Internet Poetry & the Image Macro: A Conversation with Michael Hessel-Mial

michael hessel-mial photo

The image macro. Internet poetry. How can are these concepts impacting and changing poetry? That question is impossible to answer at this point–but one thing is for sure–it’s definitely rewiring the way people interact and read poetry.

One of the people on the forefront of this is Michael Hessel-Mial. He’s the editor of an “influential” poetry Tumblr called Internet Poetry. Yes, some of the submissions he selects only gets a few notes, others get 40,000.

He mostly selects text and image-based poetry and idioms, but he’ll explain more below. But he has bonafides beyond just the latest fad.  He’s also a poet and PhD candidate at Emory University, studying comparative literature. His main focus is on experimental American poetry, philosophy and the history of science.

I asked him a few questions about what he sees as the future of poetry and to explain the mission of Internet Poetry.

What’s Internet Poetry (the website)? How has it changed since it first started?

Internet Poetry is a submissions-based Tumblr that attempts, in a sort of group/collaborative way, to explore and expand on what poetry can be online. It was started by Steve Roggenbuck in 2011 based more around ‘guerrilla tactics’ in the sense of putting or finding poetry in unexpected places. Poetry bombing the internet, flarfing weird advertisements, screenshots of poem drafts on phones, etc. Steve was really pushing the ways we can find poetry in unusual places, and I took on IP because I’d had that vision too.

I don’t emphasize the same things because not only do we have different approaches to this shared project, but also internet poetry has evolved. If not for the larger public, at least in some places people can see that these forms are poetry. There’s now an audience and its been growing, people consistently discover Internet Poetry and start contributing, augmenting. The guerrilla tactics have eased up, but i still keep a balance between really crafted things and works with a more punk rock MS Paint vibe.

Most important, its got a bit more of a name / reputation — Internet Poetry has — *brushes shoulders off* — increased its readership probably tenfold in the last couple years, almost entirely word of mouth. But I’ve consciously stuck to the initial vision in the sense that it’s made by its contributors. My role is just as steersman, keeping open to styles and remaining inclusive and diverse as I can.

What’s Internet Poetry, the concept?

What is internet poetry? I hate doing ‘negative definitions,’ but one thing that I want to avoid is taking the old poetics and just putting them online. The Poetry Foundation had an article a month or so ago celebrating how people were writing ‘poetic’ tweets, with the tone being ‘poetry can redeem twitter’ — and all of the poets they cited were just doing ‘poetic language’ in 140 characters. no mention of weird twitter, horse_ebooks, Steve Roggenbuck – all these *popular* places where poetry is happening on the internet. (Ed. Note: Couldn’t find the exact article Michael mentioned, but this search is close.)
Not interested in that so much, because it assumes both poetry and the internet as fixed things. The internet itself, in all its quirks and problems, brings out a side of poetry that is new for us, and takes older things and puts them in a new light. The biggest thing, and this is where macros come in, is that populism/democratization (a big thing i want to encourage) has a different meaning now. For the last few generations it was poetry that approximated “plain speech,” now its about easing restrictions on what media is art. People who have never written a poem can make a macro or screenshot something they sent to somebody else. or submit a snapchat. These media are also indicators of relationships, perspectives, voices – embracing these and bringing out their inherent worth as poetry opens to other kinds of poetic styles on all levels.
But I think the macro is maybe what takes it into another gear. Macros bring in collage and screenshot, plays of color and spacing, *alongside* language work — it’s really a very ‘born-digital’ form. There’s precedent for it, for sure (My friends have turned me onto folks like Jenny Holzer and other 80s artists), but for me it started with the image macros of meme culture. But the macro is evolving, and I think it’s important to see internet poetry — and its genres/forms — as evolving. post-irony and flarf were at the center of the game for a while, and now it’s moved into collage and evocative statements coming from texts and subtweets. And it’ll go somewhere else, changing with our own experiences, and with the shifting current of social media. Four to five years ago Tao Lin was the most internet thing to happen to poetry, and people just getting into the game 4-5 years from now (when people born in the 00s start writing/publishing) will make things we won’t be able to predict. As long as it’s useful, I want internet poetry to contribute to it.
I hope this contributes to my sense that internet poetry (the thing) is bigger than internet poetry (the site) which is bigger than me.

