Photo courtesy of Penguin Classics
The team behind the new app Poems by Heart discuss how they combine great gaming with classic poetry. [28:20]
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened Earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
Jo Reed: That was an excerpt from Percy Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind," read by Joel Fotinos. It's from the new game Poems by Heart from Penguin Classics. Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.
Since the finals for the NEA's national recitation competition Poetry Out Loud concluded this week --and a big shout-out to the new champ, Langston Ward-- the whole concept of memorizing poetry has been on my mind. But good timing aside, I still think I would have been intrigued by the new app: Poems By Heart, from Penguin Classics. Frankly, I was impressed that it was produced by Penguin Classics, which is one of the gold standards in literary publishing. And the app lives up to the standards of its maker. It's smart and beautifully designed, combining iconic poetry, memorization techniques, and great gaming. After playing the game myself a couple of times, I jumped at the opportunity to speak with Penguin Classics Editorial Director Elda Rotor, who oversaw all the app's editorial content, and Penguin's Director of Digital Publishing John Morgan, who was the app's executive producer.
I was curious about the genesis of the concept. How did someone even come up with the idea of a game involving the memorization of poetry?
John Morgan: Well, you know, it's interesting. It came out in a room that neither of us were in at the time. It was a brainstorming session with a few different Penguin employees and there was an editor named Patrick Mulligan who had come up with the idea of a game about poetry memorization. I think there were a few other ideas in the meeting, but that's the one that sort of floated onto both our desks. And I think I had to actually sell Elda on it a little bit, but it appealed to me. I have a background in video games, and so I sort of saw that it could be a game but that it could really use Penguin Classics content and brand. And it sort of went from there.
Jo Reed: Well, let's explain how the app works. It combines great poetry, memorization and gaming in one app.
John Morgan: Yeah. I mean, I always sort of tell things in sort of the user's journey through it. So you open up the app. It's free and it plays on any sort of mobile IOS device. So an iPad, and iPod Touch, an iPhone. You open it up and there's two poems for free right there, a short one by William Blake called "Eternity," and then "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?" by William Shakespeare. And when you're first diving in, you get an overview of the poem and you can hear a female or a male speaker reading the poem. And then you're automatically on the first of five stages, where you can see most of the line but you have to kind of guess what words are dropped out. So it would be like, "Shall I compare blank to a blank day?" And even if you get it wrong it sort of gently corrects you and rewards you as you do well. And then as you keep going through the different stages, you sort of get more rewards. There's 20 ranks that you can get awarded, and by the fifth stage you have to basically know the poem word from word. It's giving you hints, but none of the words are filled in. You can just see how many syllables they are. And then if you succeed, you can recite it and send it to friends.
Jo Reed: And the listener gets to choose if they're going to hear a male or a female read the poem. It's not an automatic. We get to choose with each poem.
Jo Reed: Right. Actually, Elda was the female voice, and Joel Fotinos, who is the publisher of one of our Penguin imprints, Tarcher, is the male voice. And then I was the audio director helping them through the poems.
Jo Reed: And you can also share your progress within the various stages, no?
John Morgan: That's true. We didn't want to make it so that you're sort of constantly seeing Facebook and Twitter sort of jumping at you, but we wanted to make it possible for people to share their progress, because it's all about rewards. You're doing something that's fun, but you're also sort of accomplishing something and we wanted people to be able to share that. So, there's all these ranks. You go from beginner to amateur to acolyte to eventually poetry master. And when you've actually recorded the poem you can share that too on Facebook, Twitter, SoundCloud, which was a new service to me, but it's kind of like YouTube for sounds. Now I see it everywhere. And you can even just e-mail it directly if you don't want to go through a social network.
Jo Reed: Penguin Classics is a brand, and it's a brand--those of us who still buy books, physical copies of books, we look for that little penguin. And it means something to us. And it's not something that one typically associates with gaming. Was it a hard sell to make that connection?
John Morgan: I'd be curious to see what you'd say, Elda, about it.
Elda Rotor: Yeah.
John Morgan: I think I am good at envisioning kind of the final product or at least what the final product can achieve. So I sort of had the snap, got it right there.
Elda Rotor: For me, the whole idea of gamification was really, really new. And it's new territory in general for Penguin Classics. So I needed to think about it really carefully and think about, "How could we interpret this for Penguin Classics readers who might be coming to an app like this for the very first time?" And I knew that we had wonderful content and we could do it editorially very well. It's just an idea of how to combine the idea of gamification and fun memorization with a love for Penguin Classics and classic poetry. And through the stages of working on the app, the people involved grew to really love this game, including myself. It's so much fun to play, and I think that it really presents a wonderful project for people that love Penguin Classics in general.
