Friday, December 9, 2011

Poetry and ebooks - what're you lookin' at?

Warning: this post gets a bit technical and nerdy at times, but had to go there. It seems the tech nerds that design all this stuff don't understand what a poem is. I don't know if any of them will read this post, but poets/publishers won't solve this problem alone the designers of HTML and CSS will, let's remind them that not all text is prose.

So anyway, I recently had a poem published in an ebook for the first time. Exciting, but also a bit scary. 4th Floor is a great journal, with a fantastic editor and brilliant contributors. So I was thrilled to have a poem in the anthology. Thanks to 4th Floor and Whitireia!

4th Floor ebook 

All was great until I downloaded the ebook and opened it in an ebook reader called Magic Scroll. I haven't tested on other ebook readers, but from what I understand they all should have fairly well established rendering of the ePub format.

So anyway I read through Hinemoana's nice editorial and went to the first poem, 'Dear Grandmother' by Renée. And lo and behold, it was mushed up horribly! The very first line didn't fit on the page, it was broken arbitrarily.

The line:
Husbands are a necessary part of the design
Husbands are a necessary part of the  
And let's be clear for those people (web developers?) who don't write poetry, this effectively ruins the poem. A line break in poetry is everything. It is in many cases what makes it a poem, gives it it's value. It is used for rhythm, as a pause, a beat, it can change the meaning of the words (people tend to read one line as a complete syntactical unit). It is even used to create a visually appetising image on the page, which is all part of the pleasure of reading poetry. I tend to spend just as much time if not more time editing line breaks as I do the actual words themselves. Okay so that rant is over, but what do we do about it?

So I thought oh maybe this is an ebook publishing problem, like they forgot to turn on the 'poetry option' or something, and being an IT nerd in my other life, thought I'd do a bit of research and maybe help with the next one.

And for the non-technical poets out there, an ebook is basically just a webpage. It uses HTML and CSS like a normal webpage to display text using tags and styles.

I searched and I searched and it seems there is surprisingly little discourse on this out there (if anyone knows where people are discussing this then please let me know).

I found many posts where some web developer provides examples of how to style a poem in HTML/CSS. Most of these were horrible, involving centring the poem and using prose syntax to try and fudge the shape of the poem. This doesn't solve any of the issues I've found with ebooks on small devices.

But then I came across this issue raised by Dr Olaf Hoffman to the W3C (who are responsible for improving this stuff). He is basically putting forward the case to add poetry elements to HTML. It  is very illuminating as to why this hasn't happened yet when you read the responses to his suggestion. Developers seem to view poetry as a sub-set of prose, like say legal documents or shopping lists. And the argument never gets past that as far as I can gather. He is doing his best to explain the elements of poetry and how they differ from prose, but still, judging by there comments they don't seem to get it.

The 'issue' remains unresolved as far as I can tell.

Again for the developers that might read this, prose and poetry are about the same as Chinese and English. In a simplistic way I like to think about it as...

Poetry = Is primarily about rhythm and words to create meaning
Prose = Is primarily about words and sentences to create meaning

Left Brain                Right Brain
Prose?                      Poetry?

...of course this is all fluid and there are hybrids of both of these. Obviously there is overlap. And there are historical reasons for the two approaches and why one now dominates the other. I would suggest reading Dr Hoffman's post if you want to go into that more. But suffice to say, they are two parts of something greater, our language.

So what started out as looking for a guide on 'how to e-publish poetry' turned into an issue at the core of the world wide web itself! Jeez.

I still can't believe poetry has been completely forgotten about?

Okay, so I know poetry is a pretty underutilised form of writing these days, so it is (kind of) understandable that it got missed, but still, most people know about it don't they? Know what poetry is don't they? Apparently not.

So what happens now?

Well first of all the web seems to deal with the issue fairly well. There are thousands if not hundreds of thousands of places (millions?) where poetry is published on the web and thoroughly successfully too.

But the web is different to an ebook. An ebook is also about accessibility and a book-like experience on a mobile device. So whether you have a tiny phone or a massive monitor you can read the same book easily. A great idea, but like I said, at the moment poetry on that little phone (and even on the big screen) looks rubbish.

I see two things happening. One, we all get behind Dr Hoffman (not sure how to do that exactly?) and push for poetry in HTML. Which I think makes sense, but there is probably a whole bunch of people who need to be convinced.

