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:
Poetry’s tense relationship with e-readers
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.”