Originally produced as an installation piece for large touchscreen monitors in 2007, this poem is now available as a free iOS App. This is the first of a series of poems that explore the expressive potential of touchscreen interfaces, called the P.o.E.M.M. project (Poems for Excitable [Mobile] Media). The Speak app features “What They Speak When They Speak to Me,” along with poems by Jim Andrews, J.R. Carpenter, David Jhave Johnston, and Aya Karpinska – each of which successfully capture each poet’s voice and poetics.
The Speak app turns all the letters of the poems into a kind of letter cloud or constellation but with the letters hovering over their relative position. When you touch the screen and drag your fingertip across it, the poetic line is reconstituted from that point onwards, following the trail left by your finger’s movement, and fading back into the cloud when you lift your finger. This allows for readers to experience incomplete lines and incomplete words, depending on where you’ve touched in the sentence. Lewis engages this computational structure in his poem thematically, because it is about miscommunication across language, culture, and identity. The snippets of comprehension one gets when hearing speech in different languages are echoed in the poem’s structure.
Here’s a suggestion for reading the poem somewhat systematically: after reading each line (or partial line), find a spot in the surface and make a little loop with your finger over it to concentrate the letters and allow you to visually clear the field, reducing repetition and providing a sense of completion, if not necessarily closure.