Recently, the poet George Szirtes invited me and Aksania Xenogrette to discuss Twitter literature, its characteristics and possibilities. George had been kind enough to review a copy of time lines, an anthology of Twitter poets, and this has led to some interesting discussion of Twitter as a literary medium. We hope to continue the colloquy live on Twitter soon.

Below are some thoughts I emailed to George and Aksania. Apologies if they seem limited in scope to my personal practice; I can only write with authority about what I’ve experienced. I would welcome comments and reactions.


Virtually any established narrative or poetic form could work on Twitter, though most would be fragmented (or organised) into several tweets.

Many twitter poets label their tweets #haiku, as if to say, “I know micropoetry isn’t a respected form, so here’s a label that should convince you I’m a real poet.” This diffidence suggests a conservative attitude to form that I find surprising, given the violent upheavals that poetry experienced from the late 19th Century (Whitman, Dickinson, Rimbaud), then through modernism and the avant-garde. A poet should be an adventurer.

One question is, what new forms of literary expression exist or could exist on twitter? In my preface to time lines I suggested that the tweet could be considered a literary form in itself (though obviously it has non-literary uses too). The 140 character limit is conducive to a highly concentrated manner of expression that leaves a lot to the imagination or interpretation of the reader; in other words, a tweet is conducive to poetry.

The ephemerality of the tweet gives it a spectral quality that cannot be achieved by the solidity of black ink on a white page. This is a characteristic that distinguishes a tweet from, say, an imagist poem or any other very brief text.

I have read many tweets that constitute beautiful or arresting poems in themselves. However, single-tweet pieces have their limitations, and can be tedious or unsatisfying for the reader, after a while. Longer forms, comprising series of tweets, are a solution to this problem. For example, I have written numerous 13-part prose poems (which I refer to as 13s), in which images and ideas are varied or developed across the sequence. Each part is a numbered tweet; a reader may suddenly encounter something like this in his timeline:

4. Christ-in-the-Box leaps heavenward, eyes agog.

The number should encourage him to look back for numbers 1 to 3, and maybe anticipate 5 and beyond. Each part may be taken as a self-contained miniature – there is no overarching narrative – and yet it forms part of a larger structure.

A key aspect of twitter is interaction. An author might tweet material and then receive replies from followers: augmentations, questions, suggestions, variations. For example, many of my Bird King tweets prompted replies in a similar style from various people. A reader following me and someone who had replied to me would thus have an enriched reading experience, seeing a dialogue or a tennis-match of ideas going back and forth. This phenomenon is unique to twitter; you could copy and paste such a creative dialogue into a static document, but reading that document world be a very different experience from seeing the tweets appear in real time.

There are twitter accounts with multiple authors, such as @echovirus12, set up by Jeff Noon. Such accounts allow individuals to contribute anonymously to a narrative or, in the case of Jeff’s group, play the twitter equivalent of the exquisite corpse or an OuLiPo game.

Another example of creative interaction is my ONEIROSCOPE project. I invite anyone who happens to be looking at their timelines to request a single-tweet bespoke dream. They can specify up to three words that I have to include. I try to respond as quickly as possible, and include details that I think will resonate with the recipient, based on prior acquaintance or a quick look at his bio and tweets. Whenever I tweet that the ONEIROSCOPE is open for business I get a lot of returning customers. This, on a small scale, exemplifies the buzz of live interaction on twitter.

Quality is an interesting problem. At least 90% of twitterature is crap; solipsism, banality, empty paradoxes, glib philosophy and incompetent writing abound. Should we devise criteria for judging quality? That would be an interesting and difficult exercise.

One last thought – for now. The experience of reading online, and on mobile devices in particular, is radically different from that of reading a book. The reader’s experience is something we should investigate. I suspect it will unlock the real value of twitterature and show why twitter provides something with which conventional publishing (including self-published books like time lines) can never compete.


3 thoughts on “Twitterature

  1. I found fascinating the literary forms developing in twitter, but also, it interests me how writers use twitter. I have found that many of us use it as a writing platform, like a living digital notebook. Some months ago I tweeted a question asking readers/writers to favorite my tweet if they were using twitter as a sort of notebook and were developing those ideas further somewhere else. I can´t find the original tweet, but the answers made me think that it would be interesting to write a proper questionnaire to explore the uses of twitter. I think that what we see is only the tip of the iceberg and there are loads of interesting stuff going on.

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