Jo Reed: And you really doubled down with this app, because you developed it in conjunction with Inkle. That's a shop that certainly has some credentials in publications, but it's not publishing specific. It's really more known for its games.
John Morgan: Yeah, Inkle was on my radar. We had a few different people that we looked at, and Inkle was the one that I was excited about working on. So they're in Cambridge in the UK. They're new. It's two guys, Jon Ingold and Joseph Humphrey, and they both have a history in the video game industry, and I had been interested in some other stuff that they had done, and they just had a pitch that was really great. Visually it really hit it, and the other thing that they had emphasized, which I think both Elda and I really reacted strongly to, was that there had to be an oral component to it. They were like, "You'll need to hear it and you'll need to speak it." And we were little surprised, I think. We just hadn't anticipated that part of it. But they were really right, and they were so enthusiastic about that aspect of it that it was sort of why we went with them and it was a really, in the end, a great choice. They did a terrific job.
Jo Reed: Now, I'm kind of curious about the various stages of developing this. Was it a long, arduous process? Did it come together pretty easily?
Elda Rotor: Well, editorially it was--there were several stages to really think about how to make a high-quality product. And so I hired a freelance editor who used to be my intern. We talked about perennial favorite poetry looking at literature, literary anthologies, reviewing classic poems that we knew Penguin Classics readers would be familiar with and would want to return to. That was really a key for me was the emotional attachment that people have. A lot of people have told stories to me about remembering that they recited something in second grade and they wish they could remember that poem again. Or just remembering an education where poetry recitation was part of that learning experience. So we had a freelance editor collect the poems that we reviewed. We have an academic from Rutgers University who reviewed all the content and made suggestions, and we had a wonderful illustrator named Jen Wang, who used to work at Penguin, and now works for herself, who did extraordinary illustrations for the whole app.
John Morgan: And then in terms of the game play, we didn't want to lock Inkle down. Again, I have a history in video game development, and one of the things that's always talked about there is waterfall development versus iterative development, where waterfall development is kind of like, "We haven't built a wick of the app, but we know exactly what we want it to look like." And you usually don't get great results there. It's better to do something more iterative where you indicate to the developers what your end goal is and sort of engage with them and have a constant dialogue. And you go through stages. And they even did stages that we didn't see with their own focus groups where they were working really intensely on the game play. And then we just saw build after build. I showed them to Elda. We went through them. I went through them quite-- the poem that was the sort of test case was, "When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be," by John Keats, which I was not familiar with before this, but I now know extremely well.
Jo Reed: You must know them all extremely well if you were directing them.
John Morgan: There's a few that I'm still a little rusty on, but yeah. Whenever I'm testing the app, because I often have to download it and run through it to make sure it's all working correctly, I think I can get to the final stages on either 17 or 18 of them in about an hour and a half.
Jo Reed: Is one of them "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"?
John Morgan: No, that's one of the ones that's still a little beyond me. Right now I'm working on "Ode to the West Wind," by Shelley, which is great, but is surprisingly difficult even though I actually have learned to love that poem.
Jo Reed: The app comes with two free poems by two Williams, Shakespeare and Blake. And then you've put together packages that people can purchase. Elda, why don't you run through the packages and how you decided to design it that way?
Elda Rotor: Well, the packages include adventures, early innovators, Elizabethan, gothic tales, odes and romantic. And see, how did we put these together? We think it was also, oh, level of difficulty was one thing. Two, putting a familiar poem in each bundle to attract the consumer, and mixing it up a bit. And then in terms of naming the categories, our academic helped us with that, just to make sure that we were correct with the categories that we were shaping. But we wanted to basically create these attractive bundles for different styles of poetry and different interests that people might have coming to learning a poem and reciting a poem.
John Morgan: And we had sort of limitations that we had to work in. You can't sell in a purchase on Apple for less than 99 cents, so some people have asked, you know, "Why can't we buy the poems individually?" and it was sort of like, "Well, we can sell you one poem for 99 cents, or we can sell you three poems for 99 cents, plus a part of "The Ancient Mariner.'" So we wanted to kind of maximize the value. But to that point, if it's a very short poem or a very easy poem, we try to match it with a hard poem while also having it thematically connected. But actually, we had a lot of different versions of the different packs that we ran over and over in-house.