What do you look for when selecting a piece for the site?

Because it’s a Tumblr, I look for works that have potential to spread easily. That means the works are shorter on average, visually oriented, and have a kind of snap or cohesiveness. I don’t want to over-define what that quality is because I wouldn’t want to shut something out — I post works that are simple and complex, longer and shorter, professional looking and DIY — but there’s something about how a work communicates that suits the Tumblr format well. I go for spread because Internet-based art spreads memetically, as memes – internet poetry is meant to be a snapshot of different memes and poetic media, a kind of ‘state of poetry’ and also encourage new forms. So I’m trying to be representative in a lot of ways, taking risks on styles that may or may not take off. Some do, some don’t.

How many submissions do you usually receive?

Maybe 5-10 pieces a day? It depends though. Internet Poetry lives and breathes – sometimes the submitted/accepted ratio is closer to one and sometimes its much higher, depending on interest, and as individual activity ebbs and flows. When I first took over, I was really nervous that there wouldn’t be much content, as the site had been much less active for a few months, so I Facebook-messaged a bunch of people to try to generate interest. For the most part that didn’t do much – I’ll still solicit individual works I like that I see on Facebook, or on people’s Tumblrs, but for the most part the site generates interest just through its activity and reach. People find it through whatever channel they do (i don’t see the stats very often) and get involved. I think Brad Troemel’s ‘athletic aesthetics’ is relevant here, not in the sense that I’m pushing internet poetry as a brand, but that keeping a consistent quality and quantity of content makes sure that it keeps going.


How do you define an image macro?

I’m going to answer this twice, once as the editor of Internet Poetry and once as a poet.

First as the editor of Internet Poetry, I frankly don’t know, and the image macro is maybe in a weird state right now. Image macros were really clearly defined, as words over images with a clear debt to meme culture, but a lot of the submissions I post on IP don’t all have that quality.

The effects – the combination of the layout of the words in relation to the images – are achieved in the same way but collage and screenshot are really a part of a lot of things, making genre distinctions really blurred. The macro is important, but so is digital collage — both of them are incredibly important for internet poetry (as a site and also as a practice). So if somebody types something into word, screenshots it and places it over an image, is it still a macro? It brings out technical details that simultaneously mean everything and don’t matter in the slightest. So I think there’s a tension in it, as a result of how people are using a few different styles or techniques to define genres of internet-based poetry.

On the poetics level, thinking about language, we might be able to think about the particular brevity of a meme and how people use that for poetry. I always identified the language of macros as almost being like a haiku — sudden, terse, incomplete, but with a kind of click where it all falls into place.

The reason why so much of the early stuff had a kind of Dada approach is because Dada emphasized disjuncture — it was ESSENTIAL to my early macros not because I wanted to deny meaning but because I felt like meaning came out from the connections of disjoined elements; much like how figurative language works because its describing what something *isn’t* like in a way that brings out something about it.

One thing I forgot to mention, that I think is really important about macros and visual poetics — one of my biggest hugest influences is concrete poetry. They responded to mass media in the same way that internet poetry and macros do to the internet, and I think a lot of what we can learn from the concrete poets is applicable to today. it was from concrete poetry that I learned *how* visual forms work as poetry, and blur with text, in a way that’s relevant to graphic design and stuff.

As a poet: so the really basic sense for me is that the image macro is the basic ‘words over images’ template of a lot of popular web memes, which were adapted for the uses of poetry by a lot of people in the early days of Internet Poetry, the site.

The use of meme generators was and is fairly popular, with the particular use of outlined bold impact font in surprising contexts. That’s what all of my macros are based on at the moment. But other people, maybe more frequently, other ways of laying text over image with different degrees of sophistication/crudeness – all of which has different ways of being evocative. The meme template (I use roflbot) does a particular kind of thing that I’ve really pushed hard but different levels of design come into play for others.

Image macros really hinge on how visual media can be poetry – it’s why you don’t have to have an art degree to do it. Not all of the best macros are going to have a lot of polish, anymore than the best poems are going to be in an ‘elevated diction’ or something.

