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What’s a digital residency? Why’s a digital residency?


The photograph above was taken at approximately 4pm on 4 March 2015, in the Waterloo branch of Foyles. The display stand – a promotion for Penguin’s new read-in-one-sitting Little Black Classics range, and but two days old – has been all but stripped bare. From a backlist containing Whitman, Keats, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Sappho, Coleridge, Dante, and Tang dynasty poets, very little remains apart from several copies of correspondence between Mozart and his father.

Please also note the unsold management advice books on the right.

The lesson is this: there is nothing you can’t find an audience for if the medium is right. The Penguin brand, with its smart black jackets, premium paper stock and perceived air of authenticity, has brought Goblin Market to one of the thousands of people who don’t read poetry because they never have, and not one of the tens of people who don’t read poetry because they have.

There’s another lesson here too, one about the co-influence of technology and culture. The Little Black Classics series wouldn’t have been possible 50 years ago; the printing and distribution would have been too costly, and consumer appetite was still digesting the new convenience food of paperbacks. Then the world got much faster, and now we can publish a small book of poems for 80p and have it sell out at a railway book store in a few days. That’s less than a bottle of water, and that comes out of the earth for free.

We live in a digital environment now, and our very concept of ‘digital’ has expanded and adjusted to something that no longer just speciously refers to the certain activities, tasks or emblems of the digital realm: Twitter, QR codes, The Black Crown Project, hackathons or augmented reality booths. Everything we do now – our work lives, the way we think and act, what we read and write – is partly or wholly mediated using technology. Existence external to digital is, in fact, increasing scarce. The digital realm is no longer the map, it’s part of the territory.

So, The Little Black Classics  – seemingly made from the usual blend of paper, glue, ink – are what we should mean by digital publishing, a work of art in the digital world, only made possible by the digital world. They are ‘digital’ books, in the sense that they could have only have been created due to advances in technology (everything from email to Oyster cards) but they are also an extension of the ways digital media have more generally changed who we are now: gentle on our attention spans, massively distributed, good for social status, reminiscent of a Romanticised pre-digital past when we like to think we had more leisure time.

The common argument I hear is that ‘digital’ means opening up access to things that were previously hidden away, or unsustainable to produce physically. Almost, but not quite, and it’s not what we should mean by digital. It’s not enough to put something up on the Internet for free and expect someone to look at it. Easy-to-access is still just ‘stuff on the Internet’ unless someone bothers to give it any attention. You can share a poem on your Facebook, or set up a Tumblr, but is it truly public, actively and successfully engaging an audience outside your personal networks? By way of example: any one of the Little Black Classics books could have been read for free on Project Gutenberg, for many years, but no-one was reading them. The poems of Sappho on my last check has only been downloaded 94 times from Project Gutenberg, whereas Penguin will have sold probably twice that number in less than a week. It took a very precise combination of digital technologies (on-demand printing, distribution, delivery logisitics, email, cloud computing), and some old-fashioned, cleverly deployed marketing to make a book of ancient Greek love poems the concern of someone on his commute, iPhone in the other hand.

It’s very easy to be seduced by the promise of ‘digital’, and entire marketplaces have grown around it selling us the idea it’s going to transform our lives, our health, our happiness. But affordancies are for advertising. A digital experience or product should do what it says, not says what it does, and it can do all sorts of things. Therefore, the only thing that matters is how we use it. There’s no money in poetry? Even with ebooks and a lowered costbase for publishers? Then the approach has been been wrong. Maybe it’s because we’re digitalising existing, pre-digital processes without necessary improvement or reform? Maybe it’s because publishers haven’t found the right business model yet? Maybe the wrong questions were asked? Success consists in being successful, not in merely having ‘potential’ for success, and that’s how digital innovation should be judged.

That Waterloo branch of Foyles where I took the photo is about a twelve minute walk from The Poetry School, where I’ve been thinking a lot about how art can address and stay relevant in a digital world, particularly poetry, using a combination of new things and old things, the latest innovations, and innovations from the past we have under-extracted in favour of commercial novelties. Our mission is to create an exciting, diverse contemporary literature, providing new pathways to learning, development and artistic creation for the wider poetry community, and key part of realising that is to understand the impact of and exploit the potential of new technologies.

So in 2013, we created CAMPUS, one of the biggest social networks in world dedicated exclusively to poetry. CAMPUS currently now has over 2000 poets, from as far as Kyrgystan and New Zealand, all of whom are writing, collaborating, sharing poems, offering advice, promoting local events, signing up to competitions and participating in an active, engaged and global community of artistic practice. It has appealed in particular to poets who are normally excluded from traditional routes into creative writing education, particularly those who live remotely, those who identify as being disabled, and those on low incomes.

Alongside CAMPUS, there is also a free digital programme of content and creative writing resources, including essays, interviews, student poems, live Q&A’s, free online workshops, manifestos, video lectures, podcasts, and much else. The platform also doubles up as the virtual learning environment where all our online courses take place.

A central feature of CAMPUS is our Digital Poet in Residence programme, which may be the first programme of its kind. For around 4-6 weeks, we invite a poet to join CAMPUS and give them a paid opportunity to interact with the online community, nurture the network, pursue their personal and creative interests in a public-facing online environment, share new work and experiment with ways of creating new work. It’s short, frantic, and highly timely, and it allows to work with poets whom we have never met.

