Apptitude, literary apps

Susannah Herbert

Filed under: Non-fiction

Susannah Herbert maps the progress of literary apps

The usual gale was blowing itself out along the top of Skirrid Fawr. Were we nearly there yet? We were certainly low on fresh responses to the landscape. So I reached for my phone, clicked on Words in Air – a ‘map of inspiration’ app that promises a place-appropriate poem for wherever you happen to be – and summoned a quick shot of local lyric. Maybe the language of Vaughan or even Wordsworth, would sustain us through the driving rain.

What I got was Helen Dunmore’s City lilacs:

In crack-haunted alleys, overhangs,

plots of sour earth that pass for gardens,

in the space between wall and wheelie bin,

where men with mobiles make urgent conversation…

Her poem of Bristol’s back streets  – an hour to the east – shocked me into laughter with its incongruity. Map of inspiration, indeed! But her lines lodged with me as I lurched on, relishing their resonance, noticing more, noticing differently.

The Words in Air app reaches places books seldom go. The contemporary poems chosen by the app’s creator, Alice Kavounas, have the potential to sink as deep as those chosen by Poems on the Underground: in London, my daily bus goes from Robin Robertson (Hammersmith Winter) through Julia Bird (Victoria Street Reel) to Judith Kazantzis (At the National Gallery). True, Wales, Scotland, northern England and Ireland have been short-changed – more poems are promised – but it will appeal to anyone who thrills to the links between place and writing, and who agrees with W.H. Auden that a poet should be ‘like some valley cheese,/ local, but prized elsewhere’.

As Kavounas has discovered, this is a grand time to be a digital literary entrepreneur. Mainstream publishers have been outflanked here, for expensive and dense apps on Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays (full texts, facsimile manuscripts, talking heads), along with lavish apps for The Waste Land (Faber/Touchpress) and The Diary of Anne Frank (Penguin), tend to squat unused on iPads once the excitement of swiping through textual variants has worn off.

Instead, online app publishing is an indie playground, open to anyone deft and dogged. The success of the iFpoems app, launched by kitchen table anthologists Allie Esiri and Rachel Grigg two years ago, is a case in point: the app features (mostly) classic poems for children, read by the likes of Helena Bonham-Carter and Tom Hiddleston. Its beauty lies in an interactive function that allows users to record and send their own readings of favourite poems. Esiri has now launched a follow-up app, The Love Book, featuring poetry and prose for all the stages of romance, from ‘passionate’ through ‘thwarted’ to ‘it’s over’.  The idea of combining top-flight actors like Helen McCrory and Damian Lewis with contemporary poets of the rank of Carol Ann Duffy and Michael Symmons Roberts is inspired.

Certainly, if you like to listen and to look, as well as to read, then apps have charm. The novelist Richard Mason has coined the term ‘Lume’ for apps that go beyond standard e-books, both in design elegance and in giving a choice of reading or being read to.  His novel History of a Pleasure Seeker has been released in this form by his company Orson & Co: a tap on a gramophone icon brings the voice of Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey, but I can continue without him until I want him back. (He’s good in the bathtub.) And when a Chopin nocturne plays a key role, I can hear that too.

Could such treatment improve all books? Of course not. (Booktrack, an app which supplies sound effects as you read Sherlock Holmes is particularly annoying.) But, to cite just one example of an unsatisfied need, I have yet to meet any reader of Alex Ross’s masterful history of modern music, The Rest Is Noise, who didn’t immediately long to hear the performances he writes about so well. It’s not an app yet, sadly, though there’s a Spotify playlist. And the search is still on for an app that will keep me upright on a hill in a high wind while attempting to read poetry to sheep.

Susannah Herbert is executive director of the Forward Arts Foundation, which runs National Poetry Day and the Forward Prizes for Poetry.