Karl Young: 'Toward an Ideal Anthology (Reflections on the Light and Dust Web Anthology),' Part Two

[Part One of Karl Young’s insightful essay on anthologies and his own work in particular appeared earlier on Poems and Poetics. The entire piece can be accessed here, by a pathway that can lead the reader to other useful and often hard to obtain works, generously and conscientiously delivered. (J.R.)]

When I first started the Light and Dust anthology site, I had a definite sense of the kind of work I wanted to include. Although there are plenty of rip-off sites on the web, I’ve sought permission from all living and most deceased writers or their publishers or their estates. I have fudged a bit on a couple author photos when I could not locate the photographers. On several occasions I have put up work by writers whom I could not locate, asking them to get in touch with me, with the understanding that I would take the work down if they so desired. Web publishers who go beyond this, into the grab-what-you-can approach, do not foster a cooperative environment, act as a severe violation of authors’ rights, and dirty the scene. To me, those of us who have started early should set precedents for responsibility in the new medium. I have been able to include about 70% of the poets who most interested me by seeking permission from authors, their estates, or their publishers. I don’t know if I could have done better if I had compiled a print anthology. As to plain volume of work, I have been able to publish more than I could imagine including in print in my wildest dreams. With an idea of what I wanted in the anthology, the selection process didn’t involve much exclusion, but rather concentrated on obtaining permissions and working out technical problems. I have not sought submissions, have not encouraged them, and have only used two pieces that came “over the transom.” The fact that I don’t look for or pay much attention to unsolicited work doesn’t mean that I have simply stuck to a program or filled in predetermined slots. Much of the work in the anthology came from the editorial colleagues who have worked with me, and I discovered plenty of new work during the time I put the anthology together.

Although I edited Light and Dust with clear goals in mind, I see editing from a single point of view as, of necessity, limited — certainly too limited for an environment as complex as the milieu in which we find ourselves. As a partial means of getting around my limitations, the Light and Dust complex includes dozens of coeditors in its specialized sections, and I have at times asked third parties to make selections of work by individuals in single entries. This approach doesn’t originate in the web environment. I began moving in this direction in 1970 with several Peoples Publishing programs. Shortly after that, as associate editor of Margins magazine, I moved as far in this direction as I could with a series of symposiums I sponsored, each with a different editor, and each including multiple views of the subject. Distinct advantages to this approach come from properties of the web. I can put work up in “sequesters” online, not linking them to any menu, but giving those involved the specific URL so that we could work together on whatever project we had in progress before it went public. Of course, after entries link to menus, the web still leaves plenty of room for revision and augmentation. I would not want to make an anthology such as this without considerable input from people whose expertise is greater than mine or whose opinions differ from my own. The degree of input varied considerably from one project to another, often depending on how much specific editors wanted to do themselves. In some instances, sections were edited as a collaborative project; in others, I stayed out of the editorial process entirely.

Making available work that is otherwise difficult to obtain has been important to me, and in the presentation of complete books on the web I have concentrated on two types: books that are now out of print, and books which have existed in manuscript but have not been previously published. With a number of the poets whose work appears at the site, I have reproduced their early books completely, and included significant examples of work done throughout their lives, providing in-depth presentation of their development through their entire opus. Differing publication strategies show work in different dimensions: one writer’s work may appear in large volume, another’s may appear in the context of related efforts, others’ appear as brief suggestions. Each approach implies that all work presented in one manner could also be seen from a different angle: the work of any poet at the site could potentially be considered in depth, or as a sketch, or as part of a regional or genre frame of reference.

