John Ashbery probably needs no introduction to fans of contemporary American poetry — or does he? Has his very eminence led many to ignore him in favor of younger, more fashionable poets? Williams Cole and Lily Henderson of Open Road Integrated Media, Inc. made this brief, highly watchable film portrait to celebrate the release of 17 books of his poetry in ebook form. The New York Times took note.
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He complained to his publisher, Ecco, and those four e-books were immediately withdrawn.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.
The article goes on to examine the current state of poetry ebook publishing — in particular, how publishers are handling the formatting. This is, incidentally, something I’ve long been interested in myself. Basically, as the article says, two different approaches have evolved: stick to PDFs or other static files to preserve text arrangement (which of course forces people on mobile devices to do a lot of scrolling), or hand-code every line so they collapse into hanging indents on smaller screens, following the printers’ convention of displaying lines too long for a page. This latter approach, thankfully, was the one Open Road chose.
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 met with Jane Friedman, Open Road’s chief executive, who was 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 proofread. 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 screen 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.”
“Line by Line, E-Books Turn Poet-Friendly” by Alexandra Alter
As for the filmmakers here, it’s worth noting that Lily Henderson was recently named one of the “25 New Faces of Independent Film” by Filmmaker Magazine.
A completely captivating film by Pakistani filmmaker Shehrbano Saiyid about a Hunza poet named Shahid Aktar, and how a particular poem of his has been received by his primary audience — his fellow villagers. The film documents its recording by Zoheb Veljee, who has spent five years recording music in remote locations around the world.
Be sure to click the CC icon for the English translation of the (sung) poem. It’s also available in text form in English (translated by Nosheen Ali), Urdu, and the original Wakhi at the new website Umang, which looks very promising indeed — a platform for “poetic thought in multiple languages as well as in multiple formats – including text, audio, video, and art,” initially from Pakistan and South Asia. (They also welcome submissions to their moderated forum.)
Do read the biography of the poet on the site.
Though produced as a documentary, The Plow That Broke the Plains may also be seen as an epic filmpoem. Consider: first-time filmmaker Pare Lorentz didn’t write the script until almost everything else was done — all the shooting, even Virgil Thomson’s magnificent score. Composer and filmmaker worked together to fit the film to the score, sometimes cutting one, sometimes the other, and Lorentz thought the music should be allowed to suggest separate and complementary story lines. And the script, when he finally wrote it, took the form of free verse — see for yourself. When the text of his second documentary, River, was published in book form, it was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry.
Which is not to say that (in my opinion at least) the script of The Plow That Broke the Plains qualifies as great poetry on its own. Rather, the successful marriage of all three elements — text, soundtrack and film — creates a poetic whole greater than the sum of its parts, a filmpoem. The fascinating story behind the making of the film is adeptly recounted on this webpage from the University of Virginia’s American Studies program.
Because it was produced by the federal government, The Plow That Broke the Plains is in the public domain, and high-resolution versions may be downloaded from the Internet Archive for reuse and remix. It might be interesting to see what a contemporary videopoet could make with this material, whether by swapping in new text or cutting and splicing Lorentz’s. (If anyone does this, be sure to send me the link.)
Produced by the Poetry Foundation to accompany the June issue of Poetry magazine, which was entirely devoted to the two-line Afghani poems known as landays. Seamus Murphy‘s film includes lots of stunning shots, and displays familiarity with the filmpoem genre in its imaginative conjunctions of text and image. Murphy has been taking still photographs in Afghanistan since 1994, and some of them accompany his fellow journalist Eliza Griswold‘s essay on, and compilation of, landays for the magazine. One thing the film contributes to the issue is the sound of the Pashto originals, which aren’t otherwise included in the online feature.
A story from PBS NewsHour provides additional background about the project:
As a fan primarily of mainstream, “page” poetry I don’t necessarily seek out spoken-word poetry, but I am enlivened and inspired by poets like Benjamin Zephaniah — not that there are too many other poets like him. Just as certain avant-garde poets challenge us to take language more seriously and to invent a new universe for every poem, brilliant performance poets like Zephaniah remind us that poetry is first and foremost an oral, embodied medium. Zephaniah’s example challenges us to take living more seriously, and to question whether our words and actions and politics are truly aligned as they should be. And needless to say, for a type of poetry that so emphasizes the physicality of language, film/video is the ideal medium.
Bloodaxe Books were kind enough to send me a review copy of the DVD-book for which this is the trailer, and I loved it. I’d already known from watching her films on Vimeo that Pamela Robertson-Pearce is a good director who knows how to get out of the way and let the poems and the poet speak for themselves, and this talent is very much on display here. I watched the DVD in two long sittings and was entranced. The readings and interviews are artfully blended, with earlier sequences anticipating later explanations by the poet. For example, a series of delightful readings for, and exchanges with, schoolchildren were filmed in what turns out to be the Keats House next to Hampstead Heath, which prepares the viewer not only to hear about the poet’s own childhood and difficult time at school, but also eventually to hear how and why he came to love Keats, Shelley and Byron despite his original aversion to dead white male poets. And footage of Zephaniah in a track suit practicing taiqi in his yard is first used as a backdrop for several segments, arousing one’s curiosity — eventually satisfied — about his exercise and martial arts regime and its influence on him as a performance poet and musician.
