Poetry and power tools aren't often found side by side. But the cordless drill in John Tranter's book-lined study is there in the service of literature. Tranter, 57, a Sydney poet, is teaching himself bookbinding: the drill is for piercing stacked pages before they're sewn together. Near it, snugly bound in green buckram, lies a sample of his handiwork: a copy of Tranter's poetry journal, Jacket. This single issue is so big-it's 2.5 cm thick and weighs 1.25 kg-that it would be impossibly expensive to print in any numbers, let alone ship to literary hubs like London and New York. Which is why this tome, and another one Tranter gave to American poet John Ashbery, are the only copies of Jacket in existence.
Make that between covers. For Jacket also comes in an electronic version, assembled on Tranter's computer in this bright back room of his Balmain home and published around the globe on the World Wide Web (www.jacket.zip.com.au). There, free from weight worries, it flourishes. Influential literary journals like The Paris Review do well to sell 12,000 copies. Jacket, in 13 issues, has logged over 280,000 hits-though many, he concedes, are accidental, people wanting "something smart in dinner jackets, perhaps." It has also won several awards; last year Britannica.com named it one of the best sites on the Web.
In the welter of literary e-zines, Jacket stands out for its stylishness (it was named, Tranter says, with smart attire in mind). Its pages are easy to download and read onscreen, and there's no annoying animation. By publishing only material he has asked for, Tranter also spares readers the self-indulgence that mars so much writing on the Internet. With poetry, reviews, interviews, color images, an audio welcome message and sly editorial humor, Jacket is (to quote Tranter's poem The Popular Mysteries) "a gift factory/ as silly as a lucky dip." And as rich. Printed out, its 950 text and image files would cover 2,000 pages-all, says the editor, "free as the breeze."
Tranter, who started writing and publishing poetry in the '60s, revels in the anarchic freedom of the Net. With an unpaid staff of "five"-all, he jokes, named John Tranter-he can publish what and when he likes, uploading items as he edits them. (His taste leans to the opaquely avant-garde.) He doesn't charge an entry fee for Jacket-if he did, he says, "my readers would simply go elsewhere." And while that means there's no money for contributors, "I've never had anyone say they wouldn't send me something because there was no payment."
Poets these days don't expect to get rich-the world is too busy watching television. But the Net lets Tranter piece together a sizeable readership (mostly American), and gather writers from the U.S., Britain, Australia and France, as easily as if they all lived on the same block. "I'd guess that about half the readers have no real idea Jacket comes from Australia," he says. "And I don't feel it does. It comes from the Internet; it's almost an outer-space thing."
Unworldly poets might take the same view of Tranter's technical savvy, which he says some of his peers find "weird." (He bound a copy of Jacket's second issue for Ashbery, a computer-shy friend whose work it featured, because "I had the sneaking feeling he'd never actually seen the magazine onscreen.") But Tranter has always had an affinity with machinery. Growing up an only child on a farm in southern New South Wales, he enjoyed "fixing things with a bit of fencing wire." And when he started publishing poetry magazines-using facilities at the print shop where he worked-he found as much romance in Linotype and Gestetner machines as in the work of Rimbaud and Ginsberg.
Tranter's solitary childhood left him "rather shy," he says. Jacket lets him socialize on his terms. "It's like a party, with all these voices discussing things." The Net makes networking easy: e-mailed friends become contributors; contributors located through online poetry groups become friends. Tranter frequently travels abroad with his wife Lyn, a literary agent; when he gave a reading in New York recently, he says, "Almost everyone who came I had met through Jacket, or they introduced themselves because they knew the magazine."
Jacket's hypertext structure fosters its own connections: with no page numbers and no defined start or endpoint, visitors follow their fancy from link to link, issue to issue. From a familiar name on the contents list, they might click to a poem, then a related article or interview, then a new poem on the same theme. "It's like a computer game," Tranter says. "You can go through it, then start again and go through another way." Each reader takes a different route-and makes a different mini-magazine. Between covers, Jacket is the same for everyone. On the Web, it's do-it-yourself poetry.