Writers on Writing #74: Donald C. Welch III
I write poetry to create order out of chaos. When I was in middle school, my family moved from Massachusetts to North Carolina, leaving behind all our friends and family and separating my parents for two years. I went through my sixth and seventh grade years sleeping on an air mattress and sharing a one-room apartment with my dad while my mom stayed in Massachusetts to sell our old house. I had no idea what life in the South was like and suffered from deep-fried cultural shock, on top of the usual angst of middle school and puberty. This move made me realize that I will never be able to control my situations—sometimes life just sucker punches you—but what I can decide are my responses to them. I can choose to be overwhelmed and stressed out, or instead be calm and try to find clarity, so when I was first introduced to poetry, I was taken by it. The act of turning my disorganized and jagged thoughts, observations, memories, experiences, etc., into a precise and measured amount of words on a page infatuated me. And naturally, I took to form poetry since that felt like an even more intense structure.
I’m fascinated with how placing restrictions and regulations on poetry can inform the outcome of a piece. Personally, I find myself being so much more mindful of my word choice when I write in form and that hyper-awareness I experience both intrigues and compels me. Admittedly, I’m also an avid Tweeter; I was really taken by the site when it came out because of the opportunity Twitter presents its user. The site’s ability to not only provide me with instantaneous news and information that is constantly refreshing, but to allow me, as an average user, to participate in this flow of information is captivating. One day while trying to write a long-winded tweet and getting frustrated by the 140-character limit, I started shaping the tweet to fit, and I began realizing that I was treating this mundane tweet like one of my poems. This spurred the conception of what would become my senior thesis, in which I decided to explore how Twitter could be a new medium for my poetry. I created a Twitter account called Social Literature with the handle @SocialLit and began tweeting 140-character poems. In the same way the sonnet, villanelle, and haiku are forms of poetry that place specific restrictions on language, @SocialLit creates a new way of shaping and forming poems.
As I began tweeting poems from @SocialLit and putting in line breaks, I realized that the spaces count as characters. Previously, when sending tweets from my personal account, I never paid attention to the fact that every space takes up one of the 140 characters, but now that I was using enjambment and putting line breaks in my tweets, it became clear. I decided that rather than adjust the form or qualify it by saying “140 characters minus the spaces,” to instead make the spaces an integral part of the @SocialLit form. As a society, we are becoming more and more space-conscious. Political and economic policy, both nationally and internationally, is focused on issues such as population growth, natural resource management, and urban design as societies try to cope with exponential growth and sustainability. In many ways humans have become comfortably claustrophobic.
I myself enjoy personal space, and aside from Twitter and a Facebook page, I don’t enjoy using technology all that much. I don’t own or want a smartphone, I don’t like using a GPS when I drive, and I still like owning CDs more than downloading MP3s. But the reality is that technology and social media are daily redefining space, making it something self-imposed. In the virtual world there is no tangible place to be or area to take up, except for what a user chooses, such as 140 characters, while the physical world continues coping with the limited amount of real room available to it. @SocialLit is my response to the digital world and the digitalization of the physical world. It is an attempt to make sense of space in a spaceless locale. Rather just an ascetic preference, space plays an integral role to the form because @SocialLit is an attempt to accurately reflect, respond to, and critique a society that is growing more and more aware of how much room it takes up.
I’ve always been inspired by the haiku and how such a tiny piece of writing can manage to reflect and describe a specific moment or image. Since Twitter is a site devoted to people’s momentary observations, part of my intention with @SocialLit is to emulate the effect of the haiku in a way that makes sense for today’s world and our historical perspective. I view @SocialLit as the continuation of a poetic style that is now adapting to and utilizing new technology, as well as being reshaped by the current culture and language. “Twitterspeak,” the internet lingo of Twitter, uses abbreviation and other techniques to maintain the meaning of a word while letting it take up less space. While most people tend to view Twitterspeak with cynicism, citing it as a lack of language competency, I see it as shift in communication skills and an invitation to experiment. It is a language of speed, created out of necessity to keep up with the flow of information on Twitter, so in using the medium of Twitter to write poems, it only makes sense to use its language as well.
If haiku inspired the form and intention of @SocialLit, then it is the work of e.e. cummings which has most influenced its content. The use of symbol, abbreviation, diction, and atypical grammar in his work laid a structural and formulaic foundation for writing pieces in Twitterspeak. He managed to express himself with language mechanics that are strikingly similar to the Twitterspeak of today, and delving into his work has given me a wealth of inspiration to write @SocialLit poems. Beyond even his writing, his confidence and attitude about his work—for example, dedicating No Thanks to every publisher who turned down the manuscript—is also inspiring to me as I move forward with this project. When I first started @SocailLit, I wrote poems that were in plain English out of fear that it would be too weird for people, but once I realized how many more words, and how much more meaning, I could fit into 140 characters using Twitterspeak, I didn’t go back, and, despite criticism, plan to continue using and experimenting with it as the language of @SocialLit.
A key component of this project is the social aspect. I know firsthand the benefits of social media. One of the reasons I enjoy Twitter and Facebook (and Myspace back in the day) is because when I made that move from Massachusetts to North Carolina, it was social media and social networking that helped me stay in touch with friends whom I otherwise might have easily grown distant from. Despite what seems to be the popular belief of social media destroying human interaction, there exists amazing potential for sites like Twitter to create community, especially among writers. I’m interested in the use of hashtags, @tweets and other methods of networking to allow multiple authors to simultaneously write a piece, or collection of pieces, together. This could perhaps create something similar to the Japanese renga, a collaborative poetry game that was the start of the haiku, or it could lead to something totally new. Workshops could be run with people from all over the world, at once, and despite being miles apart they can all respond immediately to one another’s work. The positive uses for social media sites are infinite, and @SocialLit is just my own little pursuit of one possibility. So if you’re taken by the idea give @SocialLit a follow, tweet me your ideas, join in, and maybe even write a 140 character poem of your own!
Donald C. Welch III is from Boston, Massachusetts. He received his BFA from Emerson College and is interested in exploring new mediums for poetry such as @SocialLit and a musical project Welch & Penn. His work has appeared in Concrete, Rare Breed, Catharsis and he was recently selected as the 2013-2014 Feature in The Emerson Review. In his free time Donnie searches for the best eggplant parm sub sandwich.