Although e-readers such as the Amazon Kindle still enjoy some popularity, most of the screen reading that the majority of people do in their day-to-day lives is now on mobile devices – smartphones and tablets.

This applies to ‘dedicated’ reading practices – i.e. reading substantial pieces of text, such as online articles, e-books, and webpages – but also to faster, more peripheral forms of reading, such as seeing app notifications, text messages, checking weather reports, getting directions, etc. These broad ranging reading practices focussed on a single device stem from the fact that these devices have steadily expanded their capabilities over recent years, allowing them to be used in almost every facet of daily life.

While these features may not seem immediately relevant to reading, and especially not to the kind of sustained attention most often associated with poetry reading, their presence on the device alongside a digital text presents the opportunity to reimagine how text is presented to a reader. The device’s ability to access and process a huge amount of information about things such as its location, the weather, the time of day, its orientation, etc., provides writers and publishers with broad range of new ways to think about how readers can access text on a device. This could include taking advantage of the user’s pre-existing familiarity with another of the device’s functionalities to create an interface for reading that emulates this other feature. An example might be a ‘poetry map’ that a user can navigate using the gestures and user experience patterns already familiar from apps such as Google Maps. Another approach might be to contradict or frustrate these expectations, for example by presenting the reading interface as superficially very similar to an already-familiar application (perhaps even a e-book), but then having it behave in a very different way. A trivial example could be that the ‘pinch’ gesture normally associated with ‘zooming’ or increasing text size here changes the colour of the text, depending on how far apart the two points of contact with the screen are. This could challenge the reader’s received notions of how reading on screen works, suggesting some parallel between distance, size or radius and colour, more suggestive of a piece of photo-editing software than a conventional reading interface.

For works that seek to push the boundaries of language, these kinds of reader interactions could be very appropriate, using the poem to also bring something new to the reader’s experience of using the device. While alienating or frustrating the user is always a risk, it is possible that a balance between familiarity and unfamiliarity might result in an experience comparable to that produced by language in poetry.