John Burnside
Poet on the Internet 
 

John Burnside has published seven books of poetry, of which the most recent is The Asylum Dance. He has written a collection of stories entitled Burning Elvis, and two novels, The Dumb House and The Mercy Boys. He lives in Fife, Scotland, in a small coastal town on the Firth of Forth.

Background

John was appointed in December 1998 and started work on the residency in January. The aim is to develop the use of poetry on the internet and provide a resource - and access to a poet with the appropriate level of technological expertise - for those who live in remote areas or who have limited mobility. John has worked in the computer industry for ten years and seemed the ideal candidate to pursue these objectives. His immediate plans included the following:  

  • A noticeboard (maintained by the community of users via the resident) on activities and events of interest to the community.
  • An area in which poems for workshopping can be posted.  
  • A central point through which to find out about and contact the resident poet on a one to one basis (for poetry surgeries and individual publishing advice.
  • Occasional chat-based sessions, where the wider community could communicate freely with one another and create new associations and relationships.
  • Occasional special events; for example, a three day poetry squantum, using the festival squantum as a model, but with all the activities taking place on line.
  • A showcase for new poetry (and work in progress) by all members of the community.

The focal point, to begin with, will be the poet in residence. However, as the project continues, another measure focus will be the autonomy of the individuals and sub-groups within the community, who would be setting up their own activities, workshopping amongst themselves and exploring and discovering new links, ideas and working methods.

The showcase element will lead towards a set of linked, completed works, appropriately presented to publication standard, in both electronic and hardcopy form. There will be links with the Poetry Society's website, a mentoring scheme with the on-line writing community, Trace, also a Poetry Place and with the Commonwealth Institute's Poetry Place website.


Report on the Internet Poetry Project: 1st January 1999 - 1st July 1999

The purpose of this report is to provide a summary of activities carried out during the course of the Internet Poetry Project, set up in January 1999, with John Burnside as poet in residence, administered by The Poetry Society, and aimed at those participants who might have most to gain from involvement in such a project: that is, those with mobility problems, or those living remotely from conventional workshopping facilities. The intention is to report on the project at the close of this phase, to analyse problems arising during the course of the project, and make recommendation for future phases of this and/or other Internet projects.

Background

The project was due to begin in January 1999, but was delayed somewhat, mainly due to technical problems. In February, work began in earnest, setting up a community site and seeking applications from interested parties to join the cyber-community. John Burnside, (JB) as writer in residence, would help set up and manage the site; day to day administration of the site and the clients was the work of Emma Jarvie (EJ) at the Poetry Society. A fair number of applications were received and, after scrutiny by the Society, an initial group of fourteen members were invited to participate, (followed shortly afterwards by seven others). The criteria for acceptance in the cyber-community were those stated above: that is, mobility and / or remoteness related; quality of work, technical ability or hardware-related factors were not considered.

The intentions for the project were as follows:

  • to set up workshops, allowing members of the community to comment upon fellow members' work
  • to allow for individual comment on poems by JB via email
  • to gather material for an online magazine publication
  • to set up activities, such as chat sessions, discussions, exchange of ideas and information on such matters as publication, poetic form etc.
  • to conduct special activities, such as a Poetry Squantum

To begin with, these objectives seemed achievable. Using an Excite site, a community was set up, allowing for workshop folders, discussions, linking to other sites, and with a facility for online chat. Via email, JB commented on members' work, and advised on technical problems as they arose. However, for a number of reasons outlined below, this initial promise was not fulfilled, and a number of members left the community. At the same time, new "members", unapproved by the Society, simply turned up, and those members who continued to participate in activities encountered some technical difficulties and communication problems which led to an ultimate breakdown in the community. In the next section, I have attempted to diagnose the problems, and list reasons for this breakdown.

Problems

Problems which arose with the community were identified as follows:

a number of members had severe technical difficulties, which they attributed to the Excite host software; it is likely, however, that at least some of these problems arose because a number of the users had limited technical ability, (JB spent a considerable amount of time and energy advising on or fielding queries related to simple technical matters) access delays caused frustration and disillusion amongst members one member showed a tendency to be discourteous, aggressive and overly forceful in his opinions, alienating at least one other member of the group members tended to want solutions to problems solved immediately, which was not always possible given the time afforded the project two members identified on their own initiative problems with their own servers / facilities which made it almost impossible to continue working with the community; one kept up email contact for a time with JB, then stopped one member complained of "spamming" from an unspecified source

when chat-related sessions were proposed by JB, there was little or no uptake, (presumably because of time-related factors, though there is insufficient supporting evidence for this conclusion) in general, people seemed uninterested in others' work, and seemed more interested in sending it to JB for individual comment, rather than workshopping many of the participants posted nothing, or posted poor-quality workas the situation became difficult, people drifted away and it was hard, if not impossible, to get feedback on why they had lost interest in the project.