Or two, we don't do that and continue on. Either someone will make a 'workaround' for ebook readers to render poetry properly or poetry as we know it will disappear. Which is interesting I think. I'm not much into preservation, poetry does and will change with the times and with technology. That is how prose came about after all.

But you know there are poems NOW that need to go on to ebooks, not to mention that last several thousand years of poems that would do well in a digital format.

So please web developers, don't forget about us again. And if we can help move this along. Would love to, seriously.

ADDENDUM: Some interesting articles on ebook poetry problems

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Bird North (the original)

Apparently you can't be original. If you try to be original, you won't be. It will be forced, fake, cringe-worthy. For a while there, people concluded that there is no such thing as originality and everything is a copy of something else, so don't hide it, embrace the copy, the fake, make that the point of the thing.

I think originality is not about form, or style, or saying something new. It is about being honest, it's about finding the truth. And I don't mean the facts, I'm not much for the purity of fact, I mean the emotional truth. That thing where you don't hide from what has to be said, even if it is ugly or shallow or silly or stupid. I'm a bit bored of being told nothing is new, because I read writing all the time that is new and fresh and makes me feel like I'm back at high-school again, baffled and out-of-my-depth.

There is plenty of ugly, silly, shallow and stupid men in Breton Dukes' collection of short stories and I loved them all. They made me cringe and gasp and think it's all just wrong. These stories are so wrong, why is there a sex scene in almost every one? Why don't these guys grow up and treat women better? How can they do such stupid things? But then that's the point, part of the reason it's so wrong is because it's so right. Some of these stories aren't easy to read and they might make you cringe. The trick is to ask yourself why.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Pick 'n' Mix

This is my entry for the 'Mix and Mash' competition which aims to encourage use of online content. Seems like a good idea to me. I think I would call this more of a Pick 'n' Mix, but I quite like the act of rearranging other people's poetry fabric. My Mum is into quilting and she makes the most amazing things out of old scraps of material she finds. She made one for my brother that has multi-coloured piano keys made from old clothes he wore as a child.

Words in this poem come from Hinemoana Baker, Lynn Jenner, Airini Beautrais and Bernadette Hall. See Mix and Mash website for their original poems. This poem also borrowed some words from an American called Yusef Komunyakaa who recently won the Wallace Stevens award (past winners are pretty much a who's who of all the poets I love). His poem, 'The Day I saw Barack Obama Reading Derek Walcott's Collected Poems', also borrows heavily, I believe, from Derek Walcott himself. The circle is complete.

The Garden of O

we hear each others’ dogs
crisscrossing the border

moving from reverie
to reverie. a concrete fence

of flamboyant pumpkin vines,
sweet, intoxicating,

bloom. we are ants if you like,

a yellow backdrop
to the sag of powerlines,

an open mouth,
a crow clutching the hand’s

bright corrugations
of being and nonbeing.

as one watered
by the wind

and the sound of mountains,
clouds of double consciousness.

we never hear
the dense blue shadow

of each others’ voices.

Friday, July 1, 2011


This is a writing exercise modified by an exercise from Ann Lauterbach. Thanks Ann.

Forget everything you know about poetry or poets or language (I can do this pretty quickly, quite often I walk into the photocopy room at work and spend 5 mins looking around for the coffee machine, it's next door to the photocopy room). Now try to remember an experience you had of reading or hearing language that fascinated and/or baffled you. Now write about the place or time where that happened, don't worry too much about the words themselves, concentrate on the scene. Make that into a poem somehow. At this point you can unforget everything you know and make an awesome poem out of it.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Hill of Wool

The Hill of Wool, Jenny Bornholdt (VUP, 2011)

Here is an image of the painting that appears on the cover of The Hill of Wool. It is a painting by by Johanna Pegler, 'Webb Street'. Johanna seems interested in the texture of planar surfaces, like ruts on a grassy hillside, choppy harbours, driftwood covered beaches, stuff like that. They are kind of decadent and driven in their obsession with these kind of details, to the detriment of other things in the paintings, like in this one the sheep and trees seem almost secondary against the harsh beauty of the hill. There aren't as important as the hill itself.

And why am I talking about a painting when this is supposed to be about a poetry book? Mainly because I think there are some parallels here between Pegler and Bornholdt.