Jo Reed: We should say that there's a part of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," in each of your packages.
John Morgan: The poem had been picked by our academic reviewer and we wanted to put it in, but it's so long that we weren't sure how to do that. And I was the one actually who had the bright idea, "Well, we're going to have seven packs. It actually has seven parts. Why don't we split it up between them and then we can include it?" Because otherwise, we'd sort of run out of our development time with Inkle and they were like, "It's very long. It's sort of too much work." And so I was happy to find a way to save it, and also then we can reward people. If they buy all the packs, they can assemble it.
Jo Reed: Here's a question I have for you. Do you think you'll ever go to a model where people can also pick four poems, one from each pack, and create their own pack?
John Morgan: We would love to be able to do that. I don't want to sort of make it seem like Apple is limited in the options they offer, but they are limited in the options they offer. Once you buy a poem, it's considered what they call a non-consumable purchase, so we don't have a way of selling it to someone again. So we would love to be able to do that, but that's where we're back in each poem has to be priced at 99 cents. We're always paying close attention to what Apple does, so hopefully if they sort of enable more options, we'd love to make the app more functional like that.
Jo Reed: It's been called a memorization game. Do you agree with that assessment?
John Morgan: Well, we wanted it to be a game, and we wanted you to be able to have accomplished something solid at the end of the game. I remember at one point when we were talking about how to describe it to people I wanted to say, "Well, if you play a lot of Mario or a lot of Zelda or Tetris, you don't really have anything at the end of it, where here at the end of it you have memorized a poem and you'll carry that away with you." So I think we've been using the term "memorization game" to try and capture both of those aspects.
Elda Rotor: Yeah. I also think that it would be great if we could have people recite poetry and embrace it as a new skill, or an old skill that is new again. Because I don't walk around and hear people reciting poetry. I'd love to. And I think that it's something that people would enjoy, that they would come away from this and they have this talent or this skill. And it's a nice way of using the time you have when you're commuting. You know, after one commute you can maybe have part of Dickinson down or something. So, memorization, I think, is part of the draw for a Penguin Classic reader, specifically because of that love for reciting poetry as an old tradition.
Jo Reed: I don't know if you folks know about Poetry Out Loud, which is a national recitation competition, that is actually put together by us, the National Endowment for the Arts, with the Poetry Foundation. And it encourages high school students to memorize and perform great poems.
Elda Rotor: That's fantastic. I love that. It's my version of a spelling bee. I'm clapping. I just feel like you get them young, and they'll really cherish that for the rest of their lives. I really, really feel strongly about that. And also, with this app, we feel that grandparents can play with it with their grandchildren. And then both types of gamers will get a lot out of it. So it's great to hear about the students.
Jo Reed: I remember my mother saying to me when I was young, "A poem that you memorize now will be a friend for life," and I would just roll my eyes. And then when you grow up, you realize, "Oh, that's absolutely true."
John Morgan: Well, for me, I hadn't been that exposed to poetry. I had, you know, I was an English major but that was a long time ago, and I'd kind of gone in a different direction. So for me, I've been kind of stunned by how rich a lot of these poems are, how much I've gotten into it just as a user, and how there's so many poetry-related things going on in the culture right now that I hope that we can become more tied into with this app.
Jo Reed: Well, that leads to my next question, which is, "Why is classical poetry important?" and "Why do you think it's important to memorize it?" What do you think it does for one?
John Morgan: I wonder if I would be better at this than Elda, because Elda was probably more familiar with sort of the experience of memorizing a poem than I was. When I was talking about how, "When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be," by John Keats was the sample poem, when I first read it I was like, "I have no idea what this means." And I had to memorize it to test the app.
Elda Rotor: When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night's starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
John Morgan: In the process of memorizing it and really spending time with it line by line and word by word, that was really how I unlocked what it meant and kind of fell in love with very specific phrases. One of the lines is "Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance." And I just remember just repeating that to myself over and over. And it sounds very cheesy and perhaps an indication of my lack of attachment to my education, but I was like, "Wow. There is a lot of meaning and quality phrases that are really epic and evocative locked in a lot of this poetry," that I had never had a way of attaching to or really even forcing myself to focus on before.
Elda Rotor: I would say too that I've loved sonnets since I was younger. I used to write sonnets in grammar school, and published poetry before my life in publishing. I agree. I feel like a person can fall in love with just one verse or just one line, and that's just enough. Because I think in the world that we live in where everything is super fast and we have words being thrown at us from different screens, settling yourself and focusing on one work by a poet, especially with this app too, you learn about internal rhymes, you really think about word choice. If you want to win the game, you think about it really hard. But after that, just enjoying it as a reader, you really see the value of words and put together what emotion comes up or what images come up. And like I said, it's sort of a treasure to unlock. And I hope people come to it more often.