The footage of various readings before live audiences varies in quality (the sound is slightly muffled in a couple of them), but one thing I really appreciated was that the director did not attempt to jazz things up by jumping frenetically between two or more different perspectives, as so many slick poetry filmmakers like to do. I generally find that distracting, and with a performer as expressive as Zephaniah, there’s no need to add any more kinesis!
The film is playful and serious by turns, just as Zephaniah’s poems are, and gave me a lot to think about, especially on the role of performance in poetry, the social responsibility of artists, and the various ways in which oral and literary traditions intersect. My favorite interview sections were actually those with the poet’s mother, Valerie Wright, clearly the single biggest influence on his life, who sat beside him on a couch and helped answer questions about his upbringing and the family traits and customs that helped to produce a poet. I should add that all the poems are presented in full, and the film also incorporates a highly entertaining music video by his rap-reggae group, The Beta Brothers (with four more videos included as bonus tracks). Neil Astley’s Foreword in the book offers a more comprehensive biography than any I’ve seen online, and people who already own some or all of Zephaniah’s earlier books with Bloodaxe and Penguin will want this one, too, since it includes different versions of many poems, updated to reflect how they have evolved as he continues to perform them on stage.
The DVD is in PAL format, which means it won’t play on most North American DVD players, but should play just fine on most computers (as it did on my laptop). As the note about this on the last page of the book says, “In an ideal world we’d produce our DVD-book with DVDs in either format and give overseas readers the choice, but unfortunately that would be much too costly.” Check out the publisher’s detailed description at Vimeo or on the Bloodaxe website. Let me close with Zephaniah’s own description at his blog:
Yes, that’s right, I’ve got a new DVD and book out. It’s a kind of Zephaniah on the road jam, and it features my mum and my nephew, Zayn. He’s a good boy, but he can’t play football as good as me. The DVD has live performances of some previously published and unpublished poems, with interviews and lots of messing around by me. What I really love about it is the mix of my children’s poetry, my work for adults, and my music, which most publishers usually like to keep separate. Publisher, writer, and all round good guy Neil Astley has written an introduction for it, and Pamela Robertson-Pearce did the filming. We’ve tried to do something which stands up as both entertaining and educational, so it could be used in schools and other funky places. I’m pleased with it.
An anonymous Syrian poet muses on real terror versus sleep terrors:
The same man who is trying to shoot me is me. I have no face in the dream, I am the man and me. This horror of the dream stays long.
This film is one of three shorts I made during a week in Beirut in May 2011. The films were commissioned by Reel Festivals and Creative Scotland and the remit was make a series of short films “inspired by” the festival of poets. It was an amazing week, it’s not every day that you get to meet poets from Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Scotland.
We were also meant to go to Damascus but as the political situation worsened that leg of the festival was cancelled. However, I still wanted to reflect the current situation in one of the films, so I interviewed one of the Syrian poets about his dreams. That was the starting point for this film.
Produced by Norbert Lempert of REMproductions in association with the Poetry Foundation. Gerald Stern is as much the poet warrior now as when he stunned the poetry world thirty years ago with his book Lucky Life. In that book he first staked out a place for himself and readers that he has continued to make, a place that in his words is “overlooked or ignored or disdained, a place no one else wanted.” This short documentary film, illustrated with materials from Stern’s own archive, features some of Stern’s best known poems. It also includes commentary by poets Ross Gay, Edward Hirsch, Anne Marie Macari, Heather McHugh, and Thomas Lux, each with a unique perspective on Stern as artist and friend.
I thought this would be a good pick for the U.S. Independence Day holiday, especially given the way Stern, Hirsch and Macardi discuss the climate for poetry in the U.S. starting around 2:30 in Part 1. There’s also this from Stern in Part 2, beginning at 2:58:
We remember the famous words: After the Holocaust, after Shoah, there can be no poetry. And the alternative is: After the Shoah, there can be ONLY poetry. “How about no parades, no cannons, no atom bombs? How about no concentration camps, the way the United States runs concentration camps now?” is another way of thinking about it.
I also like Hirsch’s description of Stern in Part 3, starting at 0:38:
He’s really a poet of the egotistical sublime. The I stands in for the natural world, and for the whole world. And he’s experiencing everything himself.
For more on Gerald Stern, and to read samples of his work, see the Poetry Foundation’s page, which includes 32 poems in text form and 12 audio files.