We spent Monday evening at The Ivy, attending the much anticipated Byte the Book event, “What’s the future of poetry publishing?” Chaired by former Poet Laureate, Sir Andrew Motion, the panel included poets Helen Ivory, Paul Lyalls and Claire Trevien, along with Faber and Faber’s Head of Digital Publishing, Henry Volans. What ensued was an engaging and enlightening insight into the changes created in the world of poetry by the digital revolution and the ways in which this has both aided and abetted this industry so seeped, as it is, in tradition.
There was a structured framework for the panel’s input, with each guest speaker answering a specific and pre-subscribed question. Sir Andrew Motion opened proceedings by giving his own opinion on the integration of the internet into his profession; “internet is a good friend to poetry”, he stated at the onset, though he does feel frustrated by the current situation as he believes that digital poetry publishing is just on the cusp of the next big thing, “it is stuck and waiting for someone to ‘unstick’ it”.
Henry Volans spoke next, answering back to the posed question, “Can digital formats add to publishing or make it worse?” He believes that it can do both and went on to agree with Sir Andrew Motion’s points and expand by discussing how it is strange that poets still have to wait until they have a complete collection before they can publish their work. Digital publishing is working toward making, and in some case has already made, it possible to publish a single poem. He equated the process to that of the short story.
While digital platforms such as T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland and Shakespeare’s Sonnets have led the way for creative publishing solutions using new technologies, so far these only work for existent publications and there is still no set option for new work – how can we create new product or market types? On the other hand, is poetry better as a fixed style? The panel continued to explore this with Claire Trevien addressing the importance of the visual in poetry and how this can be digitised. Her issue with Kindles is that one can never see the full poem on the page and in this way, digital is not kind to poetry collections and can take from them visually.
However, one interesting idea that was put forward was to consider that instead of focussing on how it might be possible to transfer work from beautiful book format to digital platforms without losing the integrity of the content, instead, perhaps now it is time to start writing specifically with a digital medium in mind.
Helen Ivory gave her thoughts on the importance of format, making the point, which the majority of nodding heads in the audience seemed to confirm, that books are beautiful as objects and that digital creations, like Kindles, are just a means of transferring information and won’t leave you with that same joy of leafing through a book, examining the cover and admiring the illustrations. But at the same time, how has technology and social media helped Helen as a poet, when editing? It allows her to work quickly and in a more cost efficient way, with access to lots of images.
Paul Lyalls spoke about the importance of performance in poetry and how it is a huge part of a poet’s success allowing them access to their audience directly and a chance to create an identity and reputation as an artist. One never knows who is in the audience they read to and in the same way social media now helps writers to be published, the more traditional art of live poetry still does the same thing.
The landscape for poets is indeed changing and Sir Andrew Motion feels that he is on the verge of that revolution and he cannot wait for it to come in his lifetime. However, a premature nostalgia for the stifling of traditional platforms by digital was evident throughout the discussion as a whole, from Claire Trevien lamenting the potential loss of those arguments with her editor over a comma, to Henry Volans’ clever analogy at the end about a Google figurehead’s explanation for publishing his autobiography in paperback; “I wanted to be taken seriously.”
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