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d.f. tweney | in conversation with norbert blei


d.f. tweney | Photo: Jonathan Snyder

d.f.tweney

founder of
tinywords

Editor’s notes: Here are three tinyword poems by d.f.tweney…

snow calculus — the slow accumulation
of almost nothing

new glasses: all of my mistakes now painfully clear

clearing sky–
cherry petals lying blown
upon the asphalt–
what have you taught us
except to fall, and fall, and fall?

Editor’s notes continued: In the beginning was the word … there were not many…and they were small…

I can’t recall when I first discovered tinywords on the net, but I liked it instantly. Very simple. Very pure. No bells and whistles to the site. Stark. Just plain words that sometimes made your day. Doing what poetry does best. Awakening you.

I don’t submit a lot of my own work these days, but I’ve always been aware of how much haiku and the small poem can keep a writer ‘in shape’…teach a writer (novelist, essayist, short story writer…) the essentials of ‘writing that sticks.’ A Zenner may call this ‘practice.’ Once you’re in the small poem/haiku zone, it becomes addictive. They’re everywhere. You begin breathing them, unaware of how deeply they have infiltrated your subconscious. Eventually, ordinary life returns. But, the longer you ‘practice’ the easier it is to enter, leave, return to this zone—almost at will. A daily dose of tinywords will teach you a lot—no matter how long you’ve been at the writing game.

One ‘high’ haiku morningl…I was so high with the haiku I had come back with from my morning walk, that upon logging it into the computer before it got away, almost in the same breath, I sent it off to tinywords. With a smile. A feeling of completion. I had pinned that beautiful butterfly to the wall.

I had no idea who the editor was. Whether the poem worked for anybody else but me. Didn’t care. Didn’t worry if it was rejected. That’s familiar territory and should be for any writer. It was accepted. Quickly. And printed online quickly. That felt good. I liked the tinywords site even more. For one thing, I sensed the editor. d.f. tweney, was wide-open to submissions—beginners to advanced writers. I have always liked and honored that editorial sensibility. Everyone welcome. Work. Learn. Publish. Experience rejection. Work harder. Get better.

I kept writing, filing (rarely submitting/publishing) my own short poems as I have always done.. For practice. However, truth to tell, for more years now than I can recall, I occasionally submit work under another name. Many other names. So many, in fact, I can’t remember them all. There are many reasons for this. One of them: I don’t want anyone (especially another writer/editor/publisher) publishing me because I am a writer/editor/publisher as well. I don’t want to feel indebted, pressured in some way to return the favor. There’s a lot of that out there. And some of it is legit. Can’t be helped. But a lot of it turns into a good ole boy/girl’s club.

All good things come to end. But some begin again.

I was sorry to see tinywords disappear from cyber space last spring/summer (2008). I think I sent the editor (who I still didn’t know) a note, commending him for all he had brought to the small poem table. All these noble endeavors have a short lifespan. From my own experience, and the experience of friends who had spent months to years to a lifetime devoted to little magazines and small presses, I knew in my bones that tinywords had become overwhelming. This stuff eats you alive. But I also knew, it’s damn hard to let go once you made your mark. There’s that little voice that keeps calling you back.

Which is what happened to d.f.tweney of tinywords. This time I made an effort to introduce myself, invite him to take a stroll with me along Basho’s Road … entertain a few of my questions which I felt might benefit us all.

I’m more than pleased to introduce Dylan to all of youl. And couldn’t be happier for the way he wrestled with these questions, coming up with such fine insights. He’s ‘wired’ into the here and now (and then) as you will see…goes even as far as explaining/making the connection between Basho/haiku and text messaging.

Oh brave, new Basho world!

Here’s the tinywords announcement Dylan recently sent out. Followed by our conversation. —norbert blei

Hi there–

Since you’ve contributed haiku to tinywords in the past, I wanted you to be among the first to know that I’m bringing tinywords back, although in a slightly different form.

The new tinywords will focus on micropoetry of all kinds (not just haiku). It will also include, I hope, artwork that complements the poetry.

The first issue of the new tinywords will start publishing (one poem per day) on December 1, and will have an autumn/winter theme. I’m accepting submissions from now through November 24 — the limited time window is aimed at helping keep my sanity intact.

To submit, see http://tinywords.com/2009/11/10/call-for-submissions-issue-1/

Thanks for your support of tinywords in the past. And I hope to work with you on the new generation of tinywords, too.

best regards,

dylan.

N. Blei in Conversation with…..d.f.tweney

N.B.: Who are you? Where are you?

D.F.T.: I’m d. f. tweney, or Dylan as my friends call me. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I work as an editor for Wired.com. I’ve spent most of the past 15 to 20 years as a technology journalist, writing and reading poetry whenever I can find the time and the space.

N.B.: Describe briefly, the life of Tinywords upon the web. Concept, birth, development—death/departure/rebirth. (Some specific dates might be helpful here as well.)

