March 12, 2012KR BlogBlogChats

Self Portrait, Edited: an interview with Dean Rader

The talk these days of electronic mediums dethroning physical ones has taken on an increasingly schizophrenic tone: by some groups, it’s lauded; by others, despised. What both camps can agree on, though, is that it’s happening. Most of us already Facebook more than we phonebook (if phonebooks are more than tree-killing doorstops, now), and email everything we can’t snail-mail. There are good and not-so-good reasons for these changes, but the implications these tectonic shifts have for the literary world have prompted an especially loud cacophony, mostly concerned with publishing. But what about the self? Is the “I” in a printed poem—locked into the paper, unable to be un-printed—the same as the omnipresent but invisible “I” behind anonymous online comments? When the physical object of the book disappears, how does the text change? Is it more text, and less object, or vice versa?

Poet and essayist Dean Rader’s poem, “Self Portrait as Wikipedia Entry”, takes a motif (self-portraiture) that he employed in his most recent collection, Works & Days, and bends its into the digital. Ostensibly an account of a real life, the poem makes both spectacle and specimen of authenticity—even incorporating real hyperlinks for a full-blown, Wikipedia-esque experience. Dean and I exchanged emails, fittingly enough, to discuss how the poem (which appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of ZYZZYVA; full disclosure: where I’ve worked as an intern) marks a notch in the hybridization of the online versus the offline, the textual versus the visual, and the world of letterpress chapbooks versus Twitterature and the machine-like “status” update.

Kenyon Review: First things first. How did you come up with the idea of writing a poem in the form of a Wikipedia entry, of all things? What was attractive to you about the concept?

Dean Rader: Many of the poems in Works & Days play with genres that are more or less exiled from traditional literary genres. For example, I have a poem written in bulleted talking points. There is a poem presented in PowerPoint style, one with many blanks resembling a Mad Lib, another that is merely a numbered list, another that mirrors the Catholic Mass, and so on. Additionally, the book features a number of faux self-portraits (I explain this better on the Cincinnati Review blog).

With the Wikipedia poem, I was interested in a number of things. I remain amazed at how frequently we consult Wikipedia for information on people, especially when we know how inaccurate the entries are. I love, for example, the many mistakes in my own Wikipedia entry. So, I was interested in marrying the “truth” of poetry with the “truth” of Wikipedia.

Also, on a purely craft level, I loved trying to embed lyric moments and even snippets of lyric poems within a larger prose poem. After all, almost nothing is less poetic than a Wikipedia entry, so I liked the challenge that Wikipedia persistently throws down.

KR: ZYZZYVA ran your poem both in print and online, though the print version lacked the ability to host links just as real Wikipedia entries do. About the links: when I read a poem on paper all of my associations are mental, but online they’re both direct (physically one click away) and directed (they go to one specific link). How does this restrict or enhance the poem’s movement, as you see it, when the poem is viewed online?  How would the poem be different if it’d only been published in one venue or format?

Dean and son, Gavin, at reading.

DR: I secretly hoped the good folks at ZYZZYVA would post a version online. The poem is highly playful and that play extends to the pages readers are taken to when they click on a hotlink.

Even so, I was also prepared for the traditional one-dimensional version as well—for the very reasons you suggest. When read on the page, the reader gets to do a lot of fun work. You have been to Wikipedia hundreds of times, so you get to imagine what might pop up if you were to click on an underlined word. You actually get to see the imagined movement of the poem. On another level, the reader also gets to wonder what I had in mind when I decided to make a certain word a Wikipedia link. In the poem, for example, “nipple,” is underlined. The reader who comes across this in the print version only will no doubt be very curious what that word might link to in a real entry.

The online version is a bit more directive but more interactive. The poem becomes a site of interchange with other Wikipedia pages and with the Internet in general. I feel like it is a lot less my poem online. I’m still waiting for people to hack into the site and make the poem link to all sorts of crazy things I did not intend.

KR: Back in February, you posted “Self Portrait as Rejected Inaugural” on your 99 Poems for the 99 Percent blog. Written between Obama’s election and his inauguration, the poem experiments extensively with the “we” statements of the body politic: “We are who we show others we / Should be…” Works & Days, includes a good handful of poems also written under the premise of self-portraiture. What is it about the terminology of artwork when writing introspective poems that reflect on the character of identity? Is this visual emphasis—on sight, on self-perception—prominent on purpose?

