So, I was talking (blogging) a few weeks ago about how I don’t really like the intimacy of the internet, though the more I think about it the more I think I was wrong.
After all, I usually start out by thinking about the horrors of the internet—the 2am nasty-grams, the resurfaced bully trying to friend me on facebook, long recriminating e-mails that get forwarded about, e-mails from students with obscene e-mail addresses. Not that paper mail hasn’t brought me some horrors, but for some reason, paper always seems to have a dignity that Outlook and Gmail lack. I also seem to read paper more thoroughly. I tend to read upsetting paper-text over and over again to a calming effect. Upsetting e-text seems to have new passages and nuances each time I return to one. E-text seems to grow and morph as they get read.
Which might be because I was raised before e-mail and texting. E-mail was something you got when you went to college (from your college), and those early days of internet access were strange—listservs, chat rooms, ftp sites. One day we’d be told that using our University of Maryland e-mails was like writing on college stationary, and then next day my friend Henry was sending around a picture of John Wayne Bobbit’s severed penis. These were the days when there was ASCII porn (yes—naked ladies made up of text symbols—more like a mosaic than a photograph), and I lived in an all male dorm, and the world wide web was just about to debut. But back in those days, there was nothing intimate about the internet. E-mail felt more like voice mail—quick, functional, nothing to save or savor. The interfaces were all very DOS, and everything felt geeky and nerdy. You had to know what you were doing, and the whole enterprise was cumbersome and slow. Phone lines and modems were no fun, kids.
Now, it all seems much sleeker, and more human (yes, I do seem to have just implied that geeky and nerdy are the opposite of human)—both more threatening and more exciting. Everything comes fast, and everyone seems to show up. I got an e-mail last year from a Dutch guy I met at an international scouting camp in the early 90s. Thanks to facebook, I now know that the prettiest girl in the eighth grade thought that I was kind of cool. The internet is a weird space because you’re there and not there. You deal with the information on your own schedule, but it’s somehow uninhibited. It’s easy to focus on how nasty the internet can make people—but people are also incredibly willing to make themselves vulnerable—and for the same reason—we’re all so far away from each other.
So I gave a reading at Central High School in Philadelphia—I’ve been their visiting poet for going on five years now, and it’s always amazing. I can’t believe how great the students are—how nutured and supported they are—and even when someone seems kind of mad about what I’ve written, they ask, and as long as someone is engaging what I actually wrote, anger is cool with me. I stand behind my work (and a podium). But I always feel amazingly welcomed and appreciated and respected. I look forward to going there all year. This morning I got a thank you note from one of the students (she found my e-mail, I’m guessing, on my website), and it was really nice. I mean, I always worry about a reading and how it’s gone, and it was what I needed this morning. It was moving. I felt good reading it and I read it over and over. So, Internet, for letting us find each other and talk, I say good on you. And I embrace the intimacy you’ve got on offer.
My biggest news this week was that “Late August,” a chapbook manuscript by Barbara Brackney, was taken for publication by the good Jack Estes of Pleasure Boat Press. She was one of my best students—she died of cancer in 2007—and we worked together on her chapbook manuscript when she was very ill. I bring her memory into these thoughts on intimacy and the internet because I never met Barbara face to face. She was a student in an online class that I taught. She lived in Michigan. We did speak on the phone, but my memory of her personality is all from text—her directness in the chat room, the cadences of her poetry, and quick trajectories of her e-mails. Her writing was always filled with urgency. She knew that had a limited amount of time. I was glad that I knew her, and I’m glad that I’ve been able to help her poems stay in the world. Again, Internet, I’ve got to say thank you.