Transcript for Poems in Our Pockets


Nikki Giovanni: I wanted to write a poem that rhymes... [reads]



Jim Fleming: That's Nikki Giovanni reading her poem, For Sandra. It's a great poem. Don't you wish you could send it to a friend right now and find more poems like it? Cathy Halley runs the digital programs of the poetry Foundation. Anne Strainchamps asked her how and what people are reading on the web.


Cathy Halley: There's a site called Stumbled Upon, and that's a site that allows users to thumbs up. It's crowd sourced poetry reading I guess in some ways, and what I find is that poems by E.E. Cummings in particular are incredibly popular. So, you've got two things, two sort of parallel trends. One, you see those kinds of poems that folks will put on Stumbled Upon, and then you also see the poems that are really popular in classrooms by people like Robert Frost who are taught in the classroom. Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening is one of our most popular poems and has been for years.



Anne Strainchamps: So, these are kind of the greatest hits poems.


Halley: Yes, the greatest hits poems. You can't really gain social media. You can try to put poems that are different up on Facebook and that kind of thing, but what happens is 30,000 people will come to a random E.E. Cummings poem or to a St. Vincent Millay poem because someone has decided that they like it, and they've shared it with millions of Internet users.


Strainchamps: How many visitors are you averaging?


Halley: We have about 1.2 million visitors, unique visitors a month right now.


Strainchamps: That's a lot of people for a form of literature that people often say is in decline and doesn't have a big readership anymore.


Halley: It's interesting. I think that people use poems to help them express themselves when they can't. They use poems for occasions, and that has been really the bulk of our traffic for the past few years; folks coming to the site to find poems for weddings or for funerals. I think that people have a use for poetry in a way that they don't necessarily for stories. Some of the best data, I say, that I get from my constituents, is to look at the reviews of the app. I was looking for a poem for a particular occasion or to tell someone I loved them and I found it.


Strainchamps: Now, you're talking about the poetry app, which is very cool. We should talk about this. This is kind of like a slot machine for poetry.


Halley: It is a slot machine for poetry. I think I'm not supposed to use that language to talk about it, but it's true because you shake your phone or you hit a spin button and you land on a random combination of a subject and a mood, so you might get, for instance, family and anger. I always say, "Mad at your dad? There's a poetry app for that."


Strainchamps: Well, the thing that I think is so ingenious about it is, of course, you can't just spin once.


Halley: We have found that folks tend to browse around the app even more than they do on the web site, and I think it's because of that spin function. They'll look at 12 poems when they're looking at the app versus one or two or three when they're on the web site. I really wanted it to be like a game, and, so, the interface is very entertaining, colorful, and beautiful. It's for magpie readers of poetry, I guess.


Strainchamps: OK. So, for instance, I'm looking at my phone now. Your app says, 'Welcome to Poetry Spin.' I'm pressing "spin" and I get all these colors swirling. Let's see... I've got two bars and I can choose nostalgia, optimism, disappointment, worry, blame, humor, joy. Let's choose joy. On the bottom I can choose work, play, celebrate, life, youth, aging. Let's choose aging. I'm getting older every minute. Wow. It's giving me 14 poems on joy and aging. Here's one very short. One Day by Robert Creeley: [reads] That's great. Cathy, do you use the app much yourself just for fun?


Halley: Constantly, and I'm not just testing it. I use it on the subway a lot and the grocery line. I use it exactly where I anticipated that other folks would use it. It takes me out of my surroundings and into myself.


Strainchamps: You said that people are spending more time on the app than they are online. That sort of makes sense, don't you think, because, well, for one thing when we're online a lot of us are working, whereas, your phone, you carry it with you and you can look at it when you're standing in line at the post office.


Halley: That's right. You don't need an Internet connection to use the app. I think the Internet is incredibly distracting. One of the things that is fascinating is that our reach for the web site has grown and grown and grown by 500%, but the amount of time that people spend on the site and the number of pages that people look at is getting smaller. But, the app, it creates this really quiet space.


Strainchamps: Poetry, it seems to me, especially the lyric poetry, really is about sort of opening that door to enter into a different kind of perception, stepping out of the business of your daily life and into what Virginia Woolf called a moment of being. So, in that sense it seems just so perfectly well suited for these little bite-size apps.


