Niall O'Sullivan

high brow, low brow, none of that stuff in the middle

A notebook is not just a notebook but is a phone always a phone?

Posted on | July 5, 2015 | 7 Comments

I get a little carried away as a host sometimes. I need some kind of disclaimer on my t-shirt that says “Any declarative statements from yours truly should be interpreted as self deprecating jocularity rather than as a categorical imperative.” So I was probably stepping over some kind of boundary when, while hosting a poetry event, I read a poem from my phone and afterwards declared myself a wanker for doing so. Worse, I encouraged the audience to shout “wanker” at anyone who read from their phone afterwards. This wasn’t an open mic so standards had to be upheld. Still, I might have caused a little unrest among subsequent poets who were of course looking to read a little something from their phones.

I love technology. I am currently typing this on my 12 inch tablet (I know, I’m overcompensating for something…), which means the virtual keyboard is about the same size as a conventional keyboard. It’s still not as productive and satisfying as a physical keyboard but my laptop is recharging in the other room. Also, I like to change up my writing habits every now and then and I haven’t typed anything substantial on my tablet for a while. At the same time, I, as well as many other poets, am always writing lines here and there on my phone in preparation for my time at a writing desk later on. Cloud storage also makes it convenient to dip in and out of projects while on the go. I may finish this on my laptop later or even on my phone as my daughter throttles other children at the local sandpit.

I compare this to the time I spent writing my first collection over a decade ago. I always had a notebook handy for ideas and fragments and a fully formed poem would occasionally drop. Back home from the gardening job I’d type it all up on a word processor that I’d found abandoned by a neighbour in the entrance of our block of flats. Only two lines of text were visible at any one time. I wrote a whole book of intricately typeset poems with this.

Don’t mistake this ruminative nostalgia as a wish to go back to simpler days, there was nothing simple about my old routine much like there was nothing simpler about typesetting individual letter stencils in a mimeograph machine during the 70s. When photocopier technology got cheaper the whole zine movement migrated wholesale. While I can get caught up in the commodity fetishism that surrounds tech there is still no doubt that it has made my life as a writer easier. However, I am now going to sound a cautionary note about one particular aspect of the current intertwining of tech and writing: reading from your phone at a poetry gig.

I am not a purist about losing the page for a performance. Many of my erstwhile colleagues in the States and elsewhere have made a big thing about freeing the body for a full blown performance. Some even say that you are not performing if your reading is assisted by any kind of textual document. There is also the rule in many slams against using props. For me, the object to be read from is a prop, no doubt about it. A well known poet reads from their current volume not just because of its utility as a memory crutch, it also reminds the audience about the book’s existence and its availability for a reasonable price during the intermission. It also tells the audience that this is a proper published poet.

Not all poets read from a book in the same way. The worst kind read in “poet voice”and hold up the book as a barrier between themselves and the audience. They signal the end of a poem with a turn of a page or by lowering the book as nothing about their voice signals the transition.

Other poets use the book prop masterfully. Jackie Kay barely glances at the book as she holds it at waist height and delivers her poem with a huge smile. At points the pages seem to be more visible to the audience than to her as she lowers the book. Rather than being a barrier the book functions as a welcoming doorway. The book modulates the flow between the poet’s delivery and the audience’s attention. It becomes an emissary that facilitates a reciprocal giving relationship.

We should also remember the culture of public readings, penny readings and elocution that flourished before the onset of radio, tv and growing public literacy after The Great War. Before that a book was not something to be privately consumed, it was an instrument of social cohesion and togetherness.

It’s not just the book that can function as a prop. The single sheet of paper can demonstrate the composure and the sureness of the poet as the slightest tremble will always be amplified by it. The poem itself becomes something light and airy captured by the sure hand of the poet.

I can recall at least two tall poets that I have seen read from thick plastic binders full of sheets of paper in individual plastic wallets. This works in weighing them down and conveys a sense of seriousness. This is because the gestures of a tall poet can often seem exaggerated on a typical small poetry stage. The large binder also signals the large body of work that the poet is picking from. The individual plastic wallets show the care that they have taken over each one and reassures us that this is no hack that we are dealing with.

Then there’s the notebook. A notebook is not just a notebook. The moleskine conveys an oldschool Hemingway style seriousness. The cheap newsagent jotter pad conveys a mind that is always daring about and needs to get those words down before they disappear for ever. The decorative notebook bought from a specialist stationer will often have an air of the teenager’s emotional diary or a poet’s juvenilia. Other poets go out of their way to decorate and personalise their notebooks conveying a hipsterish art school ethos. Both of these last two examples probably have a tumblr account.

Perhaps one of the most impressive occasions in all my years as a weekly open mic host was the moment when a reader arrived on the stage and unfurled an actual scroll until the bottom end stopped at the feet of a front row punter. He then reeled it back in as he read line after line.