At first glance the poems here seem like realist paintings, the things in the poem relate to real things in life. Like in 'Winter' where the family is on a skiing trip, but the focus is not on the objects but on the language about the objects, the snow, the names of ski runs:

(apologies, but some of the formatting is removed by this blog website. Grrr!)

As the bus winds up
the children practise
their snow vocabulary:

Ridge Run,
Wedding Knob
Shirt Front
The Chair

At night, a quiet
horse, white
as you-know-what,
moves out from the trees
to shadow us
down the road.

This poem intrigues me, partly because it seems almost perfectly formed (you'll have to buy the book to read the first half of the poem I'm afraid) and because there is this mysterious, silent horse at the end, an anti-horse of sorts, it stands in for something else, the you-know-what. A light-hearted take on a metaphor staple, but also with an underlying weight, where one thing stands in for another, where the horse is the snow and the snow is the horse and that is more important than the horse or the snow on their own as 'real' things.

Horses feature in this book in a few of my favourite poems. Especially in 'Poem About a Horse' which is again perfectly formed and a beautifully witty example of the 'imagination poem' where we know the things in this poem aren't real, they are stated as memories or hopes, and are evoked so evocatively we can't help but believe in them, we see them in the reality of the poem:

[...] Yaks could be good. The yaks

you heard about from the nice young man who sold you
your phone-the global roaming one. His uncle
was a yak farmer who lived next door to an Amish

community. In exchange for the wool they helped him
build his house-big so the yaks could come
inside. Tables and chairs were nailed to the floor

so the animals wouldn't knock them over
as they wandered about the kitchen. Yes
a yak could be good. [...]

The other thing I love about this poem and the reason it is more successful than some of the others I think is the length of the lines and exuberance of the voice and sentences. This poem is far less clipped and controlled as some others and the poem is all the better for it. The voice of is much stronger and comes through in a really delightful way. This poem is like a conversation, one where we are drawn into the voice as much as the images and the story. I was wondering why that appeals to me so much and I think part of it is Bornholdt's register, which is some ways is much like my own. It is the ordinary words that interest her, ordinary language, which has its own natural, subtle and beautiful rhythms, in a way that using a word like 'recliner' instead of 'chair' would break. The words themselves aren't waving flags, saying look at me, how great I am. It's the sentences the rhythm that is more important here. And for that reason, I think the longer lines, more complete sentences work better I think. They allow the real power of the words to come to the fore, a the voice to be strong and entertaining.

The book covers a lot of other territory of course, there are bunch of poems about the poet's mother and father. Children run down the halls of many of the poems and language, memory and imagination drift through many. Like in 'Memory':

They say to make a house. You can pretend
the rooms are there and in them store fast
memories so they stay whole, more than just a tremor

or a sense of something past. To do this, send
the years upstairs and down. Build shelves to last.
Evict the fact that sometimes we forget to remember.

I read a comic by Sarah Laing the other day on memory. She talked about 'The Rats of NIMH', a book I had completely forgotten about, but now that I remember being read it as a child how much I loved it and how it was so rich in imagery, the fields, the place where the rats lived. It is an amazing book. I can't believe I had completely forgotten about it. But that is how memory works. Little mines to be discovered I guess, and by discovering you are essentially reimagining them.

Another painting by Pegler, 'Norfolk, Repose'. I like this one because it reminds me of the Hauraki Gulf where I grew up.

Friday, June 17, 2011

New Post

Someone told me once you should never name a blog post 'New Post', but that's like not calling a kitten The New Kitten, when it's old enough you give it a name. When a blog post is older and house trained you give it a name. Kitten's are cute and you can't blame them for not having a name.

The real blog, the one that will have a name, will be about the books I am reading now. Jenny Borholdt's latest and maybe something else. I read 'A Poem About a Horse' by Jenny at It was amazing. It had everything I love in a good poem. The Yaks, the Yaks! So I had to buy the book. More to come...

In the meantime a gratuitous picture of a kitten.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

New Review - Rae Armantrout's Money Shot

I have a new review! But not here. At
It is of Rae Armantrout's latest book, Money Shot. I don't want to give anything away, but it stuck to the wall when I did the spaghetti test, so what does that tell you?

Helen is amazing, she blogs all the time. Poems, interviews, reviews, it's like a magazine, but she doesn't have anyone to boss around, only herself. She is also the marketing person at Vic Uni Publishers. I don't think she has anyone to boss around there either. She works hard I guess. You should check it out.
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