Halley: It's true. There's also another form of poetry that's digital native poetry, you might call it. So, I think you've got both things. You've got those quiet poems, but you've also got these other folks who are either using the Internet or other forms of media and the noise and turning it into poetry because they force you to look at it slightly differently. So, I think both things are at work.


Strainchamps: So, here's this work. Especially thinking about dissecting poems, has this changed or is it changing the way you read poems yourself?


Halley: You know what, the answer to that question is "no" because I think that I'm able to turn off the part of my brain that looks at poetry as data because I need poems. I need poems to provide that kind of intimate experience with me. I have to have that intimate relationship with poetry, and so I protect it.


Strainchamps: Is there a particular gift you think poetry could give us in the digital age?


Halley: I think poetry will continue to give us that kind of intimate relationship with language that is slowly disappearing. I always moan about and say, "Oh, look at interests. Language is becoming captions. It's becoming captions. What's happening to us?" But, I think, lines of a poem, it makes you pay attention to the sound of language, to the materiality of language, to the way that language looks on a page or on a screen, and I think that that's what poems will continue to do.


Strainchamps: Well, you make me feel very hopeful about the future of poetry then.


Halley: I'm glad. I feel very hopeful about it too.


Fleming: Cathy Halley is the director of digital programs at the Poetry Foundation. After Anne talked with her we made a house call to get the scoop on the foundation's latest new media experiment. It is a poetry recommendation engine. Here's Halley and her staff briefing a new team member on the project they've nicknamed 'Pandora for poetry.'




Halley: So, Nuria, one of the projects that we're working on that we're really excited about is a poem recommendation engine. We have an archive of 10,000 poems, and the same 150 or 200 poems are surfaced over and over and over again, so we wanted to broaden the number of poems that are actually exposed. There's a couple of different people who are the ideal audience for this. One of them is a novice poetry reader who might be afraid of poetry. I think it also helps an expert poetry reader develop their taste. If they are a Gertrude Stein addict, they love Gertrude Stein, exposing them slowly to other poets who are similar to Gertrude Stein might help broaden their taste. So, that's really the reasoning behind a lot of this.


Man: Well, some other reasons for building the recommendation engine are to get poems to connect with what we're calling their true siblings or their true neighbors, showing connections in the poetry world that we haven't been able to show yet.


Man 2: One of the things we were trying to do was to categorize poems in a very formal way and then match poems up that we may never have put together even. So, it's not just finding poems that people are surprised by, that readers are surprised by, but even we were surprised by. Now, how we've organized our poems is largely by subject and them. Where we seemed to be headed is a much more formal approach to describing the poem and to modeling out what a poem is on paper outside of what it's about.


Man: I wouldn't say that it would be a new way of reading and analyzing poetry, but many recommendation engines look on the surface of a movie or a song. What we want to do is look deeply into the language of poems, so what we'll be adding, in terms of meta data, is a long list of linguistic characteristics. We want to get as deeply as we can into describing the way a poem works and all the techniques that are available to poets or anyone using language, what kind of choices they make, and how that takes shape in the poem.


Man 2: This just is the beginning of the modeling process: We sat in a room and started talking about poems. Then we started talking about ways to label these poems and model these poems. So, this is the first test engine.


Man 3: This is Chaplinesque by Hart Crane. Here are a list of some of the jeans that we've come up with. These have to do with how it looks on the page. We've looked at the way the syntax is working in this poem, the voice that's being used, the way that metaphor, simile, things like that are used in the poem.


Nuria: Are we looking for poems that are really close to their interest based on the poem that they're in or what's the sensitivity or the threshold in pushing those visitors into something that is really different?




Halley: Yeah. That really comes to the question of 'Do you give someone what they think they already know what they want and really stay within that filter bubble or do we almost have an ethical responsibility to push people outside of their filter bubbles?'


Man: That's a possibility. That's really high minded. It's very serious.


Halley: You're going to read one of these tender buttons if it's the last thing we do. You will like Gertrude Stein.




Fleming: That's the Poetry Foundation staff talking about the poetry recommendation engine they're creating. You can find a link to their site from ours,

Comments for this interview

Pandora for Poetry/ Recommendation Service (Rebecca Roach, 02/06/2016 - 5:00pm)


I found the interview you feature here to be very helpful! Thank you! I have contacted Poetry Foundation about the recommendation service mentioned, but I am very curious as to any additional information you may have? Have any further developments been followed up with? Please feel free to email me at Thank you very much!