Of marginalized work in the twentieth century, the most thoroughly abused and potentially valuable has been visual poetry. Some would see this as a genre of its own. You can make a good case for that, and so some editors and practitioners should. I see it in a different context, or perhaps I should say a different set of contexts. Most art movements in the century — from the Futurisms to Language Poetry, Vorticism to the Beats, Dada to Fluxus — have first manifested themselves with a concomitant exploration of the graphic potentials of language. As they grew venal, this tendency was suppressed or relegated to a minor position or used as a form of coopting other movements. Concrete Poetry acted as a minor wing of Fluxus, and that is the type of visual poetry most familiar to the largest number of readers. But the tendency has never been captured or owned by any one movement; instead, it has run through virtually all others in one form or another. Most movements in their creative phase have sought to transcend boundaries of culture and language and to try to tap universal tonalities and promote unimpeded interchange; in this respect, the graphic nature of the work has acted as one of its primary ambassadors. Perhaps Lettrism has followed the most curious path: beginning largely in sound poetry, then branching off into a political movement, Situationism, and an aesthetic movement that focused more intently on interrelations of verbal and visual modes, it has in some ways reversed the tendencies of other movements. If Lettrism has become the most vital of the movements that have included the union of word and image, it still has never owned the tendency. The need for synthesis forms one of the grounding principles for movements in dynamic phases, and remains with those that keep their energy, while becoming suppressed in those that degenerate into fashionability or dogma.

To me, the need to integrate reaches for the roots of written language and public performance. This impulse includes a searching of the origins of art in previous ages. It also reflects the growing globalism of culture in the twentieth century. The expansion and intersection of cultures suggests the parochial nature of the English language and the Roman alphabet. A global environment needs more than a single alphabet and a single language to promote understanding and cooperation between peoples. As useful and magnificent as the Roman alphabet can be, it still cannot keep up with the complexities of the world in which we now find ourselves. One of the alphabet’s great strengths, and a reason for its dominance of western culture for more than two millennia, is its simplicity and its capacity to adjust to new situations. There’s no need to belittle that. In the contemporary world, however, there’s no reason why it can’t be integrated with other modes, visual and auditory. The web environment allows multiple configurations of media to function together, with no necessity for competition between them. When the web became widely accessible, it made possible the inexpensive reproduction of graphics, in monochrome and in color. I would not want to try to make an anthology of any twentieth century art form that did not include visual poetry. The web made such an anthology possible. In addition, the web seems to have run something like a parallel course with visual poetry. It, too, seeks means of universal communication and a reintegration of modes of expression, and its polymath procedures run through all it carries. If visual poetry does not break out of its bounds via literary means, it may do so through the web itself. In any case, visual poetry and the web seem ideally suited to each other, both reflecting a world aching to go beyond the confines of isolated media. A problem for me with the presentation of visual poetry has been the tendency to publish or show it in separate venues, as a genre of its own. As far as I’m concerned, separate is never equal, and my approach in publishing has been to put it forward on an absolutely equal footing with other modes. Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. On the web, you can take both. In writing this essay, I’ve tried to avoid discussion of individual entities at Light and Dust, because once I start talking about any one of them it seems to pull the others along with it. I’ll make an exception here with Kaldron On-Line. For nearly two decades, the print version of Kaldron had been the world’s only pluralistic and reliable venue for publishing this kind of work outside the mail art network. It’s important to note the emphases in this statement: other magazines such as the Japanese Shi Shi ran longer and maintained relative stability. However, it published little besides the work of members of the Shi Shi group. Other venues put forth good work covering a wide range, but only appeared briefly or at such erratic intervals that no one could rely on them. Although Kaldron has been largely forgotten or erased in the US during the 1990s, it remained the essential magazine, the main vehicle for news, for people practicing visual poetries around the world, and it retains that position in the minds of many practitioners outside the US today. In the early 1990s, editor Karl Kempton contemplated turning the print magazine’s editorship over to Amy Fraceschini and me. That didn’t materialize in print form, but I was able to move the magazine, with Karl still acting as an editor, onto the web as the first of the Light and Dust partner sites. Nearly all the visual poetry that came in through Light and Dust is accessible from Kaldron’s home page, and all visual poetry published by Kaldron can be accessed from the general Light and Dust menu. Thus anyone who wants to locate visual poetry only can go to the Kaldron page, and those who want to see it more broadly contextualized can go to the general menu or the menus of some of the other partner pages.

