Poetry and Digital Formats: An Interview with WLU Press

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From left to right: Steve Izma, Penelope Grows, and Brian Henderson of WLU Press.

April was National Poetry Month, and during this time eBOUND publishers had titles featured on the Kobo indie store. CBC Community also spoke with poets including eBOUND’s Christen Thomas about digital poetry. In wake of this, we wanted to continue the conversation, and reached out to WLU Press Director and poet, Brian Henderson, to hear his expertise. Brian is joined in this discussion with Steve Izma, WLU Press’ Computer Systems Administrator, and Penelope Grows, Marketing Manager.

Christen Thomas: There seem to be two definitions of digital poetry: poetry that is in digital formats, such as ebooks, websites, apps; and poetry that is of digital content or language, such as Flarf, Googlisms, or computer code. Let’s talk about poetry in digital formats. What types of formats is WLU converting poetry into?’

Brian Henderson: Currently only PDF and EPUB2, as to EPUB3, I’m sure we’ll be giving it a try.

CT: What kind of challenges are you facing with digital formats of poetry?

Steve Izma: The problem is a combination of determining exactly what the poets expect to see on the screen and getting the whitespace correct for that vision. Just having a fixed-layout EPUB only solves half of the problem, since even then it’s unlikely we can use the actual font and thus the precise spacing used in the printed copy. Besides that, the ebook reader might force its own font on the user or allow the user to arbitrarily pick a font. Is this something a poet possibly might allow or want for some at present unforeseen purpose? On the other hand poets might need to ask for a ‘best viewed with …’ label! Doubtless, some will be creating their own ebooks with something like PressBooks.


“The [ebook poetry] problem is a combination of determining exactly what the poets expect to see on the screen and getting the whitespace correct for that vision.”


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CT: With fixed-layout EPUB there are ways to embed fonts and choose particular font sizes, but you’re right, you can’t always match the print look as not all commercial fonts can be distributed by an EPUB file. Poets do use line breaks purposefully, as well as word placement on the page, and that can be distorted, especially with reflowable EPUB.

Have you tried any special formatting, or specific formats to preserve the placement of poetry? Are all poets concerned about layout? Does some poetry have less of a necessity to stay in place?

Brian Henderson: We’ve tried special formatting, but it’s really awkward. I can’t speak for all poets but I’d say no, pretty much all poetry is visually and/or aurally self-unfolding and needs in fact to find its particular shape both on the page/screen and in the mind/heart, but this doesn’t obviate the life of alternate readings that poems encourage. Even narrative-driven long poems rely on line breaks to pace the poem and its events. Prose poems may not be as sensitive here but some are. Some have important pica-width columns or text block shapes.

CT: I trust technology will improve, and better support formatting poetry, especially since poetry publishers are experimenting with it instead of abandoning it for print only. What about digital formats, such as reflowable EPUB, as a constraint? Traditionally, poets worked with constraints of formal verse, in rhyme schemes and consistent metre. Digital media such as Twitter imposes a character limit and recently allows you to break lines in your tweet. Some poets are tweeting creatively, be it haikus or couplets, or one-off lines. Is there any opportunity for poets to experiment with ebook formats as a constraint do you think?

BH: Well, I’m not sure reflowable EPUB provides constraints; maybe unpredictablities. But I think from a broader point of view there’s lots of potential and opportunity with various sorts of digital technologies, from simply using them to create special layouts, to producing “enhanced” poems—if we want use such an ugly phrase—that would incorporate other sources—so possibly good bye to what we used to call intertextuality—and other media, to maybe game-driven poetry. What might that look like?

It’ll remain to be seen how many poets are primarily writers and how many are conceptual artists? How many are programmers and how many are gamers? What will the future of our idea of writing look like? Poetry will certainly be there; poetry has always played a leading role in the unfolding of our idea of what reading and writing is.

