Crossing the Line: Poetry’s E-Book Horizons

As e-readers proliferate, poetry publishers try to keep poems looking like poems

by Rachel Mennies

Since the widespread releases of the Kindle (2007) and iPad (2010), the discussion about e-books has largely focused on prose, if on genre at all.  E-prose is certainly more popular, more widely read and sold, than e-poetry—a reading practice that mirrors our larger reading interests and purchases here in the United States.  When we debate or embrace or disavow the e-book, according to those who make the devices, we’re typically picturing a novel, or a collection of essays, and we can find evidence of this claim by glancing at the text displayed on screen in TV ads for the products (Sedaris for iPad, for example) and the books most prominently advertised on the devices’ homepage stores.  This not only reflects what Americans are reading, but the works that most presses are producing for e-bookstores.

While part of this production decision reflects demand, certainly, it also highlights a second truth about e-books: it’s harder to produce an e-book of poetry than it is for prose.  Prose, after all, can tumble from page to page without concern.  Changing font typeface or size affects prose text aesthetically, but leaves its content and meaning intact.  A chapter of The Grapes of Wrath, for example, can take up five pages or seven, and its sentences can spread over the page in any number, without wrecking the integrity of the writing itself.  As small presses innovate in the e-book realm, contemporary poetry begins to make its e-book debut.  This debut raises new and genre-specific concerns, the greatest of them deriving from one of poetry’s smallest units: the line.

Long-line poets have the most to fear from the e-book, as the line is the most easily distorted prosodic element on an e-reader.  Poets like Kay Ryan, known for her short-line prosodic focus, might find their work nearly impossible to mangle on a Kindle (unless the poems are inexplicably double-spaced, like Ashbery’s work in the iBooks version of Notes From the Air). In contrast, long-line poets face breakage and splintering in their work depending on the reader’s use of the font-alteration and font-size-change options that come standard on both Kindle and iPad.  One vetted long-line example is Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” whose anaphoric line-starting “who” became lost and muddied when translated into e-book format.  Craig Morgan Teicher of Publishers Weekly wrote of this problem last October, noting “Even from a distance you can see the difference”:

Ginsberg broke his poem into what he called “strophes,” those long lines that hark back to Whitman.  The indentations you see above are meant to indicate that the line keeps going beyond the end of the page, until the next left-justified line.  Ginsberg was careful in his liniation [sic], and part of the poem’s impact is in seeing that “who” sticking out again and again on the left side of the page. The digital version pays no mind to this whatsoever.  What we get is not the poem itself, but a kind of poor transcription of it.

Here, the e-book turns poem to prose—badly blocked and confused prose, at that.  We lose Ginsberg’s sprawling yet meticulously organized thoughts, his carefully nested musings on the “best minds of [his] generation.”  If this is the future of the e-poetry book, as Teicher wonders in his article, perhaps this approach has already failed us.  Perhaps another methodology will serve the medium well, find the right sort of justice for its art.

In the wake of these early malfunctions, finding the “correct” or faithful path for e-poetry might seem like a daunting process to undertake.  Several small presses, thankfully, have emerged as willing pioneers. Ugly Duckling Presse garnered national attention in the poetry community last year when it announced a shift to e-publishing its back stock and chapbook titles.  Another independent press, Milkweed Editions, has just released in both Kindle and paperback formats Seedlip and Sweet Apple, the first full-length collection by poet Arra Lynn Ross.

Seedlip and Sweet Apple examines the life of Shaker founder Ann Lee; it’s a stunning, quietly wrenching collection, one which follows the narrative arc of Lee’s story from birth to death.  Ross most often uses persona to eke out Lee, to show her in a complicated and intimate manner to the reader—though many other voices, including Lee’s brother William, mother, and members of the converted, speak in the book as well.  “I could fold the world over,” declared the child Lee in “Mother’s Touch,” “and make it rise up right.”  This collection crafts each moment in this “rising right:” as Lee inspires the Shakers, endures torture and prosecution for her beliefs, and moves to America to formally instate her sect.  Throughout Lee’s life, Ross gives voice to her doubts—her darknesses as well as her triumphs—in a manner as poignant as it is haunting. “I am Ann the Word / but who here will have heard?” asks Lee once arrived on New York soil.  In Lee, we can hear the insecurities of any founding voice, any new spirit on the cusp of invention.

