Poetry and technology together

Victor Keegan

To talk about poetry and technology in the same breath is enough to send most traditionalists running for a cold shower. Poetry, after all, is about romanticism and nostalgia while technology is, well, strictly for the geeks.

Or is it? There are two literary challenges here. The first is to write creatively about the revolution in social networking that we are living through in a way that can survive the lifespan of a tweet (about 15 minutes). It is not easy. The second is to exploit new media as a way of creating and delivering today’s poetry. We are so used to reading poems from a book that there is a danger of thinking there is no alternative. It is still the most pleasurable way of doing it but it is not without drawbacks. You have to have the book with you for a start and that is not always the moment when you want to recall a poem – which might be at the place that inspired it. Reading from a mobile – especially in daylight – is not everyone’s cup of tea though I have to admit that having read several books – including a 600 page novel – on my iPod Touch my resistance is eroding fast. You can carry on reading a mobile book on the train, in a queue or in bed at night. There are only so many words your eyes can take in at any one moment – and the joy of being able to hold the book (on a phone screen) in one hand and “turn the pages” with your thumb is quite addictive.

Part of my job with the Guardian (until I left a few weeks ago) was writing about new technology which provided opportunities to experiment. My first foray was when I published my first book, Crossing the Why, in conjunction with a website called Shakespeare’s Monkey which used a computer running 24 hours a day to simulate two given lines of poetry in the random manner Shakespeare’s monkeys might have done. As an experiment in marketing books it was a disaster.  I don’t think anyone managed to navigate the labyrinthine website to find the Buy button but the project is still running though it hasn’t moved beyond getting 13 characters right at any one moment for over seven years.

My second book, Big Bang, was published as a real book but launched in the virtual world Second Life amid an animated conversation by avatars. Since those early days Second Life has developed an innovative culture of creating three dimensional virtual books including poems which is taking literature in a new direction, albeit for a minority audience.

But the advent of mobile phones will revolutionise the way we enjoy culture. Most people on the planet have a mobile and the fastest growing sector is smart phones with web access, cameras and huge storage space so you can read whatever you like wherever you like and if you haven’t got what you want you can soon download it from a nearby wi-fi hotspot. Most of the smart phones these days come with maps with the facility to pinpoint where you are from signals from satellites, cell phone transmitters and wi-fi hotspots. With my third book Remember to Forget, published this week, at Lulu.com I decided to test the new technology by linking poems via an iPhone app (called Geo Poems) to places or things that inspired them. But when I had uploaded the poems from the book they looked a bit lonely on a map of the world so I decided to include the contents of the first two books as well to keep them company – which makes over 250 poems for only £1.79p. This may seem crazy for something that took over ten years to write but it reflects the fact that once you have uploaded the content the cost of making and delivering extra copies is zero. In theory there is already a market of several billion people out there with mobiles with no middle men between me and them – if only I could get near to them.

Until the events of this week my most satisfying encounter with new technology was undoubtedly the text message poetry competition I did on the Guardian which attracted over 7,000 entries a year, each written within the constraints of a 160 character SMS and mostly by people who had probably never written a poem before in their lives. Some of the winning entries found their way into anthologies and the winners themselves were in demand at literary festivals. Just as the text message competition used new technology to inspire people to write, so the City Poems app for the iPhone – which links poems to places in central London that inspired them – gives new life to poems that have been dormant for hundreds of years. Technology and poetry have been walking down divergent paths for many years. Maybe it is time they came together to produce a fresh cultural synergy.

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Portrait by Anastacia

Victor Keegan joined the Guardian in 1963 since when he has held various positions including business editor, economics editor, duty editor, chief leader writer and assistant editor.  He edited the online section of the Guardian for six years and wrote its technology column until he retired last month. Since 2000 he has been involved with projects experimenting with literature and technology. He recently launched the City Poems iPhone app which links classic poems to the places that inspired them in London. This week he launches the Geo Poems iPhone app which links three books of his own poems to the places around the world that triggered them.

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