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Jim Bennett

An Interview with June Clitheroll


Would you like to say something about your background for us?

Nothing much to say really I was born into a poor family in Canada which moved to Mississippi.  When I was about eight, my dad who was a field worker, got his own place through a government initiative and we started growing cotton.  The first few years were very good, it was fresh land and the cotton yields were very high but it was hard work and I can remember being pulled out of bed at first light to help with the picking.  Now of course a lot of it is mechanised and even then there where things to help if you could afford them, but we couldn't, so we did it the old way, by hand.    School was interrupted during the year when there was no time for anything else but sorting out the crop.  So like a lot of the younger children we helped out where we could but spent the rest of the day fooling round.  In some ways it was idyllic in others harsh.    I began writing round that time, short poems and stories.   No great worth in any of them but I was learning my trade as a writer.

Was this encouraged?

Yes.  My mom and dad wanted me to graduate and go to college, but because school was a bit messed up for a few years, they encouraged me. A sort of early home school I suppose.   My mom took some of the first things I wrote round to her friends and got some published in the town paper.  So I was encouraged.

So where did that take you?

On the road at 16, still fooling round, but it was the 60's and there was the fear of imminent destruction by nuclear war and our reaction, the young peoples reaction, was to get serious over being not serious and the result was the growth of the Hippy movement and I was a keen observer of it if not an active member and I went off to California.  Not as exciting as it sounds because I went to live with my older sister to help with her children while I finished school out there.  Eventually I went to New York, which I ow think of as home, and was helped to get my degree.   I have been in education either as a student, lecturer or professor ever since.  I spent a lovely two years on loan to Glasgow University in Scotland, just returning home to New York a month ago.  I like travel so I take every opportunity I can at someone else's expense to visit other countries.  That is how I came to be in Glasgow.

Your current studies into the way in which computers and the internet can be used in education and as distance learning tools, and for the propagation of poetry appears to relate to your experiences in a way.  Do you feel that?

Hell yes.  I am an observer of change, particularly changes in the way in which people communicate.   My professorship with Colquote College, is in the field of poetry and media, so looking at the way poetry has become so widely available on the internet and the way in which communities are developing is a natural development for me.

The article which you have prepared for Western Magazine and which you have allowed us to reproduce in this edition of Poetry Kit Magazine is an interesting look at a thread of communication on our poetry critique list.  Obviously people can read that for themselves, but what do you think it show us about poetry on the internet?

This particular thread, written up as an article will be a case study for a much longer piece of research which is being funded by SUNNY.  Generally I found the PK List is working as a genuine virtual community of poets but without the agreed, even if unspoken, manifesto that you find in real physical communities say the Beats, the Black Mountain Poets or the LANPO Poets.  In other words these internet groupings tend to be more social or  single issue based and the proselytising and propaganda which is so much in evidence in formal groups is not as obvious.   Many of the internet groups because their composition depends so much on serendipity are self reinforcing.  In other words, people drift into the groups and if they find it fits their agenda they stay, if not they go.

As for poetry generally and the state of internet groups and communities, I can say that some of the groups I have looked at are truly appalling, while others are so academic that they are elitist.  A few groups like PK seem to have a good balance and I was impressed with the standard of some of the comments made, which is why I chose that thread as part of my study.   It must be said that the viewpoints given by the posters do vary and that is what I found interesting.   On the PK list it moved from a very traditional standpoint, to a post modern, taking in a number of other views along the way.  In that one thread we see a wide range of views and it was all done with great care and thoughtfulness. 

What is the main approach for your research?  Is it the way in which the groups form, the content of the mails, or the quality of the critiques, or the skills brought to the transactional exchange?

All of those really.  I am interested in new communities that form on the internet.  Sometimes they form around one or two central figures at other times they are broader, the shared interest is also important obviously, but there has to be a payoff for people who stay within a group.  The quality of feedback, the speed of responses, the feeling they get of belonging all play a part.  But I am coming to think that the actual transactional exchange may fall into a few basic types and that people look for an style that is in keeping with their own. 

That may be the case but in transactional exchanges some people can be chameleons and change their styles to suit the prevailing conditions in a web of transactions.  So do you feel that sometimes dominant personalities may set the prevailing conditions while others go along with it?

Clearly that happens.   In a limited field with few communities belonging is important.  But this is the internet and the number of groups of all styles are countless and you would to have to search for long until you find one that suits your transactional style.

What of the preponderance of poetry on the internet?  There is a lot of poetry now and issues related to it such as copyright infringement, the lack of editorial control or filters on many sites are being widely discussed. 

Well to paraphrase what is often said "there is a lot of crap out there."  And I would agree.  This lack of editorial control is really something of great interest to me. While on the critique lists there is some attempt to create an order and standard of poetry, and some web based magazines also have very high standards, equal and in some cases surpassing some print magazines, there are many more which have little or no standard applied.  Some even make a point of saying that they will publish anything because the editor does not want to be judgemental.  Obviously the factor here is one of product and cost, or put into one word market.

Many of the self appointed editors think little about their market while others run their web based magazines like print journals and look to please their readership.  It is a matter of approach and cost.  If you don't have to cover your costs then you can publish anything you want and it doesn't matter if no one ever looks at it.

Some people would say that what we are seeing is the democratisation of the media and the ability for everyone to get published.

Perhaps Blake's Golgonooza was actually a vision of the internet?

Now that is an interesting idea.

I wonder if the future of poetry and other writing is to become a pastime for people, an amateur diversion.

The internet certainly allows many more people to have their poetry published and many professional writers are concerned that their work is available on the internet for which they receive no pay.  And infringement of copyright is a major concern.   But I think it is early days yet and perhaps there is a compromise out there waiting to be found.  A Public Lending Rights for example like there is with libraries.  Who knows.  I just know that I have a lot of faith in present to find its way into the future and the more we try to interfere with the process the worse things get.  So it isn't broke yet so no need to try and mend it just yet.  I always think that there will be a few writers of such quality that they will rise to the surface and people will want to access their work even if they have to pay for it.  But what is wrong with paying just the part that goes to the writer straight to the writer, now that is democracy in a free market.

Thank you


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