CT: It will be interesting to see where writing goes. Kobo’s Director of Merchandising, Nathan Maharaj, talked to the Washington Post and suggested that “[t]wo years from now, we’re not concerned with the ability to preserve the layout for poetry and you’ll probably see more innovation and stretching of boundaries by poets as they work in creative ways that exploit the technology.” What are your thoughts?

BH: Yup, this could be a backlist/frontlist thing. If you’re publishing a title that’s already available in print you’d want to ensure reproducibility of the print book. If you’re writing for a fluid interface, maybe you embrace that fluidity. Maybe you enhance the effects of an arbitrariness in line breaks. We’ll doubtless see new tools with which to work. And even though the online presence can at times be pretty noisy, the audience itself remains rather small.


“Even though the online presence [for poetry] can, at times, be pretty noisy, the audience [for poetry] itself remains rather small.”


CT: Do you feel that poetry in digital formats can access a larger audience than print distribution, or that it can enable conversation, such as through social media, more easily than print books?

BH: It might initially appear so, but I think with all the tools publishers have now at their disposal to work with digitized files, you can do pretty much with a print book what you can with an ebook. I think we do have to face the fact that even though there may be 3500 people in the country writing poetry, they can’t all read the 350 books published each year. And even though the online presence can, at times, be pretty noisy, the audience itself remains rather small.

CT: I wish there was time to read 350 books of poetry a year! Do you have any special marketing strategy around your poetry or other ebooks?

BH: Not really. We’re not yet in a place to be able to sell let alone give away ebooks from our own site.

Penelope Grows: However, we do use every opportunity offered to us, to work with e-vendors to promote our ebooks. eBOUND is very helpful in that regard.

Beyond that, for the most part, we trust that promoting our poetry books generally will result in sales of ebooks. This we do through our catalogues, regular advertising, conferences, and media events and other opportunities. Last month, for example, Open Books Ontario ran an interview with Derek Beaulieu, whose book Please, No More Poetry, is the most recent volume in our Laurier Poetry Series.

CT: I will definitely check out that interview. It seems like there are lots of new digital media options out there for poets to experiment with. Motionpoems is making videos out of poetry, Harriet Poetry released an app that gives users thematic mashups of poems, and Soundcloud lets you record yourself reading a poem, and tag it as poetry.

BH: I really like the mashup!

CT: I read Please, No More Poetry by Derek Beaulieu, recently published by WLU Press, and the poem of the same name hits on some of this discussion. Derek talks about the Internet not influencing who we are and what we write, but that it “is who we are and what we write”, and that poets may be the last to realize this. Derek talks about the most important artistic movement of the 21st century—collage, and that if we don’t share, we don’t exist. There is humor in this, but is there also some truth?

BH: “It is who we are and how we write”—he wrote in a small press printed book. Because of the constant ground shifting under the speaker’s(‘) feet, each “statement” becomes a bit unglued so that it’s difficult to discern what points the speaker(s) is (are) “sincere” about, if any. The ironies come thick and fast. So, yeah, “some truth,” but what truth? The poem’s pronunciations hover indecipherably. This is a large part of what the poem is doing. And of course collage is the modernist practice par excellence. Welcome to 1917!

But to use that statement as a jumping off point, certainly an audience for a given poetry may be more readily reachable online—if the audience is online, and especially if it’s a little networked group. On the other hand it’s very easy to be invisible in the white out of the online blizzard. Back in the day, you needed to be a member of a salon if you wanted to market yourself. Some poets have a knack for public performance, some for online promotion; others may be content to write. All poets—and their publishers—want to find their natural audiences—wherever they are.

CT: I appreciate these insights. This same book has a lot of visual and concrete poetry. Has that been a challenge to reproduce in ebook formats?

BH: We shall see since we’re converting it as we speak.

Thanks to Brian, Steve, and Penelope for participating in this interview, and sharing their technical and poetic knowledge with us. Be sure to check out our other interviews with Annick Press, Coach House Books, and Orca Book Publishers!