Which brings me to the phone. Yes, I get it that the phone is super convenient. You can pluck it from your pocket and access your current magnum opus. If your planned set isn’t going to plan or the audience aren’t as sympathetic to your earnest ideological expressions, Plan B is just a couple of thumb swipes away. But like all cases of convenience there’s always a cost. The most obvious being that the screen of a phone is often too small to read from without squinting or holding a few inches from your face. That sense of sharing energy with the audience is a lot harder to recreate with a phone.

But most of the issues about using a phone to read from come from its use as a prop. The sight of someone squinting at their phone is often the sign that that person is disengaged with their immediate environment. Even more so when they are in conversation with someone and they can’t stop looking at their phone. This is the impression most audiences get when a poet reads from their phone. Whether you intend it or not, you are striking the pose of someone who couldn’t be less interested in the people they are talking to or the world that they inhabit. And yes, on many occasions this has accompanied a “Look Up” style poem about how we should abandon our technology and engage with the authentic world around us. Without irony. (As an aside, the crux of the issue is that there is nothing authentic about our immediate environment whether it is a high street full of chain stores, block after block of utilitarian housing, advertising hoardings in every direction or a countryside sprawl of electric pylons and over farmed fields.) Also, much like the notebook, the kind of phone you read from can also trigger a number of associations. Someone flashing the latest high end smartphone will be seen as shallow, contradicting their poem about their profound emotional reaction to the presence of nature. The reader with a cracked screen will come off as faithful and stoical or maybe just clumsy and skint.

The problem, as always, isn’t the technology itself but the unconscious associations that attend it. There are probably a number of ways in which a poet can pull a phone from their pocket and read from it in a way to that is engaging and authentic. They just have to be aware of all the associations the audience will make and work with or against them. Also, the behaviour I’m describing may just be part of my generation (the arse end of X) and the generation that came after (the vanguard of Y). One thing I’ve noticed about the current crop of teenagers is that their phones are instruments of outward social contact. They play music and videos from their phones while sat in playgrounds or at the back of the bus so that they can experience it as part of a group. They read out their seemingly private texts to each other. They ignore twitter and facebook and stick to texting, Whatsapp and Snapchat so they’re not constantly checking for retweets and likes. A message comes in, they check it, reply, put their phone back into their pocket.

In short, maybe the impression given by reading from a phone just applies to old farts like me and that for generations to come it may signal a return to the sharing spirit of the penny reading. But one thing will always be true, the item that you read from will always add more and say more about you before you deliver the first line. And of course, there’s that awkward truth that, for the majority of everyday punters, you’ll look like a wanker when reading a poem from your phone. However, that has more to do with the poem aspect than with the phone aspect.


7 Responses to “A notebook is not just a notebook but is a phone always a phone?”

  1. Jenelle D.
    July 5th, 2015 @ 10:24 am

    This was lovely. The first reading I went to that included an open mic / open reading started earlier than I expected – and I ran out the door without my poems. I was too embarrassed to read from my gold iPhone 6 that I copied each one down into my black moleskine first.

    July 5th, 2015 @ 10:34 am

    Get with it Grandad!

  3. David Turner
    July 5th, 2015 @ 11:58 am

    i think a lot of this is to do with being a bit old and grumpy. i’ve not been going to poetry gigs that long really but i dislike poets reading from phones but it’s more to do with me disliking phones. (i got an iphone two days ago!!).

    the one thing that annoys me about it though, is that with the screens being so small there’s often a lot of scrolling involved which affects the rhythm of the poem. i’m never that annoyed when poets read from tablets so it’s definitely not just an issue with technology.

    is there an auto-scroll app? there should be.

    it’s also weird to see poets with blue chins illuminated by their phone screens.


  4. Tim
    July 5th, 2015 @ 1:47 pm

    Hi Niall
    I’ve been reading from an old Filofax…

  5. Will Hames
    July 5th, 2015 @ 8:44 pm

    I never use any prompting devices because my feeling is that if I don’t find my own poem memorable, why the Hell should you?

  6. John Wheeler
    July 6th, 2015 @ 12:22 am

    I could not agree more with this piece. I am often very depressed by talented writers who have no idea of the effect they are having on their audience. If we want to build a wider public (and I think we should) then we have to have more understanding of performance as a whole.
    Very perceptive and thoughtful as always Niall.

    (Poor use of vocabulary – See me at the end.)

  7. Ruth
    July 6th, 2015 @ 3:03 pm

    I don’t know why, but when I see someone reading from their phone I always think that
    they are being very casual about the whole ‘poetry thing’ but then shouldn’t they read from their phones? I fight with myself about it for a few seconds but if their poetry is really good then it doesn’t seem to matter how or from where they read it. Of course I marvel at the poets who just do a poem from memory, not that I don’t remember mine, I do but mainly when I’m falling asleep at night. Yes, they are in full in my head but should I try to perform in front of an audience I just know I’d forget a line or two so I stick to my friendly piece of paper, my prop.

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