J.J. Webb has been a fiercely loyal friend--to me and to others, and to our writing--for many years. I've known him since 1985 when he invited me to contribute to Zero City and other early online publications. In lieu of payment for my poetry, he gifted me with an email account, with Cruzio, of which he was one of the founders. Anyway, See Blue's Cruzio Cafe (online) and Rachel Dacus' interview with J.J. Webb in Umbrella, a Journal of Poetry, < http://www.umbrellajournal.com/ > for samples of who he really is and how he has served other writers, poets in particular.
J.J. Webb is something of an internet impresario, organizing virtual poetry readings and online stage productions just as he once organized "live" poetry readings under the redwoods adjoining his home in Boulder Creek, CA. Yes, he's what is known as a "difficult" individual, short-tempered, prickly, impatient... but also, above all, one of the most generous writers I have met in what Philip Levine has called "the little world of poetry." For example, who else would spend hours and hours animating poetry for writers he scarcely knows--or has never met--out of enthusiasm for their work and the potential he sees in animated poetry? Please... read on...
(What follows is excerpted from A Journal of Poetry and Kindred Prose
The Umbrella Interview <http://www.umbrellajournal.com/> )
J. J. Webb, “Beau Blue” of Blue’s Cruzio Café
by Rachel Dacus
J J Webb is the editor of Blue’s Cruzio Café, a poetry zine that pairs animation with readings. The Café has hosted some distinguished poets reading their work in animation, including former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, Robert Bly, Robert Sward, Ruth Daigon, Ellen Bass and Kim Addonizio. JJ Webb has been publishing poetry on the Web since there was a Web—even before, via Web precursors. He is an innovator always looking toward new possibilities for Internet publishing. He was among the first poetry publishers to animate readings and often does the animations, as well as working with talented artists and designers to create original poetry performance videos.
Rachel Dacus: How did you begin with online poetry publishing? What gave you the idea?
JJ: It depends on the meaning of the word “online.” If you mean the World Wide Web, the answer is 1992. If you mean the UseNet (an outgrowth of ARPANET), the answer is 1987. FidoNet? 1985. Any networked computer system? 1978. As the Engineering Manager for a small company called Computer Curriculum Corporation I helped develop computer labs for K-12 schools. Dr. Patrick Suppes, the major curriculum designer for the PLATO projects in the early seventies, started the company to produce networked computer terminals devoted to teaching kids reading, writing and arithmetic. I was the seventeenth employee hired to help him accomplish his dream. Among the subjects was ”Reading for Comprehension” and poetry was part of the course. I remember seeing Gil Scott Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon” on a computer screen in one of the labs we designed and built for an inner city school, and saying to myself “Wow! This is going to make teaching poetry and learning poetry more interesting than when I was in high school.” That was even before the IBM PC made its debut.
In the early eighties, I was a consultant at Ford Aerospace and got my first user account on their research computer system, which happened to be part of ARPANET. In 1987, while I was working for Lockheed, the “great Usenet re-organization” happened and rec.arts.poems newsgroup came into being. I was one of the first to start using it.
In 1989, I helped start one of the first commercial Internet service providers in the country, Cruzio Communications. Mosaic came out in late 1992 or early 1993. I was asked to put together an Art & Literary eZine so our customers would have some content to view with their new toy. I started “The Hawk” and our inaugural issue featured Robert Anton Wilson, Robert Sward, Nick Herbert and other writers and poets from Northern California as well as many artists. In 1995, “The Hawk” morphed into a poetry eZine called “ZeroCity.” [ZeroCity archives can be found on Blue’s Cruzio Café.]
Q: How do you read the migration of many print poets and presses to the Internet? Do you see a paradigm shift in publishing, and if so, what form might it take?
JJ: Oh, the paradigm shift is definitely happening. The traditional distribution channels for poetry have dried up completely over the last 75 years. Bookstores have better money-making uses for their bookshelves and publishers, never that enthusiastic about poetry to begin with, have restricted their catalogs to the dry and lifeless offerings of the participants of the MFA programs around the country. Something had to give.
What with the rise of Print-on-Demand publishing, the ease of setting up sales websites, and the expansion of the audience for poetry I don’t see why it shouldn’t shift significantly. But I believe the market for poetry publications will reach way beyond print in the very near future. I believe paper and ink are just too limited for 21st century poetry. The Internet will re-introduce poetry’s audience to poetry’s oral roots. CDs and DVDs will be the form marketers will use to push poetry sales in the future, not paper and ink.
My 18 year old daughter got a love poem from her boyfriend the other day, on her phone. They spend a great deal of time texting each other every day. Things like that tell me that poetry is very much a part of this century. Isn’t it grand?
J.J. goes on to say:
Rachel Dacus: How has the Web changed American poetry in the last decade?
JJ Webb: It is beginning to eliminate the old-line gatekeepers. Well, not eliminate them, but make them more and more irrelevant. It’ll be interesting to see what the new gatekeepers look like. And with that the Web will begin to reshape the poem itself. Just as Slam has influenced the poem to become a more comprehensive, harder-edged entity, the web will influence it in the same manner. And of course the web has expanded the audience for poetry far beyond what anyone imagined 20 years ago.
Rachel: What gave you the idea of animating poetry as you have so wittily done at Blue’s Cruzio Café?
JJ: The Café’s origin was a broadside I began in 2002. That broadside was called “Talking Heads,” a collection of a few of the poems I’d recorded over the previous 15 years. It was just me wondering if I could draw. It took two and a half years to learn enough about animation to feel like I could do it well enough to start doing other poets. I started with a couple of heroes of mine: Kenneth Patchen and Robinson Jeffers. Since I had the recordings and the permission to use them, I decided, why not? From there the Café just kind of took over and now I spend a large part of every day working on it.
Rachel: Is it hard to find poets who want their reading animated? Any who objected to it?
JJ: Yes—many poets nowadays think poetry only happens if ink is involved. And no—many poets today are excited about the performance aspect of poetry. Those poets that long to get up off the page are very supportive of my efforts; they volunteer to participate and help me discover writers and performers who feel the same as I do.
Rachel: In your experience, do most poets still consider print publishing as their ultimate goal?
JJ: Most still worship print. Most continue to submit manuscripts to small presses and want desperately to have them accepted. They’re desperate to have some outfit run off some small number of copies (that never find a way into more than a few bookstores) so they can say they’re published. It’s sad. But it’s the path that’s been taught for a hundred years, so what else should anyone expect?
Rachel: Do you see online poetry publishing as widening the audience for poetry?
JJ: Yep. In 1994 there were 16 million web users. Today, 1.75 billion. That’s a B—the audience for everything has expanded. Isn’t it grand?
[excerpted from Umbrella... see current issue for the complete interview.]
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