Introduction to the EPC:
Each art has a duende different in form and style, but their roots meet in the place where the black sounds of Manuel Torre1 come from -- the essential, uncontrollable, quivering, common base of wood, sound, canvas, and word.
Behind those black sounds, tenderly and intimately, live zephyrs, ants, volcanoes, and the huge night straining its waist against the Milky Way.
-- Lorca, "Duende" 61
THE ELECTRONIC POETRY CENTER (EPC) was established in June, 1994, to provide a central site for the distribution of innovative poetry and poetics works including sound, video, and programmable media. It was an early pioneer of the medium and, as one of the most extensive poetry sites on the Web, continues to be a leader in the field. The EPC's goal is simple: to make works by and about numerous innovative poets freely available on a world-wide scale. It continues to pursue that goal, promoting a wide range of works through several categories of access, including an extensive author list, e-poetry, publisher, magazine, subject, sound, and video lists. The EPC, a project of the College of Arts & Sciences and the Poetics Program, Department of English, State University of New York at Buffalo, now enjoys 10 million transactions a year from over 90 countries.
The Foundation of the EPC
Although the Internet was relatively new at the time the EPC was founded, numerous problems had already arisen with attempts to archive various electronic poetry magazines, RIF/T and TapRoot Electronic Edition (TREE), among them. There did not exist at the time, for example, a complete archive of TREE2. Similarly, it was impossible to find RIF/T classified anywhere as "poetry", the journal's primary focus. (Since the poems in the magazine did look like "poetry", the archivists insisted it must be a "zine".) Many other texts were going uncollected and postings to the Poetics discussion list, edited by Charles Bernstein, were not being archived. (This period was before the Web had emerged as the dominant means of access. Envision this activity taking place among ASCII screens of Gopher space!) The situation on the Internet at the time was extremely volatile; it was clear that relevant institutions were hesitant to take responsibility for electronic texts in general and poetry, of course, was at the bottom of the heap when it came to cataloguing, access, and preservation.
The solution to this increasingly difficult situation seemed simple: the creation of a site to serve as a repository for electronic texts by multiple authors in the innovative poetries. There would be a large amount of technical information to learn and the maintenance and daily operations of the site would take a high level of commitment on the part of its volunteers. (This was not necessarily understood at the time nor would there necessarily be many volunteers to be found!) There would be institutional issues to negotiate, financial support to garner, and computer equipment to acquire and maintain. The earliest vision of the EPC was that it would function as a community poetry center, like the Poetry Project in New York or New College in San Francisco. It would have, like a physical poetry center, a small press library, author libraries, tape archives, reading spaces, exhibit areas, and bulletin boards. The difference, I thought at the time, was that there would be no physical facility to contend with. That is, no rent payments (and hence no worries about income), no utilities, no physical cleaning up. A virtual poetry / community center seemed ideal, as clean and labor-free as the kitchen in the TV cartoon "The Jetsons." How wrong a vision can be!
As it turned out (and though university affiliation provides server space and Internet connections), this site may take even more effort than a physical space! Management of the EPC -- the maintenance of directories, the shepherding of files through new releases of Perl, Unix, and browser versions, the cost of computer equipment, the development of design principles, and the need to operate within a coherent, articulated and continually evolving vision -- provides constant challenges. In addition, there is the laborious work of maintaining files, correcting system errors, keeping informed about upgrades, and troubleshooting "404 Not Found" errors. Running a electronic poetry center proved as daunting as running a physical center. Unlike a physical center, however, this had not yet been done for poetry and there were no models to follow.
The EPC has also seen more visitors than most physical sites. At its inception, the EPC facilitated about 500 connections a month3. Use of the Center subsequently skyrocketed. During February, 1995 alone, for example, there were 8,000 transactions at the Center and this number has approached 20,000 towards later months in 1995. By 1997, the EPC regularly witnessed months consisting of 65,000 transactions; these numbers jumped to 2 million in 1998 and 10 million in 20004. In collaboration with the then-extant electronic poetry journal, RIF/T (over 1,000 subscribers at the time) and Charles Bernstein's Poetics Listserv (over 350 participants at the time, 800 subscribers at the beginning of 2000), the EPC was at the forefront in recognizing the possibilities of Internet technology. Subsequently, it has been recognized on radio and television and in such as USA Today, the New Yorker, Publishers Weekly, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and other publications, for the amount of activity in contemporary poetry it has facilitated. Such developments inform how poetry is written, how it circulates, how it might be taught, and ultimately, what it means to read.
The possibilities for such a center in the new millennium are immense. The Internet allows for rapid, wide and immediate dissemination of texts. The electronic medium provides a charged approach to writing itself, witnessed by the University at Buffalo Poetics discussion list and the numerous digital projects (such as Alyricmailer, Deluxe Rubber Chicken, Tinfish, and Lume) associated with the EPC. The structural dynamics of the EPC, based on hand-coded HTML (supported by PERL, scripting languages, and UNIX utilities), address textual issues about the presentation and structure of writing, through menus, hypertextual links, and graphic design. A consciousness of these issues by writers and readers of poetry is consistent with the fact that publishing and writing have been interwoven since the invention of the printing press.