After a promising start, then, the project ground to a near-halt, and it seemed unprofitable to continue; instead, it was decided that JB would analyse the problems and report to the Society, with a diagnosis of the problems and recommendations for future projects. The recommendations follow. It should be noted that, while the project has not fulfilled all its original aims, it should not be considered a failure; it could have been far more successfully conducted under only slightly different circumstances. Much has been learned. The problems encountered might have been avoided or more effectively dealt with if the following points were known at the outset:

technical support for most users is still a major factor in the success of such a project; more technical support needs to be built in quality of work is necessarily a factor in creating and maintaining a user

community there is a significant administration overhead on such a project slow access times alienate inexperienced users; at the same time, inexperienced users are more likely to experience access problems, due to hardware limitations, lack of knowledge of software / server issues etc. on occasion, users seemed reluctant to ask advice from JB re problems, perhaps because they thought this was inappropriate; users need to see a clear differentiation between the work of the poet in residence and technical/administration roles

Recommendations

I believe that this project could have been more successful than it was. The principal factors which determined its limits were

  • the user community
  • technical support
  • administration
  • the target community and objectives of the project

For future projects, I would therefore recommend:

a significant increase in technical support

more thorough vetting of the target community, on the basis of quality of work, technical knowledge or aptitude, and availability of suitable hardware, (at least for the initial stage of such a project) a clear delineation of administrative, technical and artistic responsibilities a more complete statement of the objectives and the nature of the project to the users from the beginning, (I feel, in retrospect, that I did not provide users with enough information or direction in this area, seeking to evolve a community in what I thought of as a democratic manner; it would appear that a very definite and rigorous model needs to be set up at the start, and then adapted later, as needed)

Conclusion

The only possible conclusion with regard to the project is that it was unsuccessful in achieving its aims. However, much can be learned from the problems which arose over the six months of its duration. There is no doubt that Internet based activities are one of the ways in which poetry can be made available to a wider community; however, this area will have to be carefully managed in future projects, perhaps focusing initially on short, high-profile activities, in order to raise awareness of the possibilities of the technology and communications potential. Such activities would, initially at least, be best served by involving a mix of able practitioners, both in poetry and in communications. A gradual evolution of a cyber-community is needed: over a period of time, we will discover many new possibilities, as long as sufficient and appropriate resources are assigned to the enterprise. in spite of the problems encountered during this project, I feel confident that the future is exciting for cyber-poetry, and look forward to forthcoming developments in this area.

John Burnside
26 June 1999

Administrator's report and Feedback from the online chat room members

As administrator, I was asked to set up and recruit for members to join the online chat room sessions.

Recruitment

To recruit people for the project, an insert was put in Winter Poetry News which reached our members about two months before the residency took effect, and a returnable form was put on the website for people to e-mail us their reasons for joining the group. This provided a selection procedure to make sure those interested had a strong and valid interest in the residency. To target internet users in particular, a letter was posted to discussion groups administered by John Kinsella and Peter Howard. An advert was also cautiously placed with an American Poetry forum in March to involve more poets, however I received no response and wonder whether as I registered with the forum with the sole purpose to advertise the residency, my advert was quite possibly removed.

Altogether about twenty users signed up who were eager to get involved. Here were some of their reasons for joining:

" I need constructive criticism and feel that in this sort of forum we can bounce ideas off one another." Michael Malone.

"I'm particularly keen to take part in the workshop as I am living in Germany...so no chance of an English workshop for several years at least." Stefan Tobler

"I workshop weekly with a group, but I would appreciate more rigorous criticism." Rachel Wiggans

Technicalities

As administrator I tested the community software with John Burnside and I experienced no technical problems, however, I was working from two fast computers (200 and 266 megahertz) and was using good internet service providers for which excellent technical support was paid. I was fortunate to have good access to the community software, excite.com, even at busy times.

Nevertheless, the important people in this project - the community members - respectively experienced problems, which John Burnside endeavoured to help on an individual basis. Some of the members have offered advice and have recounted their experience of the technical side of the e-community:

"I found the website cumbersome and was frustrated during several attempts to send off a file of my own. If I were ever to receive free local calls then this would be less of a problem but when you are online getting nowhere and running up a huge telephone bill then you tend to give up." Michael Malone.

"Unfortunately...the ISP I was using at that time made connection times too long and laborious to partake in chat rooms or other similar "real-time" events." Stuart Baker-Brown.

John Burnside assisted as much as possible with these difficulties. He also expressed difficulty in monitoring the infiltration of "spamming" and unapproved members to the site and devising a protocol system to stop discourteous and aggressive criticism from members.

Finally, John found the best way to discuss the member's poetry was through e-mail. Comments about his advice and e-communities in the future are as follows:

"I thought John was conscientious and engaging, and took real trouble to consider the only poem I posted up. As such, I got all that I wanted from the project - the criticism of a poet I rate very highly." Matthew Hollis.

"If you manage to start something else up please let me know," Michael Malone.

The administrator's recommendations for future projects.

Having a discussion group set up six months in advance of a chat room facility by an administrator inviting and selecting 60 or so members worldwide all with good IT capabilities. This would enable those who would wish to go onto using a poetry squantum or chat room to be prepared and eased into an environment of posting up and accepting courteous criticism.

Budgetting for an online community/chatroom software package, which would include reputable and preferably freephone technical support accessible to all participants and therefore freeing up the poetry mentor's time.

Budgetting for an administrator who can spend one day a week monitoring the discussion group and chat room.

Emma Jarvie, Communications Officer and administrator for this residency

Young Poets Network