If the Book Could Be Heard

At one point the intention for the book was to include a CD of recorded performances of the poems and some of the prose. Things did not work out that way but you need not miss out.

I’m talking about Lee Foust‘s recent publication of Sojourner.

I’ve been listening to his recordings on soundcloud.com for almost two years now. I’ve always had the impression that you could find him on a street corner or in a park in Florence, drums in hand and his voice and eye sneering at the American tourists (of course, only his fellow Americans). Or I can imagine him reading his work to his creative writing students, alternately trying to scare them to death with the poet’s edge he gives to every word or breaking their young hearts with tales of love lost. Maybe none of this is true but it’s easy to imagine. I mean, it also wouldn’t be hard to imagine those students totally numb and oblivious, just because he’s their teacher.

It could be a sad thing that the CD of poems was not included with the book. But you’re in luck. The recordings have long been available to hear but, in preparation for the book, they have not been available for download. Now you can download them and burn that CD yourself (thank you, I’m in the process of doing just that this weekend).

Foust’s performances have always seemed to me to have an abrasive edge, something of a scab of anger and disgust with how people treat one another. On reading the prose in Sojourner I found a different feel, more observant, introspective, and distant. But am I projecting? My favorite composition in the book is “Sojourner (Back in NYC)”. Reading it to myself it was meditative, philosophical, almost a chant of variations on a theme. To again hear him read it, the piece is entirely of the earth, full of flesh and the senses, the experience quite tangible and not particularly peaceful.

No Universal Format for Digital Publishing

Was there a time in which anyone inventing new technologies was stoned to death for violating tradition? I imagine there was. And every time I have to deal with a new battle of proprietary products I start looking for something to throw.

Don’t get me wrong, I do not idolize old technologies (with the exceptions of the bound book and a manual transmission in my car). I’ve lived with oil lamps and wood burning stoves and outhouses and having to haul in water. I’ve written with a manual typewriter (it’s sort of a printer/keyboard combo without a monitor and very limited editing capabilities, primarily involving the crumpling of paper). I’m not someone who misses the sounds of clicks and crackles on vinyl or the hiss of tape. My desk no longer sags under the weight of a CRT monitor. Et cetera.

I do, though, tend to embrace technology when it has stabilized a little, when one developer’s offering has won the battle in the market place and we can all settle down to enjoy the content rather than fussing over the medium.

This has not yet happened in the world of electronic publishing. The primary forms are: EPUB and its variants; interactive PDF; interactive magazines; and HTML. I think the only format that works on all computer platforms and on almost all mobile devices is HTML. At a glance PDF also seems almost universal.

My first foray into both reading and production was overly optimistic. ePublishing with InDesign CS6 by Pariah Burke is an excellent work, digging rather deeply into things not exactly specific to the book’s title, with an abundance of information and tips. At the time I was looking into buying his book I was also looking at Digital Publishing with Adobe InDesign CS6 by Sandee Cohen and Diane Burns. Cohen and Burns’ book looked as though it did little more than walk you through the InDesign menus. This is more or less true, though there are a couple pages in their book that I wish I’d read (pages 224-225). Burke has charts with the pros and cons of each format and spells out their limitations. Unfortunately he’s not really looking at the market and what is typically being supported.

For instance, the EPUB: version 3.0 supports more layout options as well as audio and video. Very encouraging. Cohen and Burns point out that very few e-readers or mobile devices recognize EPUB 3.0 and, to date, that most of the electronic book sellers do not market it. (I think my next project will be a new collection, a dream log, created in both versions of EPUB and probably PDF. I’ll post them here, but until I get a website of my own this will be the extent of availability. And that’s another problem for independent publishers and do-it-yourselfers: where to publish and how to make your work available to as many devices and operating systems as possible.)

On the surface PDF would seem to be the ultimate format for an electronic book. You can do almost anything with it, it’s been around forever, and almost all devices and operating systems can open it. But there’s the catch: often they can only open it. Cohen and Burns have a long list of things that don’t work, for instance in Macs and mobile devices. Hyperlinks usually still work but multimedia and buttons only work on your PC (I found this to be true on my NOOK HD as well as on my partner’s iPad3, and I’ve gotten reports from friends that my first foray was a bust on their Mac laptops). Except on a PC an interactive PDF is likely to be opened as a flat, printable PDF (your basic, boring user’s manual-type PDF). If you’d gone ahead and created a printable PDF your images would at least be higher quality.

Interactive magazine is very interesting and very versatile, with all kinds of interactivity, linking, multimedia, and viewing options. Two catches: one is that, at present, they are not viewable on computers, just on tablets (both reference books were saying the same thing); the other is that you have more hoops in terms of processing and integration to create an app for your publication and potentially much more work and expense. For instance, to create an app for an Apple readable publication you have to have an Apple computer. I don’t think I’ll be creating any kind of interactive magazine for years to come.

