Text Message Poetry

Brandon Lueken has been writing poems. Not with a pen or a keyboard, but on his phone.

My text messaging habit began out of boredom. My breaks at work are a strict ten minutes. I get penalized with a bizarre point system if I clock in late. Ten minutes is an awkward amount of time. It’s too long to spend in the bathroom, but too short to grab a leisurely snack at the RiteAid across the street. I quickly exhausted all the interesting sights within a five-minute walking distance. Many of my co-workers are boring, as are their personal stories. Their drunken evenings spent with partners of questionable repute and sanity never end well, or with a bang. So I started texting the friends I left behind in Seattle. After a week, I ran out of things to say. It seemed there were only so many things I could communicate over text message. But, rather than stare at the 42-inch flat-screen TV that had power but no channels, I tried to come up with something new and interesting to say to my friends.

What I ended up with was text message poetry. I don’t know what exactly, but there was something about the soul-crushing authoritarian management style in my office that woke up my creative spark. Perhaps it was the hideous, vintage, clown-themed French advertisements in the break room, or the fact the company was actively trying to replace its staff with part-time workers paid two-dollars-an-hour less. Regardless, I was inspired. Armed with a creative writing background, an audience, and a means of communication, I decided to make the text message poetic.

My first attempts were all of a theme — boredom filled with allusions to games, rat mazes, and my interesting-in-an-ugly-way co-workers. Luckily, many of these poems are lost to wherever text messages go when my phone deletes them. It’s only late into my second week that my archive of poetry texts began. Apparently I was thinking about weddings, as there is no other way to explain the following:

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Chiffon and layered icing on bad cake at the union of trollops makes me flirty. After all, misery needs friends.

09/30/09

There are plenty of lively and descriptive words, but the poem doesn’t lift from the screen in an interesting way. Also, this poem is a perfect example of the conventional structure of many of my poetry texts: an interesting idea or image, followed by pithy commentary.

A few more examples:

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Long hair, long legs, short temper, a man like a freight train — a lot of baggage, going in one direction, no swerving lest there be a major, jaw dropping crash. That’s just him for you.

10/05/09

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Flickers on the screen and a popcorn smell, lights on the aisle and conditioned air. I’ve seen the world a thousand ways. I still lose my breath in the dark.

10/14/09

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Zombies marched down the street today in a parade. We’re here and the end is near, they said. I still think they’re liars. Who’s going to trust a dead guy?

10/28/09

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He’s an unshaven king in a bathroom castle, squashy and green. He shoots marbles in the throne room on broken tiles, whistling. Slow days in bathroom land.

12/01/09

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Last night it snowed, and in the morning a field of snowmen awaited us, staring with their coal black eyes, waiting. Glad I got a snow blower for Christmas.

12/22/09

Over time, the poetry tightens as I grow into my constraints. With a short character count, the poems need to be concise and direct. This tone, combined with the method of delivery creates an immediacy and intimacy far different than a book of poetry. Readers feel like you wrote the text just for them. Some days, I try to pick one of my friends, and write a poem that I think will appeal just to their taste. Not all of the poems get a response, but usually when people feel particularly moved, they’ll text me and tell me. Some have even sent back an additional stanza or two. But looking at the two poems that have garnered the most praise, I’m not exactly surprised.

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Call me Mr Call me sir Call me lover Call me yours Call me up talk me down Sit up waiting while I’m out If you do I’ll call you mine a promise for all time.

10/13/09

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Gone are the days of the lucky penny. One red cent lays on the ground, cold and round. No one stoops for a lonely Lincoln, it’s just a penny after all.

11/30/09

Sure, I was surprised at the time, but looking back, these are my most conventional poems. They have a rhythm and distinct imagery. They have a consistent tone, and don’t feel truncated like some of the other poetry. Being naturally wordy, I often struggle against the character limit. Sometimes it’s hard to contain myself, which has led to some interesting experiments. The week before Halloween, every poem had to do with a monster or some sort of fear. Several poems started off in text message format only to be expanded upon and sent in an email. The last week of November was dedicated to telling a story of sorts:

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Mary’s hair grew like a fingernail — stiff, thick and pale. Each strand stood straight and tall and the ends were spiky.

11/23/09

Mary keeps her fingernail hair short. She remembers the looks of horror when it was long and rattled when she walked, the clicking sounds like wet bones.

11/24/09

Despite the hair, Mary was normal as normal, but one day, some kids starting calling her rhino girl. They pulled up their noses and charged her.

11/25/09

Luckily Mary’s family was understanding. So family gatherings were pleasant. When Mary came of age, an uncle got in touch with an ad man to pitch an idea.

11/26/09

Through her uncle, Mary got to be an experimental nail polish model. Luster and color like you’ve never seen before in a glossy magazine, and she was happy.

11/27/09

Sure, the collection lacks focus, drags toward the end, and beyond the fingernails-as-hair idea is a largely unimaginative retelling of Aimee Mullins (http://www.ted.com/talks/aimee_mullins_prosthetic_aesthetics.html), but the point was to experiment with an already experimental form. As time has gone on, I’ve played with key images or themes for a few days, or made the poems seasonal. I’ve done list poems:

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Bad ideas: Peppermint band aids, root beer mouth wash, cotton umbrellas, starting games of footsie with strangers on the bus, ignoring ‘stop kicking me!’ cries.

12/16/09

And pulp poems:

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So there I was, surrounded by skunk apes, luger out, jungle damsel at my side. I raised the gun and shouted ‘I am the modern man!’ Then they rushed me.

12/11/09

And horror poems inspired by David Cronenberg:

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When I cut myself shaving, the blood came out not in a stream, but like a vine, reaching for the frosted mirror. I broke it off and there was no scar.

12/15/09

The poetry texts have become part of my daily routine and they keep me sharp. Not only that, but I feel more connected to my friends, and I feel more attentive to the world. I’m always looking for images to draw upon, conversations to write down, turns of phrase to puzzle over. In creating my poems, I get to contemplate the relationship between my art, my friends, and my life. That, in turn, allows me to consider what I consume, how I react to it, and to learn how long ten minutes really lasts.

Brandon Lueken is a graduate from the University of Puget Sound with a Bachelor's Degree in English. He has done many things, including editing his college newspaper, writing and directing a short play, angering large groups of people en masse, and acting as both the good and the bad shoulder angel. One day, Brandon hopes to give people their dreams, but whether this is literal or figurative, no one knows.