DR: That is a great question. You’ve framed it well; better than I could have. One of the epigraphs of my book is a quote by the scientist Kathy Steele, who claims that the self is never continuous. I’m increasingly intrigued by studies showing that who we are—what we believe, what we like, what we think we know, what we want from life, what we think of as right or wrong—is not formed in the workshop of the brain but in and through interaction with others. As you note, Works & Days is very concerned with identity, and it suggests that identity is formed socially as well as internally. The book makes an argument that who you read, listen to, believe in, dream about, and love makes you who you are. In this sense, it plays with the many different notions of reflection, just as it nods to the various associations of sketch and portrait.

KR: There has been much discussion about the reliability of Wikipedia in recent decades, not to mention some accusations and lawsuits about faulty material the website has hosted. On the other hand, a study claimed that Wikipedia’s accuracy is comparable to the Encyclopedia Britannica (though the latter database ranks slightly higher). Did the notion of “facts” figure at all into this poem’s process? How much can or should a poet fabricate when writing—and when the poet is fabricating, is he or she responsible for letting their audience know? It’s hard to read a line like “Believe in what you know and you’ll go blind,” even when it’s disowned by the poem’s narrator, as doing much besides dissuading readers away from the temptation of certainty.

DR: Another smart question. Yes, facts did play a part in the construction of the poem. Some of the details belonging to the “Dean Rader” of the poem overlap factually with the “Dean Rader” responding to your questions, which pretty much overlaps with who I think of as “me.”

However there are also details in the entry—both humorous and seemingly earnest— that do not correspond to my own life.

I guess I want readers to question any piece of data they might receive about an author’s life, whether it is information they read in a random secondary source or something they get straight from the author himself. I always caution my students against autobiographical readings of poems, but at the same time, I also want them to know that poems come from actual people with actual lives. Poets almost never squirrel themselves away in their workshops of mischief devising ways to trick and confound undergraduates. Poets genuinely want to communicate.

Poems are part of the world, just as they are part of the poet’s world. Finding that sweet spot between the authentic and artistic and autobiographical is where much of the magic of poetry comes from. This poem rolls around in that spot.

KR: Like the online identities of most people, I get the sensation that the person depicted in this falsified Wikipedia and his flesh-and-blood counterpart are significantly different (a radical concept, right?); but, of course, this inference could be wrong. The line’s already blurred, as the man who wrote the 2010 Works & Days certainly isn’t Hesiod. How did the form of the Wikipedia entry, as well as its tics and procedures, influence your own conception of yourself as you appear in the poem, or even in general?

DR: As I suggest above and you note here, the two Dean Raders in question are not each other. In truth, the Dean Rader sketched in the poem is far cooler than this one.

As for Wikipedia, who isn’t intrigued by Wikipedia entries? We all mock them yet rely on them. I have found myself intrigued by their uniformity and the lack of any real meat. How much, really, can birthdays, birthdates, birthplaces, and other modes of biographical data actually tell you about a person? Wikipedia entries relay so little about a person’s emotional or psychological contours. They can only provide information, they can’t interrogate or unveil. So, I wanted to create a Wikipedia entry that started off much like a regular one but quickly detoured or devolved into something weirder but also more human.

KR: Did you feel at all beholden to what you consider your personal history when writing it? I think most people would agree that, ideally—though hardly ever in actuality—history should be as impartial a witness of events as possible. But much of the poem deals with metaphysical qualities like memory, interpretation, perception, and selfhood, topics that aren’t easily quantified or observed. Do these things deserve to be testified about in the same way as the more empirical aspects of biography, or perhaps even more so?

DR: That’s a good observation. The false factoids certainly outnumber the true ones; however, the poem, through its strange truths, actually tells the reader a great deal about me. It communicates in a different way on a different level than a typical entry might or, for that matter, a typical “confessional lyric” might. Readers do get a sense of what I feel, what concerns me, what I fear, what I think about. The paradox of the poem is that this fake Wikipedia entry reveals more about me than the “real” Wikipedia entry does.

KR: The poem centers, understandably enough, around what could generally be called a personal history. How is electronic, editable “history” altering the way that people understand each other—especially in the context of family, where information is so often transmitted through pictorial or oral means? I’m wondering if social media contributed to the proliferation of written accounts of personal history, as you see it, and also if you think the picture’s reign as a primary source of documentation is destabilized by the ability people have to create their own texts so quickly—through blogs, comments, and Wikipedia pages.

