Inviting the Language of New Media to Enter the #poem

Shannon Sankey

Throughout my time in undergraduate and graduate workshops, I observed a general reluctance, within myself and my peers, to allow the language of new media and technology to enter the landscape of a poem. For the purposes of this exercise, new media is defined as any means of digital communication, including social media, text messaging, email, and more.

I had begun to work through whiteness and gender and trauma in my poems—and wasn’t that the more daunting stuff to me, after all? Still, I circumnavigated every opportunity to lyrically interrogate the harassment I endured over Facebook Messenger, the rhetorical problem of un-threaded text messages, the unsolicited intimacy of Snapchat, the curation of my life for social currency, and the various ways my psychic landscape is being shaped and reshaped continuously by content and how content is delivered to me.

It occurred to me that, as a millennial poet, with the privilege of access to and command of technology, I had all the license I needed to corrupt and exalt these new and developing languages in my work. So, why should I be afraid to render the digital scaffolding of my daily life?

I asked students and peers who shared my experience the same question. They responded:

“I don’t like to include brands like Facebook in a poem.”

“I’m not used to seeing this language in poems.”
“It’s not sonically or aesthetically beautiful.”

“It doesn’t fit.”
“I don’t want to show my age.”

“I’m uncomfortable with my relationship to technology.”

“I write poems to escape Twitter.”

Fair. If there is a perceived lack of models, it may be that instructors are not comfortable enough with the material to introduce it into the classroom. Then there is the problem of aesthetic. Naming a social media platform or referencing one of its functions, for example, could be a burdensome import on a poem, particularly if it too sharply juxtaposes the poem’s intended tone or palette. The poet might choose to render a text message as a line of spoken dialogue to heighten the humanity or preserve the generality or, perhaps more often than not, avoid the distraction. There lies another problem: when we are exhausted with the noise of new media, the poem provides a quiet place, a safe harbor.

At least, that is our hope. But most of us make poems via blinking cursors in the dark, our faces cast in blue light. We take intermittent breaks to browse an array of open tabs. All the while, our smartphones glow with notifications. When the poem is done, we upload it to Submittable and blast the published link across our channels. We tag the digital magazine, friend the editors, rack up the shares, study the likes, and update our bios. Like so much of our lives, the business and consumption of poetry is, largely, online.

As a digital strategist by day and poet by night, I understand the tension between these two modes of communication. Some days I find new media and poetry irreconcilable—one insidiously degrading human connection, the other facilitating. Of course, we know that irreconcilable tension is the stuff of good poetry. Practitioners of this work show us that the language of new media can empower the disenfranchised, amplify the organic, and compress and expand the interstices between us. At its best, poetry that wields the language of new media illuminates the dark rooms we each inhabit alone, our faces cast in blue light.

Considerations

  • Many fine poets and student-poets are doing this work all the time.
  • No experimentation or exercise is age- or generation-restricted.
  • This exercise assumes a level of technological access and ability in the classroom, which the instructor should consider and accommodate as needed.
  • Because this language is rapidly regenerative, the instructor, in collaboration with students, should modify prompts for relevancy and immediacy.

Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Assemble and assign a packet of material to be read before class. A brief list of suggested models, many of which are available or excerpted online, is included in the Suggested Reading section. The material demonstrates interpretations of our prompts, but also generates other possibilities.
  2. Open the exercise with discussion. You might capture collective insights on a whiteboard.
    1. First, introduce our shared concept of new media: any means of digital communication, including social media, text messaging, email, and more.
    2. Invite students to share their personal relationships to the language of new media in their own work. What suspicions or curiosities do we share as a class? You might use my list of peer responses to stimulate conversation.
    3. Ask students to detail their experiences of the readings: unfamiliar, uncomfortable, refreshing, blasphemous? Encourage students to identify the elements of craft working to affect them in such a way.
  1. Select a poem or excerpt to be read aloud. Notice, together, how the reading is complicated or illuminated by the syntax, diction, and dialogue of new media and technology. Facilitate a critical reading of the poem.
  2. Offer students a menu of prompts, provided with this exercise. It may be helpful to read through each prompt as a class to determine if modifications are necessary or to spark interesting additions. Allow at least thirty minutes of writing time. Note that students may want to interact with phones or laptops to generate ideas.
  3. Reconvene for discussion.
    1. Encourage students to share their work. Discourage critical feedback, but welcome positive reactions.
    2. Ask students to share their experiences of the exercise. Were discoveries made, positive or negative? Did an unfamiliar speaker emerge?
    3. Encourage students to identify how the language of new media has affected the craft of their drafts. How might their use of diction, syntax, and enjambment differ from their bodies of work to date?
  1. Assign at-home revisions of drafts, accompanied by 500-word reflections on the exercise. This exercise can be scaled up as a course section, in which case you might assign one of the recommended poetry collections in full.