Full Disclosure from Michael: I wrote part 1 as the editor, then in the middle of writing 2 as a poet, went back and added to 1, and then realized that though there is all this conflict I’m expressing, and multiple perspectives on the macro from my varying roles, I also see it as fairly continuous. The takeaway is that it’s hard to define things in a way that totally firmly excludes or includes something (tension between set theory categorization and ‘nature’) but it’s possible to name styles/media that open up possibility. The trend in IP has been toward a blending. So maybe the definition would emphasize as much the character of the language compared to how it relates to the images?


What do you remember seeing as your first image macro?

I want to be ‘true’ to the character of the early internet by saying the first image macros were the memes my gamer friends would show me in high school. I was not a gamer so I was really bewildered and fascinated by these weird jokey images that combined elements of pop culture in ways that were invested in new meaning.

If you think about it, all of that was Internet poetry before it called itself poetry – it’s amazing that it just happened. I think it ‘proves’ poetry true, and shows that memes as like a poetic structure is a part of that. I spent a lot of time immersing myself in meme stuff before knowing how it would fit into poetry. BUT image macros as we started to see them now began in 2011 — I became friends with Steve Roggenbuck and looked at the macros on his blog (along with introducing me to folks like Jon Beardsley who were doing early flarf macro stuff).

Along with thinking they were hilarious, it was an introduction to thinking of them as poetry. Especially the goofy ones – Steve’s macros, prior to the more space/nebula ones he does now, had a lot of figures cut and pasted onto surprising backgrounds, and that for me really influenced my style. I’ve been exploring that for two years now I think.

When did you start creating your own image macros?

I think the first one I made was August 2011, it was a picture of Liam Neeson and the kid who played his son in Love Actually – the text read “fuck i love mcmuffins” or something corny like that :). Most of the ones I did until the end of the year were really tossed off, flarfy, some of them great and some of them dumb. The “slut campeing” macro was one of the ‘classics’ of that. Then, while in Minneapolis on a flight layover, I started cutting out pictures of Riker from Star Trek and putting them onto things, and my ebook Terraforming resulted from that. And from there I decided to start using collage techniques, and felt like i was developing a ‘voice’ in both my language and visually.


Who are some of the writers/artists that are creating interesting image macros?

This is where it gets really cool, and where people push me in different directions. There’s so much that it would be overwhelming to talk about in detail but James Ganas has shared a lot of this journey with me, but in a very different way. Where I’ve had punch and flash and cheese he’s been subtle — softer colors in warm palettes, with phrases that keep a lot under the vest. And he’s turned toward abstraction, kind of the Rothko of the image macro.

Penny Goring on her own, and also in collaboration with Hella Trol Buzy, also have a kind of painterly approach but with a kind of aggressive spirit to it. There’s a spontaneity, politics, and also a brash theoretical side I really love. I think love their dark playfulness.

Nathan Masserang did some amazing macros as parts of his ebooks, each of which was a gamechanger and should be read by everybody.

Jos Charles, who taught me a lot about politics and narrative voice, was an early person to push how selfies could be used in macros for all their poetic potential — Jos would occasionally erase hirself with traces left behind, dismantling hir speaking voice in the context of aggressive/thoughtful/funny/lyrical macros.

Last is a Facebook group called “People that Aumm sometimes and are also… Ooohhhh…” and it’s one of the wilder communities of people making macros that I’ve seen. Jamey Strathman, Jesse Eels-Adams and Corey Rohr seem to be the main admins, but the group has over a thousand people and has created its own world – its glitchy and creepy, emphasizing sparse fonts weird photos. It’s Internet Poetry’s deep web evil twin.

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  1. Ha, bizarre. I used the forest image in the Cotton Eyed Joe macro for a piece of digital art. Once I track down a copy of the image, I’ll have to post it here on the article!

  2. very wowuuoio9oooi0iii9ioi9 like not sure if saying meme=poetry is helpf….
    ick dont want to get into definitions here but feels like there’s an “everything is everything” vibe here liek — if i can just bang out shit lyrics on a pretty stock photo and call it poetry what does that mean for someone slaving away “refining” something

    1. may-b macros aren’t “poetry” but something inhabiting the space between poetry & digital art

      may-b im a dumass

    2. you could also bang out bad lines of traditional poetry, ppl can still “refine” their image macro–not saying they all do, but it is possible

  3. and johny rotten wails “blahblahblahblahblahblah, have u eva flt up like u be ceated buy free tests exam and more hoes at 1800domino’scereal patterns, sod off homie””””””