Back when I was in junior high school, one of the big North American publishers circulated paperback catalogues through the public school system in my town of Winthrop, Massachusetts. This one time I selected a book of poems by Edgar Lee Masters call Spoon River Anthology, said to be based on a walk through an old small-town graveyard; the people memorialized on the headstones speak the individual poems, telling of their lives. Since I lived only a block from Winthrop’s main old graveyards and spent a lot of time in them, the idea of these poems appealed to me strongly; when the book arrived I liked them pretty well. I might have been a little disappointed. In any case they were surely the direct precursors to the poems collected here.
I was working at an art college in Boston about 20 years later when I had the idea for a fictional cable television network with 24-hour obituary programming called RIP-TV. I pictured thousands of media arts degree holders being enlisted and ill-paid to generate the endless content for its signal out of film/video clips and photograph archives and graphics programs; everyone aiming to be made editors; arts faculty being lured out of classrooms to hire on as editor-hosts. Years later, I happened on an interview in which a cable television network programming executive raised the possibility of launching just such a network (more or less) with exactly that name; exactly nothing ever came of it. The economy crashed, but I remember thinking they wouldn’t be able to do it because I’d already adopted RIP-TV as the name of my free site at Diaryland.
This was early 2001. I’d moved from Boston to Park Slope, Brooklyn, where I lived with my sister who’d lived there for years, we’d bought a computer. We had the parlor floor—the yard, steps and parties, the old tree boughs and green reflections. I worked for a magazine writing ad proposals and copy and articles (from press releases) about museum shows, and I worked from home. In my leisure time I wrote texts and made collages and posted them on-line together in virtual narratives. Some people I knew were posting on Diaryland, a free and simple early blog site which was exploding in popularity just then: people I didn’t know, like the Julie & Julia woman, were launching careers out of Diaryland. I joined up and posted a few months’ worth of entries before deciding to structure my site as a collection of poetic obituaries: RIP-TV, after all.
The career staying unlaunched, the project kept going for the next eight years. Which were eventful: downwind from the World Trade Center site, I struggled to make a true and forthright record of my experiences, my fear and anger and grief, in the obituary form I’d chosen. Eventually I added a fictional element with the story of an all-lesbian Mount Everest summit expedition team—this seemed to hold promise but the fit was wrong. I dropped it fairly soon but I’m still keeping the plot in reserve for another medium.
The Park Slope landlord kept coming across from Manhattan to chain saw more trees in our yard. In October 2002 I moved south, to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. I took the computer. The US and its allies invaded Iraq; I kept writing obituaries. As the entries pushed into the hundreds I’d created a separate blog holding links to category pages titled in reflection of my past as an English major: Earlier Americans, Fucking Brits, Frenchies, Savages (for all other countries) and a floating Filmsickness page to capture and cross-list all the Hollywooders. This blog, with its Kate Moss collage-portraits and compendia of links to other works of mine on-line, became www.rip-tv.com.
Maybe inspired by the new setting and the grim politics, the RIP-TV poems on Diaryland peaked in quality, consistently, from 2003-2005. In form, all the poems have the same basic structure: the subject’s name appears, bolded, below the date; next come dates and places of birth and demise; then cause of death. This text block acts as the “title” to the piece. The body of the poem is told in alternating voices (on-line, these are represented as two different font colors, bluish and brownish). Usually a concluding line—the “Consolation Site”—is set apart and hyper-linked to an outside page related to the person or the poem or the fatality; in the present edition, this line is replaced by the date of the original entry. At times I wrote with a person in mind, more often not. One Lent I wrote a poem that wound up being perfect for Estee Lauder but when I went to research her dates and such, I found out she wasn’t dead—then she died a few months later. “Too late!” I thought. This happened a few times. Often I’d select the title last, based on a theme or mood or image in the body. My idea was to let each element—person, era, geography, mortality, poem in dialogue, consolation site—do its share of carrying the argument—the meaning—of the finished poem. Truthfully, today, when I browse the site I find many obscurities which I know all made sense to me in their time. All else aside, it is an on-line diary.
