Digitizing John Ashbery, “Our T.S. Eliot, Our Gertrude Stein”

Anyone who has ever tried to read poetry on a Kindle knows that poems and e-books don’t mix well, to put it mildly.  Line breaks, spacing, the look of the poem on the page — all of these crucial aspects of poetry are all too often destroyed when poems end up as e-books.

As the New York Times reports this morning, despite the lack of potential profit involved, publishers are finally beginning to do something about this problem.  The article uses the work of John Ashbery as its primary example to explain the stakes involved:

“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He complained to his publisher, Ecco, and those four e-books were immediately withdrawn.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 points out the difficulties publishers have had rendering poetry accurately on e-readers: “Of all the literary genres, poetry has proved the most resistant to digital technology, not for stodgy cultural reasons but for tricky mechanical ones. Most e-readers mangle the line breaks and stanzas that are so crucial to the appearance and rhythm of poetry. As a result, many publishers have held back on digitizing poetry.”  In recent years, that has begun to change — for example, the piece mentions that presses like Copper Canyon, New Directions, and Farrar, Straus have been devoting much more attention to producing poetry e-books: “Farrar, Straus and Giroux began a major push to digitize its poetry backlist in January, after working out some thorny layout and coding issues. This year, it is releasing 111 digital poetry collections, up from 17 last year and just one in 2012.”

The piece returns to Ashbery and the process of turning his volumes of poetry into e-books:

“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.'”

The article alerted me to this new collection of Ashbery e-books published by Open Road, which has also posted this short, compelling video introduction to Ashbery and his work (including some glimpses of his much-discussed home in Hudson, New York).

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