Jo Reed: Yeah. For me it's very interesting, because I love literature, but there is no question, I dwell in the house of fiction. That's what I go to, that's what I'll pick up and read. But in times of very heightened emotion, whether it's joy or whether it's sorrow, what's interesting is that it's lines of poetry that come to me.
John Morgan: Well, I don't want to be maudlin, but my father passed away last year, and one of the poems in the app is "O Captain! My captain!" which I'd heard as a phrase, but I didn't even know it was a poem. Again, I'm displaying my lack of education. But when I first read it in the app, I was like, "Oh, my gosh. This is in many ways about my dad."
Elda Rotor: O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up--for you the flag is flung--for you the bugle trills; 10
For you bouquets and ribbon'd wreaths--for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head;
It is some dream that on the deck,
You've fallen cold and dead.
John Morgan: It remains a really emotion poem for me, and I would never have even encountered it, nor would I know it as well as I do if I hadn't done the work of memorizing it.
Jo Reed: Of course, I think about this because of our national program, Poetry Out Loud. The phrase, "by heart," and how curious that that's the word we use for memorizing something.
Elda Rotor: It's true. This was a titlerama for us when we had to figure out what we wanted to name the app. And should we say what the other--
John Morgan: Well, I don't remember. Elda was arguing for Poems By Heart, and I was arguing for some-- I thought it was more masculine. It was like Poetry Master or something like that. And Elda won. And I actually think she's totally right, in retrospect, because it helped us figure out a lot of some of the visual look in the app and it just made more sense.
Elda Rotor: It seems like a natural and intuitive title, because on a day-to-day basis, it's, "Oh, I know that by heart." So it just seemed like a natural title for it. Poetry Master has definitely a very aggressive but in a cool way feeling to it, especially from the game side, which I completely respect as well, but I'm happy that it was Poems By Heart.
Jo Reed: I'm happy it was too. Because I also think it gives it an indication of the relationship that a reader has with poetry in particular. Of taking something in by heart. It's not just the mind. You become it in a certain way, or it becomes you.
John Morgan: I feel like you sort of incorporate into kind of the body of the poem itself, in a way, or, yeah, it sort of embeds within you. And I find myself--of course, you know, I learned so much from looking at these poems-- the word "galumphing" was made up by Lewis Carroll for "Jabberwocky," and I was reading a book recently, I'm not going to name the book because it's a good book and I feel bad for calling the author out, but she had put something in, I think it was set in the beginning of the 19th Century, and it was a first-person narrative, and she used the word galumphing. And I thought to myself, "Well, that was invented later by Lewis Carroll." Like, "That character wouldn't know that word." So just strange things like that sort of now come out of my mouth and often surprise people I know.
Elda Rotor: I have to say, I haven't memorized as many at all as John has, but I am personally proud of the fact that over the weekend I finished memorizing "If," by Kipling. And I think the reason why I love "If" is because I can name a dozen situations during my day, whether it be at home with two small children or at work or just the stresses of daily life, where a verse from that is just absolutely perfect. You have to embody the poem, or like you were mentioning, the poem embodies you. Something physical happens to you too, I think, when you're trying to memorize and recite a poem. I think your stress level goes down. I think you breathe better. I tried to memorize Kipling by pushing my daughter in a swing over the weekend, and she kept saying, "What are you talking about out loud by yourself?" I was like, "No. Mommy's just trying to <laughs> memorize a poem." So there are definitely a lot of takeaways from memorizing poetry.
Jo Reed: And "If" is one of the poems I had to memorize when I was a child, and I'm also so glad that I had to, because exactly like you, Elda, during my day, it comes to mind.
Elda Rotor: If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'
Jo Reed: Digital publishing has challenged the book industry, and it's also offered it opportunities. Can we talk a little bit about both? Because obviously, the app, Poems By Heart is one of the opportunities.
