Saturday, 12 June 2010

Are poetry books extinct?

The other day, I went on a tour of someone's e-world. My companion was a young man literally half my age. Together we visited Facebook, MySpace, blogs, Twitter, fan fiction, Wetpaint, MSN, Yahoo, Bebo, YouTube and The Pirate Bay. This is his social world, the main medium by which he talks to his friends, and sample audio, visual and literary culture.

I read poetry, and so does he. Most of the poetry I read is on paper: in books, journals and zines. Most of the poetry he reads is delivered to him electronically. He stumbles across it because a friend has recommended it on Facebook, or because he has followed an eclectic trail of links and key words and found himself face to face with a poem he has cornered in some unexpected electronic alley.

In truth, this young man discovers poetry as I discover it when I am browsing in a second-hand bookshop or at the Sunday markets. There is serendipity in both our encounters. The right poem at the right time appears in the hand, and it does not matter if the hand is holding an iPad or a book with a spine and pages that really turn.

What is the difference whether the poet appears in p-book form, or in e?

Poets make some semblance of an income out of royalties from the sale of their books and related promotional appearances arising from the publication of their book, but print runs, particularly here in Australia, are modest, or small. Chances are, many more poets will be read in e-form via blogs, webpages, apps; their work is kept in ‘the cloud’ until someone summons it down. But most e-consumers love stuff that is cheap or free. It’s probably fair to say that the poet still stands to earn more from the sale of p-books than from e-appearances (in inverse proportion to the reading audience, perhaps). I am not sure this is a useful distinction though: in the end, it can’t be about the money, because Australians aren’t great at spending their dollars on poetry books.

Poets whose work appears in book form often have strong working relationships with editors. Their work has settled into a final form that is the consequence of a long and rigorous editorial process. The printed book stands for something permanent: it declares itself to be finished.

Poets whose poems are available from ‘the cloud’ may have editors too. They may have friends and peers who assist with the exacting process of vision and revision – or they may not. Poets whose poems appear in e-format can let it slip into the ether without allowing time for the poem to ‘cure’, or they may release it swiftly because they enjoy the elasticity and mutability of what they are offering.

I can’t help feeling that poems released into the ether have a disconcerting permanency that is strangely at odds with the ease of their release. Would I be happy to know the tortured poems of my fifteen-year-old self were out there, waiting to be stumbled across by me, or by any other unsuspecting person? Can poems published electronically be like a tattoo one had when young but now regrets?

What is it that readers get when they are buying a book? Print books are generally perceived by users of both formats to be more ‘valuable’ than e-books. Why is this? It could be a dogged adherence to traditionalism, or it may be that print books just ‘feel’ more valuable. Is it because people value something less when they have acquired it because it is cheap or free? A book on a shelf stands for something. What does an iPhone app stand for?

In the end though, I think an e-book and a p-book are two very different things. I believe that when the dust settles, we will simply have an alternate form of access to the same thing – namely poets and their poems – and we might even access more poetry than we used to back when books were the main way we read the stuff. In which case, if the poem hasn’t changed, only the mode of delivery, should this not be a cause for celebration?

Would Homer, delivering the Odyssey as an oral performance before an enchanted crowd, have been baffled by Gutenberg? What would Gutenberg have to say about Google? I don’t think we are in a position to wholly know what e-books mean in relation to p-books just yet because we are in the process of radically changing the way we receive – and perceive – what we read.

The p-book might disappear, but I doubt it. This is because exploring the internet is, in essence, an act of distraction – fluttering, twittering – whereas settling into a print book asks of us commitment and concentration. I think we know, in our hearts that paper is the nobler form, the ‘realer’ form, and that when we read in e-, that something has been lost in translation.

Georgia Richter, Fremantle Press Poetry Publisher

1 comment:

  1. Books are not dinosaurs that are deemed to be extinct these days. The presence of books are still the most important one, rather than those offered in the Internet. elearning library