Shearsman poet Alice Kavounas and Apple developer John Kennedy describe their collaboration
and creation of a location-based app Words in Air: Poetry-in-Place.
Alice Kavounas describes how an idea took shape…
Most ideas don’t come out of thin air, but from fusing new and existing elements. I took what was important to me – poetry – and looked at how to make it part of the then-new digital landscape – location-based apps.
Words in Air enables you to pinpoint the source of a poet’s inspiration. You can tap into the poem nearest to you. Since it’s a digital archive, you can also access these poems from anywhere in the world, on an iPhone or iPad.
Location-based apps were just gaining popularity in the US, finding you the nearest coffee shop, or reminding you to put out the rubbish! GPS meant an app could not only find things for you – it could find you. I was teaching a postgrad course in creative advertising. My students were welded to their mobiles as if life depended on it. This was the new screen. Personal. Private. Always with you. Perfect, I thought, for revealing places that spark great poems, bringing them into the palm of your hand. I named my idea Words in Air after the gripping correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, both terrific poets of place. As an American who studied English Lit at Vassar (Bishop’s alma mater), I’ve lived for decades in London and now Cornwall. The UK seems more navigable than the US, and richer in accessible literary history. Its contained, varied landscape is what I decided I could map, with countless sources of inspiration for living contemporary poets, as well as Blake, Keats,Wordsworth, Coleridge, and of course T.S. Eliot, all of whom I’d studied at university – poets whose brilliance at evoking a sense of place drew me here.
I had no idea whether poets would like this idea. Nor whether it would be possible to preserve poetry’s line-breaks. Yes, poets have reacted so positively! Now, if I could find someone who knew how to map the landscape, maybe together we could solve the line-break problem too. Preserving line-breaks had kept poetry out of the digital landscape. Think e-books. No page numbers. Just text, on and on. You can’t do that with poetry. I’m incredibly lucky to have found John Kennedy to collaborate with. It has been a steep learning curve – I’m hopeless at technology but getting better, slowly.
Rather than select poets according to topography or by counties, I choose poets whose work I respond to most strongly, no matter where in the UK their source of inspiration originates. I make suggestions, but ultimately it’s their choice. Our map pins show that edges, coastal areas, uninhabited islands, all appeal. Yet an ordinary city street, a field, an unremarkable village – these are ‘places’, too, equally inspiring. Altogether, the resulting poems create a wonderfully diverse mApp of inspiration. I’m grateful to Forward Arts for their vital start-up funding, the RSL and Literature Works for their support, and to the poets who have so generously offered their work.
You can find out more of what’s on offer in Words in Air at
A webpage for Alice Kavounas is at http://www.shearsman.com/browse-poetry-books-by-author-Alice-Kavounas
John Kennedy reveals some technical details…
GPS is a modern day miracle, relying on orbiting satellites and maths developed by Albert Einstein to pin-point your location to within metres. What could relativistic physics have in common with poetry? That depends on your frame of reference – especially if that happens to include an app called Words In Air.
Words In Air stores a database of latitudes and longitudes cross-referenced against an ever-growing list of poems. Using an iPhone’s GPS hardware to determine location, the app can display the most appropriate poem.
What happens when a poet teams up with a developer? Arguments. We clashed when my engineering, problem-solving approach met Alice’s attempt to protect the more artistic aspects of the poetry. Whereas I saw the poems as “content” and fussed about encoding them in XML and calculating their distance to a specific point in space, to Alice they were always the entire point and she fought with me constantly to ensure the layout of the poems was always maintained at whatever cost. When I wanted to format the text to fit or wrap better, she absolutely blocked it. We fought over the typefaces, the color, the layout… in fact, everything related to words. In the end I pretty much had to blackmail her to let me add the ability to let users select their own typeface and font size.
Before starting this project, I didn’t realize the layout of a poem is as much part of it as the words. Poetry is very visual.
I’ve been writing apps for a few years now (I had a game on the iPhone when the Apple App Store opened in 2008), but being a huge nerd, I was mostly focused on educational and science apps, such as my astronomy project. A friend asked me if I was interested in helping out a poet who had an interesting idea. And it was interesting: a mix of geeky geolocation (which was something I had to work with for the astronomy app) and education, with a nice dose of literature thrown in. At the time, my own app was doing pretty well and I could indulge in a few projects just for fun, and this was one of them.
And Alice sold me on the idea. Rather than just saying “Here’s an idea, and I have found some poems on the web, go make it happen”, Alice not only tracked down actual live poets to explain the idea and get permission to use their work, she then researched and wrote explanatory notes. These notes are perhaps the most valuable part of the app: you’re getting some extremely knowledgeable background information there. I doubt any other poetry app goes to that length.
My little one-man app company is called “Craic Design”, which is a bit of a joke because (although I live in Seattle now) I grew up in Northern Ireland where “craic” has a specific meaning. I’ve had a degree of success with some apps, and I’m currently working on a game (to make me a billionaire) and also with a small team of retired educators on some science apps for schools (to get me some good karma).
Alice & I have never actually met, so haven’t had much of an opportunity to enjoy any anecdotal high jinx. It’s interesting working with someone who is usually 4700 miles away, trying to work out why an app that depends on your location doesn’t work as it should. And then, occasionally, Cornwall seems to drop into the sea and lose all internet capability which adds an extra degree of challenge. It’s been fun though, and I hope more people give the app a try. I think they might like it.