Suggested Reading

Becca Klaver’s “Manifesto of the Lyric Selfie” invites the ubiquitous language of social media into the lyric: “Hashtags of interiority / licking like flames.” The poem is ripe with agency and power: “We write our poems. / We write our manifestos.” But there is a devastation here, the speaker warns, “There are no more countrysides. / There are no more churchyards. / […] We flip the cam around.” It’s a familiar emotional duplicity for anyone with a Facebook account.

Though we might seldom find a hashtag in a poem, the cadence of new media is ever-present, disrupting and restricting and unlocking the lyric on a craft level. Fady Joudah’s Textu, a formal book of 160-character poems, navigates human connection within the (now outdated) constraints of a text message: “We’re in the no reply zone / Still I will bang my body / into your body’s rhythms.”

On a meta level, new media lends itself to surrealist modes of poem generation. Carina Finn and Stephanie Berger developed such an exercise using emojis. Finn would send a complex string of emojis to Berger, who then translated the message into English for a series of collaborative poems.

Airea D. Matthews’s Simulacra features a series of poems formatted as text conversations, with use of white space and timestamps, between multiple speakers and Anne Sexton. In a Literary Hub interview, Matthews explains the form: “In 2012 I began reading through my own text archive and picking out happy accidents—messages that due to sequencing errors and forced line breaks read as lyrical excerpts. … I found this opportunity to construct conversations through the text form. For about a year, I set up a secondary text account and sent messages to an imagined Sexton, which I began to transcribe and edit into the Sexton Texts poems.”

 

In a Poetry Society interview, Tommy Pico describes one of the catalysts behind his debut book-length poem, IRL, as concern for “the declining state of modern privacy.” The poem is a coming-of-age epic driven by a feverish, queer, and indigenous speaker, featuring the syntax, diction, and shape of digital communications: “Weather.com says / Stay inside forever, or / drop dead. / We’ve ads / for you to click. You n me? / It’s going to take soooo long / for us to know each other / ten years.”

 

Aase Berg’s Hackers, stark and glitchy, mines the shared language of technology and disease—the inorganic and organic—to render the female body as an invaded platform: “Which is the first parasite of a hyper-parasite? Can a host insect cross-corrupt its scent-communication? But no crypto-brain, no ping-seeking heart beats me. You, my aquarium for star-fishing, and I, a dark vision electronic straight through you.”

Prompts

  1. Use several of these words (or their variations/cousins) in a prose poem: unfriend, hashtag, tweet, emoji, ghost, selfie, cancel, .gif, chat, creep, filter, troll, swipe. Consider their multiplicities. How do they transform as different parts of speech? How can you intensify or subvert this language?
  2. Write a nature poem with a cell phone, laptop, tablet, or other electronic device treated as organic material or in the context of the natural world. Let awe, fear, curiosity, intimacy, or distance enter the poem.
  3. Write a poem in the persona of your online “brand” or avatar. What do you communicate to your followers (the reader), and what rhetorical and poetic devices do you use to do so? How does this voice obscure or reveal the self?
  4. Format a love/beloved poem as a text message thread: brief lines, multiple voices. Perhaps information is delivered in fractured, successive lines. Perhaps there are parenthetical subtexts. Perhaps one voice appears and then disappears. You may work in groups of two for this prompt.
  5. Collect out-of-context messages or fragments of messages from your various inboxes. Compose a poem in which each of these is a line.
  6. Write a poem about the posturing of the body as it engages with technology. How does the face feel after browsing for hours? How does a selfie inflame or soothe dysmorphia? What new shapes do bodies make in the use of these devices? How is the body altered or unlocked?

Example of the Exercise (Prompt #2)

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by Shannon Sankey

The words on the back of a Wish-Bone Italian
Salad Dressing bottle are of little art or
consequence. Still, I strung them myself, for
money, for a label pasted to a plastic bottle
that will outlive me in a landfill by four
centuries. Dress to impress with bold recipes
at wish-bone.com! could be the last
surviving imperative of my warm corpus. See
the dead serif URL and follow, follow—the
blue bird’s song still intelligible—all of it
driven several miles into the red clay of what remains
by the fearsome weight of us.

Biography

Shannon Sankey’s poems have appeared at POETS.org, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, the minnesota review, Puerto del Sol, Sugar House Review, Barrelhouse, Storyscape, SWWIM, Visible Poetry Project, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a 2017 Academy of American Poets University and College Prize and a 2019 SAFTA residency. She holds an MFA from Chatham University, where she was the Whitford Fellow. She is the founder of Stranded Oak Press, a senior copywriter, and a digital strategist (www.shannonsankey.com; @shansankey).

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