First, a prefatory note to all poets and readers who have made it this far with us! Whether you kept up with each prompt day-by-day, only completed half of them (or even just one of them for that matter), Jenni, Beth, and I are thankful that you’ve been engaged with us this month. We’ve been sharing prompts from some of the writers we most admire, and your participation in this endeavor brings another successful April to a close.
But, before we call this National Poetry Month officially over, we’ve got one more challenge for you.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the ways that, before the contemporary internet, data networks passed information from place to place and how humans interacted with and used them. Many of us flash back to the not-too-distant past, and immediately think of the pterodactyl screech of a 14.4/28.8 dial-up modem while others will likely relive nightmares of finding their way through customer service prompts.
At a time when touch-tone phone keypads were our keyboards—and in many ways still are—hackers known as “phreakers” navigated and compromised systems using the various spellings and tones which constitute the pseudo-language which can be written using these keypads.
Coupled with my interest in constraint and developing constraints which align with both concept-oriented and procedural intent (one example involves using the Prisoner’s Constraint on texts by/about prisoners), I developed the “phonewords” constraint on appliedpoetics.org to act as a kind of “translator,” a way that one could spell a text only using the limited universe of letter/number combinations that these keypads imposed. If the letters “a,”b,” and “c” are assigned to the number “2,” any phone number which does not contain a “2” cannot use these letters. Simply enough, if a lexicon doesn’t contain letters, one must devise ways around this lack and create new ways to represent them or completely avoid translating them.
Write a poem using “phonewords” made from the letters found by translating a phone number which is significant to you. For example, if I were to use 1-800-Flowers’ phone number (356-9377, after the 1-800), the translation would give me a possible letter bank of def,jkl,mno,wxyz,pqrs—any words that use these letters are fair game for my poem. For example, using these letters on this flower text gives me the words which constitute the following poem:
Follow my eyes. See folds of seeds. Does old me know
elder words for joy, or lore from newer woods. See
woe. See Eden. See snowdrop. See poor me. See moon.
Handily, at www.appliedpoetics.org there’s a function for accomplishing this constraint. Navigate to “Numerology,” find “Phonewords” and proceed! But, before you do, note that this generator assumes a maximum of seven (7) digits, so there’ll be at least three letters you won’t be able to use.
Douglas Luman is the Book Reviews editor for the Found Poetry Review, Head Researcher at appliedpoetics.org, Poetry Editor of Phoebe, and Art Director at Stillhouse Press. His work, both poetry and not, has been or will be published in magazines such as Salamander, Prelude, Rain Taxi, and elsewhere.