The Poetry Map has its origins in a feature on Facebook’s homepage by which users could list countries they had visited and see these appear as pins on a map. While this was a good way of ‘showing off’, it also got me thinking about the places I had lived in the course of a peripatetic teaching career. Google Maps was in its infancy at this time, and people had just begun creating their own maps with details of campsites in Cornwall and the like. I created my own Google Map, dropping pins into places where a poem was composed or set (often one and the same) and then typing the poem into the ‘information box’ which opened and became readable when the cursor hovered above it.
These poems tended to be orphans left over from my first collection, Boxing the Compass (itself arranged by compass point) and they weren’t always complete. By dint of the Google Map format, the poems did not follow any sequence. You moved the mouse and a poem appeared. You would often read the same poem twice. Some poems (and pins) were lost behind others. It was impossible to enter prose poems as there was no right-hand justification. The font was uniform. There was no bold or italic option. However, this map-page became a portable journal in which I could revise and develop these poems. After a while, it held about 45 poems.
There was a counter built into the program, and I was amazed to see that the page clocked up 6,000 hits in no time at all. This far exceeded the readership of most collections. The potential to reach new international audiences by making my poetry available through this channel was clear when I saw that most of the hits came from Canada and China. Some poems were set in Toronto, and I had previously translated poetry by the Taiwanese poet Yao Yun, but apart from these two facts, I cannot explain why those two countries, in particular, took an interest.
So I approached Jon Munson II, a programmer from Maryland. He found a way to link one poem to another, and for the page to refresh rather than opening a new window for each poem. By trial and error, we honed the user experience. To start with, we threw the kitchen sink at the text. There were accompanying videos, occasionally unrelated, such as my performance of a song on guitar at the site of one of the poems. This was evidently both distracting and indulgent, so we pared back to a minimal accompaniment. What was, and is, important for me about the map is the poetry first; the interface is there to augment the experience. Having said that, where relevant I included things culled from other projects. For example, the video accompanying the reading of ‘The Westbury Horse’ was made for Creative Wiltshire in 2014. As we progressed, I decided to incorporate work from two pamphlets-in-progress: a sequence of poems set in Poland and the Czech Republic, with a short diversion to Germany, tentatively entitled Ahoj! (this became the third path, Czech Film); and a sheaf of teaching poems I had compiled over the years (which became path two, A Discipline). Normally, I would not have trusted so much writing to the internet, preferring hard-copy publishing channels, but I came to trust the interface we developed.
Whistles and Bells
In the Poetry Map, digital accompaniments come in the form of clickable ‘Magic Tickets,’ bonuses to be opened as one progresses through the poems. One of the concerns of A Discipline (path two) is the different languages with which we communicate. So the magic ticket in ‘Half Term’ reveals a Polish saying about recovering from the common cold, while ‘Preston’ is written in Phonetic Script (an aid for teaching pronunciation) only to be rendered into conventional English with a click of the magic ticket. However, the photos detailed in ‘Group Portrait’ and ‘Two Photos’ actually detracted from the poems. So they had to go. The only remaining photo is accompanied by a newspaper article whose headline provides the last line of a poem (‘Leanings’).
An example of a Magic Ticket
The poem appears
The ticket is visible
The ticket reveals something linked to the poem
Choice of Content
As we worked on the map, improving sequence and interface and dividing the poems into four distinct paths, the sheer number of times I re-read the poems allowed me to hone them into better shape and create an order strong enough to withstand the leap from place to place. Strangely, once the project had become a ‘publication’ in my mind – and I had decided that these poems would never be published together in hard-copy – I found I could not add newer, perhaps stronger, work to them. There was a specific type of poem which worked on the screen. A poem had to read ‘fast’ – not lay too many roadblocks in the reader’s way requiring re-reading and unpuzzling. Where there was a sequence (‘Entries’), each section is revealed with a click, so the reader only entertains one section at a time, rather than seeing the full poem and perhaps being dissuaded from persevering. Jon and any other programmer I spoke to felt that the interface should display as much white space as possible around the words, but I disagreed. I felt that the frame of the map, often telling in itself, created an atmosphere for the poems.
