Jennifer Ley

Riding the "Digital" Meridian

The online literary magazine Riding the Meridian exists to seek out and support new forms of literary art based on Internet technology and emerging theories, to facilitate communication within the online literary community, and to explore the myriad forms by which the Internet can be used to publish and promote literature. Rather a mouthful, isn't it? Yet the Internet is extremely well suited to achieving all these goals. Riding the Meridian has featured everything from classic text poetry to concrete poetry, non-linear hypertext and hypermedia. We also feature Theory, Dialogue and Means (Practice) sections. Theory is used to discuss the work in each issue — or related works, conferences, collections. The Dialogue section features at least one interview per issue while our roundtables engage practitioners and theorists in pertinent discussions. Our Means section offers information related to technical or outreach aspects of the work.

Educated as an artist, I came to the Web to unite the word work I was creating with visual imagery. Since then, the technological leaps in html, Javascript, Dhtml and plug-ins like Shockwave and Flash have added considerably to the medium with which web writers can express themselves, which has affected my personal creative work as much as it has my interests as an editor. The forms the technology can be used to create spin the idea of literature into new territory, challenge what it means to be "literate." In some of this work, it is very difficult to say where the literature ends, where the art/image begins.

I'd like to think that Riding the Meridian is doing a good job of achieving its goals. One of our most recent offerings, a Progressive Dinner Party featuring work by 39 women who write web-specific hypertext and hypermedia created by contributing editors Carolyn Guertin and Marjorie Coverley Luesebrink, (located in the Theory section of the current issue: Women and Technology) has made a strong case for the successful use of visual imagery in hypertext work. The magazine is read by people from Botswana to Romania, and is included in course syllabi by several universities, among them SUNY-Buffalo's well-respected Digital Poetics program. As with any "literary" effort, I'd like to see our audience reach further into the general population; it's difficult to gauge how well we've done this, though I have received letters from school children and people who don't write poetry (are there really any left??)

We've also been able to present more traditional work in new ways. Last fall, our guest editor Alaric Sumner, who will join the staff on a permanent basis starting with our next issue, put together a section in Meridian on Sound/Text. We were able to display Bob Cobbing's text experiments with real audio tracks of his work, able to make small videos showing the sides of Wendy Kramer's collage poems, and provide audio tracks of the unique way she 'reads' them. These are things we plan to continue to do with Riding the Meridian. The place where image rubs up against text, where text becomes image, or sound carries text work in a new direction, where hypermedia allows a reader to get inside the architecture of language, are all of interest to the editorial staff.

During the time I've been editing and publishing poetry online, (since 1996 and the creation of my first site, the Astrophysicist's Tango Partner Speaks), I've seen the fears that many writers espoused about the net fall away. I've also seen an exponential growth of work that is created by the new hybrid: the artist/writer. I think it's clear that if respected print theorists like N. Katherine Hayles and Marjorie Perloff are willing to be published online, and find the hypertext work that can only be viewed on the Web to be worthy of critical comment, the digital literary movement is here to stay. The technology is changing so rapidly that the work continues to evolve at an equally rapid pace, and is far from totally evolved. This gives us some work that utilizes tech for the sake of tech, and work where the interface is still far from transparent, but there is so much enthusiasm within the literary/arts community online it seems likely that literary forms are now in the midst of an evolution few of us wish to narrowly define, so as not to limit its possible scope. Of course, the technology also creates problems, something the Internet Literary Editor's Fellowship, an organization I founded with four like-minded online editors last year, plans to address.

One thing it can't address is editorial burn-out. Ease of communication can quickly become a curse, as the sheer mass of information, email, and opportunities manifest themselves. An online magazine isn't as easily limited by budgetary concerns when deciding how much content to include in any given issue, which can create a situation where the staff takes on more than it can handle. In order to deal with some of these issues, we've moved to a biannual publication schedule, and have always limited our open submission period so that we can respond promptly to submitted work, as writers have come to expect a much quicker response when they submit work online.

But input overload can also be a blessing, in that it quickly makes one realize how impossible it is to be 'definitive' on the net. Since publishing Women and Technology, I've already met several other women online who could have been included based on the quality of their work. The mechanism of the net promotes inclusion and humility in the face of so many creative people and their varied approach to the term 'literature'. The -ism era may have to end as we enter a time where multi-culturalism and its step-child, the need to be "politically correct," becomes replaced by a more genuine celebration and awareness of the breadth and depth of the creative impulse around the globe.

All of this points to one of the most compelling reasons I find for working on the Web, and that is the community we are building. Almost every separate online magazine provides links to other magazines and sites. The Internet gives us access to an international audience and pool of contributors. The work we "publish" reaches a much larger audience than it would in traditional small press print magazines, and the ability the audience now has to communicate via email at the "speed of thought" means that our contributors receive quite a bit more feedback than they would when published in a print magazine. And even within the editorial process, this ease of communication translates into a perceptible change between author and editor. There is often a palpable sense of community in the simplest web publishing endeavor.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that a medium that makes text exchange so easy, and technology that makes experimentation so rewarding, would be advantageous to writers — one they would take to like the proverbial rubber duck to water, even though they can't take their computers to the bathtub.

As well as editing Riding the Meridian, poet and hypertext artist Jennifer Ley maintains a homepage with links to her work on the Web.

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