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Jacket 16 — March 2002   |   # 16  Contents   |   Homepage   |    

Sister Sites: Angels, Disasters and Epiphanies: an occasional series of talks by the editors of other publications in print and on the Internet

Riding the Boat

Ram Devineni interviews Ravi Shankar
editor of the Internet magazine Drunken Boat

Logo of Drunken Boat magazine

...on editing the, ethnopoetics, and deconstructing hypertext poetry.

This piece is 3,700 words or about eight printed pages long.

Obviously, the title ‘Drunken Boat’ comes from the famous Rimbaud poem. Why did you select that title?

I have a bipartite response to that question, the first reason being that Rimbaud, in his work and in his life, was perhaps the first truly modern poet. What Beat doesn’t have Rimbaud memorized when he states ‘the poet makes himself into a seer by a long, prodigious and rational disordering of all the senses. Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons, and keeps only their quintessence’?
    I personally am more interested in Rimbaud the synesthete who, with all the hubris and wild inventiveness of a narcissistic genius, exclaims, ‘I created the colors of the vowels! A black, E white, I red, O blue, U green — I made rules for the form and movement of each consonant, and with instinctive rhythms, I flattered myself that I created a poetic language accessible, someday, to all the senses.’
    Isn’t that the primal goal of each poet, to look out at the landscape she finds herself in, and like Adam in Eden, provide each thing its necessary name? Until Rimbaud, poetry had to mean, but after him, the nouns came unmoored from the prepositional phrases, the fantastic, the irrational and the perverse frothed forth like a once-stoppered wave. ‘Le Bateau Ivre’, composed in 1871, seems to me to hold the crux of Rimbaud’s poetic project.
    The poet, in the metaphor of the Drunken Boat, is both active navigational subject and passive object caught in the tempest of the sea. During the course of the poem, the boat loses its rudder and anchor, giving more and more of itself to the sea, and in a similar process, the poet, as Rimbaud would have it, has to give more and more of himself up to achieve true vision. We conceptualize our journal along a similar voyage, actively charting a course into the future of publishing while being passively receptive to varied, divergent ideas.
    The more prosaic and legitimate answer to your question is that at the time when I was purchasing the site name, every other good url was taken and so I pounced on

If you believe there is no ‘master narrative’ or ‘one school of aesthetic philosophy’ that will be represented in your magazine, what standards do you use to select work?

Photo of Ravi Shankar

Ravi Shankar

We use the one standard that is applicable to any realm of expression, which is quality. One of the premises behind the journal was to decamp from the narrowly stratified bivouacs that currently exist in the poetic community. You’re supposed to be a neo-formalist, a lyric poet, a language poet or a spoken word MC, slotted into some constrictive category that doesn’t allow any interchange between those who are practicing a different aesthetic form than you are.
    That provincial mentality seemed to us very regressive and certainly not suited to the digital world, a place where boundaries between ideas are lines in the sand. Existing on the web, we also feel compelled to give voice to the voiceless, to include writers and artists who might normally not appear in a ‘literary production,’ and as we don’t have the overhead of having to pay for printing costs, we can as easily showcase a twenty page epic manifesto as a two sentence epigrammatic lyric.
    Frank O’Hara has a famous quote, ‘Grace to be born and to live as variously as possible,’ and that is one of the adages we uphold as mantra.

Is there a web or hypertext philosophy developing with poetry, fiction and art? Is there a new-form of writing developing through the use of technology? Please explain how your magazine is associated with this philosophy and writing?

Certainly, yes, I think there are new philosophies that expression on the web entails. I believe we’ve only begun to see the very beginnings of what will probably be a sea change in perception, more profound then when text on papyrus scrolls gave way to the bound manuscript. Already we’ve seen the emergence of writers who take advantage of the decentralized mechanisms of the web to create hypertexts, texts that have no set point of entry and no preferred path of navigation.
    In some ways this is the literalization of Roland Barthes’ premise in his essay Death of the Author, the reader of a hypertext having an active, participatory role in the text and the author having a more architectural function, creating spaces without delimiting how those space are used. This mode of creation relies on chance, which is one of the most important modern contributions to aesthetic sensibility — from the surrealists’ automatic writing activities to John Cage’s aleatory constructions based on the I Ching, postmodern art is, as Mallarmé would have, un coup de dés (a throw of dice).
    And now, with software like Macromedia Flash, what a writer can do is vastly amplified.

“All art constantly aspires towards
the condition of music.”

Walter Pater [1839–94], English
essayist and critic.

