April 24, 1996 -- by Tom Harper


"Move over old dog, cause the new dog's coming in" -- Hank Williams

The old dogs of the literary community had better watch their tails, one of the new dogs from cyberspace is set to challenge them on their own turf. Though only in existence for a little more than a year, CrossConnect (http://tech1.dccs.upenn.edu/~xconnect) has established itself as one of the premier literary (electronic maga)zines on the World Wide Web. Now, as if cyberspace hadn't caused enough consternation among the print literati, Xconnect is preparing a print anthology, featuring some of the best writers on the Web.
And, the irony of the situation isn't wasted on the bright and energetic young editors of Xconnect. The very thought brings smiles to their faces, and if they were dogs, no doubt there'd be a lot of tail wagging going on, too. It may well be that their timing is perfect.
While the rapidly growing literary community on the Internet has been eagerly awaiting the impending arrival of the big dogs of the print establishment online, many of those dogs are just now being pulled by their leashes into cyberspace, biting and scratching in resistance. In April of 1996, a group of Nobel Prize winning poets were arguing that "serious verse" belonged in books, not in cyberspace, in spite of a survey which showed that only 1% of Americans read poetry today. Some might argue that this elitist attitude is, in fact, one reason for the steep decline in apparent interest in "serious" literature in general. But, the trend has also been accelerated by other factors.
Skyrocketing printing costs, combined with diminishing federal dollars for libraries, universities, and the arts in general, have driven many established print journals even further into the false "safety" of exclusion. It is a cold, hard fact that, no matter how well a newcomer might write, without name recognition and/or credentials and a patron on the inside, their work has little chance of even getting a serious reading. And many formerly prestigious college presses have ceased to publish any "new" poetry or fiction; their listings now consist of previously published works, some of it thirty or more years old. Is it any wonder, then, that so many aspiring writers have left those stagnant pools in search of a flowing river of opportunity and ideas?
CrossConnect is a perfect example of how and why that trend is being reversed in cyberspace.
Consider the background of the three founding editors of Xconnect. Just a few years ago, the chief editor was a teppanyaki chef (one of those chefs at Benihannas who slice and dice right at your table); another of the founding editors was a Bryn Mawr dropout; and the third was still in high school, a young fencing athlete.
The guru and drivng force behind CrossConnect is David Edward Deifer. Born in Korea in 1962, Dave grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Before settling in Philadelphia, he was a teppanyaki chef, and a sushi chef, travelling from Allentown to Wilmington to Fort Lauderdale. He left the food industry to attend technical school, first becoming an aerospace engineer, and then moving on to the position of Senior Network Specialist and on-again off-again Wharton student at the University of Pennsylvania. But through it all, there was poetry in David Deifer's soul.
In 1993, with one year to go, Leah Sheppard dropped out of Bryn Mawr College and got a job at Penn with the Data Communications and Computing Services (DCCS). "Shazaam," she says, "transform the starving French major into a full-time computer specialist." A preacher's kid from Kentucky, Leah became what she calls "an unabashed geek-punk cable gURL." In 1994 she moved to Dave's department at Penn.
She and Dave quickly discovered their mutual interest in writing. As beginning writers, they began to browse the Web, learning which journals and zines they wanted to submit to. The more they learned, the more convinced they became that they could start one themselves.
Dave engaged the assistance of his tech school friend Michael Dettinger, a native of Philadelphia, recent graduate of Wharton, and a fellow engineer at Penn. Dettinger, a "total computer geek," took the time to help Deifer learn HTML and the Web. And while Dave cruised the poetry newsgroup (rec.arts.poetry) and various zines, gathering contributors, he recruited Cliff Robinson, another operations technician at Penn, for a different task. Cliff located an inoperable old dec3100 computer gathering dust under a desk, hooked it up and brought it back to life. Leah set it up as a Web server, and Mike helped her to format the graphic art.
Hoping to gain approval and support from the University, Dave looked around and found an ally in Al Filreis, Chairman of Undergraduate English at Penn. Filreis is a pioneer in the use of the Internet in education, using Web pages and Listservs as part of his classes, even teaching one class entirely on the Net. He is also a great advocate for Penn's developing writing community. Filreis helped with easing the connections between CrossConnect and the academic community. And, equally as important, he directed Dave to a bright and energetic young undergraduate by the name of Alex Edelman.
