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Some Points for the Future of the Poetry Ebook

Not all of the future possibilities of digital publishing are applicable to poetry. (This is speaking about the poetry book once finished, not about how that book could go through the process of publication. For more on the latter idea, see my post about a hypothetical model for a poetry publisher, wherein the publisher essentially works as an API for readers/consumers to create a poetry book based on their own criteria.) It is useful to trim down these speculative possibilities to look at how the ideal poetry ebook, with its particular requirements, might look (outside of present platforms or devices, although much would be possible within the EPUB3 spec.).

Poetry, at present, is an art form of text on a page. (Anyone who offers a definition of poetry, myself included, is defining the-poetry-that-I-like-to-read, which is always backwards- rather than forwards-looking. Nevertheless, the speculation in this post is on the ebook, not on the (e)poetry, &, after all, it takes new thinking on the ebook before we have poets who are writing exclusively for the ebook form.) Because of the network of references within a poem, poetry is read with a long attention span & is, to an extent, non-linear. As much as possible, the reader should be able to control which parts & how much of the text they can read at any one time, & so activity (moving text, or text that is only shown by line or word) or interactivity (text which changes based on the user’s action) frustrate, rather than improve, the reading experience. (Some experimental digital poetry at present feels rather like being shown photographs of various parts of a sculpture, instead of being allowed to look at it for oneself.)  Basically, poetry retains, in a sense, the vestiges of print (& leans towards fixed format layouts), & so many of the capabilities of ebooks are irrelevant. However, this does not mean that poetry ebooks are only ever going to be digitised print books.

The primary issue is how the text is split up. Ebooks are currently mostly divided into ‘pages’ (albeit dynamically, with reflowable text), either because of the slow refresh speeds of e-ink displays — nothing on a Kindle moves, & so everything is necessarily split into ‘pages’ by the action of refreshing the screen  — or because of the “boring and forced” (as Craig Mod describes it) metaphor of page-turning for reading books on LCD displays (e.g., in the iBooks app). Web browsing offers an alternative model for viewing text: a canvas which exceeds the size of the screen. This gives us two modes of reading: infinite vertical scrolling (i.e., like a scroll) or horizontal page-turning (i.e., like a book). The former treats the canvas as if of potentially infinite height, whereas the latter treats the canvas as if of the same physical height as the container. Most text, poetry included, has an ideal canvas of greater height than that of the print page. A canvas of the requisite height is created by single canvases, presuming that the reader will ignore the seams: the part of the reading experience which is turning the page may as well be removed. However, some poets do use the page-break, perhaps by isolating stanzas on individual pages (such as the end of Alice Oswald’s Memorial, which I am reading at the moment). That said, such books can unfortunately imply to the reader that all page-breaks are significant.  (Memorial ducks this issue by only making page-breaks significant at the end, so that our conventional assumption — insignificant page-breaks — carries out most of the book, & by centring these individuated stanzas on the y-axis of the page, so as to use the blank space above them to represent their difference.) An ebook (with reflowable text, & ‘paged’ rather than scrolled navigation) increases this problem with doubt whether a page-break is arbitrary or not, as well as whether it is significant or not. Perhaps the best solution for the poetry ebook should use scrolling & a combination of vertical & horizontal movement, with horizontal movement indicating transition between poems, & additionally transitions or breaks within poems. (If you didn’t go to the article by Craig Mod linked above, do so now. Especially this part.) This is speculation based upon poets primarily still writing for print. The freedom of an infinite canvas is the area in which poetry ebooks have most to gain, & which poets will start writing towards once it is afforded to them.

(It is interesting that line-breaks depend upon a canvas with a finite width, & allow the type of reading described in my second paragraph. It is also interesting that reflowable text is, in part, a function of e-ink displays. Somewhat paradoxically, freeing the canvas from the container allows the canvas’ size to be set — imagine viewing a PDF on a Kindle, where page-turning, somewhat awkwardly, gives way to scrolling — & therefore enables fixed format layouts. Poetry ebooks should be fixed format, or at least nearer to fixed format — i.e., offer more control about presentation — than reflowable formats are at present.)

Canvas aside, it seems quite certain that reflowable ebooks are here to stay. Hopefully, either with epub3 or kf8, more control over presentation is coming (mostly in the form of css3). The future of reflowable poetry ebooks is, quite simply, in better design (which means better css). This is already an issue which distinguishes worthwhile, valuable poetry ebooks on Kindle from those — generally public domain hack jobs — which are not worth bothering with, & which even put readers off poetry on a Kindle.

Beyond the text, extra content in poetry ebooks could include, in order of importance: audio of the poet (or an actor) reading the text, preferably synchronised; video of the same; hypertext notes; & any extra relevant multimedia content. Faber & Touch Press’ The Waste Land is instructive, although few poems reward so much extra content, & the app (rather anxiously) includes more than is necessary. Additionally, social highlighting/annotation has much to add, along with the ability to share lines or passages. All of these features, & synchronised audio in particular, have great potential to enhance the experience of a digital over a print poetry.

The challenge is to use the capabilities of digital reading to enhance a genre which is inherently linked to the experience of reading on paper. It is important that the immediate restrictions aren’t allowed to cramp imagination in how digital reading can add more for the reader elsewhere. Beyond this post, much can also be done outside of the book, in increasing ways that readers can interact with poets, in changing how the reader/consumer buys content, in allowing ebooks to be revised after they have been purchased, etc., although these issues are less specific to poetry.