    It is said that poetry is language that aspires to the condition of music. On the computer screen, language can literally become music as text can be time-bound in the same way, appearing, then disappearing when the next phrase appears.
    And that just scratches the surface of what’s possible: a poem can be looped so that it runs forever; a work of fiction can be created to resemble a world more than a work of prose, replete with events the reader can choose to participate in or to avoid, peopled with characters that the reader can get to know on varying levels of intimacy or ignore completely; and readers can interact with other readers from around the globe, collaborating to create or to destroy meaning, engaging in a commentary that can be posted in a window adjacent to the text being commented upon. The possibilities here are endless and thus invigorating.
    A faction of poetry’s audience will always be the kind of fusty, anachronistic people who will prefer to sit in bed with a dog-eared collection of verse (and I admit to being one of these), especially as so many other parts of life become digitized, but there will also be the creation of a new kind of poet, a multimedia bard who splices his verse with audio landscapes, with the juxtapositions of visual clips, with the interaction and full participation of the reader.
    Imagine a canto of the future, a compendium not just of words but full of fodder for all the senses. This might not be poetry anymore, in the sense we know it, but rather the creation of a new genre more profound than film, more filmic than poetry, as emotionally resonant as music.
    Certainly those kinds of artists will depend on electronic technology to compose, revise, and broadcast their work. And you can be sure that when this species of cyberscribe emerges, we will have her work on Drunken Boat.

Drunken Boat Issue 3 has a map of the world and it appears you are indexing the contributors by their nationality in addition to the type of work. Why?

There are a few reasons for this. Chief among them is the creation of an alternate navigational system. Most literary journals just offer one interface with the work, but we thought it would be interesting, and relevant considering it was the ethnopoetics issue, to offer another way to access the work.
    Using the map also indicates what I feel is the solidarity of visionaries across any expanse of space or time. The work may have come from six different continents but it has a common home on Drunken Boat. We were a little wary of using the map at first, because we didn’t want to make the artist the exemplar and the mouthpiece of a certain nationality (especially when none of the work in the latest issue can be so reductively circumscribed), but in the end, we decided that the rubbing up of the many different countries the artists came from deepened rather than oversimplified the contents of the issue.
    And though we conceptualized the map before the events of nine eleven, it seemed even more apt after the tragedy to show a countervailing force to the hostility and hatred that characterizes much of the world’s relation to one another.

What is ethnopoetics?

Put simply, ethnopoetics is a cultivated receptivity to poetry outside of the Western tradition (though some may say that all poetics is ethnopoetics, coming, as it does, from within the sociohistorical consciousness of the people who produce it). In order to do this we need to suspend our ingrained notions of judgment, our education that stressed the Western canon at the expense of other works of art.
    The sense that the originators of the term, people like Jerome Rothenberg, Gary Snyder and Dennis Tedlock, meant, I think, was close to an idea of poetry as performance, as a chanting or singing voice giving body to a variety of laments, songs, prayers, riddles and prophecies.
    This perspective obviously stresses the orality and immediacy of the performance, the many sounds, tones, silences, gestures, and modulations in pitch and timbre that go into constituting the relationship between the speaker and his audience.
    The sense that we intended ethnopoetics to be was broader; we wanted to include not only the work of individuals from other nationalities, but also the work of those artists whose work was not sanctioned as art by American culture. Ethnopoetics seems to me anything outside of the normative realm, works that are expressive and as yet untamed, unrecognized. Certainly orality goes into that notion, but so too does the verbal, the visual, the digital, even the criminal.
    What connects these disparate works, in my mind, is the impetus behind them, the sense that the artists will continue making their work though they may receive no notice, no adulation and no money for doing so; the necessity of making work regardless touches one of the deepest veins in the human psyche.

What poets, writers and artists in your magazine best represent ethnopoetics?

