Know Your Vibe: A Conversation with Dan McKeon of Pretty Cool Poetry Thing




I first met Dan “Dooski” McKeon during the summer of 2016 in Buffalo, a red-hot and happening time for young people in the city’s literary community. Foundlings Press had begun publishing issues of its journal that April, we at Peach Mag had announced that we’d be launching an online journal and reading series in August, and Pretty Cool Poetry Thing, Dooski’s project that they’d started with a couple of friends, had begun circulating poetry zines printed on...index cards.


I’d seen Dooski give readings and was taken with their style—funny, chatty, and unpretentious—and for months we managed to orbit in the same spaces without introducing ourselves. Then, in July, something happened at Natalie Shapero’s reading for Just Buffalo Literary Center’s Silo City Reading Series that would finally set our friendship in motion: I traded them a couple of Peach Mag buttons for a copy of their new chapbook The Neighborhood, which I’d wanted to review for “Peach Picks.” We later published their poem “The Square” in Season 2 of Peach and again in our Season 2 Yearbook, and hosted them at s02e03 with Jamie Mortara, Jakob Maier, Eve Williams, and Oli Wiggins. Years later, I’m still taken with their style.


Pretty Cool Poetry Thing had the same spirit, and I was bummed when Dooski announced last year that they were retiring the project. But then they confided in me that a relaunch was in the works, and as of earlier this month it’s here: Pretty Cool Poetry Thing 2.0, a literary journal with a mission to push poems into new terrains using the affordances of digital space and technology. Every month, the new PCPT team works in tandem with a poet—really a collaborative partnership unlike anything I’ve seen—to code their vision to life. (Check out this month’s “New Theories of the Everyday” by Julianne Neely, a poem in the style of a digital advent calendar that “grows” over the course of 15 days.)


I interviewed Dooski over email to learn more about Pretty Cool Poetry Thing 2.0, the possibilities of interactivity in digital publishing, and the chameleon that serves as the project’s mascot—and Holy Spirit. –Rachelle Toarmino



RT: You relaunched! Wtf? Did you miss us?


DM: Yes, I tweeted back in November something like “miss y’all” with a little frowny face. I think that was sort of the “what if we came back, haha jk…unless?” moment for me, personally. Since we ended with the Animal Crossing Zine, the idea of coming back became a tiny little thing in the back of my mind—a haha-jk-unless that refused to stop haha-jking until I unlessed.



RT: Tell me the origin story of Pretty Cool Poetry Thing. Where did the idea come from? How has that idea evolved into this new iteration?


DM: So, Pretty Cool Poetry Thing’s origins are a little confusing even for me because it was never a thing until I found myself in the middle of a thing. It started completely differently from where it went and where it is now.


Originally, back in 2016, I wanted it to be this sort of decentralized regular poetry reading that’d move around to different spots and cities. My friends and I felt like many of the readings we were going to in Buffalo were more about cults of personality than poetry, and we wanted to make an alternative. The zines were a part of the readings. Each zine had a poem from each reader in it and we’d sell them at events to help pay the poets. We printed them on index cards because, you know, it was cheap and fast and easy to carry. Aidan Ryan, future Mr. Rachelle Toarmino, actually solidified the index card thing as a good idea to me; he made an off-hand comment at a zine fair about how novel the idea was, and I was like “well this guy dresses like he knows stuff!” Anyway, the first reading we did was at the Hostel Buffalo-Niagara and a friend did the cover. That was another part of it: I wanted each zine to be special and have someone involved in the reading do a different cover. At the time, we called it A Pretty Cool Poetry Thing, almost as anti-branding. It didn’t have a clearcut name; it was just a neat little thing. It all was very much an idea from someone who had never planned events before and the idea of doing this regularly with different people in different cities was a huge endeavor for little ol’ me.


The second reading was at the Little Box, a DIY house venue in Rochester, New York. I had met Rose Guilfoyle a few months beforehand, and I’d say we were sort of on our way to becoming friends. She did the cover for that one; she drew a chameleon, dropped the A, and just wrote Pretty Cool Poetry Thing, which was sort of this magical happenstance that set the stage for everything that followed. Rose became the illustrator for the rest of the covers and sort of my bud through all of this. There weren’t any readings after that and the whole thing pivoted to being just about the zines. We made it mail-order, originally through Etsy but then as a subscription thing through Patreon. I remember bringing my printer with me to Rochester and we'd print and assemble those bad boys and became good buds! And I got to formally meet Bart the Chameleon, who gently bit my finger and sort of became the mascot and “ethos” for PCPT. (Aidan was also the first one to call it that.)


