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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