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He complained to his publisher, Ecco, and those four e-books were immediately withdrawn.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.
The story of the city is simple.
It eats secrets of people.
It digests whispers and
turns them into leaves, birds, fish.
Serbian filmmaker Dragana Nikolic made this arresting spoken word/videopoem hybrid in 2011 with performance poet Aljoša Dražović playing the part of a slightly crazed tour guide, extemporizing in English. (Apparently he is fluent in both English and Serbian. Here’s a video of him performing work in Serbian.) Nikolic says this about this about the film on Vimeo:
Night walk. Unusual tour guide. Improvisation. Free-style poetry.
Talking with the ghosts of the city, the shadows, the fog…
This city is full of secrets. Secret passageways, stairways. Just hidden for you to find…
Festivals: Balkan Beyond Borders, Bucharest, Romania; CologneOFF – Cologne International Videoart Festival; Timishort Romania; Clermont-Ferrand IFF France; Signes de Nuit International Festival, Paris, France; Belgrade Documentary and Short FF; Exit Festival, “Trgni se! Poezija!” Poetry an Book Festival, Alternative Film / Video Festival, Belgrade.
Nikolic also has a bilingual blog focusing on her graphic design work.
Irish poet Kevin Barrington is doing interesting things with spoken-word video these days — here, with the help of filmmaker Mark Cantwell. The poem’s cynicism may be a little on the heavy side, but it works for me. (For Americans and others who may be clueless about soccer/football, “Man United” is Manchester United Football Club, one of the most successful teams in English football.)
All the flowers in my country have been picked
And gunpowder planted instead.
Fragrance breathes its last
In a torture camp.
The very lane where hand in hand with you
I have danced to the music of peace,
There a death-dealer is spread-eagled.
Ammar Aziz directed this poetry film featuring Pakistani poet, writer, and women’s rights activist Attiya Dawood, accompanied by dancer Suhaee Abro. Be sure to press the icon marked “CC” at the bottom of the video to view subtitles in English, Sindhi or Urdu, or click through to the Umang website to read the text in all three languages.
Poem by Denise Duhamel read by 65 poets including Terrance Hayes, Richard Blanco, Collin Kelley, Michelle Buchanan, Diego Quiros, Emma Trelles, Amy Gerstler, Maureen Seaton, Matthew Hittinger, Stephen Mills, Major Jackson, Duriel Harris, more. Video is part of the FIXATION gallery event taking place at the Zhou B Art Center April 2014.
Poet Denise Duhamel explains in a note at the end of the video that
I chose for my “Fixation” entry jealousy, a very human reaction under certain circumstances, but one that I am embarassed to have. I used “googlism” to search Jealousy, as though it were a person or place. There are four googlism choices: who, what, where, and when. When I searched Jealousy under “when,” there was nothing, only this message: Sorry, Google doesn’t know Jealousy. I knew instantly this would be my title. I collaged the lines from the other three googlisms for jealousy, pruning away the repeats. Many of the lines that pop up on googlism are truncated in some way, and I let those stand, as it seems to me they imply a hesitation, a shame in finishing the thought about this very vexing emotion.
For more about Fixation, see poetsandartists.com.
Pakistani poet Abrar Ahmad reads his poem in this video from Umang, directed by Ammar Aziz. Press the CC (closed captioning) icon for the English translation by Zahra Sabri, and visit the video’s page on the Umang site for the complete original Urdu text as well as the translation.