That’s a really interesting question. I have been intrigued by the fact that Wikipedia entries rely pretty much solely on text as opposed to image. Even major celebrities have only one–and often no–photo on their respective page. That would seem to go against other contemporary venues, where image rules.

Beyond that, though, a Wikipedia format has emerged; in fact, it’s almost become its own genre. Every entry includes the same kinds of information, and it’s information that may or may not be useful. I’m always puzzled how often I do not find the details I’m looking for when I go to Wikipedia–or to the Internet in general. Which is to say, I wonder to what degree the Wikipedia genre is influencing what is considered reliable, viable, necessary information.

In the case of the poem, I made a conscious decision not to include the details about my life that define me the most, like my immediate family. I say nothing about my wife, Jill, or the intricacies of our relationship. I am also notably silent about my son, Gavin, who, as most people who read my columns and blog posts know, is a huge part of my life and my identity.

Lastly, what distinguishes the poem from actual Wikipedia entries is the possibility (or impossibility) of updating/correcting the details of the poem. For example, we just had another baby, but even if I wanted that information to enter the poem, it can’t, unless I do something very unusual and go back into a previously published poem and alter it. Part of me is unutterably excited about the prospect of doing that. But, the editors at ZYZZYVA might be less jazzed by my tinkering . . .

Dean's 2010 release from Truman State University Press.

KR: How do you think the rise of electronic media in the past decade has influenced the poetry community? There’s a small mecca of major poets on Twitter—reading their streams is like eavesdropping on mental static, more of it brilliant than one would assume. Do you think online formats, especially social media forums, tend to dilute or strengthen the community of writers and readers, and mutual engagement within that community, on any level?

DR: I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately and have even written about it. I think more poetry is being written and read now than in any time in history. The Academy of American Poets claims their website gets over a million unique visitors every month. That’s astonishing.

Some, though, find this troubling. A couple of years ago, David Alpaugh wrote a widely read and fairly controversial piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education in which he argues that the proliferation of poetry being published (he predicted over 100,000 poems were published or posted in America in 2010) was diluting the poetry pool. For him, it’s impossible to find the truly great kernels amidst all the chaff.

Maybe but maybe not.

Social media and online formats do not always make the most discerning editors, but they can be wildly effective publishers. Making poetry more available simply makes it more democratic. Some readers and critics long for poetry’s elitism. They are nostalgic for the days when only a few select people wrote and read poetry. With a smaller sample size, it was relatively easy to know who was good and who was not. Now, it is much, much harder.

One remedy is to stop worrying about if a poem or poet is “good.” I write about this phenomenon in a review of Christian Wiman’s new book. I don’t care so much if a poem is good or bad. I only care about what work it tries to do.

KR: If poems and poets were to move mostly online, could poetry as a craft retain its current shape? Or should it? I’m prodding a sacred cow here, but is the preservation of print culture something we should strive for regardless of how rest of the media world moves?

DR: One might argue that an online format is better suited for poetry’s typographical toolbox. The hotlinked online version of “Self Portrait as Wikipedia Entry” is a good example of that. Another involves a very recent poem of mine composed in couplets with rather long lines. The typographical limitations of the journal publishing the poem make it impossible for them to print it as I wrote it.—there is simply not enough room between the margins. Online, you don’t have that problem.

Personally, I prefer reading things in print as opposed to reading them on a screen, but that is merely a preference. I’m not convinced that print culture is more virtuous or more artistic than electronic or digital cultures. I think we take things more seriously that are tangible; that we can hold and write in and dogear and read without outlet or batteries. But, if something exists only in hard copy, it runs the risk of enjoying a smaller audience than if it exists in a more portable, more fungible format.

This is why I’m so grateful to ZYZZYVA. It has always been a cool magazine, but the new editors—Laura Cogan and Oscar Villalon—had the vision to publish this poem two ways in two different formats. As a writer, you feel very lucky when editors go out of their way help your work reach its full potential. As our manner of reading and writing evolves, I think we might see more and more texts find their way into the world in multiple (and complementary) formats.

People are always, always going to want real books printed on real paper. So, we’ll have that. The question is, how can we use new technologies to augment and expand what writing can do?