There are few people I’ve come across in the online social community that are as memorable as Charles Bivona. His humor and persona are not for everyone, but that’s what makes him so unique. He RT’s opinions he agrees and disagrees with equally, writes 140 character poems to his followers and sympathizes with anyone in pain. He isn’t afraid to talk about the ugly, the difficult or the uneasy. Charles is a genuine soul who shares his own life openly and in return has garnered the love and loyalty of his fans in a monumental way. He isn’t your typical well-known social media professional, but that’s because Charles focuses on what he views as most important: humanity. May I introduce, Charles Bivona.
Question: Where are you from and what do you do?
Charles’s Answer: I was born and raised in northeastern NJ. I’ve been a writer since I started scribbling into my very first journal in early grammar school. In my 20s, while trying to write and publish, I worked more dead end jobs than I care to remember, but when I started teaching literature and writing for local colleges in my early 30s, I discovered my second love.
Question: Why did you get into social media?
Charles’s Answer: I grew up in AOL chat rooms and IMs. I wrote my first blog post on Myspace. By the time Twitter arrived on the scene, I was primed for tweeting poetry. It was only a matter of time before I started chit-chatting with people, making friends, collaborating, creating. When I finally decided to write seriously, social media was the obvious place to find readers. A writer is nothing without readers.
Question: What do you think is the most valuable aspect of social media?
Charles’s Answer: Social media gives a poor poet from New Jersey a platform where he can, with just his words, get the attention of some very important people. At least for now, it’s a much more even playing field than in real life. And it’s a space where writing skill really matters, where people are actively trying to write well, to write better. In fact, I’d say that motivation, that pull to communicate with language over and over and over, that’s the most valuable aspect of social media. It’s playfully training a lot of people to be great writers.
Question: Who is Luz Costa and how is she involved in NJPoet?
Charles’s Answer: Luz Costa is my managing editor, web designer, web developer, SEO specialist, etc. etc. She’s also a great writer, a multi-lingual thinker who sees code as just another language to be mastered. She’s my best friend, my business partner, and my wife. Without Luz, I’d probably still be scribbling into private notebooks. She is one half, sometimes more than half, of #njpoet.
Question: What are some pros and cons to keeping your poetry tweets to 140 characters?
Charles’s Answer: I’ve found that the brevity and writing speed required on Twitter develops razor sharp precision and a serious habit for clarity.
However, very often the subtlety, nuance, or rhythmic turn of phrase I’m trying for just can’t be achieved in 140 characters or less. But that’s what my Facebook status is for.
Question: What types of authors do you follow on Twitter and have you developed online relationships with them?
Charles’s Answer: I’m drawn to writers who struggle to consistently deliver their most truthful, most powerful written expression to the minds of a community of dedicated readers. While I self-identify as a poet, I hold no special allegiance to that genre. Though, I do think the best writing is always poetic. I mean, many of my journalist friends—Manny Jalonschi, for example—can use metaphors and turn a witty phrase as well as any novelist I’ve read. My novelist friend Rebecca T. Dickson writes sentences that sing as achingly as lines from any love sonnet. And my other friend, Jena Kingsley, a comedy writer for HuffPo, has developed one of the strongest, most confident, and singularly hysterical voices I’ve read.
My ultimate goal–lofty dream, really–is to organize my creative friends and colleagues, online and off, into a cooperatively owned and operated publishing house and social media marketing company.
DIY or die.
Question: From an author’s point of view, what is toughest about generating an online persona?
Charles’s Answer: The most daunting thing about constructing an online persona is the consistency and time it takes to enter and remain involved in the social media conversation. Many writers scoff at Twitter especially, but producing well-written sentences all day long, engaging in textual conversations day after day for months, and eventually years–that’s a lot of work, a major commitment that requires a stubborn tenacity, no matter how effortless a particularly skillful writer makes it appear.
Question: You have written a lot of politically charged pieces. When and why did you become so political?
Charles’s Answer: Originally, I threw myself into reading and writing to cope with the childhood chaos of my father’s war trauma. Eventually, I started asking difficult questions about the complicated war my working-class father had been forced to fight. As I studied the history and literature of America’s Vietnam conflict, the answers I found to these questions unavoidably outraged and politicized me. 9/11 and my government’s knee-jerk military response led me to follow the work of anti-war journalists like Chris Hedges and David Swanson. My later questions about our new economic crisis led me to the radical economist Richard Wolff. Professor Wolff’s insistence that the U.S. suffers from serious systemic problems only confirmed and expanded upon what I’d already learned from social critics and historians like Tom Engelhardt, Christian Appy, Howard Zinn, and Noam Chomsky.
Question: Why were you fired from an university?
Charles’s Answer: Universities consider professors and PhD candidates the public face of the school, at least that’s how it was explained to me. The truth is, I was beginning to brand myself as a poet, writer, and public intellectual. My superiors had a lot of problems with that—especially since I was discussing controversial topics like war trauma and mental illness. The short version is, they asked me to stop posting, I said no way, so I was not rehired to teach the next semester. It took a serious toll on my self-confidence, and, ultimately, I decided to drop out of their PhD program as well. It was a painful period in my life. I’m very glad it’s behind me.
Question: How has the experience of getting fired for writing shaped who you’ve become as a writer/poet?
Charles’s Answer: On the one hand, I was outraged. I felt betrayed by my university and deeply wounded by a respected mentor, someone I’d trusted for many years. On the other hand, Walt Whitman was fired from a job over Leaves of Grass. So, I’m a poet in good company.
Question: Why did you decide to collect donations on your website and what do they fund?
Charles’s Answer: Losing my teaching job severely hampered our finances. In a few months, we were seriously behind on the rent. When an eviction notice came in the mail, I had been writing on my site and Twitter for several years. So, when I reached out to my community, when I asked for help, my readers responded. I’ll never forget that, the overwhelming gratitude of having your home saved by the appreciation and generosity of others.
Lately, donations help fund our web hosting fees, which have gone up significantly. During Hurricane Sandy, specifically, site traffic spiked in response to our coverage of the local aftermath. Our host had something to say about that after our site started negatively affecting other sites sharing a server with us. So, donations help us pay for a dedicated server, which is much more expensive. (Internet success has its price.) Still, we’re always exploring other avenues for raising revenue so we won’t have to ask for donations.
Question: Has social media made your life better or worse?
Charles’s Answer: Social media, mostly Twittter, replaced my pocket notebooks of private scribbling and connected me with an audience of thoughtful, intelligent readers. There are, of course, negative aspects to these life changes, but I try to focus on the large gathering of engaged readers, while simultaneously ignoring all the trolls.
Question: What advice do you have for authors new to the social media world?Charles’s Answer: Always say thank you, apologize when you make a mistake, and don’t mind the trolls. Always remember, if you’re successful in any way, there will be hoards of trolls slamming you for everything you say and do. Try not to let them get you down, and maintain solid friendships to help you cope. (Thank you, Luke Mulks.)
Question: Do you have any social media mentors or personal favorites?
Charles’s Answer: Most of my social media mentors are favorite poets. I like to imagine how William Carlos Williams would tweet, how Walt Whitman would blog or manage a Facebook Page.
As for personal favorites, I maintain a Twitter list of my growing community here:
Thanks for your time and honest answers, Charles.