This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

April 16, 2000 — Why is it so unsurprising that, according to polls, the most popular things on the Internet is pornography, followed by finances? Well, one of the other most popular things could make you feel better about the Internet: High up in the top 10 of most polls is poetry.

And in that hot category, one of the hottest sites — at more than 10,000 visitors a day and growing — is Poetry Daily. Every poet I know or have interviewed recently waxes rhapsodic about it. Most say they visit on a daily basis.

Of course, that could be because one of their poems has run on its home page. That's PD's claim to fame — a new poem, by writers both famous and unknown, and of no particular school of poetry, is featured every day.

Also included: information about the journal or book where that day's poem first appeared, links to poetry news, interviews and reviews from around the world, and an archive of previously featured work that comprises a virtual — and exhaustive — anthology of modern American poetry. Type in the name of your favorite poet, and chances are high he's been represented.

Thus, since its launch during National Poetry Month (aka April) of 1997, Poetry Daily has become the kind of virtual gathering place that represents new technology being used to its best potential. Yet Don Selby says that when he and co–founders Diane Boller and Rob Anderson first got the idea — while suffering together in "high–stress legal publishing jobs" — they wanted to emulate more old–fashioned media.

"We recalled — or at least, recalled reading about — the days when local newspapers paid more attention to poetry," the 47–year–old Selby recounts from PD headquarters in Charlottesville, Va., "when there were regular reviews of poetry and when newspapers featured actual poems. And we felt that the Web made it possible to make poetry part of people's daily lives again the way it was a long time ago in the print press."

None of the co–founders were poets, however. "I think my last published poem was in a junior high school magazine when I was 13," Selby says. "And that's enough said about that."

But soon after graduating from law school, Selby — who now runs the site full time, while his partners are less involved — says he took a trip to Italy accompanied by a volume of Dante and another of James Merrill and had a "wake–up call."

"I realized how little I knew about what was being written in contemporary poetry," he says. He returned home determined to "make poetry a serious part of my life."

The effort culminated with Poetry Daily, which had an attractive eclecticism from the start. The first featured writer was Indiana poet Tom Vander Ven, followed by A.R. Ammons, Malroux translated by Marilyn Hacker, Margaret Atwood, and Mary Oliver.

Things happened fast, Selby says. "Early on, we saw in our usage stats that we were getting spikes at unaccountable times in the middle of the night. It dawned on us, as notes from far–off places began to arrive, that we were seeing people visit first thing in the morning in Singapore, or at lunch hour in Australia."

PD now hears regularly from poets and publishers hoping to be featured, as well as novices hoping for a first publication, but the site only features previously published work. And of course, we're talking about poets here — there's a certain amount of critical mail, as well.

"Sometimes we'll receive notes from poets saying, 'Enough of this formalist stuff. We want to see something more experimental,'" Selby says. "And on the same day we'll get notes from other poets saying 'Enough of this nutty avant garde stuff. When are you going to pay attention to new formalists?'"

Tax deductible sponsorships and a fund–raising drive during last year's Poetry Month have finally allowed the nonprofit organization to cover operating costs. But Selby, who quit his publishing job last year to dedicate himself to the "more than full–time job" of running PD, still does not draw a salary. (He's supported by his wife, a law librarian.)

Meanwhile, he's enmeshed in another Poetry Month fund drive, clipping poetry reviews, and "reading like crazy" — including mail from teachers from "grade school up to graduate writing programs who describe how they're using Poetry Daily for their classes," he says.

Selby says he hopes to open such discussion up to other fans of the webzine soon. "We think the future has to do with an even more interactive role for readers, poets and publishers," he says. While he's not sure how to do that yet — he's considering chat rooms and audio files, among other options — one thing seems clear. Poetry Daily has already gotten a lot of people more "interactive" than they ever thought they'd be.


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