Friday, January 27, 2017

A Visionary Gateway for American and World Poetics: The Museum of American Poetics, by David Cope

Jim Cohn

In what can only be called an heroic effort on behalf of poetry, Jim Cohn has built, repeatedly expanded and tweaked an enormous database in American Poetry traditions and individual authors, and as the vision grew, the World Poetics of which we are all a part—and he has done this largely alone over eighteen years, using his own funds and research time to build this monument to poetry.  At last count, The Museum of American Poetics (MAP) contained 1272 exhibits—individual links and pages in twenty different collections, an astounding task for a database handled by a single curator (see Appendix for breakdown of collections and exhibits).   The MAP website grew from its initial emphasis on Beat and Postbeat poetries, developing as an online database for poets, researchers, students, and those looking for new directions in the art.  He first developed the site ( as a result of a vision that came to him after Allen Ginsberg died in 1997, in which he foresaw an encyclopedic webpage where poets might find representation on the net. Jim later convened a meeting at the West End Café in Boulder with Randy Roark, Joe Richey, Thom Peters, and Sue Rhynhart; Thom Peters  suggested the words that became the MAP slogan: “The Poetry of the Future is Opening Its Doors.” This became a guiding principle for the page. Jim recalls, “it was a play on John Ashbery's famous line ‘The Academy of the Future is Opening Its Doors,’” a quote he first encountered in Ted Berrigan’s “Sonnet 62.”  True to his own collaborative spirit, he then wrote to other poets, asking how they would envision such a page. Almost all were then neophytes in the possibilities of the net and some—myself included—misunderstood the scope of the project he had envisioned, but the project got off the ground and flourished.  He notes that:

MAP went live in January 1998. . . . The site at that time, and ever since, was captured by Internet Archive, and it really is a matter of beginning to work on the architecture of the site and graphics development as much as it was a matter of content.  It was a brave new world back then.

A Pattern of Organic Growth

One can trace the entire phenomenal growth of MAP from its skeletal beginnings in December of 1998 to the current 2017 page via the page’s Wayback Machine, which captures and retains every change in the site, date by date, over 18 years of continuous development (see The initial page featured Jim’s poetry magazine, Napalm Health Spa, as an online journal, beginning with the digitized contents of the 1990-1997 print versions of the journal, and extending from 1998-2015 in an annual upload that usually featured works by twenty-two to thirty-eight poets, a robust group featuring mostly Beat, Postbeat, “outrider,” poets from many diverse backgrounds, including forays into newer territory, as in the work done by Chinese scholar Zhang Ziqing with Vernon Frazer, Jim, and myself, among others.  The long run of the magazine ended with three major issues, each of them a formidable anthology:  the 2013 Long Poem Masterpieces of the Postbeats, featuring the works of 53 poets; the 2014 Heart Sons and Daughters of Allen Ginsberg issue, with 63 poets, many of them represented by large selections of their work; and the 2015 Anne Waldman:  Keeping the World Safe for Poetry issue, which had 71 major entries.   The annual Spa would be a formidable task for any editor or curator, but it was only one of the many areas that Jim developed for the website. 

MAP, 1998

That initial 1998 page also featured the American Poet Greats Lecture Series, a Boulder series featuring poets and former students of Naropa Institute’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics lecturing on elder poets that moved them.  There was also an Exhibits section which included submission guidelines for exhibits, and a variety of mostly Beat-influenced or Beat pages, as well as exhibits by the Academy of American Poets.  The Floating Muse Bookstore presented books on sale largely by Beat, Postbeat, and New York school poets, and the Poetry Links page had twenty-three key links to poetry and poetics which expand the vision into the larger domains of American poetry.  The original MAP page, then, begins with a vision of outrider, beat, and postbeat poetry, but already shows a desire to develop a broader scope of American poetry in its first, foundational architecture.

MAP, 2002

In the following years, Jim would make major graphics changes to the homepage, moving from the original black background with blue and blue/white lettering to the rectangles in orange, pink, and chartreuse over a light blue or green background (2002-2005).

MAP, 2006

2006 saw a major change to an attractive collage featuring poets, designs, graphic acrobats, and an encircled number 5 reminiscent of William Carlos Williams’s famed Great Figure.  In this incarnation, one had to enter through this collage (E N T E R) to a more elaborate collage on the next page, which also featured links to the contents of the site. 

MAP, 2009

A more simplified approach came in 2009:   a white background, photo of poets, a mission statement and a double columned set of contents. This approach lasted until 2015, when an expressionistic background in light moss green with scrape marks and white swipes replaced the white page; the mission statement was removed and placed in an "About Us" link at the top of the page, and the contents become more prominent. 

MAP, 2015

Through all of these changes, there were also incremental—sometimes massive—changes to the contents themselves; the website became a poetics of sustained organic growth.  2006 saw a great expansion of individual poets’ pages, with poetics organized by categories:  ethnic or cultural or racial groupings: Latino/a, Middle Eastern American poets, African American Poezee, Asian-Pacific American poets, and Native American Words Between Worlds, The Sexuals, Troubadours, Daughters of Stein, Invisible Empires of Beatitude, and Golden Bodies.  There were also Digital Vistas and Magnificent Rainbow:  Kids Form Poems, and the introduction of a larger group of online readings.  The inclusion of categories such as these has persisted throughout the rest of MAP’s history; in 2010, for example, Jim divided the exhibits into three major categories, beginning with International Exhibits, including both Old Globe Masterminds, 20th Century International Bards, and Today’s World Voices.  This move more directly connected American poetry with the rest of the world, avoided what he called “America First Mind,” and it opened another door to understanding poet greats “outside our borders as well as back in time.”  The Exhibits were divided into two other categories that year, too:  Diversity Exhibits as those above given their own space, and Medium Exhibits (Poets and Painters, Publishers). 

