Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Are there too many online poetry journals?

A quick google search of the phrase "online poetry journal" brought back 15,000 entries (without the quotes, it was upwards of 24 million). Most of these had names I had never heard of: Prairie Poetry, The Pregnant Moon Poetry Review, Boiling River.... 

I've been wondering about the average lifespan of a literary journal. At least four of the online literary journals where my own poems have appeared are no longer operational (at first glance, the journals appear to be active, but when I checked the archives new issues have not been posted for over a year or more, usually more.) A quick trip through the Poemeleon links page found that 12 of the 66 original links (or about 18%) were either nonfunctioning or led to pages that indicated the journal had either closed up shop or were on a temporary hiatus. Now, I know at least one of them is gearing up to move from print to online (though that was supposed to happen in January and it's now nearly May), and another that I had worried might have gone under had just moved its site. It does worry me, though, when I see a journal that is obviously not operating and yet their guidelines page still indicates they are accepting submissions. 

The new issue of Poets & Writers magazine includes a special section called "The Lit Mag Moment", and within it contains a story by Sandra Beasley titled "From Page to Pixels: The Evolution of Online Journals". It argues convincingly for submitting our best work online, and makes a case for the viability and sustainability of online journals in general. As an editor of an online journal, I'm inclined to agree on both points, but I'm not entirely convinced.

"The notion that Web-based journals are easily launched -- and are therefore easily abandoned -- is central to the reservations of many writers."
-- Sandra Beasley

The fact is, it is rather easy to start a literary journal -- if you have a little time, are willing to shell out the cash for web hosting, or don't mind using one of the free blog-style formats available, a literary journal can be up and running in an afternoon. My very impatient son did so just last week, using Wordpress as his platform -- and, I'm afraid, he's already lost interest. When I think about how Poemeleon came about-- after an evening discussion about literary journals with my very rational husband, who, over a glass or two of wine, suggested I start my own. I knew I needed to jump on it before he realized what a mistake he'd made. Within a day I had a domain name and a crude version of the site. Within weeks the first submissions trickled in. And the rest, as they say, is history. 

No one can tell you up front how much time it will take to keep your journal running smoothly. It's not just about reading submissions. It's also about continually updating the site's content (my links page is an example of something that I have yet to do). It's about formatting each issue, which takes mondo amounts of time that I can't even begin to calculate (and I use something called Squarespace, which makes the formatting much simpler -- you don't need to know html to have a fully-functioning site). But editors have lives, too. It's easy to see how an online journal could get brushed aside in favor of more self-fulfilling work, like one's own writing. My poor husband had no idea what he was in for. He hasn't had a clean house since, unless he does it himself, after a day at the office. Editing a literary journal really is a labor of love. You have to love it, otherwise the labor isn't worth the effort. Other online journals that I admired at the time I was creating Poemeleon have since disappeared, presumably due to time constraints and other conflicts, like, oh, working for a living. But of course, during that time, new journals have cropped up, and other stalwarts have continued to publish stellar work. 

So, why publish online? Who can argue with being able to google a poet's name and bring up all of their work online, or having the ability to electronically (and therefore more efficiently and cheaply) send out notifications of new work published, complete with a link to the page where the work actually appears? Imagine trying to do that with a traditional print journal. 

So, my advice to those interested in publishing online: send out only your best work, because it's not going to disappear into a black hole; all it takes is your name in the search engine's happy little box to bring up that awful poem you wrote about suicide when you were thirty-one (oh wait, that was mine). And my advice to editors of online literary journals -- if you're forced or choose to fold, please have the courtesy to post something to your guidelines page so that nobody's time is wasted, and try to keep the archives online for as long as possible.

I believe in the power of literature to change people's lives, and I believe in the internet as a tool that can disseminate information quickly and efficiently to anyone across the globe who has access. 

So, the question: Are there too many online poetry journals out there? 

With so many potential readers, how can there possibly be? 

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