| This Weeks Column:
THE SINCEREST FORM OF FLATTERY
by Dennis Loy Johnson
July 8, 2002 They are not the words that typically inspire fear in the hearts of mankind: "Honey, the poetry reporter is here!"
Nonetheless, my appearance at the virtual door of Verse Daily, a new website dedicated to poetry, last week elicited what sure looked like panic to me on the part of the editor who answered that door then closed it quickly.
The name alone should tell poetry fans why I might have come knocking it's strikingly similar, after all, to the name of the most popular, not to mention beloved, poetry site on the Internet, Poetry Daily.
And indeed, when I visited Verse Daily after receiving spam from them first about exchanging links, then about visiting the site I found that more than just the name was similar. Verse Daily's primary feature is that it highlights a new poem each day, with notes on the poet and the book or journal where the poem first appeared i.e., the core offering (and innovation) of Poetry Daily. Even elements of the layout were similar, as was the language of the pleas plastered everywhere on the site to "Support Verse Daily!" (phrases which were actually, of course, links to a page telling you how to make out the check).
But there was no information about the publishers or editors on the site no typical masthead or "about the editors" info, nor any contact information beyond a lone email button for the coeditors, listed as Hunter Hamilton and Campbell Russo.
So I took the only option available and wrote to the editors, identifying myself as a journalist and asking for information on the editors and publishers.
"There's really not much to tell! We're just regular folks who love poetry and think it should have more public attention," Hunter Hamilton responded.
I wrote back again, saying that was a little elusive and asking again for the credentials of the editors. They were, after all, operating in the public sphere and asking for donations.
"What kind of 'credentials'?" came the reply.
Standard info, I wrote back: publications, education, affiliations. Also, I asked, where are you headquartered, and who's backing you?
"We both studied literature in college," Hamilton wrote back. "I have a graduate degree and Campbell has an undergraduate degree. We live in Silicon Valley and, perhaps not surprisingly, work in the tech sector." Also, he wrote, "As I stated before, we love poetry."
I asked for a phone interview.
"Email is much better for me," Hamilton responded.
Okay, I wrote back. Degrees in what, exactly? From where? Plus, I noted, Silicon Valley's a big place, and so's the "tech sector." But mostly, I used the same questions I'd asked Poetry Daily editor and founder Don Selby when I'd written about his site, questions such as: What do you charge for ads or sponsorships, and what do you see as your key audience? Finally, I asked, what about those similarities to Poetry Daily?
"Dear Mr. Johnson," Hamilton wrote back. "I have discussed your letters with Campbell and he feels that there is a certain aggressive tone to them. He feels, and I am starting to agree, that you are not interested in us for the purpose of providing helpful information about VERSE DAILY to readers but rather in order to look for flaws in us, VERSE DAILY's editors, as people . . . I have a lot of work to do and cannot spend any more time trying to prove myself worthy as a person [his italics] by debating with you . . . we will not respond to any further communications from you."
It was, of course, the type of overreaction that would make a walking thumb suspicious. Why would the editors refuse to give the most basic information about their background? Why hide to whom, exactly, they were expecting people to donate money, or buy ads from? Why refuse to talk about what audience they were shooting for? And if they weren't trying to copy Poetry Daily, why wouldn't they talk about it?
Luckily, I hadn't exhausted possible sources of information yet. Another striking thing about Verse Daily was the fact that several of the poets slated for its inaugural week were poets I'd come to know first, or at least best, through Poetry Daily. And many of the literary journals being featured I'd also noticed were avid supporters of Poetry Daily.
I decided to see if the poets and editors contacted by Verse Daily knew any more about them.
As it turned out, everyone I spoke with had had only limited email contact with the editors.
David Baker, whose work was featured on Verse Daily on just its second day, told me all he knew about the editors was "Just what they said in their email that they were just a couple of guys who loved poetry."
Still, he said, he was glad there was more poetry being posted daily on the web, although "I'd hate to see a new site take away some of the prospects of Poetry Daily. I adore Poetry Daily. I go there almost every day. If Verse Daily does exactly what Poetry Daily does, then that seems a little, well, strange."
Poet Margot Schilpp, another inaugural week Verse Daily contributor, told me pretty much the same thing. She'd only been in contact with Verse Daily's editors via email they'd contacted a literary magazine that had published a poem of hers, Pleiades, whose editor had in turn told Schilpp Verse Daily wanted to reprint the poem. Schilpp said all she knew about V.D.'s editors was that "they were people who loved poetry."
Meanwhile, she said, "The selfish poetryjunkie part of me is glad to have another source to explore each day for poems. The practical part of me wonders whether two so similar sites are sustainable in the climate of evershrinking attention spans and sponsors." She said she, too, valued Poetry Daily "enormously" and visited nearly every day.
Meanwhile, Kevin Prufer, the editor of Peiades, said Verse Daily editors had "contacted me in exactly the same way Poetry Daily did." He added, "I'm a big Poetry Daily fan we advertise with them and I donate money and free copies of our books and journals. This new site seems a bit too similar, but we're not going to turn down the good publicity for our journal."
C. Dale Young, poetry editor of the New England Review, was a bit blunter. "I have no problem with someone else trying to start up a poetry website, but Verse Daily seems like a ripoff of Poetry Daily, and I don't like it when anyone tries to simply copy someone else," he said.
While no one can fault a poet or editor taking every effort to promote their work, or Mother Poetry in general, it's notable that no one I spoke with really knew anything about Verse Daily, while everyone I spoke with went out of their way to compliment Poetry Daily, and noted unease if not outright anger, as with C. Dale Young at the similarities of Verse Daily.
Finally, what does the proprietor of Poetry Daily make of it all? "It's disturbing to find that they are copying the concept and architecture of Poetry Daily wholesale," Don Selby told me. "Of course there's room for more poetry on the web there is a wonderful thirst for authentic contemporary poetry these days. But it's a different issue whether a copy of Poetry Daily is the best way to bring more poetry to the web."
Indeed it is. While Poetry Daily has a truly phenomenal following it gets about 400,000 visitors a month it has taken it a long time to become selfsupporting. While there are an awful lot of poets and poetry publishers out there from which to draw support, building up a sufficient network of regular donors and advertisers has taken years, and is as of yet a fragile construction.
And while, amazingly, poetry is consistently shown in surveys to be among the top ten most popular things on the web, Margot Schilpp is right to question whether two identical sites are sustainable financially; it's not hard to imagine that Don Selby must be hoping donors will, so to speak, dance with the one whut brung 'em to the dance.
But beyond the obvious threat, one has to wonder why Verse Daily editors would want to do something so unoriginal. It's hard not to be suspicious of that alone, let alone the overwrought response to questions.
In any event, it comes down to a basic question: Who are these guys asking for money from poetry fans?
I never did get the editors of Verse Daily to tell me, although, despite what they'd said, I did hear from them once more. When I wrote back one last time saying I was sorry they'd decided not to answer my questions, Hunter Hamilton wrote back saying that I should be sure to not misquote him, as I had done in the email I'd just sent him . . . where I hadn't quoted him at all. "More importantly," he wrote, "it would be nice to not be punished [his itals] for trying to help poets and their publications. How sad this is."
It seemed a fair thing to say, I thought, as I stared at his website, where the words "Verse Daily" appeared with the little encircled "R" after it the sign that the site name had been trademarked . . . to protect it from getting ripped off.
Last Weeks Column: NOVEL CONCEPTS: INSIDE THE DALKEY ARCHIVES Some books seem to have become just too touchy for mainstream publishers and booksellers find a home at a small midWestern press.
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All material not otherwise attributed ©2002 Dennis Loy Johnson.