The poet Emily Dickinson was known to lock herself in her room for days to write letters to friends and family. "You can see her entire life in those letters," said Jessica Wickens, a local poet. "You can read a letter, and say, 'Okay, this is when her dad died. This is when her mother was paralyzed. This is the day Emily realized she would never be published in her lifetime.'"
Nowadays, letters have become almost obsolete. But with the advent of social media, we communicate more than ever. You can follow whole lives online through Twitter. Even Dickinson (or, rather, someone posing as Dickinson) has a Twitter account. According to Twitter, there are 1 billion tweets per week from 200 million users. Yet despite this fact — or, perhaps, because of it — communication has become less profound. With the constant bombardment and instantaneous nature of tweets and status updates, our dialogue with each other has increasingly lost its substance.
Or, at least, so thought Wickens. Earlier this year she and fellow poet Della Watson launched the Bay Area Correspondence School with the intention of using technology, as well as old-fashioned letters, to communicate in a more meaningful, poetic way.
"So many poets use Twitter," Wickens said. "Some post really, really bad poems, but everyone can see them. They're published instantly, and that's one of the cool things about it."
Originally, Wickens (a financial analyst) and Watson (who writes for Sierra magazine) had started writing letters to each other — inspired by Dickinson. After doing that for a year, they shifted their attention to social media. For the past three and a half years, the two decided to adopt pseudonyms — Wickens was Benjamin, and Watson was Crow — and use email and Twitter to experiment with different ways of corresponding with each other, modern-poet style.
The emails and tweets eventually were compiled into a volume called Everything Reused in the Sea: The Crow and Benjamin Letters, which is now available for pre-order through San Francisco-based Mission Cleaners Books. The letters themselves are poems, so it's hard to tell what they're talking about. In one letter, Crow writes, Dear Benjamin, what then? / when singing annihilates argument / when spelling is lost in the current/text me / text me / text me/tweet / tweet / tweet. In another, Benjamin writes a poem using an embedded hyperlink: Crow, i follow your clue to a new trail. bones can also make fiction / and here is the same image. / found reason in the cavity. / some of the animals look / disquietingly / the World We Don't Live In. Click on the "and here is the same image" hyperlink and you'll be taken to a Seattle Post-Intelligencer article with the headline, "A face-lift for a dog? Brazilian vet does it all." Click on "the cavity" and you'll be taken to a Wikipedia article about cavities. Poetry is getting interactive.
One of their goals with the Bay Area Correspondence School is to let others in on their correspondences. They partnered with Kelsey Street Press, a Berkeley-based poetry publisher, and created a Twitter account and Facebook page. Members meet once a month to make artful letters and tweet together.
For one recent endeavor, Wickens decided she wanted to send her grandmother (who happens to be the correspondence school's biggest fan) a bunch of "get-well" postcards following her hip surgery. "Letters to Grandma (& other people)" took place on March 10 in Wickens' apartment. Once all the members had arrived, Wickens and Watson handed out "starter kits" consisting of three stamps, some newspaper clippings, and some postcard-size paper. On the coffee table, Wickens placed a pile of newspapers to use to make postcard collages. With everyone furiously cutting, gluing, and coloring for the next three hours, it felt like an artist retreat version of Santa's workshop. "I like the energy in this room," said Elliot Harmon. "Everyone is passionate about something that is non-scalable, which makes their passion even more interesting."
For his letter to Wickens' grandmother, he decided to write down "every single thing everyone in this room is saying. That way, she feels like she's here." ("I wish we had a paper cutter ... We have one in the backyard ... Really? ... Yeah" are some examples of what he wrote.)
Kat Cornelius's postcard was more artsy and complicated. It featured a cowboy on a horse seemingly lost in the wilderness, looking onward at a moose encircled by a magnifying glass while lightning struck in the background. "I think the point of it is you don't notice incredible things are happening," she said. Joe Wongoon Cha wrote a letter on his postcard that began, "I am going to write you a letter completely in cursive. I used cursive a lot when I was a kid, but as of late, not so much." Watsons' postcard said, "Dear Carol, We hope these letters give you a jolt of a good feeling!"
At the last Bay Area Correspondence School meeting, members sent letters to Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe after learning that the post office has plans to close down more than 200 mail plants and lay off 120,000 workers. Donahoe has yet to write back.
Another meeting involved a live art and poetry Tweeting marathon, preceded by a brief Twitter tutorial. The poets sat around a table, tweeting to one another corresponding lines of poetry. In one, Watson wrote, My heart is full of the pain of disco. Diwana Bell tweeted back, such golden glory makes a heart giddy. Crow tweeted, "Let's try talking normally to each other and see what happens," before reverting back to poet-talk.
Ramsey Breslin said that the Bay Area Correspondence School has forced her to accept that she likes Twitter. "Twitter makes so much sense for poets," she said. "All those limitations are wonderful. You have the word count, for one. It's no different than the sonnet." She tried posting poetry as Facebook notes, but said her poetry was corrupted. "There are a whole lot of creepy people out there, and a whole lot of shallow, stupid posts," she said. "But if you can make something beautiful, something poetic out of Twitter, I think it's great."
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