Assigning Sophie Books in the Poetry Workshop

redundant books Why does a book have to be made out of paper? With computer programs like Sophie, they don’t. Sophie is a multimodal reading and writing platform designed and distributed by the Institute for the Future of the Book and sponsored by the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. Projects created with Sophie software, called “Sophie books,” use text, images, video, animation, and audio effects to compose interactive documents that say what could not be said in any single medium. In comparison to programs such as Adobe Flash, Sophie is free, open-source, and comes with a manageable learning curve. The possibilities for Sophie in a poetry workshop are exciting and limited only by technical considerations and the imaginations of students and instructors. Specifically, a Sophie book project is an effective and unexpected way to close out the graduate or undergraduate poetry workshop. Learning objectives include literacy in multimedia design, expertise in a computer program that is gaining popularity, and most importantly an enhanced awareness of line, stanza, enjambment, meter, and other semiotic elements of poetry.

A common project to end the poetry workshop is a printed chapbook or portfolio. While such projects have the benefit of encouraging students to think carefully about the material constraints and possibilities of paper, there are many reasons why poetry instructors should ask students to engage literacies beyond printed discourse. One reason is that students have likely been producing work in print for the entire semester, if not for most of their academic careers. Whether the genre is a poem, essay, book review, or written exam, they have experience thinking about design, layout, and content creation in ink-and-paper terms. A change of medium can lead students to re-conceptualize their poetry and discover new ways of making meaning from words. However, new media are not enough. A purposeful combination of media in a program like Sophie can have astounding benefits for the creative process at any stage.

In the field of composition studies, Cynthia Selfe (2002, 2006) has argued convincingly for an approach to writing that does not privilege print and integrates alphabetic elements as only one component of the text. As literate practices are changing in the twenty-first century, Selfe argues that multimodal assignments can be refreshing, meaningful after the class is over, and relevant to the digital texts that students encounter on a daily basis. In “Thinking about Multimodality” (PDF) (2004), Selfe and co-author Pamela Takayoshi observe that control over the page is important, but that “authors could expand that notion of control beyond the page, that they could think in increasingly broad ways about texts” (2). These propositions can migrate from composition studies to creative writing pedagogy. With Sophie, students create an interactive, digital poetry artifact they can include in e-portfolios or personal web sites. A chapbook, on the other hand, is bound in a literal and figurative sense.

The Sophie book project could consist of four or five short poems, two or three one-page poems, or a single long poem. Instructors should spend a class period in a computer lab to help students learn the software and create a one-page practice book. Sophie is not difficult to learn. Instructors can experiment with the program on their own time and create a sample Sophie book in a matter of four or five hours. Sophie books are not necessarily produced for web development. However, with Sophie 2.0, which has just been released, Java script will enable Sophie Books to be published online in a networked environment that extends beyond the classroom walls, furthering the relevance and lasting impact of a Sophie book project in poetry.

Demo Books and Tutorials:

[cc licensed photo by Flickr user Horia Varlan]