Poetry’s tense relationship with e-readers

Correction: A previous version of this article said that Open Road Integrated Media publishes Toni Morrison. It instead publishes backlists that include Alice Walker. This version has been corrected.


Kim Roberts, editor of Beltway Poetry Quarterly, says the Web works better for poetry than e-readers. (Dan Zak/WASHINGTON POST)

Washington poet and literary activist E. Ethelbert Miller insists there is a difference between his poem “Before Hip Hop” when it is shown like this:

Before

Hip Hop

there was


(Neil Stevens/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Nat

King

Cole

Sugar Ray

and

Miles.

Cool

was

how

you

held a

cigarette between

fingers or entered

a ring or simply

found your stage

and turned your back

to the world.

and like this: Before Hip Hop there was Nat King Cole Sugar Ray and Miles. Cool was how you held a cigarette between fingers or entered a ring or simply found your stage and turned your back to the world.

Form is essential to the art, Miller says. Line breaks, stanza breaks and pacing — that’s the poetry; otherwise it’s just words. And form, he says, is precisely what gets lost when poems get converted to e-readers, which is why Miller doesn’t publish on e-readers. He says they don’t honor his work.

That’s a widespread feeling among his fellow poets and a debate that can pit poetry purists against futurists. “The technology has to get it right,” says Miller. Or poets won’t use it.

“Right now, we’re talking about conversion of print files to digital files and the greatest issue is in the poetry community,” says Ira Silverberg, director of literature for the National Endowment for the Arts. “If you’re working on a Kindle or Nook or Kobo device, and you shoot up a page, you lose the line breaks depending on how you’ve formatted your preferences.”

If you think about screen size, think about how a poem looks on a page versus how it would look on an iPhone. “That’s really going to be a tough one,” he says.

Kim Roberts, editor of the online Beltway Poetry Quarterly magazine, says she was an early technology adopter. She began publishing contemporary poets and out-of-print and deceased writers in 2000. The Web can honor the form, increase access to poetry and build community, she says, but when it comes to e-readers, she doesn’t know of poets who publish their work on them.

“It does seem like some technologies are better suited for some genres,” Roberts says. “Maybe the Web is really well suited to poetry and the Kindle is really well suited to prose.”

At more than 5,000 titles, eBooks are one of the fastest growing segments of the D.C. Public Library, says spokesman George Williams. If the eBook collection were a standalone library, its size would be second only to the Martin Luther King Branch. But he has heard of no discussion of eBooks and poetry.

In May 2010, the digital publisher Open Road Integrated Media offered its first book. Now Open Road has 300 authors and 3,000 titles — backlists that include William Styron, Pat Conroy and Alice Walker. Co-founder and CEO Jane Friedman says, “I would love to do and will be doing poetry electronically.”

Friedman, a former CEO at HarperCollins, says Open Road is negotiating to publish a renowned American poet she won’t name, and she’s mindful of issues of line breaks and spacing, of artistic intention.

“We are working very hard to reproduce the poem in the way the poet has written it,” she says. “Once I’m confident about that, then we will certainly be in the poetry business.”

Last year, a Publisher’s Weekly article detailed the challenges facing poetry publishers.

While you can code “so that the lines wrap correctly, doing so requires hand-coding and some work-arounds, and even then it seems like it doesn’t always work. . . . Publishers can’t just send their poetry collections to mass-conversion houses and hope for the best,” the article said. “A few have tried, and the results are disastrous. (Take, for example, HarperCollins’s eBook edition of the ‘Collected Poems’ of Allen Ginsberg, which makes ‘Howl’ look like a formless blob of text on a screen; it’s unreadable.)”

Nathan Maharaj is director of merchandising for Kobo, a Toronto-based company that sells e-readers and books. The company has been aware of the concerns about poetry since the dawn of eBooks, he says. Standardized eBook formats that allow for holding the words in place on the page are emerging, Maharaj says. But “it’s an ongoing process.”

Two years ago there was “the beginning of a reckoning” between eBooks and poetry, Maharaj says. “Two years from now, we’re not concerned with the ability to preserve the layout for poetry and you’ll probably see more innovation and stretching of boundaries by poets as they work in creative ways that exploit” the technology. Now it’s possible for poets to read their work aloud on e-readers, he says. “Technology gives and it takes away. It’s a two-steps-forward-and-one-step-back kind of thing.”

When eBooks emerged, people were rushing and the results weren’t clean, says Joseph Bednarik, marketing director of the small independent poetry publisher Copper Canyon Press. Forty years ago, Copper Canyon used a letterpress, “letter by letter, with keen attention to design and line breaks.” About three years ago, “we said the writing is on the wall. We have to engage in this. Let’s engage it in a way that allows the art to be art and the readers to be honored.”

The publisher worked with a conversion company specifically on the challenges of converting poetry to readers. In 2010, they got a grant for $100,000 from the foundation of Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen to produce eBooks, and a $65,000 grant last year from the National Endowment of Arts.

They put programmers, poets and publishers in the same room for a series of discussions. They went through line by line, programming codes to improve line breaks and make them less random and confusing. They tried to make electronic poems less like “doing Soduku underwater.”

They also gave readers tools. “If you download one of our eBooks,” Bednarik says, “we provide a dummy line that equals the longest line in the book. If they can configure their e-reader so that that dummy line is a single line, they can be assured that all the poems are going to appear as the poet intended. The caveat there is if a reader chooses to increase font size or spacing, it’s going to affect how poems are falling.”

Publishers can provide guideposts, but readers have to bring some effort to the presentation.

And poets have to trust that they will.

That’s what poet Fady Joudah, 42, is doing. “I’m taking the plunge,” Joudah says. This spring, Copper Canyon is publishing the Houston-based physician’s third book of poetry, “Textu” only as an eBook, a first for both the author and the publisher. The poems themselves riff off technology and are each 160 characters, adhering to text message capacity.

“I think the idea of writing about poetry through the medium of technology . . . is simply a question of asking how can you still reclaim language and adapt yourself to it at the same time — to language in the age of technology,” Joudah says.

Joudah thinks younger people who are steeped in technology will be visionary. “I trust that they will still take care of poetry and take it to a better place.”

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