Every so often I’ll come across a collection of poetry that stands head and shoulders above the torrent of mediocrity being published these days. When it does, I feel it deserves a much wider audience than poetry typically gets. With Songs of Waking by Jonathan Simons, I’ve found such a book. The way I came across this lovely collection is a story in itself. Bundled with my contributor’s copy of Acumen literary magazine from England came something called The Analog Sea Bulletin, an extract from The Analog Sea Review. It states proudly on its cover that it is “an offline journal.” Akin to the current movement for ‘slow’ food and slow living that allows space for deeper contemplation, it’s the very antidote we need to the 24/7 wall of entertainment and rage-baiting fake news now engulfing us.
I was so impressed with the Analog Sea Bulletin—which stated that it welcomed handwritten or typewritten letters—that I pulled my dusty old Majestic typewriter off its shelf and hammered out a letter to its editor, Jonathan Simons. I think it was the first time in 25 years that I’d actually written anything other than a poem on a typewriter. It wasn’t as easy as I remembered, even though I started my writing career on a typewriter. By its very nature a typewriter is an intensely physical instrument—one doesn’t just touch the keys as on a laptop but must strike the keys with some force. And then of course there’s the physical action of returning the carriage to start the next line. In any case, my typing facility on computer keyboards has seriously degraded in recent years, I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s the caustic nature of digital technology, being exposed to an illuminated screen all day. There have certainly been studies suggesting that computer screens can damage eyesight and interfere with circadian rhythms.
So I sent off my typewritten letter to Austin, Texas—one of the two offices maintained by The Analog Sea. (The other is in Freiberg, Germany, where publisher Simons lives.) After some weeks—speaking of a return to the analog world—I received more copies of the Bulletin to distribute as a teaser for the forthcoming Review. The wait for that response was a return to the days before instant email communications, when half the delight of correspondence was the delicious anticipation—waiting for a thoughtful reply. Can you imagine future collections of emails in book form? Hardly. One of my most prized books is The World’s Great Letters, published in 1940 and spanning from Alexander the Great to Thomas Mann. The very nature of the medium—having to sit down and pick up a pen, or flex your fingertips over a typewriter—tended to reward a more thoughtful approach. The slower time scale of the postal system imposed another limitation, one we often used to bitch about. Still, I found it made me conscious of making each letter count. And that meant composing it with nearly the same care I would give to composing a poem. Even writing a blog post can work against the ethic of craft, with its instant publishing button. The return to this kind of ‘slowness,’ the more meditative, considered way we used to communicate, is one of the signal mandates of The Analog Sea. With the package was a handwritten postcard on beautiful art quality paper that read:
Dear Arthur: We were all blown away by your incredible letter from June. Please expect a more thoughtful reply from me in the near future. In the meantime, we wanted to make sure you received the enclosed materials announcing the second issue of the Review. Let me know if you have any trouble obtaining a copy. I’m interested in your feedback. —Jonathan Simons
A second package then followed shortly afterward, containing more copies of the Bulletin, which arrived just in time for my 60th birthday. With it was a typewritten letter from Simons. In it he wrote, among other things (the letter was 7 pages on postcard-sized paper stock):
Dear Arthur: Although we have the endangered pleasure of receiving many paper letters sent to our small editorial office, it’s quite rare we receive one which so clearly echoes our own thoughts and efforts. What led me to start all this madness in the first place was an assumption that there must be many others with similar passions and values as mine, and concerns for how the digital revolution is gutting these very values from our collective consciousness. I saw Analog Sea as a sort of search-and-rescue operation for fellow castaways—other poets and dreamers still thinking and feeling amid the numbing glow of a society increasingly electrified, digitized, and severed from the Real. After two years and tens of thousands of letters in bottles thrown into the analog seas separating this diaspora of vitality, I can safely say, yes, there are others—what I call “the living-living” in my poem Salt Spring Island. Surprisingly, though, I’ve discovered that there are really very few; which is to say, alas, our society is mostly asleep. So letters like yours, and knowing that we are not entirely asleep, motivates me to continue and not (yet) return to the bliss of a much simpler, hermetic life, as I had before.
This prompted another letter from me—again typewritten—this time sent directly to Jonathan at the Freiberg office:
Mr. Simons: I received both your welcome packages containing copies of the Analog Sea Bulletin, Winter 2018–19 issue. I look forward to reading the full Analog Sea Review when ready. Incidentally, your second package arrived just two weeks or so before my birthday September 28 and it’s a milestone—I’ll be 60. Can’t believe it but there it is—time marches on and our bodies betray us no matter how young we feel inside. Some part of me will forever be 16, while other aspects of one’s identity feel 100. In that respect I suppose we are all composite beings.