Alex is from Los Angeles, where he "used to drive around on balmy LA nights, looking for a clue." He was recruited to Penn for his talents in the sport of fencing, and in his time at Penn he has accrued such honors as NCAA All-American, two-time All-Ivy and two-time Academic All-Ivy. By his own description, he is an "excitable, cynical, opinioned old man at the tender age of 20," who is working on his undergraduate English Literature degree. A "poetic commando," like Dave and Leah, Alex combines skills in arts, writing and literature, with technological competence, and an eye for design. His brash, uncompromising demand for excellence, dauntless enthusiasm, and unbounding energy added a vital link to this crossconnection of innovators. Dave recognized this, and afforded Alex the opportunity to put his talents and creativity to work, as an editor with CrossConnect.
The most that this improbable crew might have expected from an established print journal, would have been the opportunity to "hang around" as interns. Yet, with little experience or resources, they managed to put the first issue of CrossConnect online in early 1995. And, in the year since, owing to their hard work and the cooperation of many others, Xconnect has become a very fine literary journal, by any standard one cares to apply. They have accomplished this feat, both by seeking out talented writers and artists, and by welcoming those who searched them out. That openness, sense of adventure, and the willingness to take chances has ignited a firestorm of creativity and excitement.
However, David Deifer's vision and ambition didn't stop there. His ultimate goal was to truly "crossconnect," marrying the Web to print, joining traditional printed literature with the technology of the future. "I have dreamed this dream every day of my waking life. I am on a mission to break through the web of the information age."
In moving toward that goal, CrossConnect has lived up to its name, in a way possible only on the net, by gathering together a diverse group of writers and publishers from such disparate locales as Chicago, Charlottesville, and Birmingham.
Among the first on board was Marek Lugowski of Chicago. He is a veteran of rec.arts.poems and the priest(The Spirit on This Here Mountain) of the newsgroup, very opinionated and occasionally a flamethrower. "I am not really wild," he says. "It's just that cutting words and polemic are more visible and memorable on the Net." Marek is an editor for A Small Garlic Press, which produces chapbooks for poets who work primarily online, and for the innovative poetry zine, Agnieszka's Dowry. He has lent his own works, and has helped to search out other talented writers to contribute to CrossConnect.
Another natural alliance was with Doug Lawson, founding editor of Blue Penny Quarterly, the longest running electronic journal to focus exclusively on literary work. Doug is an emerging writer with a growing list of credits, who also works for Metronetic Publications in Charlottesville, Virginia, helping with the production of a variety of online publications. BPQ's staff also includes poetry editor Leigh Palmer, contributing editor Robert Sward, and contributions from such well-known authors as Edward Falco.
Recently joining this eclectic band is Tom Harper, author, and editor of Red Mountain Review out of Birmingham, Alabama. He brings with him the support of Mary Veazey, editor and publisher of Sticks Press, and the shared contributions of such authors and poets as Helen Norris, Georgette Perry, Charles Ghigna and Robert McDuff.
These are some of the folks the big dogs of literature will find themselves in competition with as they come online. Among the big dogs already, and in some cases reluctantly, on the Web, are The Paris Review, The Literary Review, Ploughshares, and The New Yorker.
Asked about competing online, Walt Cummins, editor of The Literary Review, commented: "I'm not sure the big dogs, little dogs concept holds for the Web at present... A better analogy might be to say we're all puppies scrambling for a teat to nurse on. Eventually, some will grow up to be big dogs and others end up in the pound. (I'd better stop before I get to euthanasia.)... I'd better stop and get back to paper grading...."
Regardless of how one looks at it, the accessibility and vitality of publishing on the net can only enliven and stimulate interest in literature as a whole.
And, those old dogs coming onto the net, besides watching out for the bite of the eagerly awaiting new dogs, had better be prepared to defend their comfortable beds back at home. Because, Dave Deifer's dream is due to come true this summer, when CrossConnect will publish its first print edition. This substantial volume of more than 200 pages, will include both short stories and poetry, full-color printing, and will have a first-run circulation of 1,000 copies, distributed in bookstores nationally. Its publication represents Dave's aim at nothing less than the next step in the evolution of American literature.