The second decade of this century saw further division in 2011:  Transmissions was developed with two categories:  Legacy Transmissions, involving cultural and poetics statements by elders, “emancipating countercultural knowledge” left behind for those to come, and the Postbeat Poets Activist Scholarship page, a gathering of then-younger poets’ musing on poetics, their lives, their visions, as seen in statements, interviews, speeches and essays.  This decade involved many other changes, too:  more multimedia poetics, as in the introduction of the MAP Channel Youtube Poetry Videos (2012) and the 2015 film additions to the Medium Exhibits.  These include two collections.  First, Beat Generation Films displays a fine collection of legendary films, ranging from Pull My Daisy and Dutchman to The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg and The Poetry Deal:  A Film with Diane di Prima, and many others.  The second group, Postbeat Generation Films, includes  Dylan’s Don’t Look Back, The United States of Poetry, Before Night Falls, Piñero, The Poetry of Wang Ping, An Evening with Nikki Giovanni, The Last Waltz, Anne Waldman’s Makeup on Empty Space, and Straight Outta Compton, with an extensive group of interviews, short readings, talks, etc. from other leading lights of this younger group.  Finally, 2015 saw the development of a link to the new Facebook MAP page, giving yet another portal for poets, scholars, students and those lovers of singing speech and visionary dreams.

The Guest Curators and the Latest Great Expansion

Perhaps the largest change to the site came between 2015-2017, when Jim asked seven guest curators to suggest additions to several major categories, expanding the collections of pages by  individual poets in each—a necessary periodic task, given the growing and changing landscape of contemporary poets.  Thus, the great Chinese-American poet Wang Ping took on Asian and Pacific American Shapeshifters, I (David Cope) handled the Euro-American Shapeshifters, Andy Clausen and Pamela Twining made significant additions to the Invisible Empires of Beatitude, Ali Zarrin made us all aware of newer and overlooked poets among Middle Eastern American Poets, and Dave Roskos and Ingrid Swanberg made significant additions to the list of Publishers who have shepherded outrider and gifted indie poets into print.  2016 also saw the establishment of a Google Custom Search option on the homepage, which will make the search for an individual poet’s work a matter of entering the name of the poet.

Coda:  Into the Future

At this point, Jim has taken a break from further work on the page.  His funds are barely sufficient to maintain it, and he has occasionally expressed a wish to sell it to a university library page or a college page which could maintain it for poets to come.  MAP is organized in a distinctly different manner from college archives and their finding aids:  it is strictly an online archive which, through its search option, makes finding those poets’ pages archived here quickly accessible, and its Wayback Machine makes tracking the growth of the page a matter of clicking on dates.  This last option is important, given that the site is dedicated to a major significant time in American poetics, the period of wars and freedom movements from the Beats and Vietnam until today’s Syrian and other conflicts—one in which experimentation was continuous and political and equality-based activism was a part of one’s work.  In all of its incarnations, the MAP page serves as an exemplary model for DIY special collection digital archiving which in some ways complements the physical library and its special collections archives, and if some library or institution were to take it on, the task would be to give it a presence on a special collections page for poetry, and to continue expanding it and maintaining it.  Big task in a time when such institutions are in the middle of retrenching and reinventing themselves to keep up with the yearly revolutions in communication! 

As is, the site does present the architecture for many kinds of indie sites, both large and small—one could envision sites devoted to a given scene, to a certain kind of poetics.  Imagine, for example, the best of digitized readings by poets under 30, a site exploring the writing of many kinds of poetic song lyrics, etc.—any of these could include search engines, a Wayback Machine, changing graphics and newer forms of media and multimedia presentations, and god knows what else.  Many of these sites are out there, but the question is whether they are open to field-broadening suggestions, aware of the depth and breadth of the chosen presentations in their fields, prepared to continually take on new voices and new movements over the long haul.  Jim has done that throughout his history as a curator, engaging in big conversations with potential collaborators and fellow travelers as a way to be as inclusive and comprehensive as possible.  This is a major part of his genius.

MAP is, of course, a tribute to one poet’s love of his art, of a major lifelong commitment to expanding the varieties of expression available in the art, of dedication to the many poetries of diversity.  The individual webpages themselves vary from fully developed pages useful to graduate and undergraduate students, to Wikipedia pages that can serve high schoolers and freshman or sophomore undergrads.  Poets of all stripes may encounter new brothers and sisters in the art, expand their awareness of what their poetry might imply as a mode of expression, and grow to appreciate those writing through adversity.  Whatever comes of this website in the years to come, Jim deserves enormous thanks for this sustained effort in the American Grain of our poetics.  Kudos—and if you have lots of honestly earned funds, send them to Jim so that this great page may live on without being turned.  

Jimmy and Isabella


Individual exhibit counts as of July 2016

Old Globe Masterminds - 113

20th Century International - 95

African American Poezee - 132

American Indians Words Between Worlds -51

Asian-Pacific Verse Beings - 61

Daughters of Stein - 44

EuroAmerican Shapeshifters - 62

Ghost Rangers of the Wild - 70

Invisible Empires of Beatitude - 113

Latino/a Web Heads - 59

Middle Eastern American Poets - 47

Pioneer Masters - 50

Postbeat Era - 77

The Sexuals - 44

Audio Exhibit - 21

Beat Generation Films - 47

Postbeat Generation Films - 85

Magnificent Rainbow - 18

Poets & Painters - 26

Publishers - 57

Total # items in all of exhibits = 1272

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