Time went on and it became a lot for me and Rose to keep up with. Assembling and shipping was a drain. We both accidentally stabbed ourselves with an awl assembling one of the issues, inadvertently making two Blood Zines. So, we decided that after the Animal Crossing Zine, we’d call it quits.


The Animal Crossing Zine was one we kicked around for a long long time—like, probably one of the first ideas we had when we started working together in earnest. So, since the newest Animal Crossing game was coming out soon, we thought it’d be a good bookend. And, eventually, it felt like the best way to finish it off was to immortalize Bart, who had died a few years prior but remained spiritually an integral part of the team, as a Villager through a fan interactive zine online. It felt like Animal Crossing really meant so much more to people during the pandemic, and we wanted these poems and this whole silly little poetry project of ours to end meaningfully. And people really liked it, and I think that’s what planted the seed for where we are now.


As we’re starting up again, we want to take everything that made the index-card zine special—the handheld portability, the cheap production that let us pay poets, the novelty that excites the not-poem readers and poem readers alike—and add what made the Animal Crossing Zine special: interactivity, digitalia, and incorporating aesthetics from other cultural works. Our bread-and-butter is going to be a published poem with basically its own little app every month, but we also have some other really cool projects we’ll be peppering in irregularly along the way, too (including more things like the Animal Crossing Zine). I don’t want to give too much away just yet. I’ll just tweet cryptically, as Bart compels me to—like the Holy Spirit.



RT: A poem-app every month! That sounds like a lot of work. What are some ways folks can support you and PCPT?


DM: It is! The tougher groundwork was laid out when I originally built the site, but yeah, I’d be lying if I didn’t say it’s a whole bunch. But it’s exciting! It’s really cool to work with a poet on doing something neither of us really could’ve done on our own.


The best way to support us is by feeding us some of your excitement. If you’re really into what we’re doing, let us know! Honestly, we’ve been riding the wave of good vibes that hit us after the Animal Crossing Zine dropped—reading people’s tweets and such about this little project of ours makes me feel all warm inside. Spread the word to anyone you think would be interested, too! The second best way—and probably much more vital—would be to become a patron and help fund what we’re doing. There’s server costs and such, but more importantly, we pay our poets $30 for their work. It’s not a ton, but paying poets something for their work has always been part of the mission of PCPT and it’s really only possible with the support of our readers. Also, we like to buy ourselves milkshakes occasionally for a job well done. :)



RT: Can you talk a little about the role of interactivity in PCPT 2.0? I mean, all writing is interactive—I hate when people pretend that the reader is a passive observer and not an active participant in the meaning-making process. But what is it about digital technology and media that you find especially exciting to bring to poetry?


DM: I think it’s that once something is in a digital format, especially now with how much can be done through web browsers as opposed to having to download and install things, there’s just so many more possibilities for things to happen to the poem. It can expand on the dynamic between the reader, the poem, and the poet. As a poet, I know readers have found meanings I never intended or thought of in my poems, and that’s really a wonderful thing—I like how you phrased it, the reader as an active participant in the meaning-making process. When you put the poem into a digital medium, the poet can incorporate elements they wouldn’t be able to in print or when reading aloud, and they can flex the meanings and themes they’re trying to convey in new and exciting ways. They can give the readers options on where to take the words, use music or animations to help the reader meet the poem in a certain headspace, or deliberately control how the poem is read with a new level of precision.


For example, right now we’re publishing Julianne Neely’s poem, “New Theories of the Everyday.” Since February 15, it has grown every day at midnight and will continue to grow for a total of 15 days. The poem will not and cannot read the same way once it has fully grown. That experience simply isn’t as immediately possible and accessible in a printed format.


Digital platforms also allow for a different set of options regarding the framing of poems. Our Animal Crossing Zine is a great example of that: Instead of reading a list of poems about Animal Crossing, a lizard villager introduces all the poets like you’re at a poetry reading at The Roost or something. It’s slower; you have to wait for Bart to say everything and you can’t skip past it, which is something I think video games do really well. By not letting you cut straight to what you want, by forcefully slowing down the pace, you can make it a different kind of immersive experience, which is what I think Julianne is doing in her poem.


