Newspoems have graced the pages of each edition of the public i to date, but Newspoetry was not originally published on newsprint. As a matter of fact, under its web site’s masthead you can sometimes find a quote by Thomas Jefferson stating that “Nothing now can be believed which is seen in a newspaper.”
Newspoetry is a project initiated by Urbana poet William Gillespie, in part as an elaborate attempt to get himself to read the newspaper. He coined the term “Newspoetry” in December 1995, when he made it his New Year’s resolution to write a poem a day about events in the news in 1996.
He didn’t send the poems to publishers, or even tell friends what he was up to. Instead, he disseminated the poems covertly through newspaper machines, public bulletin boards, tip jars, the departmental mailboxes of unsuspecting college professors, and bathroom walls.
During 1996 and 1997 William wasn’t always successful in his mission to write a poem a day, as he was occasionally distracted by little things like writing a master’s thesis, finding work, and writing for his radio program, Eclectic Seizure (heard on WEFT 90.1 FM every other Wednesday from 8 to 10 pm). But he persevered.
In 1998 the Newspoetry format changed to that of a one-page newspaper entitled “The Daily Poem”, whose masthead offered slogans such as “All the News that Rhymes” and abstract weather summaries (“Weather: vague”).
Gillespie elaborates on the mission and origin of Newspoetry: “The problem was finding a writing project that was focused on readers rather than on the writer. Newspoetry was a solution to that problem for a few reasons. The writing was anonymous. It was also furiously anachronistic and unpublishable. In addition to breaking the rules of poetry and being, in general, hastily-written, these newspoems were in no way timeless classics. They were, in fact, instantly dated, and their relevance was, for the most part, limited to the week in which they were written.”
“Most of the poems were not about me or my experiences,” Gillespie continues. “Even the poems written in the first person were about my observations of other people and events. Another impetus behind the idea for Newspoetry was complaints from friends on the left, who were concerned about events in the news but couldn’t stand reading the newspaper. Was there a way of rescuing the news from the style in which it is written?”
The trajectory of Newspoetry changed dramatically later in 1998 when Gillespie learned how to design web sites. For 1999, William decided to re-invoke his 1996 New Year’s resolution; he determined to publish a poem a day about events in the news by posting the poems on the Internet. He solicited participation from friends, but underestimated the response. By the end of the first week in January he had received two newspoems from Dirk Stratton, two from Joe Futrelle, and a sonnet from Scott Rettberg. Newspoetry was suddenly soaring in cyberspace. While the momentum has continued to build ever since, those first contributors to Newspoetry are still writing newspoems today. They are joined by other poets from reaches near and far.
Gillespie relates that the Web has allowed the Newspoetry project to realize its potential in ways that print never could, by:
- Avoiding most of the expenses associated with print technology, whose physical nature makes a daily publication having international distribution possible only for those with massive resources;
- Bypassing a literature market in which the only thing that sells worse than poetry is political poetry;
- Circumventing an academic infrastructure whose competitive and insular environment renders its literature venues closed to (and largely irrelevant to) the general public;
- Making an end run around publishers whose corporate owners are averse to anti-corporate sentiment;
- Taking full advantage of the fuzzy nature of Internet laws regarding slander and libel to embody the distilled essence of freedom of speech: an open forum in which anyone can respond immediately to world events, and address poetry to power;
- Making possible (which Gillespie believes is Newspoetry’s most important contribution) a collaboration among far-flung strangers, as we all share the same news.
In addition, the unique hyper-textual nature of the Web is often exploited in the Newspoetry forum. Many newspoems contain embedded links. Some poems are linked to other poems, as in the case where one newspoem is written in response to another. At times a poem might be linked to the news source that inspired the poem, or to a biographical web site. And there are occasional links to miscellaneous material (for example, a page on the McDonalds corporate site listing words and phrases to which McDonalds owns the copyright).
Today William Gillespie is no longer at the helm of the Enterprise. He handed the keys to his friend and high school newspaper co-editor, Joe Futrelle, who has been Newspoetry Editor (self-proclaimed Editor-despite-chief or Editor-within-chief, among other whimsical titles) and Webmaster since Y2K. Gillespie says that Futrelle’s fluency in computing, writing, and left-wing politics, in combination with his cooperative personality, made him one of the only people who could have been entrusted with this challenging position. Today Gillespie thinks of his own role in Newspoetry in the same terms in which Jerry Garcia was credited on the first Jefferson Airplane album: “spiritual advisor”.
To read newspoetry or to contribute a newspoem for publication, go to www.newspoetry.org.