John Morgan: Sure. I mean, I'm a little bit of a salesman on this one, just because I think the opportunities are great. Obviously change is always challenging for anything and the publishing industry has a lot of very specific ways of working, but I think that we look at a lot of studies at work where we see that when people get e-readers, they actually read more than they used to. And that was actually my experience. I had started in publishing. I had gone over to video games at a different company, and I had got an e-reader, and I started reading much more. And that was one of the reasons why I was interested in coming back to Penguin and working in digital publishing. So I just feel like there's a lot of different ways where we can reach people when they might not even necessarily be looking for a book or looking to memorize poetry, but they're just looking on the app store and they see something free and they download it and they start getting involved. And in some ways, especially on a lot of the projects I work on, I'm kind of first consumer and that was definitely what I was seeing happen to me here. And that was when I was feeling good about this.
So I really feel like there's so many new ways to reach people and that is challenging in the sense that everyone else is using those channels too, but at Penguin we have so much great content, we have a great brand. We have especially really smart people. I never would've been able to get anywhere on this app without Elda, her expertise, the people that she knew that she brought to it. So I feel like all of that has just really opened up new ways for them. And I know that Jen Wang especially had said to me that she was really happy to be a part of this, because I think she'd never done an app before. I don't know if she'd done, or she'd done a lot of book covers. So it was a new way of having her art go out to a new group of people.
Elda Rotor: It's been an exciting challenge on the editorial side too, because we feel, we take, the responsibility of working with the brand, with working with Penguin Classics, very, very seriously. And from our 1600 title back list and we do 60 to 70 front list titles a year just from Penguin Classics, that this was a new audience that we felt we had a responsibility to, to provide it the best product we possibly could. And it was a learning curve for us in-house to understand this whole world, and I'm glad it came up this way. And then John has guided us very carefully even through recording the poems. But there is an audience out there, I feel like the Penguin Classics reader is, there are many, many of them, and it's our responsibility to see what they want. And we know we have great content and we know we can put something together that they'll enjoy. So hopefully this is the start of something bigger, more. More from us.
Jo Reed: You know, one reviewer said about the app, and I'm quoting now, "You'll forget you're actually busy learning, because you'll just be busy having fun and getting into the challenge of the game." And that made me sad, because I feel when it's done right, learning, mastering something, is really such a source of deep pleasure, and somehow that so frequently is lost.
John Morgan: I would say that one of the reasons why we really try to focus on the game play is you want it to be intuitive. You want to sort of be able to do it and do it very quickly and not really think about what you're doing. I mean, we had a lot of conversations with Inkle. They were really terrific, but we really worked with them closely to fine-tune it so that you can move through the app. They themselves had said they didn't want there to be any instructions or tutorial, which made me a little nervous. But they sold me on it and of all the feedback we've gotten, actually, I haven't seen any feedback where anyone has been confused about where to go in the app or what to do, which is a real note to them on how well they succeeded on that.
I think that the mastery comes partly in when you're at the end and you're reciting it and you're really then sort of left on your own. And, in fact, the app doesn't check you. It's very honor code related. You can record whatever you want when you're reciting it, but we found whenever we put it in front of people that they would naturally recite the poem. We'd sort of primed them to want to do it at that point. And I think that, you know, I don't know a bunch about learning philosophies, but I know that in my case in this, I want the learning to feel sort of painless and quick and then I want to be able to prove that I did it. And the part where I'm proving that I did it is the part that's the challenge, and that's when I'm most conscious of, "Do I really know this poem or not?" Usually I don't and I have to go back and keep working on it. Even on the way here, I'm still trying to learn "Ode to the West Wind," and I often run through it in my head and kind of correct myself. And that's when I feel the most that I'm learning. I've taken it from the app, but I've brought it into myself.
Jo Reed: John and Elda, thank you both very much. And, I was so glad you didn't have a tutorial.
John Morgan: I'm glad we didn't need one.
Jo Reed: Yeah. It is intuitive. Thank you
John Morgan: Thanks so much.
Elda Rotor: Thank you.
Jo Reed: That was Elda Rotor and John Morgan. The produced the app, Poems by Heart, from Penguin Classics.
You've been listening to Art Works, produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpts from "When I have Fears" by John Keats
"Oh Captain, My Captain" by Walt Whitman
and "If" by Rudyard Kipling, read by Elda Rotor.
Excerpt from "Ode to the West Wind" by Percy Shelley, read by Joel Fotinos.
All poetry courtesy of Penguin Classics
Excerpt from "Padded Walls (reEdit)" from the album Transmit by Floating Spirits, licensed through Creative Commons.
Excerpt from Foreric: Piano Study" from the album Metascapes, composed and performed by Todd Barton, and used courtesy of Valley Productions.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at arts.gov. You can subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U—just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page.
Next week writer, Terry Tempest Williams
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.