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The digital literary revolution

Audio fiction, cine poetry, and multimedia narrative are just a few of the tech innovations embraced by online journals in the modern era. Here’s how you can think beyond the printed word in 2022.

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When I first began writing the “Literary Spotlight” column almost two decades ago, most literary journals were print publications showcasing traditional poetry and prose along with visual art. Flash forward to 2022, where the sky’s the limit for digital magazines accessible to readers around the world. 

Editors actively seek out cine poems and video prose. They publish full-cast audio versions of short stories. They devote entire webpages to a single story and a single writer so that readers can peruse the creative piece along with visual art and video and original music compositions, and then watch interviews with the writer for insights into the storytelling process.

This is a thrilling time to be a writer. The word “experimental” in a journal’s submission guidelines means so much more than it once did, thanks to technological innovations available online. I’ve watched in awe as writers format their short memoir as Google Maps, publish travelogues accompanied by video documentaries, and narrate personal essays over video footage of intimate moments with their families.

Below, I’ll highlight some of the most interesting innovations I’ve discovered, with the hope that you’ll feel free to play with form and content in your literary magazine submissions as well. 

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Audio poetry and prose

Editors at Conjunctions, the literary journal of Bard College, have long published multimedia pieces that combine digital text with audio, allowing fans to read and/or listen to poetry and prose. In Two Songs (issue #75), House on Mango Street author Sandra Cisneros introduces her brother, Henry Cisneros, who set her poem “Squink” to music and sings it on an audio recording while playing guitar. The presentation feels intimate, perhaps even more intimate than merely reading Cisneros’ poetry on the page. 

Likewise, there’s the audio presentation titled “Five Songs” by late Haitian singer and former Port-au-Prince mayor Manno Charlemagne. Conjunctions editors supplement the digital text and the translator’s afterword, with related notes by Haitian author Gage Averill and a recording of Charlemagne performing his song Layamòt, first published in English in issue #27. 

Interested in listening to more audio prose and poetry? The editors of The Drum: A Literary Magazine for Your Ears publish audio recordings of poetry, short fiction and novel excerpts, essays, and interviews. The literary journal Please See Me includes both text and author-read audio versions of its health-related poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction; the editors also publish podcasts and short films. 

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The Drabblecast is an online speculative fiction magazine and podcast described by editor Norm Sherman as “strange stories for strange listeners.” Most often, the editor showcases short science fiction, fantasy, and horror narratives – pieces like Michael Piel’s story “Watch Anya Blume,” read by Ibba Armancas, about a woman who loathes nature until she drinks creek water, and her skin begins to break out in mushrooms and yellow flowers. 

It’s prefaced by a drabble, or 100-word story, titled along with Sherman’s reminder to frequent the “Forums” section of the website to read, write, and comment on the drabbles posted there. This online community building strikes me as one of the most advantageous and exciting aspects of digital publishing – readers can comment online about the pieces they’ve read and seen and heard and compare notes and even chat with the writer for insights about the story and the writing process. 

Digital publication has also allowed journals to become much more accessible to a variety of readers. Tarik Dobbs is the editor of Poetry Online, a weekly poetry journal with poems appearing alongside audio, captioned video, and screenreader-accessible images. In “Two Erasures” by Lisa Huffaker, for example, we get an audio file of the poet reading her erasure poems, accompanied by images of the original text (Fascinating Womanhood by Helen Andelin) with most of the sentences crossed out and lines pointing to single circled words to show the poems that Huffaker has created. There’s also a detailed image description for those with visual impairments. 

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“The digital expansion of prose and poetry has created a wider perception of what these genres can be. Part of writing’s digital expansion is a great opportunity to focus on accessibility,” Dobbs says. “I’m always thinking about font choice and size, page contrast, spacing, image descriptions, audio, captions, alt-text, underlined hyperlinks, and so on. The digital venue allows for so much more access to be embedded into the work; [Poetry Online] was a chance for me to standardize and forefront that accessibility in a publication.” 

Video poetry and prose

The editors at Blackbird have showcased video prose for years. They published John Bresland’s four-minute video essay “Les Cruel Shoes”  (spring 2005), filmed while jogging through the streets of Paris and accompanied by the author’s brief text introduction to the piece. Bresland writes of his video, “[It] shows one way to locate a sense of belonging, a sense of home, amid the most popular tourist destination on Earth.” 

Gregory Donovan, professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, founded Blackbird. He points out that digital publishing has benefitted literary and visual artists and their work. “When we first began the all-online Blackbird journal…there were those who were skeptical or resistant, thinking that digital would be the enemy of print,” he notes. “But the effect was the opposite, bringing in new and broader audiences, expanding the kinds of work available, and increasing the diversity of the creators being published. When we began accompanying our publishing of literary works – not only poetry, fiction, and nonfiction but also plays and innovative forms such as the video essay – along with features about the visual arts, we attracted a large and international readership, especially when we made headlines by presenting an unpublished early work by Sylvia Plath in a multimedia format.”

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Steven Church, editor-in-chief of The Normal School, agrees that digital publication offers certain storytelling freedoms. The magazine, in print for a decade and now fully digital, featured Sonya Bilocerkowycz’s and Chris Stevens’ cine poem “Amerikan Swamp” (Jan. 6, 2021), which combines Bilocerkowycz’s poetry with urban and natural landscapes shot on 8 mm film and accompanied by Stevens’ musical composition on bass.

