Thursday, June 10, 2010

Technical Difficulties, or My So-Called E-Life

First, an announcement: if you read this blog, you probably have a brilliant manuscript of poems lying around. Dust it off and send it to Apostrophe Books for their open reading period. They're reading manuscripts between June 1 and August 31. Read their submission guidelines here, and check out the brilliant books they've published by the likes of Catherine Meng and Johannes Göransson here.


I've been Twittering for about a month now, and find that it in no way replaces blogging or any other long-form writing. The big discovery has been less in creating my own tweets--though the 140-character limitation does appeal to my interest in constrained literature--and more in following the tweets of others. It's fascinating to move out of the "friends" paradigm of Facebook into a much wider world, so that tweets from institutions like WBEZ and the Poetry Foundation are cheek by jowl with tweets from Sarah Silverman, HTML Giant, Bookforum, and Roger Ebert. I like how much more open it feels than Facebook, plus you don't have the creepy privacy issues to worry about.

The other recent digital innovation in my life is the iPad. The rap on the iPad (aside from worrisome questions about the suicide sweatshops in which they're manufactured) is that it's only useful for consumption, rather than production--not only that, but you're consuming within the airtight digital economy regulated by Apple. The first part of this critique is overblown: the iPad is more than functional for light emailing, Twitter, et al, and if I were to spring for a separate keyboard I could happily write on the thing. I would just need a better stand than the crappy strip of plastic that came with the neoprene case I bought at Best Buy--don't make that mistake.

What I have thought hard about is the viability of the iPad as an ereader, and the question of electronic books generally. So far, reading books on the machine is a mixed bag. I don't mind the backlit screen--the iBooks app presents prose beautifully, and Amazon's Kindle app does nearly as nice a job--plus the Kindle has a much greater diversity of books available, including scholarly books which are non-existent in the Apple-controlled universe. But an average price of $10 seems far too high to pay for a virtual book that you can't lend out and can't even be sure of keeping for more than a few years, given the rapid evolution of digital platforms (plus there's the possibility, even the likelihood, of censorship to contend with).

The iBooks app is, at present, hopeless with poetry: when I downloaded a sample of John Ashbery's Notes from the Air all the lines were inexplicably double spaced. A program like iBooks is premised upon the fungibility of prose: each "page" of the book you're reading is subject to radical transformation based on the orientation of the iPad (a single big page like that of a hardcover or two smaller pages like those of a paperback) and the size of the font you choose (this also increases or decreases the number of "pages").

The Kindle app did a somewhat better job of preserving the look of the poems on the page. But the poems with the longest lines presented some awkward rollover issues mitigated only by turning the page into landscape mode (and I am sentimental enough to be attracted to the way iBooks simulates the look of a printed page, which the Kindle app is less successful at doing). The most serious drawback to either platform, however, is the general unavailability of books from small presses: if your primary access to literature comes only through the big New York publishers you hardly have access to literature at all. (There is also a very limited selection of books in translation, but this is hardly a problem confined to e-readers.)

That said, the iPad is proving to be an ideal device for reading poetry: not poetry books as such, but poetry in electronic form. It is far more intuitive and intimate to read poems published in electronic journals such as Action, Yes (check out the latest issue, btw) on the iPad than it is with a laptop or desktop screen. I've never liked reading poems on the Web before--the endless scrolling with mouse or down arrow is distracting and clumsy, and the horizontal orientation of computer screens is ill-suited to the vertical energy of most poems. But scrolling through poems on the iPad in vertical orientation feels as natural to that medium as turning pages is to the medium of the book. It's also brilliant for PDFs, which I've never enjoyed reading on screens and usually have to print out in order to really engage with them. Poetry books and chapbooks in PDF form (such as Tina Darragh and Marcella Durand's collaboration Deep eco pré) are accessible in a new way, and that speaks of very exciting possibilities for the electronic publication and distribution of poetry. Ultimately ebooks and epoems will become their own media, not simply a means of transmitting an experience inevitably different from if not necessarily inferior to the experience of print.

There's a lot of talk these days about the changes that the Web might be making to our brains, turning us all into ADD hunter-gatherers of data and disattuning us from the long rhythms of textual immersion that many critics associate with that perennially dying nineteenth-century literary form, the novel. I do worry about the culture of distraction and the effects it might be having on my own brain. I live a thoroughly wired life: multiple laptops, an iPhone, now the iPad. I am never out of touch with the hive mind. This isn't so much a problem with writing: for better or worse, I am now a thoroughly hypertextual writer, at least when writing here or producing academic prose. I flip constantly back and forth from the document I'm writing to web pages and PDFs, in a peculiar halfway state of mind between research and distraction. But it is harder for me to concentrate on books than it used to be. And one of the reasons I began writing my novel in longhand, I now realize, was to get away from the distractions of the Web. I write poetry on paper for much the same reason. Perhaps the fiction or poetry I could write on the computer wouldn't be worse than the writing I do with a pen, but there is a difference, and I don't know how perceptible that difference might be to readers.

I do my best and most concentrated work in coffee shops and other busy places: the effort of tuning out the aural and visual stimuli of other people helps me attune to the task at hand. In a private space like my office at school I become hungry for stimuli, and so waste what feels like hours with politics blogs and YouTube. It's possible that the new diversity of Internet gadgets might actually help me in this regard: in my office, I could disconnect my computer from the Internet and keep the iPad handy for any Web searches or emails I needed to write. Then the computer could once again become a simple tool for writing, as opposed to an irresistible nexus of stimuli, and the iPad would be more like the stack of books I usually have at my side when I'm writing something.


This will probably be my last blog post until I land in Boulder, Colorado on Sunday to take part for one week in the Summer Writing Program at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics (man, that's fun to type, though I really think it would be more progressive of them to change it to Embodied Poetics). I'm taking a fiction class with Laird Hunt; it will be strange and I hope energizing to be a student again after all these years. After that I'll be spending a week in Arizona (should I bring my passport?) with family before returning to Chicago and the secret poetry project I'll be prepared to reveal at summer's end.

1 comment:

Kelli Russell Agodon - Book of Kells said...

What sold me on the iPad was the way it turned pages and all the free classics from Project Gutenberg. Also, I didn't want to take my laptop when I travelled. IBooks does only have a few poets-- Robert Bly, Deborah Gregor and Nikki Giovanni were the only poetry books I could find besides the BAP series.

Thanks for this post.

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