Going Digital

In my day job (scholarly journals publishing) I spend a lot of time wrestling with the possibilities and challenges of digital technology. I don’t mean the basic migration of readers from print copies to online versions of the same material, but the ways in which digital technology is transforming how people read and what they publish. Instead of static text, researchers can now call up figures, datasets, molecules and reactions from within a journal article. They can follow a trail of references in seconds rather than days; share articles from their tablets and drill into the underlying data with their smartphones. It’s hard to overstate how fundamentally this is beginning to transform how science is done and how researchers read.

We can also see the beginnings of digital innovation in poetry. Soundcloud and Youtube transmit poems as a living performance; online editions of classic poems integrate footnotes and critical apparatus dynamically; the UK-based American poet Robert Peake has run a series of transatlantic “on air” poetry readings via Google+; poems have been turned into films and illustrated in real-time.

Although a Vimeo clip of a poetry reading isn’t the same as being physically present, it’s a lot closer than (say) a written account of the same event. And it isn’t hard to see how some of this innovation might play out over the next few years: how long until digital editions of poetry books integrate recordings, videos and interviews?

To be clear, I love printed poetry books and don’t see myself giving them up anytime soon. But I also live in a house with finite shelf space, and would guess that something like a tenth of the poetry books I read are ones I honestly want to hang onto as physical talismans. Plus I find the possibilities of digital innovation exciting: this morning I was re-reading Olivia McCannon’s Exactly My Own Length (a physical talisman I’ll want to hang onto for a long time) and found myself wishing I could replay the fabulous readings of the poems I heard McCannon give last year. Imagine if you could hear the poet read each poem at the click of a button or the touch of a tablet screen.

The (significant) problem is that most e-book formats are woefully unsuited to poetry. My ideal reading experience doesn’t involve reconstructing a poem from its mangled remains once an e-reader has chewed up the lineation and layout. Until e-readers find a better way to represent poetry on the digital “page”, digital extras will remain a separate and supplementary part of the (unintegrated) experience.

This is an area where magazines are significantly ahead of books. The poetry books on my Kindle are almost unreadable (even when the lines are short enough to avoid being sliced up, the layout is lost and the experience is at best frustrating); the digital magazines on my tablet are a different story.

I subscribe to the digital editions of three poetry magazines: PN Review (the periodical I’ve known and loved the longest), Modern Poetry in Translation and Poetry. All three are excellent.

PN Review and MPT give a digital facsimile of the printed page (PN Review via the iPad newsstand and MPT via Exact Editions). Poetry stays close to the print layout but doesn’t break individual poems across “pages” (meaning a long poem that would take up more than one page in the print edition can be read as a single unbroken / lengthened “page” in the digital edition – a nice touch). The key thing is that all three preserve the layout of the poems in a way that most e-readers don’t. At a stroke, this removes the biggest barrier to reading poems electronically.

This isn’t to say that the experience is the same as reading the magazines in print. On the iPad, PNR and MPT are the same size, whereas in the print world they have significantly different formats. And to be honest I still prefer the holistic experience of reading a print magazine. But these digital versions have (considerable) advantages too: they’re always to-hand (something that’s especially important for a magazine like PN Review that compresses so much good stuff into its news and letters that you can’t possibly read it at one sitting, although all three are a joy to dip into as the mood takes you); they don’t take up shelf-space; they arrive immediately; they weigh nothing (meaning I can take multiple issues of each with me on the train without effort). Alongside this, MPT in particular has been releasing some excellent Soundcloud readings on their website, and it isn’t hard to see how these could be integrated with the future digital edition as the technology develops.

Tablet computers are still relatively expensive and so not a universal solution, but all three magazines give us a digital edition whose quality matches the poems inside. The question (for me) is how poetry books can now do likewise – not to replace the printed book, but to supplement it and open up some fabulous further developments in our experience of reading poetry.

6 thoughts on “Going Digital

    1. Gareth Prior Post author

      Thanks for this, Rosemary. I enjoyed the Antiphon post, and I agree that no one has come close to cracking digital poetry books yet (however promising the innovations around magazines).

  1. Sasha Dugdale

    Very pleased you are writing about this. MPT is going to overhaul its website and digital presence next year and we wanted to work with the Univ of Reading on presenting poetry digitally in a way which doesn’t lessen the experience but makes the most of digital possibilities (not least soundcloud and film). We’re just attempting the fundraising for this now. Will you be our guinea pig, Gareth? We would love to hear your thoughts on what is successful, useful and pleasing.

    1. Gareth Prior Post author

      Thanks, Sasha — this sounds fascinating, and yes I’d be delighted to be a guinea pig.

  2. John Davies

    Interesting article and thanks to my colleague Paul Crompton for pointing it out. Our first exploration of ebook delivery was with Ciaran O’Driscoll’s Surreal Man. Our coder paid particular attention to line breaks and we believe we have a very workable solution on Kindle. Next stop will be iBooks. Pighog is also beginning a radical overhaul of our website and is applying for funding to R&D delivery of poetry to digital readers. (Sasha perhaps there’s an opportunity for collaboration here?) We are exploring technology partners in both public and private sectors. My own background is in film and video and we have a large library of poets reading at our events (available via Vimeo). We would also be grateful if you would be our guinea pig too with the same objectives.

    1. Gareth Prior Post author

      Thanks John — I’ll certainly take a look at Surreal Man on Kindle. (And I’d be very happy to be a guinea pig.)

Comments are closed.