Our Friends Electric: Poetry of the Digital World

By Cary Stough

In craft interviews, there is a tendency to ask the poet how they write their poems, that is, what tool or medium they use to compose. And then there are always a slew of boring, but expected answers: I use a ballpoint pen, I use a vintage typewriter, I sharpen the rib of a dead raccoon and write my poems in its blood.   “I really wish they’d ask me that some time,” my friend said when we bonded over our annoyance with such questions, “I’d just tell them I use my computer.” I write poems on my phone all the time, occasionally typing out a few lines or initial ideas and then polishing them later on my computer. I know many other poets who thrive with such a convenient outlet, and who don’t question it. We’re so invested in our phones and laptops these days anyway, it only seems natural to us. A few weeks after we initially got iPhones I asked my friend if he wrote poems on his phone as much as I did. “It’s great when you’re drunk,” I said, “People think I’m just texting.”

“Oh yeah,” he said.

But I’m not here to make an argument; I’m here to advertise.

The wedding of poetry and new technology goes beyond compositional semantics as well as the simple facility of the iPhone’s “Notebook” function. A host of literary-themed apps exist now, and even some, such as Google Drive, are vital to me as a writer even though they were not specifically designed for such creative purposes. I’ve even grown accustomed to the Kindle app, which I would say I use, almost regrettably, far more than my actual Kindle device, which cost my aunt quite a bit more than the free downloadable app. But I do use it quite a bit; Emily Dickinson at my fingertips, at once closer to me than she’s ever been, journeying with me, in my pocket where she is safe.

1. Poetics

Have you ever seen those magnetic poetry kits, the kind people have on their refrigerators? Poetics, which is by far the most creativity-oriented app on this list, takes that idea and translates it to the digital world. Like a curator of your very own scrapbook, the app allows you to super-impose little white blocks of text over your saved images. It also allows you to share the images on social media, as well as save them back to your phone, which is nice for poets who want to post their writing online, but prefer that it is subtle, here conflated with their visual art.

Taken @Walmart

Photo taken @ Walmart

2. Goodreads

One of my favorite apps—on which I spend more time than other social media by far—is Goodreads. For those of you unfamiliar, Goodreads is like Facebook for bibliophiles; book-lovers be-friend other book-lovers and publish star-reviews, all produced by members of the site community. I read it before buying all my books. It’s useful to see how other readers like me react to certain works outside of the author-pandering hegemony of officially published reviews as well as the usual dredge of confused misreadings. At least in this case the misreadings are warranted, and always entertaining. “Well…I tried,” said one reviewer, who apparently couldn’t handle the elegance of a certain poet’s work. Hilarious, though we’ve all been there a time or two.

3. The Poetry Foundation POETRY Mobile App

Another good literary, but not necessarily creative, app is the Poetry Foundation’s wonderful mobile anthology. On the surface, it is a fairly straightforward anthology of many favored poems published either in Poetry Magazine over the years or on their website, but the appeal goes deeper. The “SPIN” button feature transforms perusing through pages of poetry into a game by matching up thematic categories—such as “Gratitude” and “Life” or “Passion” and “Youth”—and providing a comprehensive list of poems that bridge those thematic gaps. Thus, one elegizes the past with the likes of Coleridge, cummings, and Michael Dickman, under “Nostalgia” and “Youth,” or one ponders the future with Anne Bradstreet and Naomi Shihab Nye under “Optimism” and “Aging.” Along with the many poems is a near extensive selection of audio recordings, making this app a great teaching tool, as well as a great alternative to the majority of the world’s boring music tastes.

4. The Love Book

The Love Book takes this same idea of an anthology and blows it out of the water. A compendium of not only love-themed poetry, but prose and love letters, all from famous authors, takes a very creative and interactive approach to recorded media. Not only are many of the poems read by famous voices (Tom Hiddleston, Emma Watson, and Helena Bonham Carter, to name a few, OH MY GOD), but also the app allows us, the literary consumers, to curate our own collection of recordings, which are all able to be saved within the app and listened to later. Additionally, perfect for Valentine’s Day or creeping out a potential date, the app allows the user to send their recordings via email and social media. The collection of texts and famous recordings keeps growing, too, which, like the Poetry Foundation’s app, saves The Love Book from losing its appeal or novelty, which is a problem with many other apps, such as Angry Birds. The app visuals, designed my Kate Moross, look simply beautiful as well.

 

Maybe I am here to argue. I understand the value of writing by hand—I’m not saying I’ve entirely given it up—and I understand why it has been such a mainstay for authors from Shakespeare to Heather Christle. It’s not as if I’m changing my writing or reading habits so much as I am more able to immerse myself into a literary life and culture, one contingent upon the use of technology, and for that I am adamant in defending and excited for the future of digital literature. There is a certain strength of materiality applied to poetry-by-hand that is inescapable, I agree, such as the physical experience of opening, sniffing and caressing a hard-cover book.  But there is a wonderful accessibility to poetry-by-phone that frees me of so many previous obligations, such as carrying a notebook around everywhere. Writing on my phone, I avoid the risk of appearing like one of those poets whose art is so important as to merit engagement at any moment, anywhere in the world—it’s something we all strive toward, admit it, but nevertheless try to hide—sitting on a couch at a college party, scribbling Beat-musings into a corroded Moleskeine.

The face of a man who loves his computer.

The face of a man who loves his computer.

Speaking of Beats, Gary Snyder paved the way for this article in his poem “Why I Take Good Care of my Macintosh,” and did a much better job. So I give up. Buy the apps. More and more published literature can be accessed online now, including our own magazine, The Missouri Review and other traditionally print journals. The world’s literature is not dying, or getting swallowed by some infrastructure beyond our control, I promise; it’s dividing and swelling in the digital world, not simply being overlaid on a digital platform. The internet is not an alternative to paper and pen. This is the digivolution.

And finally, to quote poet and internet genius Steve Roggenbuck, “If bikes don’t have wifi, why the f*ck would you ride a bike?

All of these apps can be purchased through the iTunes app store.