I had a small but loyal readership; over long stretches I hosted comments and found the process unenjoyable. Over time I had a lot of traffic to the site—which stayed interesting to me through many changes. My old lady cats died, I adopted new cats, the magazine I worked for closed down, I got other jobs. I went back to work in an office. Very gradually the savor went out of writing the obituaries for RIP-TV. Finding consolation sites wearied me; keeping them alive became a harder problem. Back in 2001, 2002, even 2004 it was fun—and possible—to maintain a collection of fine and carefully selected links, some to fantastically original sites built by obsessives, some to pages hunted down from all the web sites in the world for one reason, maybe for one phrase in the caption or title, very rare and specific traits. This changed. Many early adopters got their servers sold out from under them—gone went a lot of my best links this way. Quite a few enthusiasts migrated to MySpace where nothing looked as good. Ugly and slow-loading ads proliferated. Newspapers and magazines started charging credit card money to get into their digital archives, which made many more of my old links drop dead. 404, 404, Page Not Found—it was sad.
Then I got trapped in my own algorithm and couldn’t escape. Because of course I used Google to search out birth dates and places and causes of death—tiresome work, often, it was. Wikipedia appeared heaven-sent to me, it saved so much labor each night, it was like the dishwasher I haven’t got. But all along, as I kept hitting it first for the rock bottom data, I was marking myself electronic trail-wise. One day, all Google would give me were Wikipedia pages and copies thereof. This persisted. I couldn’t break through. I thought, then, back to RIP-TV’s early days when sometimes I’d write about a dead person so nearly obscure that my entry would show up among the search results later—first pages! It is impossible to imagine this ever happening now.
I stayed in Brighton Beach, went back to the church and finally left again, dabbled in no-budget digital filmmaking, got interested in writing fiction again. In 2008 I read an article about print-on-demand self-publishing and got very excited about the idea of producing books. I began immediately to write one, but as it went slowly I rushed into print with an edition of poems from RIP-TV. Not having heard of the NPR radio show, I called it Selected Shorts; I published through Blurb which turned out a beautiful product but only shipped FedEx—a big fat drag. I moved on, and started to publish through Amazon. For years now, every so often I feel on the verge of a cold sweat or vertigo at the thought that Diaryland might have shut down since I last checked. Then I do check, and it’s there: 1.17.2009, Janis Joplin, my last entry stares up at me; the first was Phil Hartman on 4.16.2001. In my experience, making art on the internet is outstandingly fun and rewarding: the rewards are not financial, though. With so many others—maybe most everyone—I’ve moved on to using the internet to sell the art I’ve used the internet to make. Likewise I’m on Facebook, I think I’ll need to be if I’m ever to build sales. Self-promotion, bracketed by filtered pop-up ads: I’m relieved and glad that Diaryland still exists as a platform for what’s much better: free, quiet, uninterrupted self-revelation. From which can come art. I predict a renaissance. If I were to go back, pick up RIP-TV where I left off, I’d choose one consolation site—a cache of arrest reports or old-timey songs, maybe—to mine for a season and work on the guest curator model, backwards from link to title, assembling weeks of thus-kindred dead into a virtual “theme” show.
Maybe someday. Meanwhile I think of moving north again from the beach since my whole neighborhood was almost destroyed by storm surge last autumn.
Under a new and original title, the present exclusive-to-digital collection of poems from RIP-TV accompanies the launch of a second volume in my serial novel Famepunk. I seek frankly for Dug for Victory to function as a lure. Having labored with care over the selection, re-editing, formatting and presentation of these poems, however, I feel confident that this e-book stands on its own merits, its 99˘ price tag justified by the same sort of curatorial intervention I mentioned above. I just put in the hours in my own archive: that’s expertise—it shouldn’t come free!
For fun, I’ve also added some favorites of my own that missed the first cut, James Baldwin, Gertrude Stein, Simone de Beauvoir and the Nelson Riddle break-up poem among them. Here is some of my best work. I wish all my readers the utmost pleasure in it.