Friday, July 15, 2011

Smartphones and Black Poetry: Some Preliminary Impressions

Poetry app from the Poetry Foundation
I'm really too new to my smartphone (an android) to offer really complex ideas about a wide range of technical possibilities with apps and all. But, there's so little written about these devices and black literature and especially poetry that I figured I should start somewhere.

Yesterday, I noticed a tweet pointing out that the Poetry Foundation had released its app for android devices. (The app for the iPhone had been released a while back). After downloading, I took some time - quite a bit of time actually - to scroll through the many poems now easily available on my device.

I was immediately impressed with the two-tier theme categorization system for finding poems. One level has words related to moods like "Humor," "Joy," "Passion," and "Nostalgia," and then another level has subjects such as "& Work and Play" "& Celebrations," and "& Arts and Sciences." You simply scroll your hand across to match two levels and then a number of poems are identified that match the combination of themes. It's rare and amazing, when you think about it, to have so many poems at your fingertips.

I was excited to find poems by Emily Dickinson. I have often struggled and found enjoyment in the processes of trying to understand the many twists, turns, and slanted meanings in her poems. There are 19 of her works in the collection.

After spending a considerable amount of time thinking through various configurations of themes and looking at different poems, I decided to see what poems I could locate by African American poets. There's a function that allows users to browse by "mood," "subject," "poet," and "audio." Or, you can type names into the built-in search engine.

I decided to scroll through the long list of poets. I concentrated on works by the following poets: Ai, Lucille Clifton, Rita Dove, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Jupiter Hammon, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Terrance Hayes, James Weldon Johnson, Georgia Douglass Johnson, Etheridge Knight, Yusef Komunyakaa, Patricia Smith, Jean Toomer, Natasha Trethewey, Phillis Wheatley, Al Young, and Kevin Young.

I had a good time reading through works that I was familiar and not-so-familiar with on my cell phone. It was a new level of interaction that I still haven't gotten the exact words to explain yet. But it was enjoyable.

But where was our man Langston Hughes? Oh, and Gwendolyn Brooks and Margaret Walker? What about Amiri Baraka? Maybe works by those black poets and others are on the way. I hear that these apps have regular updates.

Whatever the case, with so many poets already included, readers will have enough to keep them busy. Still, I'm hoping poems by Hughes show up sooner rather than later. More so than any other black poet perhaps, Hughes had a long history with Poetry, so his presence on these new devices would be important as Hughes's relationship with the publishing operation moves forward into the future.

A large number of the students I work with in literature courses and black studies have smartphones. I'll start talking with them about the kinds of projects that we can do to study poetry using our devices. In the meantime, I'll keep scrolling and reading and seeing what I discover.

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