by: Alexandra Alter
When John Ashbery, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, first learned that the digital editions of his poetry looked nothing like the print version, he was stunned. There were no line breaks, and the stanzas had been jammed together into a block of text that looked like prose. The careful architecture of his poems had been leveled.
He complained to his publisher, Ecco, and those four e-books were immediately withdrawn.
That was three years ago, and digital publishing has evolved a lot since then. Publishers can now create e-books that better preserve a poet's meticulous formatting. So when Open Road Media, a digital publishing company, approached Mr. Ashbery about creating electronic versions of his books, he decided to give it another chance.
Last week, Open Road published 17 digital collections of Mr. Ashbery's work, the first time the bulk of his poetry will be available in e-book form. This time, he hasn't asked for a recall.
"It's very faithful to the original formatting," said Mr. Ashbery, 87, who is widely recognized as one of the country's greatest living poets.
More than a decade into the e-book revolution, poetry publishers are scrambling to carve out a place in the digital market. In 2013, publishers released about 2,050 poetry e-books, up from about 200 in 2007, the year the first Kindle came out, according to Bowker, which tracks releases. Last year, e-books accounted for roughly 20 percent of the nearly 10,000 poetry books published, compared with around 10 percent in 2012.
Of all the literary genres, poetry has proved the most resistant to digital technology, not for stodgy cultural reasons but for tricky mechanical ones. Most e-readers mangle the line breaks and stanzas that are so crucial to the appearance and rhythm of poetry. As a result, many publishers have held back on digitizing poetry, and works by some major poets still are not available as e-books, including Ezra Pound's "The Cantos" and poems by Jorie Graham, Tracy K. Smith, Elizabeth Bishop and Czeslaw Milosz.
"The line is the unit in which poetry is communicated, and the technology of most e-books is unfriendly to that unit," said Jeff Shotts, executive editor of Graywolf Press.
But as technology evolved, publishers began to adapt. Some have hired programmers to hand-code poetry e-books so that line breaks and stanzas are maintained; others have resorted to using PDFs, or static files, to reproduce digital images of elaborately shaped poetry like Mary Szybist's outwardly radiating lines. Some poetry presses have added disclaimers to their e-books, recommending that readers use a particular font size to view the most accurate representation of a poem.
The independent publisher New Directions, founded in 1936, started publishing poetry e-books last year. So far, New Directions has released more than 60 digital volumes of poetry, including works by Pablo Neruda, Dylan Thomas and William Carlos Williams.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux began a major push to digitize its poetry backlist in January, after working out some thorny layout and coding issues. This year, it is releasing 111 digital poetry collections, up from 17 last year and just one in 2012.
"We wanted to feel confident that what the poets were doing visually came across in the e-readers before we made this transfer," said Christopher Richards, an assistant editor at Farrar. "The visual look of a poem is really important and can communicate a kind of meaning, and if it's not preserved in the e-book, you really lose something."
Digital poetry is still dwarfed by print, and some writers and publishers question whether there is much demand for poetry e-books.
"A large percentage of poetry readers are fetishistic and like holding a physical book," said Michael Wiegers, the executive editor of the nonprofit Copper Canyon Press, which specializes in poetry.
For publishers, cost is a factor. Poetry sales have always been tiny compared with other genres, and creating specially coded e-books is expensive, especially considering that the work of lesser known poets might sell only a few hundred copies.
But poetry publishers say they can no longer ignore the shift to digital that has swept the industry, and some are investing heavily in e-book development. Copper Canyon has spent around $150,000 on its digital publishing efforts, using funding from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation and other donors. Much of the money went to programmers, Mr. Wiegers said. In the past few years, Copper Canyon has released about 125 digital poetry volumes. "It involved a lot of trial and error, and coding, Mr. Wiegers said.
Some poets remain adamant about the superiority of print. Albert Goldbarth, who has produced more than 30 books of poetry, refuses to publish e-books. "I don't do it on principle," he said, noting that with his print editions he can control the typeface, font size and layout.
Other poets have insisted that publishers add disclaimers to their e-books. Billy Collins, a former poet laureate of the United States, made that request a few years ago after seeing how changing the font size on an e-reader "threw the poem out of kilter," as he put it. His e-books now carry a warning that certain functions of an e-reader can change the "physical integrity of the poem."
"The first impression you have of a poem is looking at the shape on an page," Mr. Collins said. "A poem has sculptural integrity that is not registered on any e-reader."
The poetry of Mr. Ashbery, who often writes in long, Walt Whitmanesque lines and uses complex indentations, was difficult to digitize. "Many of my poems have lines that are very long, and it's important to me that they be accurately reproduced on the page," he said. "The impact of a poem very often comes down to line breaks, which publishers of poetry often don't seem to find as important as the people who write the poems."
After his first misadventure, Mr. Ashbery was reluctant to sell his e-book rights again. But then two years ago, his literary agent me with Jane Friedman, Open Road's chief executive, who as interested in publishing digital versions of Mr. Ashbery's work. She assured Mr. Ashbery and his agent that the e-book formatting would preserve his lines.
After a courtship that stretched on for about a year, Mr. Ashbery agreed to sign over digital rights for 17 collections.
The e-books took several months to produce. First his poems were scanned, digitized and carefully proofred. Then Open Road sent the files to eBook Architects, an e-book development company in Austin, Tex. There, the text was hand-coded and marked up semantically, so that the formal elements were tagged as lines, stanzas or deliberate indentations. When a line runs over because the screen is too small or the font is too big, it is indented on the line below - a convention that's been observed in print for centuries. The technology is still far from perfect. Mr. Ashbery's poems retain their shape better on the larger scree of the iPad, and are squeezed, with more lines spilling over, on a Kindle or an iPhone.
Poetry scholars say such minor discrepancies are a small price to pay to ensure Mr. Ashbery's legacy in the digital age.
"John Ashbery is our T.S. Eliot, our Gertrude Stein," said Robert Polito, president of the Poetry Foundation. "It's vital that his work be authoritatively available in as many different formats as possible."
from: NY Times