The Digital Poet in Residence scheme does not radically depart from what you’d expect, other than the fact that it takes place via a virtual environment. In fact, it arguably should have been called the Poet in Digital Residence scheme. The work is similar to physical schemes of this kind – a bit of writing, some interaction with localised groups, an opportunity to experience new ideas and environments – but crucially it’s all put into a centralised online space that everyone can access and reply to. That’s a key difference.

The poets we work with are not ‘digital poets’ nor do they write or code ‘digital poetry’ (although they might). Some aren’t confident with computers, and some aren’t on social media. Nor is our salient feature the medium we’re using – the Internet. Any poet, any person, can start a blog and publish something online, but few will be widely-read. With our scheme, they get the added ‘Penguin effect’ – exposure, a reason for someone to pay close attention, the opportunity to work with an established arts organisation, our networks and professional staff.

Poets, writers, artists in general aren’t always going to produce masterpieces unwatched and un-abetted. Sometimes they need to be strong-armed into producing the work, and schemes like this makes it possible to create an interesting artistic opportunity without too much expense, minimum admin or the pre-requisite of owning a fancy archive or museum for artists to respond to. The resource here is people, poets talking to other poets, and seeing what emerges. It’s very pure and, we’ve discovered, very powerful.

If then digital is part of almost everything we do, the infrastructure of our daily existence, it no longer makes sense to speak of it in a compartmentalised way. Digital is not just a medium, a subcategory, or empty canvas any more, a new plaything or toy: it is a new attitude in apprehending the world and communicating with new audiences. It’s tempting to treat digital as an excuse for novelty, but its potential as raw artistic medium has already been exhaustively explored, given most of the technology we use – blogs, email, word processors, digital cameras, message boards, mobile phones – isn’t particularly new. In fact, for almost-millenials like myself, the Internet is starting to look like stale leftovers from last night’s dinner.

So the key question this digital residency programme really asks is: So what does the technology we have now mean for a working poet in the world in 2015 and further? How can these tools help them develop artistically and professionally? And at a time when financial pressures are making it harder to afford traditional forms of external professional and personal development, how can digital help us share knowledge in more collaborative and cost-effective ways? We’ve run 6 digital residencies so far, and have 2 more about to start, and the approaches have been diverse.

Claire Trévien was a daily presence and blogged about lo-fi poetry, grassroots creativity and the ethics of ‘poetic tourism’; Alex MacDonald also stuck mostly to long prose, and confronted the residency head-on, asking questions about the merits and disadvantages of Internet poetry; Kim Moore took a more autobiographical approach, using CAMPUS like a commonplace book, uploading completely unedited diary fragments, speaking to the community on a personal level; Jay Bernard (whose residency we sadly couldn’t complete) was crowdsourcing ideas that would become part of an untitled, interactive text adventure; Kathryn Maris and Jason Schneiderman ran a dual, Transatlantic residency, trading fours over the relationship between US and UK poetries. And starting this March, Ross Sutherland will be challenging himself to create 30 film-poems over two months, and Ira Lightman will be researching for his radio documentary on Ezra Pound and trying to write his very own Canto.

The original plan was to have a total of twelve Digital Poets in Residence, and the final three are going to be directly sourced from the CAMPUS community. We’re over halfway through the project already. 10 years ago, the things that happen as a result of these residencies would have required us to significantly to scale-up the organisation. Now, they are routine tasks for us. It’s a good time for us. We’re always continuing to grow and develop CAMPUS as a platform, and I personally hope we can continue to commission new creative work, as artistic development should be continuous if it is to have any true lasting value (particularly with emerging artists and younger demographics, otherwise where will our patrons of the future come from?)

Later on my train home, on the day I took the Foyles photo, I spied on three people in my carriage reading Little Black Classics. I started to think about how we deliver poetry, how it’s distributed, packaged and sold, and most importantly, the scale and types of audience we can reach, determines so much of its characteristics. Input equals output, to use a digital metaphor, or to use an example: it took the technology of the railways to create the green neo-pastoral world of suburban innocence, and whole new creative genres emerged. And the revolutions will continue to revolve: one day the railways will die out in favour of self-driving cars, and further genres will be born (see the recent Train Songs anthology, which demonstrates a new kind of epochal train nostalgia).

History constantly propels us into fresh storms and makes ruins of our designs, and new methods and processes emerge as we propel ourselves further out of difficulty. There are endless examples. See gargoyles, not ornaments but clever architectural conduits funneling off rainwater; see decorated initials in illuminated medieval manuscripts, which were mnemonic systems pre-dating page numbers; see the late novels of Henry James, with their new sentence structures because James was too unwell to write on a typewriter and had to dictate everything to a secretary. And this will continue forever more, just as poems written on an iPhone will have shorter line lengths, and poems written on a typewriter will have less of an oral quality than poetry written before the printing press. Most of what we regard as creative human invention is, in fact, creative human necessity. Marshall McLuhan once said ‘the book is an extension of the eye’, culture and technology instantaneously involving all of us, all at once, the interplay continuously pouring out, generating new texts and new ways of writing texts.

Digital can and should be a necessary part of being an artist in the world now, and not a novelty or specialism. The relationship between our ideas and our creative technologies is a wholly interdependent one, and we must acknowledge this as active, productive, responsible and participative citizens, let alone artists. I hope this is something our Digital Poet in Residence scheme promotes, and all our CAMPUS programme, and I hope this ethos spreads further and endures. Art should aspire to understand society and culture and this isn’t possible without knowledge of the workings of our media, digital media.

For the sake of better art – and by extension better science, better politics, better communities – we must never lose sight of our tools, nor lose the courage to act with them.

 This blog was original published, in a much shorter form, on The Space.

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