To be a poet is a labor of love. To publish poets, even more so. To dedicate one's entire life to the practice, archiving, and publishing of avant-garde poetics guarantees two audiences only: graduate students and New Yorkers. Welcome to UbuWeb.
The front page of UbuWeb, an online archive run by Kenneth Goldsmith, reminds me how huge the umbrella has to be that can archive everything referenced in its mission statement: "a completely independent resource dedicated to all strains of the avant-garde, ethnopoetics, and outsider arts." There's a sidebar that lists internal categories, including Contemporary and Ethnopoetics, as well as side projects, like /ubu Editions, an imprint for electronic literature. Scroll to the end of the page for Recent Additions, arranged by artist name, but don't get too distracted, because two columns over there is a list of New Additions, plus another column of monthly guest-editorial picks called Featured Resources. In between it all sits Goldsmith's Winter 2009 list of updates and features.
For the uninitiated, it's a little daunting, and offers proof that frequenters of UbuWeb are usually devotees of their selected genre. How else to explain those whose come trolling for a recording of the Ramayana Monkey Chant or Understanding Marx as performed by the Red Shadow, aka the Economics Rock and Roll Band? While it's a tremendous archive for those already aware of Vito Acconci (1960's performance art and poetics pioneer) and Brian Kim Stefans (electronic poet and co-editor of /ubu Editions), my UbuWeb experience only confirmed what I already know to be true: despite leaving room for the curious, most avant-garde practice needs contextualization, usually in the form of narrative.
Yes, I am saying that while some pieces -- like Charles Bernstein's 1-100 -- might stand on their own if you were able to make it all the way through them, others -- such as Lamont Young's Drift Study 31 1 69 -- don't just benefit from, but actually depend on narrative to explain their relevancy and provide the average listener a point of access. This is what keeps the circle of avant-garde aficionados so small.
Luckily, besides providing snippets of biographical information for most of UbuWeb's artists, Goldsmith also records an intermittent podcast, Avant-Garde All the Time, in collaboration with the Poetry Foundation. Even if you aren't a total newbie to the worlds of poetry or the avant-garde, I would recommend starting with these short glosses on the hidden secrets of the archive. Hosted by Goldsmith himself, the podcasts are based on themes like "Punk Versions of Monkey Chants" and "Protest Poetry with a Beat," which features Allen Ginsberg's CIA Dope Calypso, my favorite UbuWeb discovery thus far. If you bust through all available podcasts in your first visit, don't worry; Goldsmith also hosts a radio show under the host name Kenny G on WFMU.
As I mentioned elsewhere in this review, it's a small crowd that follows the doings of the digital avant-garde, particularly in the field of poetics. However, thanks to the internet and new media technologies, there's a digital Renaissance afoot in the fields of poetics and electronic literature (e-lit), proof of which can be found in the British Arts and Humanities Research Council's 2007 decision to award $7.5 million to the study of communication "beyond text", focusing especially on performance, video, and sound art, as well as digital poetry.
UbuWeb is a great beginner's resource for looking at these contemporary practices, and an even better one for understanding their history.