Ten Years of Snakeskin

Here's how they look from the Editor's chair...

On December 1st, 1995, Snakeskin issue 1 went online.

A few weeks before that, my Internet service provider had excitedly emailed with the news that I had been allotted some webspace on a server that I could use if I wanted to. The fashion then, in the early days of the Internet, was for personal homepages – This is me, these are my hobbies, this is a picture of the dog –you know the sort of thing. I might have gone for that, except that the amount of webspace offered was just 100k. You couldn’t fit many dog pictures onto that.

I realised that text took up less space than pictures, and that verse took up less space than prose – so a poetry magazine might be a way of doing something worthwhile, or at least fun.

At that time I thought of myself as an ex-poet. I’d written a lot when younger, but there had been zero enthusiasm from the few publishers I’d got around to sending stuff to.  My recent versification had been confined to song-writing for local shows, and some light verse for the New Statesman and Spectator competitions.

But I thought to myself –why not? I had thoughts and theories about poetry, I had always fancied being an editor, and here was an opportunity. And if nothing came of it, I hadn’t lost anything. There would be no yellowing piles of unsold back numbers in the spare bedroom reproaching me for a bad investment. In fact, the only investment was my time, and since I wanted to learn HTML, this was as good a way as any to get some practice.

And the poems came in. They’ve kept on coming in, and I’ve kept on enjoying them, so from that point of view these ten years have been a pleasant success. Thank you. poets.

Thank you especially the various guest editors who have taken up the burden some months, and have always added something new, and stopped us from getting too predictable.

But I think back to the ambitions of ten years ago.

Before Google, before Internet shopping, before Internet gambling. The early days of the Internet were exciting. We were wide-eyed and optimistic, and we didn't have any advertisements. This was a new medium, capable, we thought, of reaching huge new audiences, and developing new forms of writing. Information wanted to be free, and so did ideas. Has the promise been fulfilled?

We have certainly reached audiences that most paper poetry magazines don’t. Feedback has told us that (and the feedback is so much more immediate and spontaneous than it is with paper magazines). Every year we have attracted more readers – but the increase is far smaller proportionally than the increase in Internet users. Poetry has stayed in its ghetto.

Well, that was probably inevitable. But what about the new forms of writing? Has the Internet encouraged new poetic forms, or has it just spread the usual stuff more widely.

Mostly, I’m afraid, it’s the latter. I've sometimes look at an issue of Snakeskin and thought, “Yes, they’re all good poems, but there’s nothing there that couldn’t have come across just as well on paper.”

We’ve tried.  We’ve printed some poetry hypertexts (including the huge
Maze of Mirrors, on which I collaborated with K.M.Payne, and which remains the Snakeskin achievement that I’m proudest of). Linda Crespi has emerged from hiding now and then to give us works that really use the resources of HTML. (Try her Synchronised Sonnets if you don’t know them, but be warned that they may not work if you’re not using Internet Explorer). We’ve also explored the possibilities of e-chapbooks (Poets love them and readers don’t, generally). We have even experimented with email publishing (see the Re-United sequence in which I battled with Helena Nelson, and had the most fun of these ten years).

And yet... Why aren’t more poets  interested in pushing the boundaries, testing the possibilities?

Well, I guess the sad fact is that poetry people tend to be poetry people, and computer people tend to be computer people, and not too many want to explore the strange things that can happen when computers and poetry meet. But Snakeskin wants to do that – so here’s to the next ten years.