Another element I’ve alluded to is interactivity—that is, the reader can directly change or influence the words of the poem. A great example is the opening poem in the game Night in the Woods, where the reader gets to choose from several options how the next stanza will start. This leads to several different poem possibilities, which I think is just such a cool concept—they adapted poetry stuff to make a video game. And it has made me think of the reverse: using video game stuff to make poetry. I’d love to see ROM hacks of old Pokémon games that have Wingulls reading you poems or something like that. All this digital junk is laying around and we should all start throwing the scraps together and seeing what fresh new stuff we can make from it. There’s so much more to explore.


I’m excited about all of this simply because I don’t know what the limit is yet—if there even is one! PCPT has a lot of ideas for the coming months and rest of the year. I don’t want to give away too much, but one last thing I’ll talk about is using bots to generate poetry. I’m working on a bot that’ll learn from our published poems and some other sources to generate its own poems. When I say learn I don’t just mean scrape the words off, but rather do some analysis on the syllable counts and word associations and such, and really come up with its own stuff. It’s a long-term project and there’s no reasonable timeline I can give for when we’ll see that, but it’s really cool how advanced the available technology is right now. Machine learning has come so far that even the free and publicly available resources are so powerful, so why not use that stuff for poetry?



RT: In my conversation with Lucy K Shaw, she recommends that editors and publishers “make friends with people you think are geniuses and do it together.” Can you tell me a little about the PCPT team and why you invited each person to work on this project with you?


DM: Hell yeah, Lucy. I love that—I think my friends are some of the most brilliant dummies in the world. So, yeah, the team right now is Rose as our illustrator, Amanda Silberling as our managing editor, and Sarah Robbins as our assistant editor. And also Bart, who again, compels us like the Holy Spirit.


I don’t think I would’ve done this again without Rose signing back on—I don’t think there is or should be a PCPT without Rose. The life, charm, and heartbeat she brings is irreplaceable. And I mean that in both the artistic and stylistic sense and also just on a personal level, as a good friend. Seeing her art develop and shift and explore over the years has been so cool, and I feel really lucky and fortunate that that Rochester reading happened the way it did. Also, what’s PCPT without a chameleon?


Amanda and Sarah were actually both published in the Animal Crossing Zine. I knew Amanda beforehand because we matched on Tinder and went on a few dates and were like “nah, friends is cool.” She’s deep into the poetry world in every way I’m not. She’s driven, motivated, accomplished, and great with Google Calendar invites—all things I am not. She’s done and is doing so many different projects that I’ve had to recode parts of the website twice just to fit her bio. So, a natural fit for managing editor.


Sarah is the classic Twitter mutual who you go from not-knowing-at-all to would-die-for in a matter of weeks. I’ve only known them for a few months, which is in pandemic time so who knows what that even means, but they already feel like an old friend and one of those folks who you really want to be around. I think a crucial part for me in planning PCPT 2.0 was having other people making editorial decisions on the kinds of poems we’d be putting out, and they were the first set of eyes I wanted looking over submissions. Also, we have a Stardew Valley farm together and I haven’t seen my chickens in months, so I can’t let Sarah stray too far. Who knows what they’d do with them.



RT: So, what would your word of advice be to fellow editors and publishers?


DM: Just respect your own vibe, really. It’s cool and really beautiful to be inspired by other lit mags, publishers, writers, and stuff, but make sure you know your vibe and are doing your vibe. The world needs truer and more original vibes as much as it needs poetry.


<3



Dooski (Dan McKeon) is a poet, barista, and web developer living in Philadelphia. They appeared on Slime Time Live in 2003, and have had work in Peach Mag, Foundlings Press, and Vagabond City. Dooski is the editor and programmer of Pretty Cool Poetry Thing and aspires to one day have a job that doesn't involve fraps. They enjoy coffee, video games, and socialism, and have not won any notable awards. Follow them on Twitter @cooldooski.


"Know Your Vibe" is part of our new interview series spotlighting the creative, experimental, often brief, often shoestring, and always underreported-upon projects of indie lit. Read previous conversations in this series here.

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