(This is chapter 12 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
Early in 1996 I got an idea to arrange a reading of web writers. There were more and more literary zines and journals popping up on the web, many of them emerging from within New York City and “Silicon Alley”, so the time and place seemed right, even though I’d never arranged a literary reading or even participated in a reading before.
My partner in this venture was Meg, who was now nearly as absorbed in various crazy web scenes as I was. She’d fallen into a few lively online communities revolving around Star Trek: The Next Generation, feminism and Pre-Raphaelite poetry, and had created two very good websites of her own, Acorn Mush (a literary experiment) and The Omega Female (her freewheeling personal site). The fact that she thought the reading idea was a good one gave me the confidence to try it. I wanted to host the event at Biblio’s, the cozy Tribeca cafe/bookstore in the shadow of the Twin Towers where I’d had such a good time at the Unbearables anti-Beat protest during the NYU Beat Conference last year. I dropped by to ask, and the mellow owners happily agreed.
I sent a press release and got us listed in “Poetry Calendar”, the downtown sheet distributed at various bookstores and poetry venues like St. Marks Church and the KGB Bar. This meant it was real, and my nervousness began to build towards a crashing crescendo on the designated day. I took that day off from work to prepare and “center my mind”, though I wondered if it was an omen when Daniel’s 7-year-old friend Cassandra came over after school and threw up all over our living room.
We eventually cleaned that up, sent our visitors away, brought in a babysitter for our kids, packed my guitar and amp into the family Geo Prizm (I had a musical interlude planned for the event) and took off for downtown Manhattan. My greatest hope was that I would fool people into believing I was calm.
I had put posters up for the event, and we drew a standing-room crowd in the small bookstore. Meg kicked off the reading with an expressionistic poem about nuclear physics as I imitated Lenny Kaye on electric guitar. The poem worked, and the crowd applauded warmly. Other highlights were Ben Cohen, an intense poet who wrote for Mark Amerika’s Alt-X and Clay Shirky, who had not yet made a name for himself as an Internet-culture sociologist but had written a fetching hypertext story in spreadsheet form, a multi-voiced chronicle of the Titanic disaster called “Notes on Sinking”.
This piece had appeared in Urban Desires, a new webzine that had been getting a lot of press. At Biblio’s, Shirky cleverly managed to translate the spreadsheet story into a live performance by randomly shuffling a series of index cards. The audience got it and gave him a big hand.
I had met a computer programmer and experimental music aficianado named Phil Zampino on the antiweb mailing list; he brought a small troupe of friends and performed a delightfully Alfred-Jarry-esque seven minute play. There was quiet poetry by Maureen McClarnon and loud poetry by Galinsky, the slam poet who’d earlier arranged my disastrous radio interview at Pseudo.com (we’d stayed in touch and become good friends).
A promising Enterzone writer named David Alexander showed up in dark glasses and a leather jacket and killed the crowd with a story about a moral battle between a siamese twin and his attached other. An up-and-coming novelist named Jamie Fristrom read a touching piece about a lost friend, Nicole Blackman ranted about Alanis Morrisette and I read the short story “Snappers” from Queensboro Ballads.
The evening was undoubtedly a big success, and everybody congratulated me and Meg for arranging it so well. I don’t know how we managed to make it look easy — I would arrange many more readings in years to come and none would ever be as problem-free. At the end of the night we closed up the bookstore and retired to celebrate at Benny’s Burritos next door with jukebox music, nachos and margaritas.
I’ve never known how to just be happy. Especially when something good happens that surprises me. A couple of months earlier, in late 1995, Literary Kicks had gotten an incredibly complimentary write-up in New York Press, which named it Best Web Site from a New Yorker.
I really appreciated that the person who wrote this paid attention to the architectural underpinnings of my site, and I considered this the most satisfying write-up I’d gotten yet. But always, whenever I got the happy blast of surprise to find myself or my site in a magazine or newspaper or website, this blast was often accompanied by something else — a sort of twinging anxiety, a disturbance about the fact of having been pierced by an observer’s eye, noticed, seen, pinned. Jean-Paul Sartre has written eloquently about the moment of deep moral embarrassment that comes from a discovery of being watched. I also felt strange to get so much attention for my “creativity”, after so many years of being appreciated only for my software development skills.
Despite these anxieties that gnawed at me, I naturally craved publicity and attention. Why else run a website? If I had opened up a copy of the New York Press and seen Word or Urban Desires as the best web site by a New Yorker, I would have felt completely burned. Yet somehow being picked also made me feel isolated.
More publicity and attention was coming my way. Jason Chervokas wrote an extremely kind piece about Queensboro Ballads for the Cybertimes online section of the New York Times. I sure did love to read his praise, especially because Chervokas had noticed the allusions to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville and Walt Whitman that lay underneath the work’s apparent Bob Dylan homage. It was about the nicest article anybody could ever read about himself. The opening line was:
“If Walt Whitman were a Web designer, his work would probably look a lot like Levi Asher’s.”
Sure, this gave me a swelled head, which didn’t impress Meg, since the article appeared on March 25, our wedding anniversary.
I started attending a “soiree” of Silicon Alley literati and hipsters at a Little Italy restaurant called Mare Chiaro, arranged by my friend Ken Jordan. Ken had a fascinating background: he’d grown up in the Grove Press/Evergreen Review scene and had co-founded the music website Sonic.net before joining the new magazine Word. The first time I showed up at one of his get-togethers I felt immediately out of place, because I was dressed in “Pathfinder casual” while everybody else was “Soho chic”.
This was the Silicon Alley smart set of 1996: attendees at various times included, I think, Jaime Levy, Steven Johnson, Stephanie Syman, Marisa Bowe, Omar Wasow, Dan Pelson, Rufus Griscom, Gong Szeto, Yoshi, Genevieve Griscom, Stephan Smith and DJ Spooky. I mingled at these soirees, but I never made a good friend there or felt very comfortable. None of them were impressed by Literary Kicks, since it was a non-commercial site. In 1996, venture capitalists were investing in content companies, and it was all about business. Urban Desires was a commercial venture, an offshoot of the advertising firm Agency.com. Word was also a commercial venture, an offshoot of the tech consulting firm Icon. I had many conversations that amounted to this:
THEM: What do you do?
ME: I run a literary website called Literary Kicks.
ME: I also work at Pathfinder.
THEM: Tell me about that.
I went to these events hoping to talk to hip people about Henry Miller or Franz Kafka. They wanted to talk about venture capital and who had which good lawyer. And cell phones, always cell phones. Some of the Silicon Alley stars were flying high because they’d just appeared in a Samsung ad, and had gotten swanky gifts in return.
I laughed one day to find our very get-togethers mocked in Suck.com (a sharp humor site and proto-blog from California that was better than any of the web zines coming out of New York City):
Later that spring season, I had a long email conversation with my friend Len Dorfman, who wrote tech books and had arranged the McGraw-Hill book deal I’d eventually backed out of. I’d been regaling Len with my adventures in the New York web literary scene, and he came to me with an idea: how about a book of the best writing from around the web?
“Do you think anyone would publish it?”
“I’ll recommend it to Manning. They’re interested in publishing books about Internet culture.”
Manning was a tech publisher with a good reputation, so I agreed to let Len ask. I told him I’d like to work with a co-editor and he said that’d be fine as long as we split the advance. I asked Enterzone editor Christian Crumlish, and he quickly agreed. The next phase in my journey was about to begin.