Don Selby: “I returned to poetry to see what I had missed after an English major in college and a poetry hiatus in law school."
First thing, every morning, when I switch on my computer, I dial up my Internet provider and mouse my way to www.poems.com, site of Poetry Daily. What I find there, every morning, seven days a week, is a new poem. The poem may be by an established poet whose poems have been collected by mainstream publishers or the poem’s author may have only a few publications in literary journals. With the poem, one finds the poet’s biography, photograph, publications, and occasionally, an interview with the poet.
Poetry Daily also serves as a poetry newspaper. The site points one to Robert Hass’s weekly poem in the Washington Post, to reviews of new poetry collections in major dailies, to poetry workshops and readings, and to significant dates, like that of Poetry magazine’s 85th anniversary.
Poetry Daily’s welcome screen announces, “Our purpose is to make it easier for people to find poets and poetry they like and to help publishers bring news of their books, magazines and journals to more people. Over 1000 books of poetry are published in the United States alone each year, but they can be difficult to find, even in areas brimming with bookstores. The numerous journals presenting new poetry and poets are even more elusive. We will lead you to them. In the meantime, we will give you a daily poem to carry with you through your day and to share with others.
“We believe that the pressure to ‘tie the poem to a chair with rope/ and torture a confession out of it,’ as Billy Collins describes it, lessens when poetry is something experienced as freshly arising each day.”
You may sigh and say you can’t think of anything you’d rather less look at on the Web. But I’m hooked on Poetry Daily. I’m not the only one. Since the site opened on April 7th this year, there have been more than one million hits recorded on it.
I spoke one day with Don Selby, one of Poetry Daily’s three founders (the other two are Diane Boiler and Rob Anderson). “Our first day of publication on the Internet,” he said, “was April 7, 1997. But the idea for Poetry Daily is older than that. We had been thinking about it for some time.”
In answer to my query as to whether the founding trio were poets, Selby answered, “No, no poets here. Diane Boiler returned to poetry while taking a pause in her early career as a practicing lawyer to have her children — she saw no reason to give up serious reading; rather, an opportunity to read seriously in a shorter form with her shorter stretches of reading time.
“I returned to poetry to see what I had missed after a dash through a last-minute English major in college and a poetry hiatus in law school. After law school, I went to work immediately for a law publishing company; during a year’s leave of absence spent in Italy, I took Dante along, but also James Merrill, who was in the midst of writing what became The Changing Light at Sandover, and about whom and which I had learned from a Time magazine review, of all things. Reading Merrill was my wake-up call to new poetry.
“Later, Diane and I worked together at the law publishing company. We discovered our mutual interest and mutual frustration with the low visibility and accessibility of contemporary poetry. Also at the company was Rob Anderson, our third, who was not at the time a poetry reader; but we three jointly thought we saw electronic possibilities for contemporary poetry, and poetry readers, as we began to publish information for lawyers electronically.
“We’re located in Charlottesville, Virginia, a university town. There are wonderful and well-known poets here in town and terrific bookstores that pay attention to poetry. But even in Charlottesville, a good place for literary things, we saw people in bookstores looking at poetry shelves that are inadequate for trying to find out what’s going on in poetry publishing.
“More poetry than ever and more good poetry than ever is being published. But to keep up with it all is beyond the means of publishers and their marketing budgets for poetry, and bookstore owners and their needs to fill shelf space with books that are for more of a mass market than poetry seems to be.
“The three of us, who have had fairly long careers in publishing, had begun to do work in electronic publishing in one format or another, including CD ROM and the Internet. It occurred to us that here was a medium that might help bring the poetry community together more easily. By that I mean readers who have a hard time in more obscure places than Charlottesville, trying to find out what’s going.on with poetry publishing, and publishers who have a need to get to those readers in a cost-effective way.
“The Internet is a fast, relatively inexpensive place of unlimited space to try and do exactly that. Rather than wait for reviews to appear in newspapers, here is a place where we show people what’s published on the theory that somebody’s poem is the best advertisement for their poetry.”
The daily poem is selected for its topical or seasonal interest, as well as for its literary quality. Only poems previously published are considered. Poetry Daily takes no submissions of unpublished work. I asked how the Poetry Daily trio chooses poems.
“We have variously independently chosen a week of poems and worked collaboratively. All three of us read books and journals that we receive from publishers. We try to put poems together that hang together in some way editorially — thematically or by genre or by some other aspect that we think will be interesting for readers. We also, of course, pay attention to poems that knock us out in some way. We have already published poets who we barely knew or did not know at all when we began. We have the same feeling that comes with discovering a new poet that we hope readers do when we turn around and put them on.”
The number of hits on Poetry Daily’s varies, Mr. Selby said, in the course of the week. “We had speculated that we would have high activity during the work week, when people are reporting to jobs, sometimes not so pleasant jobs, at eight in the morning. We figured they might want to sign on and read some poetry or look in during lunch break. We’re finding that is largely the case. The site is very active Monday through Friday. It tails off a bit on Friday. Saturday sees the lowest number of visits relative to the other days. The curve begins to go back up on Sunday. Early in the week, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, it’s very heavy, compared to other days. We think people go back to catch up on what they missed during the weekend.
“Of course, we can’t see who, individually, is signing on; but we can see where they come from and from what domain they come, whether it’s an educational or commercial site, for instance. Early on, when we were first looking at statistics coming in, we were seeing spikes of use in the middle of the night and wee hours of the morning. At first, we wondered how to interpret these spikes. Then, we realized that it was lunch hour in Singapore or the work day was beginning in Australia or Ireland. People from well over 50 countries have visited and continue to visit. It’s always morning somewhere for our readers.”