On Legacy and Preservation
Updated: Oct 3, 2022
(Adapted from a Twitter Thread)
The ephemerality of online magazines shocks me sometimes. I have submitted a couple of times to magazines, only to discover that they were discontinued or went completely silent without notice shortly before or after the sub. It leads me to believe that physical copies remain important, despite the digitalisation of everything.
Online content is never as eternal as techno-enthusiasts make it seem. If there's someone to keep the lights on, then that's great, but these things are never guaranteed. How much great work has been lost because people assumed that the hosting sites and servers would stick around? Sure, everything has its time and its place. However, the way in which online works are often just assumed to be resilient to the passage of time rather than actually being archived to ensure their preservation, does seem highly counterproductive to the task of future historians and scholars.
Moreover, in the present it makes the submitting process even more tricky, because you have to figure out which smaller magazines have the people and energy to keep going, which magazines are likely to fall away in the near future, and which ones are dead already without displaying signs on their profiles and sites.
I find the mags/sites that stop but remain up the most unsettling. They just sit there, dead and inactive. It makes you wonder what happened to the people behind it. Did they abandon it hoping to get back to it later? Did they move on entirely? What happened in their lives to prompt this change? Was it serious? Are they ok? These magazines and sites just linger on like ghosts and their contributions to the online poetry scene could disappear at any moment, taking a whole lot of great writing and great writers with them. It’s scary how close some phenomenal works and voices in the online world are to being erased for all eternity.
The alternative that allows you to avoid this kind of questioning is only to submit to magazines that have been around for years/decades and/or are large enough to be archived upon discontinuation. And this drives us to established magazines, which are usually less welcoming and more prohibitive. The same is true for presses and publishers. Do you go for the small ones that will disappear in a matter of weeks, months or years, consigning your work to a very limited afterlife? Or do you go with the larger and older ones, giving your work some assured shelf life, but possibly jumping through many hoops and changing the outlook and nature of your work even to get there?
I am not in poetry for its legacy. I am of the opinion that we should make art to express ourselves and primarily to affect people who are alive when we are rather than trying to reach some posthumous canonisation or recognition—as if all of humanity’s art and history is not ultimately doomed to oblivion when the species reaches its inevitable extinction. ‘Write for the living’ is what I say. The idea that your work could alter some people’s way of seeing things, alleviate their pain, make their lives richer, fuller, more magical, mysterious or whatever it may be, is something that should inspire anyone who is creating with an audience in mind. It’s the Butterfly Effect, but on purpose. We’re trying to drop little pieces of ourselves into the lives of others, hoping that those pieces mean something to them and make some small positive impact on their lives.
Personally, I doubt my work will have a long enough shelf life after I die to stretch beyond tiny, possibly local circles. The dream of widespread acclaim and a solid legacy is still alluring, of course, but overall I am finding myself being more and more at peace with the idea of fading away in relative obscurity. Still, all of this online impermanence does make me think about the importance of poetry books and magazines as physical artefacts.
My work may not spread wide or live long after I am dead, but I would like for it to linger in some archives, libraries, indie bookstores, personal collections, attics etc. I like the idea of it becoming the puzzling remnant of a dead past, maybe speaking like a ghost to the occasional unlikely finder. What a wonderfully quaint fate it would be to become the private mystery of some an unknowable stranger in an unknowable future! For them to find your work, long after you’re dead and be struck by what they find on the page, be intrigued by your words and your ideas. What serendipitous future it’d be for your work to plant little eggs of change inside the mind of some coincidental finder in an unfathomable future, or better still, become the confounding yet comforting artefact that brings them the meaning that they need.