When I first began electronic publishing, my efforts went solely toward making work conceived in other media available on the internet. And so my efforts continued for the most part. In this respect, Light and Dust acts primarily as a distribution system rather than an exploration of art designed for the electronic environment. That was a big enough job for me. As I assembled the site, however, many people began working with properties of the web as part of the process of making art. I have not been able to pursue this direction in poetry as far as I would like, but I have been able to include the work of the two early practitioners who have made the most of the medium, and this satisfies my goal of presenting a full spectrum of the kinds of poetry produced in the later twentieth century.


Okay, seven years later, with over one thousand web pages placed online, what does this electronic cousin of the Watts Towers add up to? Well, I’ve fulfilled my basic goals in presenting a survey of late twentieth-century poetry and its cognates. And I’ve been able to present it in an egalitarian and antisectarian manner. I’ve been able to publish work on the web that I could not have afforded to do in print — considerably more than I did in some twenty-five years of producing books — and been able to reach a much wider audience than I could ever hope to in any of the media known to me before the advent of the web. I’ve been able to do this with no resources beyond those of an average North American university student in the 1990s. I’ve had no support from any funding or legitimizing institution, and no backing from any clique or movement. There may be a certain amount of vanity in my pointing this out. But one of my goals goes considerably beyond this. After getting a sense of the potentials of the web, I wanted to see how far I could go with next to nothing to work with. If I can create an anthology that covers this much ground, and averages 3,200 hits a day, anybody with a modest income and a bit of determination can do likewise. Whether they set up pages simply for themselves or go for something larger, we can create an anthology which goes beyond all our limitations, and which satisfies the needs of nearly all readers.

As to the nature of the medium that carries the ideal anthology that I and other people have begun, there are all sorts of pundits ready to praise and condemn it, and legions of prophets eager to tell whoever listens where they think it’s going and what it can achieve. Despite the claims made all around, this goes beyond anyone’s understanding or clairvoyance. At present, for some the web lacks credibility, while others see print as superseded. I feel sure that both these positions can add up to nothing more than vaporware. Before the web became available, I used to contemplate the environments of other periods when media shifted. As things have worked out, I may have been on the “bleeding edge” of a revolutionary change in communication, or perhaps I’ve just been chasing flickering electrons that don’t add up to much. On a personal level, the web has given me a chance to get something like a sense of what it might have been like to be a printer in the incunabula period. Despite the variations in local color, theirs was a world in which old certainties began to shake: enfranchisement and means of communication were undergoing rapid expansion, and choruses rose around the printers, proclaiming the value of their work in extending the word of God or condemning it as the work of the devil. The first printers had no way of knowing where their art would lead, but had their fingers on the pulse of radical change too large for anyone to comprehend. The web also seemed to have arrived at a time when one world order was passing, and what follows it has not taken on apparent form or direction.

In another age of transition, St. Augustine of Hippo saw the Roman empire crumbling around him, and saw a greater Rome as an eternal thought in the mind of God. It’s difficult to imagine anyone apotheosizing their city in such a manner today. But in secular terms, the web as an anthology has the potential to become universal and all-encompassing, something that goes beyond our individual limitations without sacrificing our individuality in the process. It seems foolish to claim eternal presence for anything we do: in all probability, the web will change beyond recognition in less than a decade, and I doubt that my site will last very long after I’m gone. But if electronic technology follows the trajectory it’s taken so far, whatever comes next will have to build on what’s there now. This may include loss of some of the freedom the web enjoys at present, but its capacity for outreach can only expand, and its participatory inclusiveness can only grow. The web cannot become a single thought; but it can become universal. Following what we now know of the brain’s functions, its redundancies, backup systems, and interchanges can follow the intricate and dynamic patterns of contemplation rather than conclusion. It may continue as a form of exploration rather than certainty. Poetry may fare better in such an environment than it did in the twentieth century, though it may change beyond recognition in the process.