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Ozlit online: high impact, low interactivity

Dean Kiley

Why (he asks, uncomfortably aware the question’s recycled but nonetheless valid) would you use the web but not exploit it? Why choose it as just a distribution conduit, or a drawing board on which to blu-tack galley proofs of intransigently print-oriented work, or flatly-static (A)4-square table-of-content-ed variants on the magazine or anthology? If there’s no functional click or imaginative synergy between text and medium, or genre and format, why would we read (really read, focused and immersed) onscreen? Is poetry, for example, as she’s spoke in online journals, oxymoronically better suited to the pristine purity of stark black type and Sunday-arvo-bookshop browsing?

On the Mary Poppins medicine principle, let’s start with Blithe House Quarterly’s special Australian edition of queer short fiction, which has the chastening virtue of eliciting such terrific writing (exuberantly better than any recent print collection) you almost, very nearly, kinda don’t mind that it’s all static full-screen, left-right-top-down blocks. Okay, so Deborah Hum’s Reading Jack, with its clipped, jump-cutting, punny, garrulous, James-Ellroy-word-jazzy reflexive home-road-movie homage to Kerouac; and Benedict Chiantar’s modular riffs with psychosexual noir, multi-path narratives (‘press Escape to continue’) almost howl for illustration, dramatisation, chunking, the fluid volatility of links and nodes, something, anything, more than a few horizontal dividers (Mangrove: resuscitate, we need you!)—but the stories are so damn good you get wrenched into it anyway.

This mostly holds true for Divan, run by intrepid Box Hill TAFE students. It’s developed exponentially since its 1998 inception with a revamped design, is much expanded in size and range of styles, voices and forms, new facilities (annotated links, a forum, archives), plus a portfolio of well-known poets like MTC Cronin, Jordie Albiston, Ian McBryde, Alison Croggon, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Dorothy Porter and Susan Hawthorne. It’d be unjust to attempt a survey or identikit of the remarkable, consistently tensile strengths of the poetry itself. But there are no graphics, no framing, no fancy formatting. It’s all stripped bare, letting short lines, brief stanzas, enjambment and crisp imagist vignettes do any rhythmic and visual work, mental rather than remediated.

Ditto 3rd Muse, a monthly journal into its 20th issue with a grumpy editorial, a black-on-grey brutalism, emphasis on highly-selective quality and crystalline forms (Kick the Sonnet Habit Before It’s Too Late by Richard Jordan is a satiric metapoem on this very same)—plus a determinedly international contributors’ list. These are both excellent journals, while OzPoets is more like an extensible resources database; tautly organised, featuring individual poet’s work on a semi-regular basis, offering intensively-used workshops and forums, an events calendar, critically-framed index of links, poetry readings (RealAudio), reference tools, and an interactive venue for poetry submission, review and commentary.

The screen-as-mimeograph-print-aesthetic gets even more literal in Soup, as much a lo-fi corporate brochure as a journal; determinedly dilettantish and mid-90s in its anti-design, collapsed into an inert (if often enjoyably varied) archive, it is a Lego-logic directory of snapshot Oz-poet samples/ads-for-books (as with Siglo or other mainly-print mags). Rehabilitated somewhat by the use-all-screen-real-estate format of some of the poetry, which is sprawlingly concrete and architextural even when defiantly ASCII (eg Kieran Carroll).

By this stage I was panting for a scanned photo, even a gif animation, so a revisit to Overland Express was a happy relief. Witness the shift towards the interactive and web-workable in their more recent issues, particularly the hypertexted interview, plus Tim Danko’s gorgeously-Eeyore Flash animation, and the palimpsestic faux-po-mo high-irony text-image collage by Paul White sending up the very rhetorical questions with which this review opens.

John Tranter’s jacket (still going strong, still a great read) has an unOedipal rival in Brentley Frazer’s Retort (motto: ‘think forward answer back’) which is equally compacted, similarly slickly micochippy in minimalist but striking design, also cites Australian work in a lattice of international and heterodox contributors; and is likewise bristling with links, interviews, reviews and contextual articles (e.g. Burroughs meets Baudrillard). But against jacket’s historiographic sensibility and elegant thematic clustering, Retort pits a feral diversity and a growly avant-gardist manifesto against “the established cult of ignorance consensus idiocy.” Again, a la Tranter, there’s so much jack(et)-in-the-box-folded into this Salon-stylish mag that an afternoon goes languorously by on any one issue. It offers downloadable posters, both a public and a subscribers’ forum (threaded articles, comments, meticulously organised, laid-out and archived, startlingly practical, surprisingly engaging), extensive archive, dynamic newsletter, daily updates, serialised novella, featured artists (e.g. Shannon Hourigan’s sumptuous velvety Se7en-gothic doll Photoshoppery), eclectic proliferating links, a fashion and style section, spoken word and mp3 performances (Mary the Robot reads Linguistics is the Opiate), excerpts from new books, a Brisbane poetry gig guide, and Bjork’s new online video. The poetry is sinuously sharp, its readership is exploding, its sense of connection to (and interaction with) an active community of writers, readers, artists, designers etc is strong and productive—and it’s got that early-hours-nicotine buzz performance poets specialise in. Full of unwhimsical surprises. Yum.

Overall, this crop of Oz journals offers little that’s very hypertexty, interactive or multimedia but lots of engaging writing. The web addict in me got gently exasperated, the writer got enjoyably envious, the avid reader got more than satisfied.

Retort Magazine;
Ozpoet [link expired]
Mangrove [link expired];
Blithe House Quarterly;
3rd Muse Poetry Journal;
Overland Express;
Siglo [link expired]

RealTime issue #49 June-July 2002 pg. 22

© Dean Kiley ; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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