Retro Feature: Canadian Women Poets on the Internet

Originally published in the web-based publication Perihilion in 1999. The original version of the article is still available online, at the time of my posting this, here. The links in the original version no longer work, as most of the publications discussed no longer exist, so I have removed them here.

Canadian Women Poets on the Internet

Most of these Canadian women poets insist that when the cultural and gender identity is strong in their work, those ideas will be transmitted no matter what the medium…..”

Paula E. Kirman

Getting published and finding an audience are the biggest challenges for writers in the poetry world. In Canada, several women poets have taken the leap to publishing on the Internet, with varying results. With such publication comes the recognition and often creative satisfaction of being published, while on the other hand exists the doubting eyes of colleagues who see the medium of electronic publishing as less worthy than traditional print, as well as the threat of being “swallowed up” amongst the seemingly infinite scope of the Internet.

They are legitimate concerns, especially when as a poet you are marginalized on the international poetry scene in two ways — as a woman, and as a Canadian. Penny Ferguson, a resident of Nova Scotia on Canada’s East Coast and editor of The Amethyst Review, says that one’s female and Canadian identity coming through in an electronic publication largely depends on the piece of work and the writer herself. “Some work lends itself to being identified as Canadian because of features such as geography. Some issues expressed in a poem may identify it as Canadian like concerns over dwindling cod stocks. Other works are more generic. I think our themes are universal anyways — such as love, loss, isolation, fear of death. Although I’m fiercely proud to be identified as a Canadian poet, and though I may write about Canadian issues, I think my humanity is the soul of my poetry, not my nationality.”

Karen Press, Edmonton resident and editor of Other Voices, a well-known Canadian literary journal with a presence both in print and online, says that the “anonymity” received by Canadian women writers on the Internet is “largely due to the fact that e-zines are not yet widely accepted as `legitimate’ literary forums.” However, this might be a temporary problem. “As [e-zines] get accepted, new forums will appear, more established poets will `endorse’ it.”

In addition to conquering the medium of electronic publishing, Ferguson finds that the age of the Internet has affected her career in several beneficial ways. “It has helped with the isolation one can feel as a writer and feel geographically by linking me to other writers for discussion of our writing processes and of potential markets and for pats on the back when we have good news to share about an acceptance or publication. I also find the Internet very useful in my writing as a research tool.”

Jill Battson, originally from England who now makes her home in Toronto, says that “contact” is the most important function of the Internet as far as she is concerned. “The Internet hasn’t affected my writing, but it has given me a greater audience since I am on several web sites and a search for my name turns up a lot of references. So I find that the communication with other poets and poetry institutions has improved,” the author of Hard Candy says.

Quebec’s Erin Mouré is one of Canada’s best known poets due to her innovative style, which is widely published on the Net. When speaking of the electronic medium, she says that “it’s made other innovative work and historical antecedents more accessible to me, made new audiences accessible. It more easily brings together people of shared interests, brings me news about books, and access to literature that isnt’t available in libraries here.”

But when it comes to the actual creation of poetry, Press does not think that writing for the web is much different than writing for the printed page. “All you are doing is posting `page’ writing on the web,” she says — unless you are writing Hypertext pieces, that is.

Also known as HTML poetry, or “hyperpoetry,” this genre is a way of revolutionizing reading and writing by breaking down the linearity of a text. As Press explains, “a writer could write a suite of short poems and interconnect them with hypertext links. The reader then decides where to go in the piece. The text could conceivably be different every time you read it.” [For more information on HTML poetry, Press’ colleague Carolyn Guertin, a doctoral student in English at the University of Alberta, is specializing in women’s writing in Hypertext.]

Otherwise, Press says that the Internet “so far hasn’t changed my writing, except perhaps that I sometimes refer to the Internet in it (such as in the piece “E-mail from Germany” soon to be published in Wascana Review).”

Poets, no matter who they are or where they live, often compare notes with colleagues about where their work appears. These women admit that being published electronically raises mixed reactions amongst their fellow poets. “To some of my colleagues, seeing my work published on the web is just as valid as having it bound between covers,” says Ferguson. “Others feel differently. They love the feel and smell of a book and staring at a computer screen just doesn’t do it for them. While I have poet friends who pooh-pooh web publishing, I do not think they can completely discount the Internet as a medium for poetry if they hope to stay abreast of the contemporary scene.”

Although Battson says she thinks people take the printed word more seriously than the electronic word, she adds that “it depends on [the audience’s] age. I find that younger poets regard the Net as `cool’ so it brings up your cache with them if they find you there. I think it also indicates that as a poet you’re willing to find new formats for your work and actively search for a different audience.”

Press believes that it comes down to a matter of “proving” yourself with print. “It’s not that they don’t take you seriously because you publish in the web, it’s that you still have to `prove’ yourself by being published in well-known print journals.”

Mouré disagrees. “I don’t think [my colleagues] care where I publish; it’s something in the work that makes them take me seriously or not.”

There is also the concern of assimilation, of merely blending in to the mosaic of the Internet. Most of these Canadian women poets insist that when the cultural and gender identity is strong in their work, those ideas will be transmitted no matter what the medium. “While there is danger of blending in, I think our concerns and ideas expressed in poetic form will help prevent our cultural assimilation to some degree,” says Ferguson. “I think we will perhaps have to work a bit harder to maintain our Canadian identities but I certainly don’t think we should let fear of losing our identity hold us back from using a very useful tool to its fullest potential. If we Canadian women are aware of this `danger’ we should be able to avert it.”

Mouré has her own perspective on identity. “I’m sure the combination of my influences and presence and values comes through,” she says. “If I have any particularities that root me to Canada besides geographical reference, I’m sure they come through too. To the rest of the world I would come through as North American, and in Canada, I probably come through as someone from Quebec.”

On the other hand, while Battson agrees that “rhere’s a danger of blending in,” she asks, “however, don’t we want to be international poets rather than ghettoized as Canadian poets?”

Publishing on the Internet may even gain women in general, and writers in particular, some equal standing in a currently male-dominated area, says Press. “We must consider the problem that computers in general, and the Internet too, are popularly imagined as a predominantly male domain — and there is doubtless some basis for that reality. I think it’s therefore even more important that women, writer included, make sure they get all the exposure they can in the medium.”

Indeed, Press thinks that the present day is a particularly interesting time for women writers, in Canada and beyond. “Feminist literary theory goes on and on about how women’s writing has been forced into straight-ahead inflexible partriarchical modes of writing. The possibilities of hypertext writing for breaking through those kinds of rigid boundaries of the text are mind-boggling! And it’s only in its infancy . . . I think we’ll have to experiment with it for years before we can even imagine its effects on literary production and reception.”

And in general, publishing on the Internet is a positive step in a difficult market to break. As Ferguson explains colourfully, “while there may be millions on the Internet who will never see my work, there are still many who now have access to it, who, before the Internet would never have had access to my work. Being `a blip on the screen amongst millions of Web pages’ is kind of like being one of the stars in the sky, You may not be the biggest or the brightest by someone, somewhere sees you.”.

Copyright © 1999, Paula E. Kirman. Published by permission of the author.