Twitterature

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.

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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.

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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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