D.F.T.: The idea for tinywords came to me in mid-2000, shortly after I first got a cellphone that was capable of receiving text messages. I didn’t know many people who were into texting so I started looking around to see what I could do with the service. It turned out I could get weather updates, sports scores, news headlines — none of which seemed particularly interesting to me.

Then I thought: what about poetry? Haiku are short enough that they ought to be able to fit into the 160-character limit of an SMS message, and wouldn’t it be nice if you could get a haiku on your phone every day? Of course no one was doing this, so I decided to start. It just seemed like a good way to humanize technology, and to send people a little moment of poetry at a random point in the day — something that would remind them, gently, to wake up and pay attention. Or maybe just bring a smile or a thoughtful, puzzled frown to their faces!

At first, starting in October or November of 2001, it was a small e-mail list with just a few friends, and I sent out haiku that I found in a library book, probably one of Harold G. Henderson’s old haiku books. But the word spread and before long the list had dozens if not hundreds of people on it. I put up a web site and started asking people to submit original haiku. [link: what tinywords looked like in the early days -- no archive! http://web.archive.org/web/2000120621370... ]

The late Bill Higginson was a tremendous help to tinywords starting in early 2001. He was editing the “haiku” section of the Mozilla Open Directory, a sort of open-source alternative to Yahoo, and made tinywords a “featured site” there for awhile, which brought a lot of attention to the site. He was also very helpful in providing critiques on the haiku I was publishing (and some of what I was writing), and on the site. Of course I had to go buy his books, which were also indispensable, and contributed a lot to my growing understanding of haiku. Bill also generously let me republish some of his translations of the old masters, as well as some of his own haiku.

The site eventually grew to feature the work of hundreds of poets, and the e-mail list reached over 3,000 subscribers, about 10% of which were receiving the haiku on their mobile phones. But as it grew, the number of submissions grew, too. I built a web-based system to help me manage the influx of submissions, and had a team of volunteer editors who used the system to help me sort the wheat from the chaff, but it was an endless task. If I looked away from it for a week, submissions piled up mercilessly. Eventually there were hundreds and hundreds of submissions and I just couldn’t give them the attention they deserved. At the same time my work and family demands were increasing. So I walked away from tinywords in June, 2008, unable to deal with it any more.

I found over the past year, however, that I missed it. Yes, it was a lot of work, but it also brought a lot of wonderful poetry to my attention — and to the world’s attention for that matter. So in the fall of 2009, I started thinking about how I might revive tinywords, but in a form that would make it easier to manage. I decided on a new stylistic focus, and a new format.

For the focus, I am broadening the scope of tinywords to include not just haiku, but other kinds of very short poems. I’ve never been that interested in the debates about what qualifies as haiku; I’m looking for good, striking poetry, whatever it’s called.

The new format is to continue publishing more or less daily, but to collect poetry into “issues” that I can organize in a more reasonable manner. And, to preserve my sanity, I’m only accepting submissions during fairly brief windows of time. There might be gaps between when one issue ends and the next one begins.

Although each issue will be published one poem per day, I hope to offer each issue as a PDF and, I hope eventually, in printed volumes. But for the most part, the daily, one-poem-per-day approach will continue.

I’m also hoping I can recruit some guest editors who can curate future issues.

N.B.: What does ‘the tinyword poem’ do for you? Why the attraction?

D.F.T.: For me, poetry is language under compression. And there’s no more compressed form than the very short poem. Skillfully done, a tiny poem can speak volumes — it can pack a massive emotional and sensory load. It’s that kind of effect that I’ve always been looking for in submissions to tinywords.

To avoid melodrama and sentimentalism, I think it’s important for the emotional impact to be indirectly expressed, through metaphor and suggestion. There are exceptions, of course. But I’m most attracted to poems that are referential, concrete, objective and sensory — though with an underlying layer of larger intellectual, emotional, or metaphorical significance.

Haiku, with so many rules to choose from, is really well suited to making all that happen in a small space. You can see what I’m talking about in the work of Basho, Buson and Issa as well as modernists like Pound and Williams. A. R. Ammons explored the very short poem to great effect, and Richard Wright’s haiku show a deep understanding of formal haiku. More recently, poets like Joseph Massey have really pushed the boundaries of how much freight a few words can be made to carry. There are lots of great examples in the archive of haiku published by tinywords from 2000 to 2008 too. [ http://tinywords.com/haiku/ ]
My training in poetry has been mostly self-directed, with one important exception. In college I took a couple of poetry workshops with Louise Glück. I was strongly influenced by her spare, economical style, and her unflinchingly objective approach to critiques. I try to carry that attitude with me when reading submissions and choosing what to publish.

