Nationality: United States

Meet John Ashbery

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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He complained to his publisher, Ecco, and those four e-books were immediately withdrawn.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.

Their Names by Sally Bliumis-Dunn

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A film by Lori H. Ersolmaz, incorporating Nic Sebastian’s reading of a poem by Sally Bliumis-Dunn at The Poetry Storehouse. Two other video remixers have also tried their hand at this poem, Paul Broderick and Nic Sebastian herself, but Ersolmaz’s film is in a class by itself.

Clothesline by Kathleen Kirk

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The words and voice of Kathleen Kirk (via The Poetry Storehouse) meet the ear and eye of Marc Neys, A.K.A. Swoon.

The visuals took me some time to figure out.
Different approaches, different ideas resulted in at least three completely different videos.
None of them were what I thought was needed.
Number four hit all the right notes:
Sunlight, straight lines, bright colours, slightly experimental and a strange overall atmosphere…
Happy with this one.

Allen Crawford’s Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself

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A gorgeous filmpoem by David Scott Kessler, made as a trailer for what looks like a gorgeous book. Here’s the description from the publisher, Tin House Books:

Walt Whitman’s iconic collection of poems, Leaves of Grass, has earned a reputation as a sacred American text. Whitman himself made such comparisons, going so far as to use biblical verse as a model for his own. So it’s only appropriate that artist and illustrator Allen Crawford has chosen to illuminate—like medieval monks with their own holy scriptures—Whitman’s masterpiece and the core of his poetic vision, “Song of Myself.” Crawford has turned the original sixty-page poem from Whitman’s 1855 edition into a sprawling 234-page work of art. The handwritten text and illustrations intermingle in a way that’s both surprising and wholly in tune with the spirit of the poem—they’re exuberant, rough, and wild. Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself is a sensational reading experience, an artifact in its own right, and a masterful tribute to the Good Gray Poet.

Here’s Allen Crawford’s website. The score for the film, “I Contain Multitudes,” is the work of Ben Warfield, and both Warfield and Kessler are good friends of Crawford, according to his blog post about the trailer. I like what he says about book trailers:

David really did a wonderful job: viewers at first will wonder where the book is, only to realize that they had been seeing it all along. Book trailers are still a relatively new thing, but I think David has set a nice precedent by going with a slower pace and lyrical treatment: there’s no reason why a book trailer should look like a film trailer, after all.

[...]

My good friend Bill was kind enough to serve as our “Whitman” (How odd and fortuitous that one of my dearest friends should be a dead ringer for Whitman…)

(Hat-tip: Poets & Writers’ Clip of the Day)

Census by Lissa Kiernan

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The last Poetry Storehouse remix I’ll be featuring this week was made by Othniel Smith three months ago for a poem by Lissa Kiernan. Together with a video by Swoon that we previously shared here, it’s included on the multimedia page of a website for Kiernan’s fantastic new book, Two Faint Lines in the Violet, which I happen to be in the middle of reading. The publisher is Negative Capability Press, and when I went to check them out online, I was impressed to see that they had gone to the trouble to set up an independent website for the book. (The norm for American publishers is to have, at best, a separate page in the online catalogue, and possibly also a page for the author in some other section of their site which may or may not link to the catalogue page.) The two video embeds appear as images in a slider at the top of the page with a brief description at the bottom of each image, and when clicked, the videos are responsive, meaning they automatically resize to fit any screen. Overall, a very pleasing presentation. I hope other poetry publishers take note.

Though Othniel Smith’s interpretations of poems are sometimes too literal for me, this one has just the right degree of allusiveness (and elusiveness) for my taste. Kiernan evidently thought so too, commenting on Vimeo, “Thank you, Othniel – you brought this poem to life! Love especially the dancing feet shot, the pre-natal scene, and the final few shots.” They go on to talk about the original film that the remix borrows most of its footage from, Marriage Today (Alexander Hammid, 1950) — “certainly an interesting film coming from an experimental filmmaker on his second marriage,” Smith notes.

Incidentally, congratulations to Othniel for getting four of his Storehouse poetry films selected for screening at The Outcasting: Fourth Wall Festival in Cardiff! I like what he had to say about the importance of online resources such as The Poetry Storehouse:

Primarily a scriptwriter (e.g. “The Story Of Tracy Beaker” for CBBC), I have been making poetry films for a few years, in an attempt to enhance my skills in respect of visual story-telling. The existence of online resources such as The Internet Archive, Flickr Commons and Librivox means that there is plentiful material in the public domain for the unschooled video editor to play with. Having made films of poems by such historic figures as Shakespeare, Lord Byron, Emily Dickinson and R.S. Thomas, I was delighted to discover The Poetry Storehouse. This has given me the opportunity to apply my imagination to the work of contemporary poets, and to obtain their feedback which has, thus far, been largely positive.

Hospice by Jessie Carty

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Although it may seem to some regular visitors that I post videos from The Poetry Storehouse too often, in reality, I don’t post them nearly often enough, given the glut of good videos landing there these days, and I’m getting rather far behind as a result. Case in point: Nic Sebastian uploaded this remix of a poem by Jessie Carty a full month ago. This is a beautiful remix, I thought, and it seems especially appropriate for Carty to join the ranks of the envideoed at the Poetry Storehouse given her history as editor of the groundbreaking YouTube-based literary magazine Shape of a Box.

Corn Moon by Erica Goss

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With all the vacations Moving Poems has been taking, I’ve fallen behind on the 12 Moons videopoetry collaboration between Erica Goss (words), Marc Neys/Swoon (concept, camera and directing), Kathy McTavish (music) and Nic Sebastian (voice). As usual, it debuted online at Atticus Review. This is the 8th moon. Neys called Goss’ text

A powerful poem that needed enough room (I love the line ‘Give it your blood, one drop at the time’) to breathe.
One storyline of images (very close to the poem) in black and white was more than enough against the beautiful reading & soundtrack by Nic and Kathy.
I personally love this one and think it’s the perfect showcase of what the collaborative and creative powers of four individuals can lead up to.

Atticus Review doesn’t seem to have an archive for just the 12 Moons series (apart from its Mixed Media category, whose RSS feed I strongly recommend adding to one’s feed reader subscriptions). But click on the 12 Moons tag to view all eight posted so far at Moving Poems.