In Virtual Air

In Virtual Air
by Randall Mann

When I think of poetry and social media, maybe what's most appealing is the idea of performance, a semi-private publicity. Just as, let’s say, Frederick Seidel used the making of the film Zabriskie Point to point out artifice within the cool artifice of his poem "Death Valley," where "the technicians are spray-dyeing the dust darker" in the desert; just as Amy Clampitt linked the disappointments of film performance with that of the everyday in "The Godfather Returns to Color TV," where "the blood / isn't all ketchup, or the weekend all football, nor / do all commodities survive in lighted shrines," so too can poets do the same kind of thing with social media. Let's take the poem "Panic in the Year Zero" by D.A. Powell, which has these lines:

if folks don't watch what passes now for news,
                        I assume they go to cocktail parties.
                                    Or they Twitter.

I like that in his poem, as in Clampitt’s, the media lines start to blur (film, with his reference to the film Panic in the Year Zero, and thus the poem itself, and social media). And rather than saying tweet, the understood verb, Powell reminds us again of the word twitter, meaning titter or tremble or chatter. (I like, too, this is coming from Powell, who is a minor king in the kingdom of Twitter.) Both network‑networking and social‑networking are a performance, the poet says without saying. And a proper noun, Twitter, regains its lower-cased meaning; the new is made old is made new.

I confess that when I first started social-networking (I'm cringing at the verb), on Friendster (more cringing), then again on Facebook, then on Twitter (I don't do some of these others, like Tumblr; or Grindr [that's a lie], the hookup network that Alex Dimitrov has a very telling chapbook about) — as an aside, I rather like that Tumblr, T-u-m-b-l-r, and Grindr, G-r-i-n-d-r, are so very much in a hurry to tumble, or to grind, that they lose a vowel, that e at the end, and I am reminded of that Robert Creeley poem of omission, "I Know a Man," the one where the speaker is so determined to get where he’s going that vowels are left in the dust, which ends "drive, he sd, for / christ's sake, look / out where yr going" — but as I was saying, at first I was seduced by my new friends in my networks. Then after not too much time I settled into it with a degree of warm indifference. (I even tried blogging once, for the Michigan Quarterly Review. I lasted two entries.)

Poetry is what's left out as much is what's put in, of course, and so is a status update; so is a tweet. I confess to being drawn to Twitter most these days, its formal restriction, that of 280 characters or less, but then I feel comfortable in strict forms. Twitter is relatively succinct — though of course one can upend the form by having successive tweets, or threads, which make the tweets a little like line or stanza breaks, which I like, when I like it. I follow "Philip Larkin.” On the 28th of September, for example, there were three successive tweets, from the poem “when first we faced, and touching showed,” the first of which read: Nor could I hold you hard enough / To call my years of hunger-strife / Back for your mouth to colonise. Poetry entered my day, a Larkin poem that I did not know, and so I scurried over to the shelf and got lost in Larkin again. I appreciate the epigrammatic possibility of Twitter, the compression, the movement, the play.

For National Poetry Month in 2011 I took over the Academy of American Poets’ Twitter feed for a day, and so I dutifully quoted poems and expressed gratitude for my influences, etc. Fine. The day came and went, I handed off the handle to the next poet, and later I was at a weird Rumpus event at the Makeout Room in San Francisco, and when I won the big raffle, I was so jazzed that I unsheathed my Blackberry (lol) and let the Twitter‑verse know that HEY, I JUST WON A BAG OF DILDOS AT THE MAKEOUT ROOM, hashtag lucky, hashtag allnightlong. I realized, later that night, that I of course was still logged in to the Academy Twitter account on my phone, and that for many followers, the Academy of American Poets appeared to be super‑excited about dildos.

Devices aside, I think it's easy to be snarky, even cynical, about social media, the low‑grade narcissism, the "hey, check out the trailer for my chapbook," the helpless likes, links, favoriting. And yet. There's something, for lack of a better word, that's almost touching about a group of people — poets, and the people who read, love, and/or put up with us — coming together in the name of the word. About the longing, in general, when someone, anyone, checks in and says, I'm here, I belong here.

A couple years ago, when I was writing an elegy, “September Elegies,” for four gay teens who killed themselves after being bullied, two cyber details haunted me. Tyler Clementi's final Facebook status: "jumping off the gw bridge sorry." And the crushing loneliness of Billy Lucas's MySpace page: "I love my horses, I love my club lambs. They are the world to me." My club lambs. At such moments, there is poetry itself in these social admissions, which live for a bloodless moment in virtual air, and then, like grief, disappear.


Randall Mann is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Proprietary (Persea Books, 2017). New work appears in Poem-A-DayLiterary Hubjubilat, and Court Green. He lives in San Francisco.