Not just this, but (with three exceptions) no poem was visible as a whole. The text screen is a visor, keeping the reader in the immediate present of the current section of a poem. This makes the experience interactive. The poem hasn’t already happened, it has to be unfurled.
Each path was arranged to be readable in one sitting. If it became over-extended, the tautness was lost and a reader might be tempted to check their mail or see what was happening in the outside world. Jon added flags in the top-right of the screen and a map in the bottom left-hand corner locating each poem’s position in its country.
Weirdly, despite all our best efforts, the map is not a static thing, but subject to changes in Google’s map technology. In this way, the woozy out-of-focus shots of the Czech Republic streets have been sadly lost through an upgrade. No doubt, as cliffs erode and shorelines advance, this will also be recorded on the map. The viewing experience is dependent on device and screen-size, determining whether you see, say, the Westbury Horse appear improbably white against its background before the text window opens over it with a poem of the same name. As David Lynch said about TV – everything is wrong with the medium: adverts interrupt you, you have no control over screen definition, a thousand interruptions incur. But despite everything…
The sequencing of poems required even more scrutiny than in the compilation of a book, where poems can immediately ‘sit right’ on a page beside each other. The singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett describes a road trip listening to her new album in ten or fifteen different orders ‘until it felt right.’ This was the approach we took. With online distractions one tap away, the sequence had to be compelling.
Reading it now, I can draw a link between each poem and explain it logically, though I doubt these reasons were explicit when I ordered them. For example, the first path begins with a poem about finding a dead deer. This is followed by a poem about the delivery of dead lambs from a dead sheep, which is then followed by a poem in which umbilical cords and afterbirth are visible in the grass. The next two poems deal with depictions of life – one of the Wiltshire white horses carved into the chalk hillside, and a life-drawing class. There follows the burial of a pet cat, before a number of poems featuring a life-line of some kind – a safety harness hung from a helicopter lifting people from a flash flood in Boscastle, a Rayburn at the heart of a house, a pilot light leading the cyclist safely home along a canal path in darkness, and a statue of a harvest maiden in Warminster. Continuing the theme of life, ‘lungs of water’ crossed by cattle lead to a swimming pool, which leads to poems considering ‘inner’ and ‘outer’, claims and possessions and finally letting go of a relationship.
I thought carefully about the beginning and end of each path. The second path is concerned with teaching, and the poems occupy the liminal spaces familiar to many teachers – a college hallway after dark, squash courts serving as classrooms – not to mention encounters with students of different nationalities. It opens with a non-teaching poem in which a drunk teenager stumbles behind a car and relieves herself. I had in mind a scene in Toni Morrison’s Beloved in which this physical action serves to draw a line between past and present, so it seemed apt to use it as a sequence-opener. It also touches upon the teacher’s vantage into private lives. Some of the poems are quite ‘minor’ (‘An Acquaintance’) – things scribbled on buses – but together they add up to a sense of glimpsed faces. The poems jump from Bath to Greenwich to Wandsworth before ending up in Exeter where I was a student myself.
Developing a Teaching Resource
When I received e-mails from teachers telling me that the map had been used on World Poetry Day in California and Taunton, I immediately became gravely concerned. It seemed so naked. Not just that, the poems mentioned labia, condoms, and dead lambs. So I developed a downloadable teacher’s guide (including a recommended age-range) and downloadable student worksheets, while Jon made improvements to the navigation (including a drop-down menu of poems on completion of each path). In the worksheets, I used the classic pedagogic trick of creating an information gap and putting students in the position of detectives on a trail. Some responded to the fact that the resource was online, and so in a sense were encouraged to read poetry by stealth. I saw immersion in the map as a way for students to learn to navigate ‘negative capability’, a skill required by the GCSE English Literature ‘Unseen Poem’ section. To my mind, one of the strengths of the sequences is that since the poems weren’t written with teenagers in mind, they don’t pander or patronize. The downside of this is that the poems can’t be used as an introduction to specific forms (such as sonnets and sestinas) as they are generally in free verse.
I imagine the site as something to be stumbled upon, like a map in an old desk. As long as people are drawn to the promise of a way to navigate, and rise to the challenge of cracking a code, then the Poetry Map will be relevant and the poems will mean something to someone somewhere. At least, that’s my hope.