What about the texts themselves? This may be a key area where a bibliographer's instincts prevail. If one were going to go to the effort of selecting texts according to specific criteria and collecting them, then the pitfall of so many other Internet sites, poor versions of texts, was to be avoided at all costs! This site would operate on the principle that texts housed at the EPC are "definitive" texts inasmuch as, prior to "publication", they would be approved by their producers. (As it turns out, texts at the EPC are literally "definitive" electronic texts. Through OCLC's U.S. Department of Education-funded project Cataloging Internet Resources Group and the initiative of the State University of Buffalo at New York University Libraries Central Technical Services Group, a number of texts have been evaluated, catalogued, and made available internationally through major bibliographic databases.)
What an online writing is, also has immense ramifications. When reading a paper-based book of poems, none of us would expect to find, for example, an audio track as part of its pages. (Though poems are indeed meant to sound 5.) Paper writing consists mainly of printed material because it operates within the bounds of its technology. The fact that the Web introduces a new writing and reading technology is often overlooked. The design of the EPC therefore accommodates not only print-based texts, but graphical files, audio files 6, audio programs, kinetic formats, and works in networked and programmable media. One of the contributions of the EPC has been not only to define these other media as writing but to recognize that the creation of these forms is an act of writing. (For more on this subject, see the essay "Jumping to Occlusions" and the book Digital Poetics, forthcoming from the University of Alabama Press in 2001.)
The EPC, Present & Future
What impact has the EPC had on poetry? It has provided poetry texts for teaching, personal use, and has served as an archive for such texts. It has provided syllabi for teachers and self-taught students. It has created permanent "installations" of author libraries and has issued a stream of select, editorially sound texts. It was one of the first sites to pioneer full text and Internet audio through projects such the award-winning LINEbreak series of performances and interviews. It set out to establish ties to innovative work that was pushing the limits of the print medium, to circulate works that informed innovative practice, and to establish an institutional base for poetry presented through electronic technology. Within the electronic medium, it has explored the material properties of electronic writing and the use of new technology for the dissemination of texts. In these ways the EPC participated in the transformation of the concept of poetry from market-based notions of paper publishing to a vision immersed in malleability, invention, and transmission in a new medium. It has helped to expand the possibilities of poetry's range in terms of content, geography, and durability (as texts remain indefinitely in print), and has helped promote investigations of its materiality.
The EPC has many plans for the future, including Latin American and other international projects, and continued development of its sound, video, and multimedia components. It will continue to make available electronic versions of poetry that informs the poetics of digital space. Further, it has a primary commitment to explore the material possibilities of the medium through the development of resources for poetries that can only exist in the electronic environment, including hypertext, kinetic and visual texts, and works in programmable media. In this sense, we have barely begun to begin!
What has made the EPC successful has been its ability, within an institutional setting, to circumscribe a field of textual interest, to maintain that field, and work its edges; to be flexible yet persistent. Finally, to not merely replicate a paper paradigm, but to explore the manifold edges of the electronic poetry text and, in the process, to discover, interrogate, and celebrate the new emergent forms that comprise the practice of e-poetry. The words that form such a site are not paper words simply cloned into electronic space but are, as Robin Blaser has written, something more:
where they are not
added to the real
but compose it
(Image Nation 114)
1 Manuel Torre was the first to sing cante jondo from the chest, not the throat.
2 No archive had a complete run and one archive even had two identical files listed as separate issues.
3 Coming from small press publishing, I was used to publishing 500 copies of a title every three months. If even 200 of these were sold or otherwise "moved," one gets used to being happy. Thus, at the outset, I figured the EPC would be worth doing if 500 people looked at it every three months.
4 In this regard, it is probably safe to say the EPC has been successful. The 500 copies each three months I once postulated as being worth the labor now occur every 2-1/2 hours. This amounts to 5,7000 transactions per day. In the first quarter of 1998 we had users in 80 countries. These included most major developed and developing nations as well as countries such as Kazakhstan, Nicaragua, Estonia, Oman and Sri Lanka.
5 Put poetically: Another phrase for “rhyme-maker” is “jingle maker” or “hacedor de cascabeles”. This brings forth the whole idea of “making bells”. The Aztec tlatoani thus will not bless an additional section with a railroad pen. Pembroke as a penumbral occlusion. Keeping in mind that “ukelele” is Hawaiian for “jumping flea”, the 1879 nickname of Edward Purvis, a popular performer in the court of King Kalakaua, whose collaborative effort with Elvis Presley won the Gold Hexameter Prize awarded during the occupation of Easter Island. (Overconsumption everywhere.) The award consisted of a garland of merry bells, i.e. the bellywort.
6 See “Five Pieces for Sound File” for an exploration as some of these themes and the extraordinary accomplishments of LINEbreak (at the EPC) for the possibilities of building an extensive online catalog of innovative audio programming.
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