Text is our collective memory. For purposes of preserving information, as text, throughout time, there are two basic physical strategies:
There are strong market incentives for authors and publishers to favor the paperback approach. None of us lives much longer than 100 years, and an author who publishes books in any significant volume can reasonably expect that at least part of their work will outlive them. Obviously they can have little financial interest in any attention their work might receive posthumously, and so for authors interested mainly in making a living, the choice of form is dictated by enlightened self-interest. Conversely, monuments tend to be expensive, inefficient, and anonymous. Their manufacture is time and labor-intensive, they cannot be widely distributed, and rarely are they "signed" by their authors. Whereas writing a book is usually considered a vainglorious act, erecting a monument is usually considered an altruistic one.
Today, most poets have more in common with monument-makers than they do with paperback-writers. While a measure of fame may be available to a very, very select few, money to make a living is available to almost none, and probably cannot be depended upon by any. Thus, a certain amount of altruism is likely in anyone considering themselves a "poet" by vocation. Poets today are in it because they love words and want to see them perpetuated across time and space, and while conventional means of publishing (paperbacks, chapbooks, "little magazines," the web, etc.) are more accessible today than ever before, this very ubiquity has served to decrease the likelihood than any particular poet's work will be singled out for posterity. Very likely a poet who publishes a chapbook today will sell a few copies to their friends, give a few away to their family, save one for themself, and eventually discard the rest by distributing or abandoning them in some public place. It is unlikely that any of these chapbooks will survive their author, and, if they do, it is likely to be in a dusty box in the attic.
Enter the dogtag. By design, military ID tags are cheap, small, and extremely durable. They are intended to survive the violent death of the bearer and possible abandonment in harsh climactic conditions for decades at a time. They are, arguably, the consummation of modernity in the development of the monument as artifact. Each one represents a life, a struggle with suffering, and a death. They are to be preserved. By appropriating them as a medium for his or her art, a poet makes a strong statement about the continued value of poetry itself in the postmodern world.
The form of the verse is suggested by the limits of the medium. A standard dogtag carries 5 lines of 17 characters each; thus, a dogtag poem should be five lines long, each line should contain 17 characters including spaces, and no line should contain a space as its first or last character. Besides these constraints there are no rules, and the challenge is to pack the most meaning into the least space.
Dogtags are frequently available at army-surplus stores and gun shows, and can always be had on the internet. They are usually stamped and sold in sets of two, with or without a chain and/or rubber silencers.
During the summer and fall of 2001, 16 dogtag poems (2 of each of the designs pictured here) were distributed in coffee shops and other public places in and around the Austin Metro area. The tags were left unsigned, 1 at a time, on a length of lamp chain secured to a door handle, railing, or other conspicuous fixture by means of a simple ring hitch in the chain.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Shortly after the completion of this project, I was chagrined to discover a novelty product called Poetry Dog Tags available for sale in a local bookstore. Commodification of ideas is probably an inevitable process in today's culture, and while I can't claim with certainty to be the originator of this idea, I would have it known that my version was not derived from this novelty product. Poetry Dog Tags are nothing more than a less-flexible version of the popular Magnetic Poetry sets, with a number of individual words etched on individual dogtags, provided with a length of chain in a lunchbox-style kit. The idea is to arrange the tags in various orders on the chain to create short poems. The meaningful differences between this approach and my own will, I hope, be obvious.