“Though the transition away from print was difficult, being able to publish these kinds of pieces has been one of the best outcomes of that process,” Church notes. “We simply couldn’t do things like this in print, and it absolutely fits the aesthetic of the magazine. We’ve always been focused on publishing pieces that don’t easily fit elsewhere, and we’re proud of that legacy.”

Author Kristen Radtke, video editor of TriQuarterly, has an introduction to video essays on that magazine’s website (Jan. 24, 2017) and offers two examples for those interested in learning more about the form. 

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One is Allain Daigle’s “Rendering,” with prose appearing against abstract video imagery one word at a time, underscored by haunting music. The other is “Of the Hearts” by Taney Kurth, which begins with graphic footage of a heart surgery juxtaposed with a minister’s audio sermon about the importance of purifying one’s heart. The next scene shows the author’s young daughter crying as he describes her birth defect – a hole between two chambers of her heart – and subsequent footage of his family and their church illustrates his meditations on faith, the lack thereof, and his role as a father. 

“Do you believe in God?” one of his children asks him in a startling closeup, and Kurth replies quietly, “I don’t know.” It’s a captivating and heart-wrenching piece, all the more poignant because we’re treated to intimate footage of a family deeply affected by both joy and fear. 

Full-immersion travel writing

When writers Sivani Babu and Sabine K. Bergmann launched their digital travel magazine Hidden Compass, they recognized the power of technology to give readers a full, rich experience of both place and writer. Consider poet and Harlem Renaissance scholar Cherene Sherrard’s piece “The Weight of Paradise” (Autumn 2021) about taking a surf lesson in Hawaii…and about race, risk, and entitlement. It features original art and ends with links to additional reading about Black surfers.

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Click on the link that reads “Meet Cherene Sherrard,” and you’ll see the writer’s bio, links to publications in other online magazines, and photos of her. You’ll also get to watch a short video in which she explains the inspiration behind her Hidden Compass story and the risks she took as a Black woman learning to surf. In addition, you’ll see a link that allows you to contribute to Sherrard; writers earn a flat fee per story, and Babu and Bergmann mount a weeks-long crowdfunding campaign to compensate each contributor further. 

“We wouldn’t be who we are at Hidden Compass if we weren’t digital,” says Bergmann. “This format allows us to showcase not just incredible stories but every storyteller we publish through videos, profiles, and fundraising campaigns. Without a digital platform, we would miss out on a powerful opportunity to amplify what we pay journalists, and it would be impossible to build so many meaningful relationships between our storytellers and our audience.”

Other forms of multimedia

When Dinty W. Moore told the story of meeting famed author George Plimpton as an undergraduate writing major, he did so in the form of a Google Map for The Normal School (Volume Two, Issue Two). Titled “Mr. Plimpton’s Revenge: A Google Maps Essay, in Which George Plimpton Delivers My Belated and Well-Deserved Comeuppance,” the piece reads like creative nonfiction, albeit in bits and pieces, relying on readers to click various links for the full story. 

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In Fall 2021, editors at Blackbird published Ashley Kistler’s “Hope Wall RVA, 2020-21)” – an extensive photo essay documenting the creation of, and the inspiration for, a temporary public art project titled “Hope Wall” on Richmond, Virginia’s Monument Avenue. The digital format allows for a slide show of 35 images showing posters created by national and international designers representing 20 countries and responding to both the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Abstract Magazine published Bradley Spencer Morgan’s multimedia piece “Connecting Bob Dylan’s Murder Most Foul, JFK, and COVID-19” (Aug. 12, 2020). Morgan, who describes himself an “avid fan and amateur historian of Bob Dylan,” combines a personal essay about listening in the midst of the pandemic to Dylan’s song Murder Most Foul – a 17-minute song inspired by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy – with the official audio recording from YouTube, plus CBS footage of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address and newscaster Walter Cronkite’s televised announcement of the president’s death.

Intrigued? Here’s how to submit

More and more, editors at literary magazines are looking for multimedia pieces. However, each requests submissions in particular formats. Always check the website’s contributor’s guidelines page for detailed information about how to send audio, video, and image files. 

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Editors at Poetry Online write: “Visual poems and cine poetry/video art may be submitted in additional imaging formats, including .png, .jpg, mp4, .m4v & .mov.” Editors at TriQuarterly request a video file and a link to the video, hosted privately on YouTube or Vimeo or another platform. Some editors prefer video files uploaded to Dropbox or Google Drive. Narrative Magazine wants poetry in MP3 format, files no larger than 50 MB, and films/documentaries in .mp4 or .mov format, no larger than 50 MB. 

You may experience a bit of a learning curve as you navigate the different file formats and submission guidelines, but I believe the result – a stunning multimedia piece that readers can enjoy in a variety of ways – is worth it. Prose and poetry in text form are superb. Enhanced by audio, video, and visual art, they’re sublime. 

 

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Contributing editor Melissa Hart is the author, most recently, of Daisy Woodworm Changes the World (Jolly Fish, 2022). Instagram/Twitter:
@WildMelissaHart

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