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:
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 – thats the poetry; otherwise its just words.
And form, he says, is precisely what gets lost when poems get converted to e-readers, which is why Miller doesnt publish on e-readers. He says they dont honor his work.
Thats a widespread feeling among his fellow poets and a debate that can pit poetry purists against futurists.
The technology has to get it right, Miller says. Or poets wont use it.
Right now, were 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 youre working on a Kindle or Nook or Kobo device, and you shoot up a page, you lose the line breaks depending on how youve 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.
Thats 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 doesnt 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.
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 Toni Morrison.
I would love to do and will be doing poetry electronically, co-founder and CEO Jane Friedman says.
Friedman, a former CEO at HarperCollins, says Open Road is negotiating to publish a renowned American poet she wont name, and shes mindful of the 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 Im confident about that, then we will certainly be in the poetry business.
Last year, a Publishers 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 doesnt always work. ... Publishers cant 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 e-book edition of the Collected Poems of Allen Ginsberg, which makes Howl look like a formless blob of text on a screen; its 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 e-books, he says. Standardized e-book formats that allow for holding the words in place on the page are emerging, Maharaj says. But its an ongoing process.
Two years ago, there was the beginning of a reckoning between e-books and poetry, Maharaj says.
Two years from now, were not concerned with the ability to preserve the layout for poetry, and youll probably see more innovation and stretching of boundaries by poets as they work in creative ways that exploit the technology. Now its possible for poets to read their work aloud on e-readers, he says.
Technology gives and it takes away. Its a two-steps-forward-and-one-step-back kind of thing.
When e-books emerged, people were rushing, and the results werent 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. Lets 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 e-books 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 also gave readers tools.
If you download one of our e-books, 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, its 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. Thats what poet Fady Joudah, 42, is doing.
Im taking the plunge, Joudah says. This spring, Copper Canyon is publishing the Houston-based physicians third book of poetry, Textu, only as an e-book, 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 steeped in technology will be visionary.
I trust that they will still take care of poetry and take it to a better place.