The Poetic Commons

By | 1 August 2010

Poetry is a kind of creative commons of the culture. These days we inhabit different microcultures and that complicates matters, but there remains a kind of substratum that most members of say, one country, understand.

In 1996, Spinifex author, Suniti Namjoshi began what I think was probably the first experiment with Creative Commons in Australia. What we at Spinifex did was to set up a web site and ask readers to contribute to the novel, Building Babel, by adding their own content. This was well before Web 2.0 and so all content came to us via email and was separately uploaded to the Babel Building Site. You can see the original invitation at the archived site Pandora. All the links are now out of date, but the experiment was interesting and you can still navigate through the different pages.

So why am I telling you about this old pre-web 2.0 site? Because most of the time we speak as if these technologies were new. What Suniti Namjoshi points out in her writing is just how very old they are: that the sharing of stories across minds is as old as storytelling itself.

If you think back through your own store of stories, consider the family tales, the story about the strange uncle, the maiden aunt, the grandparent who lost the farm, these are all part of our creative commons, part of a shared culture. Sometimes it is shared with just a few, other elements are known culture wide. Say the word Cats in New York and Melbourne and you’ll get a very different response. Are you talking Broadway or football?

Poets have a broad creative commons on which they draw. The poetic history of humanity, little known corners, fragments and single lines inhabit our brains. This is in part of what Suniti Namjoshi was writing about in Building Babel. While Facebook and Twitter provide examples of the latest kind of creative commons.

In my own work, I began to explore poetry and hypertext around 1997 for my sequence of long poems, Unstopped Mouths which was later published in The Butterfly Effect. I did this because I felt that the particular poetic commons I was drawing on was not well known and this was a way of opening it up.

As a poet, I find myself engaging in conversations about poetry, or writing a poem in response to someone else’s posting. Twitter remains the realm of the haiku addict and now and then I tweet a few lines.

Poetry is hugely accessible these days and while big publishers stay away in droves, small poetry publishing is thriving. Blogs provide poets with a way to garner an audience, the publishing of chapbooks is on the rise again, and even full-length books are finding their way out into the marketplace under small imprints. In part, this is fuelled by the increasing viability of short run printing. A run of 100-300 copies has never been unusual for poetry, and print runs of these lengths are now available to anyone with some saved pennies. No longer the equivalent of going out and buying a car, printing a short run of poems can be done for under $1000. Putting it out online – assuming the writer has their own computer – can be calculated in the time it takes to put it up. Getting a following takes more work, but open readings, community festival readings and the like can all play their part.

Digital publishing has the advantage of reaching people you have never met and are perhaps unlikely to meet. Just as a widely distributed print book falls into the hands of many readers unknown to the author, a digital book has the same capacity. Like a print book it can be driven through networking, or simply by being active on several circuits. Unlike a print book, it can reach into places beyond the reach of ordinary book distributors. Three important places stand out.

1. Reaching into foreign markets where the publisher has no distributor, but where there are a significant number of English-language readers.
2. Reaching people who live in rural and remote areas where booksellers may not have the breadth of writing a reader is looking for.
3. Reaching people who for one reason or another are unable to leave their homes: the elderly, the chronically ill, people with mobility difficulties or those suffering agoraphobia.

The ability to increase the size of print is also another good reason to make your work available digitally.

There has been a great deal of fear wound up over digital publishing, and while I am supportive of authors wanting a fair deal with publishers, with my publisher hat on I can see many opportunities passing by those who wish to remain rooted to the spot. In the first instance, when we at Spinifex started to sell eBooks in late 2006, most readers pressed the buy print book button. These were probably sales we would not have made otherwise and we saw a really significant increase in the sales of books over our web site. All the books available (getting close to 100 titles) can be browsed for 15 minutes, up to ten pages can be read free of charge. They can also be searched for words used in the text. With these two options a reader can read as if in a bookshop, or check subject matter as one would by using an index. The digital advantage is that no index is required to do the looking.

More recently, the eBook versions are selling – this is particularly so in the US market where eBooks have had faster acceptance than here in Australia. With an average of around 20% of our monthly sales currently through eBooks, this is extra income for authors. It also allows a small and independent press like ours to sell to a wider market. We can track what kind of eBook is most popular and this can help us use our resources better.

As for copying and pirating, I do not believe that this a major issue. How many of you have photocopied more than 10% of a book? How many of you have read a line of poetry and credited it in the poem? How many have not? My point is that there is nothing new about copying, about failure to attribute. The main difference is that in electronic form it is far more readily spotted. Increasing digitisation may in fact reduce plagiarism.

Creative Commons is one way of retaining some control over your work while allowing it to circulate relatively freely. The advantage of circulation is that it gives the work more airing, might even help the poet to build their reputation. A range of Creative Commons licences are available. Important elements are:

1. Attribution
2. Non-commercial use
3. Whether or not Derivative works are allowed
4. Share alike – that the licence given is the one used.

These are common sense rules and provide poets with the opportunity to share their delight in the work of other poets while not stealing the artistic creativity of others. It also opens up the possibility of poetic playfulness, like a variation on a musical riff.

We at Spinifex have enjoyed our ventures into the digital world. The downside is the additional work that it creates in an already over-stretched workplace. That additional work is in the retailing.


you can tell we no longer

             know our classics

a postmodern breakfast


            Greek and Latin

μετα- meta-: Greek preposition meaning

            with or after

data: plural of datum

            (past participle of the verb dare to give)

            Latin for a thing given or granted,

            something known or assumed as fact,

            and made the basis of reasoning or calculation

μεταdata is definitely after: after the date

            of my dictionary, printed in 1977

metadata is the data that comes with or after the book

a whole world of information and facts

attached to an eBook with ones and zeros

a spreadsheet of working days

column after column after column after column after

            six columns of ISBNs

            two ways of listing the title

            long blurbs and short

            subject matter and keywords

            prices in different currencies

            dimensions in metric and imperial

            an excerpt and its source

            a review and its source

            and more …

and everyone wants something different

                        I’m after

                              and after

                                    I’m over it

That poem was written in the midst of metadata frenzy which, with luck is mostly over now. What the poem shows is that it does take time and commitment to go digital, but if you start that way, or you begin to venture into the world, then there are feedbacks and with luck sales. Unless you are prepared to let everything go for free, your digital files need to be wrapped and secured and that way you can gain from both print and digital worlds.

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