Along with the letter I sent him a revised and fact-checked version of the previous letter—really an essay I titled Finding a Lifeboat in the Analog Sea—that had prompted our correspondence. I thanked him for his response to it and interest in possibly publishing it, or an excerpt of it, in Analog Sea: “In a three decades long career as a freelance journalist, poet and author, it will rank as among my proudest moments, and takes me back to those early days starting out with nothing more than a compact manual typewriter with a baked blue enamel finish very much like the one I’m writing this letter on.” I had forgotten to make a copy of my original letter so this time I scanned the second letter for future reference. Our culture is now so impregnated with digital tools that it becomes difficult to fully disengage from it, at least for recording purposes if nothing else.
In my letter to Simons I reflected on how I often “feel like a man out of his time”: Which probably explains my love of all things analog, and why I resonated immediately with Analog Sea. Who knows which authors will still be read from our era in 100, 500 or a thousand years? Being a bestseller today is no guarantee your work will continue to have resonance. I think this is something the digital, instant gratification culture has made most of us forget. It has harried and bullied us into possibly the shallowest perspective ever, a historically narrow mindset that limits both our scope and our creativity.
Then about a week after my birthday arrived the third package, containing with another letter from Simons a copy of Analog Sea Review #2 plus a review copy of his poetry collection Songs of Waking. Unsurprisingly, I’m finding Analog Sea #2 a delightful read. Certainly there’s the delight in seeing one’s own thoughts reflected back from the page, which some might call mere solipsism. But it’s far more than that. It’s a kind of call to arms for people to wake up from the consumerist digital trance that we’ve been gradually lulled into, to the point where, as Simons wrote in his second letter, “we’re not far from needing an algorithm just to help us brush our teeth!” In Songs of Waking, Simons states the mission succinctly in the poem Thirst:
Because all you know
because you pledge allegiance
because your tomahawk
in silk and feather,
because your heart
is just a muscle,
because you shoot
from the hip,
because your smile
you will find me enlisted,
drunk on my vow,
parading the front
with my little flag,
warning the others,
extracting the hook.
In the poem Simons alluded to in his letter, Salt Spring Island, he telescopes into a single verse—as the best poets often do—the nub of the problem facing contemporary society:
We, the dreamers,
the living-living and the living-dead,
have already lost our game.
Living in the constant state of distraction predicted by Guy Debord in 1967 in The Society of the Spectacle (as discussed in Analog Sea #2), in this poem Simons sees us “directed only by the speed / of running / from something / too soft to hold / within the icy arms of trade.” But his is no mere poetry of elegy, mourning over what’s been lost. He reminds us—as all poets ought to—that there remains within the human frame an ancient, rooted urge for genuine connection, not only with each other but with the Earth that is both our cradle and our very blood itself:
But the marrow
still boils in the bone,
the ocean still pulses
through soft chambers
of the heart,
our constellatory minds
those ancient maps of stars,
a compass of beauty
not yet sold
at the garden’s gate…
There’s a beautifully ornate echo of this in a superb poem published in Analog Sea #2 by Lesley Saunders, titled Polyphony. Once again the poet cuts to the heart of the chase, noting how we’ve accepted this voluntary social isolation wrought by technology, even as that innate desire for beauty, for contact, scratches at the windowpanes like a Brontëan tree in a windstorm:
we sit in our own shadows, falling into fugue,
souls trapped between either and or.
at our backs, behind the locked door,
stand indigo, kingfisher, turquoise, perse,
azure, jasper, smalt, violet, ultramarine,
arms raised in a Gloria, force-fields
of heteroglossia, pageants of richness,
tall guardians against the violence of binary.
The entire poem deserves wide reading. Both Simons and Saunders avoid the trap one can so easily fall into as a poet writing poems with sociopolitical content—devolving to a screed, a Jeremiah howling in the wilderness. Certainly we need such prophets, but it takes great skill as a poet to craft verse that simultaneously critiques and enlightens. Analog Sea is meant to be a beacon in the digital wilderness, and it succeeds brilliantly, with excerpts from great thinkers and poets like Debord, Oliver Sacks, Lin Yutang, Antonio Machado, Robert Bly, and so many other writers keeping our fingers on the pulse of what it means to be fully human.
In that respect it reminds me of Lapham’s Quarterly, the wonderful journal founded by former Harper’s Magazine publisher Lewis Lapham. Both Analog Sea and Lapham’s intelligently shatter the 21st century mold of shallow, instant perspectives devoid of historical context by drawing upon writers across the ages whose work still speaks to us as vividly as when it was first set down. Lapham’s uses a revolving central theme with which to select its timeless writing, providing a multiplicity of viewpoints on a given topic—not necessarily congruent, but enriching and deeply thought provoking. Analog Sea—at least, so far—seems to focus around the thesis expressed in the letters and poetic excerpts I’ve quoted. Namely, that it’s well past time we stepped back from the nihilistic brink of technologized, consumerist society and rediscovered the simple, profound pleasures of slow, deep and wide thought. It’s a river that connects us to all species, moving us not only backward through time but forward more thoughtfully into the future.
If like me you’re interested in seeing a return to the more thoughtful currents of analog culture, you can write a letter to Analog Sea Review at: Basler Strasse 115, 79115 Freiberg, Germany; or Box 11670, Austin, Texas 78711, USA. Trust me, the wait will be well worth it.