This year, I’ve expanded tinywords to encompass more than just haiku because I think that there is lots of interesting work in this vein going on through other forms, such as one-line poems (monostiches), tanka, micropoems, flash poetry, etc. Twitter has been a big part of this efflorescence, because it’s a built-in platform for publishing and sharing very, very small snippets of text. And Twitter’s 140-character limit is directly related to the SMS limit of 160 characters. So in a way, the rest of the world has finally caught up to what tinywords was onto all along!

Also, I wanted to sidestep all the debates and questions about what is really a haiku and what’s not. I find haiku’s long and rich history, and its many rules, are a great source of inspiration, and all that is very helpful in crafting good poems. But arguments about what constitutes a haiku are not especially interesting. The form is a means to the end, which is creating great poetry.

N.B.: How does Eastern writing play into your understanding/interest in the small poem?

D.F.T.: To the extent that haiku is a Japanese genre, I suppose that it’s very significant. Although I’m far from being a haiku scholar, I’ve learned a lot from the masters: Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki.

I think that Basho’s great contribution was the attempt to make haiku a direct expression of a particular moment, of the thing in itself. The manifestation of a phenomenon should appear as vividly in the haiku as it does in real life. At least, it should seem to do so, without the overt imposition of the author’s ego or perspective.

Naturally, Basho’s style evolved out of his close contact with Zen Buddhism. Buddhism has also been very significant for me as a person and as a poet. Although I’m not a practicing Buddhist by any stretch, I’m incredibly sympathetic to Buddhist philosophies of mind, and I suppose that plays into my poetics as well.

Granted, unless you’ve been sitting meditation for years, a poem is not likely to be the key to enlightenment! But I’m unapologetic about the poem’s attempt to convey reality.

It’s not a very fashionable position for contemporary poetry, but I stand by it. Like Jack Spicer, if I could put a real lemon into a poem, I would. “Words are what sticks to the real. We use them to push the real, to drag the real into the poem,” Spicer said. I think Basho would have agreed with that.

N.B.: Your website for this presentation is barebones. Comment?

D.F.T.: It’s a deliberate choice, to keep the focus on the poetry. I find that haiku and micropoems, more than other poems, need a lot of space around them in order to stand on their own. I’ve never been a fan of collections, in print or online, that put lots of haiku on one page. It’s too easy to skim from one to the next. On tinywords, it’s generally just one haiku per page. And I try to keep the distracting extras — like the title bar, navigation, etc — to a minimum.

N.B.: How would you describe your audience/readers/subscribers to this site? What have you learned from them?

D.F.T.: I’ve been amazed by the diversity and sheer number of people who read and/or subscribe to the site. People on every continent and in all walks of life. While most of the readers are based in the U.S., there are strong contingents of readers and contributors in England, Poland, India, Australia, and New Zealand. The readers have taught me how valuable and accessible poetry can be, even when it’s difficult or more adventurous. People respond so enthusiastically to tinywords — they tell me that they just love receiving the poems, and that they missed them, that they’re a bright spot in their days. People share them with their friends. One group even read the day’s poem aloud every day in their school cafeteria.

In the old tinywords, I designed the comment system to keep comments very short, and encouraged people to respond to each haiku with haiku of their own. The result was that some poems turned into long chains of linked haiku, each one responding to the ones before it — a virtual, decentralized, spontaneous renga! The longest such exchange topped 300 responses, starting with this poem by Patricia Prime: http://tinywords.com/haiku/2005/06/21/ I hope I can replicate that experience with the new site.

N.B.: Other sites on the web you would recommend.

D.F.T.: For haiku, I’ve been really impressed by the work of Roadrunner over the past few years. It’s really pushing the boundaries of what’s possible to accomplish in haiku, and they’ve been quite daring in publishing work that’s experimental, surreal, strange or just plain new. I’ve certainly published (and written!) my share of “pretty-spring-flowers” haiku, but I think the short poem has so much more potential. Roadrunner is one of the few journals mining that particular vein. [ http://www.roadrunnerjournal.net/ ]

For micropoetry, I’ve been delighted by what’s happening on Open Micro. It’s a collective of poets who use Twitter and Identi.ca to publish very short poems, which then wind up on this site. There’s a lot of interesting work happening there. [ http://www.openmicro.org/ ]

The forums on ReadWritePoem are excellent, and the level of intelligence to stupidity seems much higher there than on other poetry workshop sites. The site’s also very easy to use and has forums catering to nearly every kind of poetry, including micropoems and haiku. [ http://readwritepoem.org/ ]

And, of course, there’s Poetry Daily, the grandfather of one-poem-per-day sites. I wish Poetry Daily would have an RSS feed and maybe an email newsletter — the site seems horribly mired in the last decade, in terms of its web technology — but its selections are good, often thought-provoking, and are a great way to discover new poets. And of course I love the presentation of a single poem every day. What better way to enjoy poetry? [ http://poems.com/ ]

As Waverley Root said of wine,

“Drink it every day, at lunch and at dinner, and the rest will take care of itself.”

You could say the same about reading poetry.