Escarp Poetry Magazine: Can a Text Message Be Poetry?

June 16, 2009

Cell Phone Text Messaging

Cell Phone Text Messaging. Credit: kb35 on flickr

Travis Everett created a literary journal delivered via text-message and wrote the scripts behind the site himself — three cheers for coding poets! — and, after some debugging, the magazine has been running smoothly.
escarp distributes through Twitter, and faces length limitations beyond most people’s imaginations — 140 characters if placed onto Twitter — yet Everett finds himself passionate about the potential for social change that can take place when literature is in your pocket every day, and when it has the insistence of a text message. How much more will people who receive literature — even if it’s limited by the format — read and write when they’re forced to think about it frequently?

Our own 32 Poems editor, John Poch, published this poem via text message:

Love Poem

Sometimes my shirt makes sparks. Watch me take it off.

I’m always curious about new and creative ventures A poetry magazine delivered via text messaging has to be one of the more innovative and creative ideas I’ve heard lately, so I knew I had to interview the brain behind the magazine. He was kind enough to answer my questions.

Where did you learn to program to create this project?

I started undergrad as a computer science major, but I only lasted a semester. Debugging is rough when your heart isn’t in it. So I knew some of the principles, but I needed to learn some PHP and mysql to get it all working. I learn best when a lack of knowledge stands between me and a project I’m passionate about, but it still took a lot of trial and error and some help from Google.

It’s not that unlike writing and revising a poem, except you get error
messages instead of funny looks or polite smiles when something goes

When did the idea strike you to launch this project?

I first got a cell phone in summer of 2006, and I was playing around
then with writing some short poems for my phone. I actually did the
original site design then, but at the time there wasn’t an easy way to
shoestring a text-message-based journal. You had to buy bulk text
message packs from online services and talk people into giving you their cell phone numbers. That was no good.

At the time, most of my poems were fairly middle of the road in length,
but in the three years since, I’ve developed a real fascination with
short poems, so my desire to make this project work was building.

I didn’t really start hearing about Twitter until the media blitz in
fall of last year, but for some reason I didn’t connect the dots right
away. This spring, the clouds opened up a week or two before spring
break and a little free time was all it took for the a-ha moment and
the initial work necessary to launch the journal.

What’s been the biggest challenge with launching this magazine?

Well, it’s Twitter, really. There’s a big stigma, and to some extent I
agree with the sentiment that Twitter is vapid and pointless. So I know people who are writing, and it’s still tough to get them to sign up and participate. But that’s also one of my goals for the project–to break down that perception. Twitter is a communication media, like the
telephone or broadcast TV, so it’s got the some potential to be used for interesting and uninteresting things.

How do poets react when you ask them to submit work?

There are two camps, which is an over-generalization, and this spans the fiction writers, too. There are people who aren’t inclined to hate Twitter and people who are. So there’s excitement about the project on one side, and a real hesitation to participate on the other.

I’m okay at convincing the latter group to try it out if I have personal access to them. If that fails, I nag a lot. However, I can’t be there to make a sales pitch to everyone. My sales pitch would be:

Exposure is ideologically important for writers. We’ve bemoaned decreasing readership for a long time now, and we’ve finally got a chance to use one of the next prolific communication technologies (the cell phone, I mean) to put literature in people’s pockets. The various poetry books and mags on my desk and in my backpack are great, but they don’t ring and vibrate. They don’t disrupt chemistry class or follow you to the grocery store.

Yes, it’s an abbreviated format, but that’s all it takes to keep literature on people’s minds.

And, you know, people will go to the trouble to sign up for multiple
submission systems, or mail in manuscripts. Signing up for Twitter and
submitting to escarp is easier than that.

Visit escarp via web or Twitter.

What do you think? Can a text message be a poem?

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