SPS: Short Poetry Service
By Michael Mattis, Fri May 04 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Britain's Manchester Guardian newspaper embraces SMS as a new medium for art.


Sun on maisonette windows
sends speed-camera flashes tinting through tram cables
startling drivers
dragging rain-waterfalls in their wheels
I drive on

There's no doubt about it - short messaging service (SMS) is as big a hit with users as it is with telecomms. With some 20 billion messages flying through the aether each month, SMS has become the mobile digital communications medium extraordinaire. Busy people everywhere depend on SMS to schedule quick meetings, send and receive grocery lists, even to flirt with one another. Countless users rely on SMS weather, snow, and surf reports, news flashes, sports scores, stock quotes and auction bids.

Mobile telecommunications providers love SMS for its revenue enhancing potential - love it to the tune of about $4 billion each month. To put that in perspective, every one Guyana's 700,000 hard working souls has to beaver away for an entire year to draw down the same amount of cash that the SMS business rakes in every two weeks.

Speed up/slow down

SMS is thought of as a fast medium for a society built for speed. But to poet Andrew Wilson, SMS is also a new medium in which to develop art.

"I want art to be within touching distance of everybody," says Wilson, who heads the UK-based poetry Web- and WAP-site, Centrifugal Forces. As a truly interactive medium that touches hundreds of millions of lives, SMS provides an ideal space for people to explore in words their day-to-day lives.

"[SMS] combines the pleasure of reading and writing with instantness, and being in a handy little gadget," say Wilson, "It's almost a conversation, but you can take a moment to craft what you say. It invites you to think a minute, entices you to put a bit of creativity into it."


To get the word out about SMS poetry, Wilson and Centrifugal Forces teamed with England's Manchester Guardian newspaper to host a poetry contest exclusively through SMS. The contest, which opened to entries March 29 and closed Friday, April 13 has just been completed.

A long list of 100 was winnowed down out of more than 7,000 entries. Seven finalists were chosen by poets Peter Sansom (author of Writing Poems) and U.A. Fanthorpe (author of Consequences), and The Guardian's Justine Jordan, with Wilson advising. These seven were in turn sent, via SMS of course, to everyone who entered the contest - a poem a day every day for seven days. The entrants then voted on the winning order by giving each poem a rating between 1 and 10. Call it SPS - or short poetry service. To the grand prize winner, The Guardian awarded 1000 ($1,430). Second place received 500 ($715), and three runners up received 100 ($143) each. In addition, a special prize of 250 ($358) was given to one author for "the most creative use of SMS 'shorthand' in a poem."

Mixing business with pleasure

The Guardian's interest in sponsoring the contest was two-fold. "First and most importantly, we thought [the contest] would be a fun way for people to explore the creative potential of text messaging," says Guardian Online Editor, Vic Keegan. "The second reason is commercial - to explore cross-platform cooperation and to see whether new technology could sell old technology newspapers." When the results were finalized, says Keegan, each of the 7,000 entrants received a text message telling them that the winners will appear in the May 3 Guardian - hopefully with the result that most will go out and buy the paper.

The only rule was that no poem could exceed 160 characters in length - the maximum of a single GSM text message. That may not be as stringent as the rules that frame a haiku or a sonnet or even a limerick, but the simple limits of the medium call for a brevity that creates a kind of stylistic immediacy. "What makes a good text message poem is the same as what makes a good poem on paper," says Wilson. "Inventiveness and pleasure in words, descriptive accuracy and sensuality, unpretentiousness, an awareness of the way language is used in everyday speech and a sense of the echoes that words have, truthfulness and bravery."

The winner of the contest, Hetty Hughes, drew inspiration from her grandmother to craft her submission. Hughes hadn't attempted a poem since childhood, she said, and her entry was a spur of the moment creation. While glancing over at a photo of her grandmother, she realized what she had to write. Her entry was spontaneous, creative and honest - exactly what the organizers had hoped to find.

The complete list of winners, including the poems they wrote, can be found at The Guardian's website.

Before becoming in involved in The Guardian contest, Wilson had entertained the idea of "selecting random phone numbers and just sending poems to them, letting them go off like little birds, not knowing where they'd end up." But, he adds, "I think that might be illegal."

But why ruin the beauty of a thing with legality?

Michael Mattis is a mobile solutions specialist in the San Francisco, Calif. offices of Razorfish, Inc.