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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Public Readings and Fractured Voice in New Media
My relationship with literature, like that of most people who’d claim to have a relationship with it, is multi-faceted, complicated—even fractured. At work, I spend several hours every week in front of a computer, reading submissions, essays, blogs, etcetera. When not working, the majority of my time with a screen is dedicated to writing, be it academic or personal. I don’t own an e-reader, so when I’m reading at home it’s usually a paper book or journal. Then there’s the constant dialogue between my friends and coworkers. This dialogue, even if the moment’s topic is as seemingly mundane as the weather or lunch, is related to literature, for it is that shared initial interest that allowed the moment to occur. These facets, of course, are linked, and constantly inform one another.
However, there does seem to be another facet of this relationship which is more distinct than the others: live readings. These ceremonies are rare in a couple of senses. First (at least here in Columbia), they are rare because they are few. Each semester, the MU Creative Writing Program does organize a new student reading series (which you can check out here) and a visiting writers series. And of course, TMR hosts a few too, like the one happening October 8th, but these are nonetheless infrequent, much-anticipated events. This anticipation relates to the second sort of rareness of these ceremonies: the primary act itself, or hearing and seeing an author read his or her words. At live readings, the author’s chief goal in writing is inevitably achieved: he or she connects with the audience in a pure and authentic way. You hear and see the author’s voice and words—no matter if you’ve read them previously—and they resonate, if only on an auditory level. Thus, live readings are a facet of literature whose immediacy seems unparalleled.
Immediacy here is linked to voice, one of the most fundamental subjects in my relationship with literature. Common discourse and phonocentrism position spoken speech as primary, and because we call what emits from the author during a reading his/her voice, I use “unparalleled”. However, voice is complicated and fractured, too, much like the stated aspects from which it originates. When we describe voice as spoken or auditory, that referent may be negatively described as “not-written”. Furthermore, when we discuss voice in literature, we describe it as “narrative”. In both cases, voice is considered inextricable, and its transcendent presence as both a word and idea suggests a primacy more fundamental yet. This is most apparent in literature, where apparently voice must exist.
What I am wondering, though, is how the tradition of live readings—and moreover, its status as literature’s paramount manifestation of voice—will be affected by the constantly diversifying concept of voice in contemporary literature. I’d say that my understanding of voice has developed, but I’d nonetheless have trouble identifying a single ubiquitous quality—that is, one independent from and indifferent to the subsequent criticism of it.
This diversifying of voice is most readily apparent in the increased role of New Media in contemporary literature. The examples are numerous: we have seen a novel chapter in PowerPoint, a short story in Tweets (1 of 153), video trailers for books, and more. Each emits “voices” that are multi-faceted, voices that are “fractured.” In the first example, there is supposedly the character Alison Blake, but there is also the PowerPoint interface, its various constraints, and of course, Egan transcending all. Each are a voice—disparate, autonomous, whatever else. In the second, there’s Electric Lit., Twitter, Rick Moody’s shrewd narrator, and Moody himself. These go beyond words: they are more than words. That you could argue that there are more voices, or that there are less, or, finally, that my understanding of voice is general or incomplete, reveals much about the complexity of voice, its “inherent” difficulty.
In this developing realm called New Media, some have attempted to establish a concentrated presence which accounts for such diversity. Most literary journals have embraced social media, sure, and several offer content in additional mediums, but there are others still that somehow manage to emerge from the rest in a markedly progressive way. Not The New Yorker or Harper’s, whose historical weight propel them inevitably forward, rather, I’m speaking of ones like Electric Literature and Blackbird. Is formal inventiveness crucial, like the Moody story mentioned above, or is it the words the journals themselves produce (e.g. editorial policies, missions, forwards, etcetera)? Both? But is this not conceptually identical to Egan’s PowerPoint chapter? Presence, then, or dominance, is another sort of “voice.”
Even The Moth, a organization unique in its focus on live, unscripted storytelling, exists as an autonomous entity. “Each story is true and every voice authentic”, yes, but The Moth also maintains a blog, social media presence, and does radio broadcasts—in short, asserts it’s self.
Even so, New Media and its entities have yet to authentically (re)create the inexplicable magic of live readings. A video of an author reading does not compare with being in the same room with that author, his/her words assuming a new texture both visceral and singular, undeniably true, indifferent to your cursor, your mouse’s erratic clicking. It seems this is will always be so, that recreation is only an insufficient prosthetic, and I am happy for it. However, this language is “fundamental”, not fundamental. Nor are live readings. Likewise, some other “true” may emerge. Live reading culture could wane. If this happens, what will be lost?