A few of our contributors come directly to mind, one of whom is Donald Green, a poet who is known to many New Yorkers because he is a fixture in the subway stations, usually the one on West 4th Street. I don’t know of anyone else who advertises his vocation as poet on a placard. My co-editor Michael Mills and I had the chance to meet with him in Washington Square Park, and we interviewed him.
    He spoke about his childhood in Harlem, his stint working in the library at Columbia where he slowly developed an interest in poetry and how he had the luck to appear in an anthology with Langston Hughes and Robert Frost, two of the poets he most admires. The way he spoke of poetry was the way a raccoon might speak of crayfish, as something delectable and nutritive and necessary for his existence in the hard city.
    Another poet, David Daniels, represents ethnopoetics because he has labored for years without notice, making intricate, expansive concrete poems, all from an antiquated version of Microsoft Word. I met him at a conference in Buffalo and he subsequently sent me his volume, The Gates of Paradise, and I was blown away by what I found there — poems that were wrought into shapes yet that had the wisdom of a shaman and the bawdiness of Felix the Cat. His output was also prodigious; I think his work is very important and I hope it eventually gets the due it deserves.
    A few other artists and writers represent our ideal of ethnopoetics. I would argue that Zoe Beloff’s short films are actually ethnopoems, dug out from a seething unconscious and set to sound and image.
    The graffiti artists who appear in the Editor’s Message are examples of artists in America who risk arrest to emblazon their tags on urban spaces.
    I’d also uphold James Sethna, Karin Dahmen, and Christopher Myers as a prime example of ethnopoetry. The trio, all physicists, has studied nonequilibrium dynamical systems (like the way a crumpled piece of paper uncrumples or the way an avalanche develops) and their close examination of physical phenomenon is, in my mind, a poetic act.
    Wallace Stevens is often quoted by chaos theorists and the biologist Lynn Margulis has written a book, The Symbiotic Planet, where each chapter is prefaced by an Emily Dickinson poem, and I think the connection between serious scientists and serious poets is closer than has been documented. After all, both try to assimilate and represent as much reality as some kind of language (be it English or the syntax of integrals and coefficients) can hold.
    Finally I’d point to Reesom Haile, poet laureate of Eritrea, as a prime example of ethnopoetics. His work is composed in an endangered language and we were only to happy to include both the audio of the English and Tigrinya versions of his poems, as well as the English and the Ge’ez script of the poem’s text. To fully appreciate Reesom, you must see him on stage, in his white flowing robes, with his honeyed intonation.
    Publishing his work represents one of the political aspects of ethnopoetics, which is to help preserve the work of a dying culture (and in this age of global capitalism, many cultures must be looked on as rainforests, as living organisms which we need to fight to keep from being extinguished).

How is your magazine preparing for wireless technologies?

Actually we are just beginning discussions on creating e-books. Until now it has been a matter of viability and as very few people read works on PDAs or on electronic readers, I’ve felt there are better uses of our time and resources, though I suspect that will change sooner rather than later.

Why did you want to start an on-line magazine? Have you thought about releasing a select collection of Drunken Boat in print form?

Well I’ve always been interested in publishing, from when I was in high school and a friend and I began a journal called Iguana (of which there are two copies in existence) to helping read manuscripts for The Paris Review a few years ago.
    As a poet who’s been sending out work for many years, I’ve had my share of frustrations with the convoluted mechanisms of literary presses, and I’ve often felt that my aesthetic sensibility which granted is rather oxymoronic — I’m a highbrow populist — has rarely if ever been catered to by the existing publications.
    The site was started a few years ago when my good friend, Michael Mills and I, were lounging on a rooftop in lower Manhattan. I had purchased the URL ‘drunkenboat’ strictly on a whim and had some vague plans about creating my own home-page on the site, but that night on the roof, Mike and I began discussing everything from publishing each other’s work to the way he had been increasingly using software to develop his own art.
    I can’t recall exactly how the idea sprung to life, but there was an Eureka moment on that rooftop when we realized we’d make a great team, Mike being an artist (M.F.A. from Parson’s) with a keen design sense, and I being a writer with relationships with other writers. We both felt that there were lacunae in current literary journals that needed to be filled (no one, for example, was publishing the wild and varied work of web artists) and decided that Drunken Boat could fulfill that function.
    We have thought about anthologizing  a portion of the work that has appeared on Drunken Boat and will probably eventually do so, if only to provide our contributors with some small token of appreciation (unfortunately today, the materiality of a printed work still confers legitimacy in a way web-publishing does not).

Tell me a little about yourself? Why are you interested in poetry and literature?

