been excluded from these venues, or totally ignored.” The editors hope that Slope’s National ASL Poetry Prize (judged by deaf poet Peter Cook) and the ASL Poetry Feature will help to establish a virtual library of ASL poetry by deaf poets so that, as Rich says, “Deaf and hearing readers can learn more about how deaf poets use wordplay, visual puns, metaphor, and rhyming movements to create meaning.”

The new, less expensive medium of electronic publishing has prompted some editors to question the ideas that have driven traditional publishing ventures. One editor who decided to subvert the value placed on an author’s reputation, for instance, is the anonymous editor of Anon., a new print journal that accepts only unsigned and previously unpublished submissions (www.anon.be). After submitting their work contributors can look at the Web site, where the first lines of accepted and rejected poems are posted with the editor’s comments. According to Editor A, the idea for the journal was inspired by the notion that “breaking the traditional bond between a written work and a single known, or at least knowable, author/persona seems to do something to the way a work is written and read (even when the author’s ‘true’ identity eventually comes out).” So far, fewer than a hundred submissions have been received in seven months. But Anon. has not yet had much publicity, and the editor is still working on the first anonymous chapbook and issue of the print journal. Editor A remains optimistic about the project, convinced that “anonymous publishing has the potential to serve a checks-and-balance role, providing a forum for pressure-free writing, favor-free editing, and bias-free reading.”

Another new and anonymously edited project is “The Human Dictionary” (www.humandictionary.org). The chain invitation for submissions includes a list of “possible guidelines and editorial policies.” These tentative guidelines and policies are presented as a list of “what if” propositions: “What if people were asked to send in a word or phrase, known or invented, along with their own definition of that word or phrase”; “What if these definitions were personal and were attempts to situate the word in a particular time and place and human context”; and “What if they could include anecdotes about the sender’s experience with this word or phrase.” That these what-if suppositions are all presented as statements rather than as questions suggests that the project means to devote itself simultaneously to definition and uncertainty, and thereby to undermine the authority that readers customarily invest in the word dictionary. One can imagine, for instance, what a definition of war or homeland security would look like in a more humanized dictionary, in which words and phrases were defined by placing them within a particular context.

Just as the automobile mimicked the buggy, the shape of the literary magazine on the Web pays tribute to its previously printed form. The familiar rectangular frame of the screen tries to persuade readers that they have entered a small, intimate space where there might be individual pages of poetry and prose (and in some cases even chat rooms and cybercafes), or single Flash performances, instead of a vast matrix of shifting text and images. It is clear that to some extent editors of online journals desire to fence in the territory they are providing, to have the journal’s pages be turned over in the mind if not by the hands, and to have the journal be admired for its individual grace, beauty, scope, novelty, ideas, and edginess. But even as editors can preserve the illusion of what the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard calls “intimate immensity” by offering a small and measurable space, they can also make use of the new possibilities of connection that the medium allows, and thus break economic, cultural, geographic, and linguistic boundaries.

Katherine Swiggart is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and received a Ph.D. in English from UCLA. She lives in Portland, Oregon, and teaches at Willamette University. Together with D.A. Powell, she edits Electronic Poetry Review (www.poetry.org).