Seedlip and Sweet Apple’s print version—the version I read first—makes innovative use of experimental lines, using right and center justification, varied spacing, and wide ranges of length to explore the collection’s myriad chorus of speakers.  Here, we find prose poems alongside lineation and innovative nonce forms like the newspaper-announcement heading-and-date style of “The World’s Course.”  Ross employs dialogue, placing her two speakers on the right and left margins; she often takes up the entire page with her verse, choosing to leave swathes of white space in the middle of lines and stanzas.  In “Manchester Constables’ Log,” Ross uses three columns of text to convey Lee’s punishments for her developing faith in England, mimicking, as in “The World’s Course,” the format and structure of an actual logbook:

July 13, 1772                                                    John Lees and Ann Lees,
                                    daughter                       appear before Justice
                                    of the Peace                  Peter Mainwaring…

In the print version of Seedlip and Sweet Apple, this formal play heightens the poems, granting them a contemporary open-form context in the midst of a historical biography’s telling. Seedlip and Sweet Apple’s Kindle version, however, presents some of the problems Teicher described with “Howl.” In its untouched form, the e-poems look faithful to print—and, on the Kindle for iPad app that I used in my reading, they glowed from the iPad with a beautifully contrastive intensity. Milkweed preserved Trajanus, the font from print, making the reading experience nearly one-to-one with the physical book.

It wasn’t until I purposefully started altering the font size that the poetry eroded; the poems only “failed,” or lost their original identity, at the widest extremes of large and small.  Ross’s lines and stanzas blurred in big fonts, and floated away on a screen of white in small ones.  While I’d wager that most readers would find these extreme sizes off-putting or unhelpful to the reading process, the mere fact of their enabled existence presents problems for Ross’s experimental, innovative prosody.  Her shifting, multifaceted line looks either correct or corrupted on the iPad, depending entirely on how far up or down the font bar a reader swipes her finger.  This flexibility might be a liability of the reader, the press or the device, but it certainly should not concern the writer as she develops her art.  I imagine a poet like Ross adapting her unusual line to the constraints of the iPad, and can only see the collection suffering for this awareness of e-form.

Ross, Milkweed, and Seedlip and Sweet Apple certainly aren’t alone in this struggle to maintain the integrity of poetry as it moves to e-book format.  The e-poetry book, while different from its print parent in medium and use, certainly shouldn’t become alien to print in content: a shell of its former glory, a mere vehicle for transliterated prose versions of poems.  Losing control of lineation is ruinous to contemporary poetry, and could very well limit its progress in the e-book realm.  And yet, this same system of delivery could invigorate the genre, as readers and writers of poetry are turning increasingly to online venues to expound literary magazines, scour for poetry news, and submit writing to journals and presses. E-book readers don’t just read poetry books—they also use RSS readers or e-magazine subscriptions to receive blogs and journals.

As we come more frequently to the Web for writing about poetry, poetry reviews, and individual poems published in web-only journals, we’ll start looking for e-poetry books from all of our favorite presses as well. Dedication to the development of these e-books coupled with consumer interest might well change the face of literary publishing. And Seedlip and Sweet Apple—though I’m certain it was never intended as an allegory for e-poetry—serves well as a lens through which to view the current state of these changes. Ann Lee, founder of a new religious sect—and role model to a group of hardworking craftsmen—looks out upon her strange new world often throughout the collection, marveling at the power of combining faith with innovation. “And what of you, my child?” asks the speaker of “Say to This Mountain, Move:” “Surely, / you have more faith than a chicken.” Far from Luddites, the Shakers embraced change; how fitting for the fierce and gorgeous Seedlip and Sweet Apple to show us another sort of strange new world, and well.