To begin in reverse chronological order, I am currently working at Brockman, Inc., a literary agency that represents serious intellectual non-fiction that is nonetheless meant for large audiences. We represent such authors as Jared Diamond, Naomi Wolf, Stephen Pinker, Daniel Dennett, etc. I begin with this job, which I don’t fully identify with, to highlight a certain scientific temperament that I have in my views on language, countered, I suppose, by a spiritual bias I have in my views on science.
    Currently I write music reviews for Time Out New York and do the odd book review. I’m also teaching two classes at Queens College now, one for students that come from a labor background (unions) and a literature class entitled, ‘The Influence of Landscape on Representations of Identity,’ that deals with the symbiotic way we interact with spaces. My manuscript of poems, ‘Suggestions of an Invisible Hypnotist’, has just recently been finished and I’m just beginning the arduous task of sending it around to publishing houses.
    A few years ago I graduated from Columbia’s MFA Program in Creative Writing, a place where I had the distinct pleasure of working with Richard Howard and Lucie Brock-Broido while watching, firsthand, and the insidious manner in which competitiveness can manifest itself in workshops.
    There I taught an Introduction to Expository Writing for four semesters at Columbia, worked as a bartender, published poems in such journals as The Paris Review, Gulf Coast, The Massachusetts Review, Descant, LIT, etc. and helped found Drunken Boat. I was also the MC of a reading series at the Night Café, a copy editor at Forbes, a legal temp, and a knife salesman.
    Poetry and literature have been with me for as long as remember, and I feel called to it by a voice I cannot refuse. I suppose what drew me especially to poetry was my love for language. Words salt the tongue with meaning, are necessary for any appraisal of who we are and what we’re doing here on this planet, and I take great pleasure in wringing music from the plain spoken, from discovering new words, from finding the phrase that perfectly encapsulates how I’m feeling and why.
    I also feel that words, though privy to semantic drift that changes connotations through time, are the key to understanding the spiritual dimension of our existences, and, in fact, those rare moments when I’m possessed by a kind of grace, I’m able to act as mouthpiece, I think, for something far more eloquent then I am usually capable of.
    That’s not to feign mock humility or shunt off responsibility, but rather is a testament to how the self, difficult and cloudy notion as it is, interacts with itself, is permeable to forces and ideas outside its control, and can use its innate ear to structure and coordinate multiple thoughts and feelings so that they become something so jeweled and faceted as a poem.

Which literary/artistic individuals have influenced your work?

If I had to pick one poet, and I’d be hard pressed to do so, I’d have to go with the American Orpheus, Hart Crane. I feel the impact of his work in my blood and can even empathize with the deep seeded pain and isolation that eventually led him to his self-destruction. I can think of no other poet whose work bears re-reading as well as Hart Crane.
    In my time at Columbia and the University of Virginia, I unfortunately never had a mentor. I had some great classes with some great writers, but never felt taken under the wing of any of them, possibly because I myself was feeling vexed and confused in my attempts to integrate my Indian heritage and my American environment into some cohesive sense of self.
    So most of my influences are personally unknown to me — Emily Dickinson, Ranier Maria Rilke, Wallace Stevens, May Swensen in poetry; Don DeLillo, Milan Kundera, Virgina Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov in prose; Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Vincent Van Gogh in art; Coltrane, Beethoven, Sonic Youth, The Notorious B.I.G. in music.
    Oh, I should mention my first poetry professor ever, Lisa Russ Spaar, whose work I had the great honor of publishing in the last issue of Drunken Boat. She was the one teacher who infused writing with such vitality that I felt a moth drawn inevitably to the light. She’d have us take walks to the railroad to sharpen our observational skills and she waxed enthusiastically about our work though I’m sure most of us from that class would quake in embarrassment to see any of it now.

What is the future direction of Drunken Boat?

In the future, we will continue to publish the best of more traditional forms of representation like poetry, prose and photography, alongside works of art endemic to the medium of the web, like hypertext, digital animation, sound, video and interactive art. We plan to host more events, like a cross-coast reading we’re planning that will feature readers from San Francisco and New York, reading in real-time on a broadband connection so that they can see and hear their counterparts a few thousand miles away.
    We’d also like to become a vaster, sleeker cultural force, never mainstream but something that streams the main thoroughfares of art and ideas, providing the public with an alternative to the predigested rations that mass media provides us with.
    We just became a non-profit organization (as of last week!) and so hopefully that will allow us to garner some grants. The end goal would be to generate enough revenue that Mike and I could devote more of our time and energy towards Drunken Boat, without having to worry about rent-money. We also plan to be perched at the cutting edge of convergence technology and look forward to the eventual synthesis of the web and television.

Drunken Boat is available at

Ram Devineni is the publisher of Rattapallax Press and a film-maker who has had films shown at the Cairo International Film Festival, San Jose Film Festival, Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema, etc. and has appeared on television programs in New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Los Angeles. He was an Eagleton Associate at the Eagleton Institute for Politics at Rutgers University where he studied political theory and campaign management. He has organized several state and federal elections. He also integrates new technologies (e.g networks, SANs,...) for Salomon Smith Barney and Citigroup. He also organized the Dialogue Among Civilizations Through Poetry with the United Nations.

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