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Poetry Goes Digital

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I spoke with an old friend recently who's working on an interesting new project. Dennis Downey released a new iPhone app named Poem Flow where people can read or experience a poem per day. With our increasingly short attention spans and our desire to click on links, it feels refreshing that someone is trying to reinvigorate digital reading through poetry, of all things.

Some background: Dennis and I worked on a crazy startup in the 90's named Bali Hai. We thought we were working on the next big thing for kids' digital entertainment. Dennis had been doing some stand-up routines and had a concept he was trying to bring to life called Man-in-a-Box. After Bali Hai crashed and burned, Dennis worked on bringing his idea to life and it has ultimately resulted in Poem Flow.

One of the things Poem Flow is trying to do is to understand how we need to adjust the way we deal with text on screens, apart from simply transferring a print model to displays. And businesses like Apple and have focused on the same thing: How do we make text more engaging on a screen. Maybe that's what the iPad will ultimately do?

I find it fascinating to try this with poetry, specifically. Poetry is one of the oldest writing forms and one that's seemed to diminish greatly over the past century. Using new technology to highlight "old" content produces an interesting creative tension. Whether or not Poem Flow succeeds in finding an innovative solution to reading text on screens, I think it's laudable that it's trying to spread poetry.

Apparently I'm not the only one who thinks so. About 40 teachers have contacted Poem Flow to see if they could use it in the classroom. And the Academy of American Poetry is working with Poem Flow to help curate poems and spread the word.

There are others who are trying to use new technology for poetry. Gavin Heaton, one of the editors of the book series The Age of Conversation, started a poetry crowdsourcing experiment on Twitter a while back called TwitterPoetry. It's starting to feel like an epic. It's a cool idea but one that might need a little more curating.

All of this reminds me of some friends of mine in Stockholm Sweden in the 80s. They were all studying literature or media studies at the time and they had an idea to rip out all of the print advertising in the subway cars and replace it with poetry. For them, it was a strike against commercialism and a blow for higher education. While they never actually did anything (remember, they were students) several years later the city of Stockholm did just that: they bought advertising space in the cars and put up famous Swedish poetry.

For now, I'm reading poetry on my iPhone, something I never thought I'd ever do. I'd love to see this in my kids' school. I'm not sure whether I like the moving text, though, since it makes me give up control, but maybe that's just me.

But anything that makes us take the time to stop, read and think has to be a good thing.