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60 Years in 60 Poems

Launched to coincide with the Diamond Jubilee, ‘60 Years in 60 Poems’ lifts the poems off the pages of Carol Ann Duffy’s bestselling anthology Jubilee Lines and interprets them using actors’ recordings, sound-based generative design and archive film footage to create an exciting new way to enjoy poetry. With a poem for each year of the Queen’s reign, Jubilee Lines offers both a unique portrayal of the times in which we have lived and an essential portrait of today.

‘60 Years in 60 Poems’ was commissioned for The Space, the new free and on-demand digital platform (available via the internet, smartphones, tablets and some smart TVs) launched in May for a six-month trial period by the Arts Council in partnership with the BBC. It’s a nationwide initiative aimed at building digital skills – editorial, curatorial, technical etc – and capacity across the Arts sector, featuring a broad range of organisations in the UK spanning many disciplines.

Already The Space has featured gems from the BFI Archive (first films from the likes of Ridley Scott and Stephen Frears), the hugely ambitious Globe to Globe Shakespeare season, weekly instalments digitally recreating John Peel’s Record Collection, a retracing of Arthur Seaton’s footsteps in his Nottingham stomping ground, Will Self tackling Kafka and reinventing the literary essay, Penny Woolcock’s stunning, British Sea Power-scored film ‘From the Sea to the Land Beyond’ for the Sheffield Doc Fest … the list keeps growing, but you have until the end of October to take it all in. It’s a very exciting project for Faber to be a part of, and it’s encouraging to see poetry taking its place amongst it all and not feeling in any way out of place.

Organisations were encouraged to experiment and to be bold – to explore beyond the constraints usually imposed on them. In some cases the Arts Council’s funding enabled ambitious, already planned projects to have lift off. In other cases like ours, it meant being able to imagine and develop something completely from scratch. So here was a chance to work with people we wouldn’t normally work with (producers, interactive designers, archivists, sound engineers, film editors etc), and learn something along the way.

Collaboration is evident in all areas of The Space – from the alliance of the Arts Council and the BBC, to individual organisations working with technical partners, bringing their vision to define proposals. At the very outset Faber teamed up with Somethin’ Else, the award-winning content design company and specialists in interactive design. Literary Platform readers will be familiar already with their BAFTA-nominated The Nightjar, and Richard Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality on iPad app for Random House – and Paul Bennun is a speaker at the next FutureBook Innovation Workshop.

Somethin’ Else took what started as a fairly loose brief, explored concepts and considered every essential of accessible user-centered design, and assembled a crack production team. Which makes it all sound very easy (which it isn’t but it helps to have a superstar producer – Sophie Sampson – at the helm). The technical complexities of delivering ‘60 Years in 60 Poems’ to The Space were enormous (and you can read more on The Space’s infrastructure in Mo McRoberts’ blog post here.

Given the attention the Jubilee was always going to receive, and the renewed interest in a nation’s shared history, Carol Ann Duffy’s Jubilee Lines (which features a dazzling array of contemporary poets including Simon Armitage, Liz Lochhead, Roger McGough, Jo Shapcott, David Harsent and 55 others) was the perfect source material around which to build something innovative.

Visually and aurally, ‘60 Years in 60 Poems’ transforms the poems, suggesting alternative interpretations and new ways of exploration. Audio lies at the very heart of the site and we commissioned four fine actors to record versions of the poems, each in their own distinctive voice. So we have Dan Stevens’ baritone alongside Alex Lanipekun’s bass, and Samantha Bond’s charismatic, clipped pronunciation alongside Lyndsey Marshal’s reassuring, Manchester vowels.

What does a poem, when read out loud, actually look like? Designer Stefanie Posavec (whose previous work on Stephen Fry’s My Fry app we really admired) has taken poem lengths, frequencies and decibel levels and translated them into stunning, circular visualizations. Scrolling through the stack of poems (which are further arranged by themes including Vigilance, Migration, Celebration and Zeitgeist) recreates the peeling back of years and the sifting through of memories.

Taking advantage of the BBC’s encouragement to get stuck into the BBC Archive, twenty of the poems are enhanced with archive stills and film footage, evoking time and place, private recollections and shared experiences. Loading times only allow short snippets of material, but you’ll come across things you might recognise – Michael Fish’s assurances on the eve of the Great Storm in 1987 – alongside more eccentric clips like those showing Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova readying herself for a trip to space in 1963. There’s the Swinging Sixties, peace and protest at Greenham Common, Tony Blair ‘before’ and ‘after’, and a horse named Nijinsky.

The poems in Jubilee Lines are vibrant enough in their own right but by adding extra, interactive layers we hope we’ve managed not only to engage readers who are already familiar with poetry, but also pique the interest of those who might not previously have considered poetry as something for them. Cross-pollination across different types of digital arts and media is one of the explicit aims of The Space, and so while there’s no doubt we’ve brought a poetry readership to the site, we’ve also benefitted greatly from the traffic from the fanclubs of John Peel, William Shakespeare, David Shrigley or Gilbert and George.

‘60 Years in 60 Poems’ launched on Diamond Jubilee weekend with a bang, and the reception of the project since has been very encouraging. Poetry has always been an experimental form – in presentation, performance and interpretation; the likes of Joyce and Eliot, to the Beat Poets, to spoken word, rap lyrics and poetry slams – and the enormous success recently of Faber Digital’s The Waste Land for iPad App, the Josephine Hart Foundation’s Poetry App, and the Poetry Foundation’s mobile Poetry App shows that there is a considerable audience there for poetry across various devices. Poetry clearly fits very comfortably with technology so let’s hope this is just the beginning of much more experimentation.

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