What about HTML? It’s capable of doing just about everything the other formats are promising, and maybe more. It’s viewable and functional on everything but some of the older e-readers.…I think the problems are threefold: packaging, distribution, and know-how. I think for me packaging and distribution are the more difficult to overcome. Unlike the general subject of digital publishing creating a downloadable packet of HTML is a deeply buried sub-genre that is not featured in how-to books or videos. It’s something that’s always “outside the scope of this book”. It’s probably not much more than creating a folder, as you would for a website, and maybe ZIP-ing it. (Once again I’ll mention that I subscribe to Adobe’s Creative Cloud and its incredible assortment of software. Muse is still under development—at least as far as I’m concerned—but it’s already an extraordinarily easy tool for creating HTML. It’s a lot like using InDesign for creating print and electronic books.…I still find it doesn’t work well for adding audio files (and also video?) and that I need to do that in Dreamweaver.)…I have no idea how to tackle distribution. None of the online bookstores market HTML books. If they did we’d probably end up with another proprietary nightmare (for instance, even though EPUB is a common format Amazon’s Kindle will not read it, you have to convert your EPUB to their file system).

So, yes, I will keep working through these issues. And, yes, I will keep you posted as to the results.

In the meantime, I’m having vicious fantasies of throwing things at the developers of proprietary systems. I’m more of a mind to pelt them with our ever-dwindling supply of Twinkies than with stones.

Meant to Be Heard: Neil Holland

“I think if I was a painter, I would be described as a naïve artist. All that I want is to convey something of what I have experienced or envisioned, to someone who also may be receptive to it.” So says Neil William Holland (aka, soloneili) in an essay from his blog The Poet in the Car. Isn’t that the essence of all art?

What I most appreciate about the poetry of Neil Holland is that your detachment, cynicism, irony, intellectualism, and all the bullshit defenses you’ve created to set yourself apart from the rest of humanity might break down when hearing his poems. Most of his writing can be understood by just about anybody with a brain and eyes and/or ears connected to it. Most of it is in plain English and the subject matter experiences almost all of us have had. That’s not to say his poems are trite, shallow, ignorant, lacking in intelligence, vulgar, clichéd or any other way inferior. If you’re an intellectual snob you might want to believe this about his work, call it sentimental, and turn your back on it.

To be honest, I’ve had that reaction myself. The first poem I heard by him struck me as the sort of thing I really don’t like. Listen for yourself, Words for Peace:

I still don’t like this particular poem. It seems like it’s there to give us hope. It seems to give consolation. It seems like a prayer. (Probably 90% of humanity, maybe more, will think I’m an ass for this. Most people want and need to be comforted and are thankful to those who can give it.) No matter what your experience with poetry, he challenges you to think and feel and ultimately go beneath the surface.

Another thing I like and respect about his poetry is the discipline (perhaps something he developed in his years as a boxer and trainer), his keen perception and judgment of both sense and sound. You hear the music in the syllables, you hear the subtle rhythms and cadences of vowels and consonants. In case you’ve spent your life in a book, this is what poetry is about. This is where it came from music, probably when we were homo but far from sapiens (give Daniel Levitin’s The World in Six Songs a read), before it was sidetracked by the intellect and abstraction. When he speaks you hear the structure, the curves and angles of sound, the sense of sound.

Sound is at the center of Holland’s work. I have long been of the opinion that poetry should always be read aloud, even if you’re reading on a park bench, in a cafeteria, at the beach or a bus stop (does it really matter what others think of you?).

Let me quote Holland’s essay, Thoughts on Poetry (I encourage you to go to his blog and read the whole thing): “The way a poem is laid out visually in print helps to create expectations, sonnets look like sonnets, couplets look like couplets, a haiku looks like a haiku, and these forms help to point the mind to formal pathways. But it can also become a crutch, and if it is taken away, and if we can only listen to a poem, without seeing it, then much of what we perceive about poetry can just fall over. It is interesting to listen to recitals of poems without seeing the typed word. Under these circumstances the layout, the enjambments, the line breaks, the visual cues count for nothing.” It isn’t just the sound itself, it’s the temporal nature of audio poetry. “What I find interesting about sound, in the absence of the printed word (as on a page visually) , is that it can bring another dimension to the spoken, the uttered, word. I honestly think it’s a sadness to restrict the concept of poetry to that of print on a page. Yes, it is language, and yes, we decode it into patterns, rhythms and images, but on the page we have this incredible ability, this convenience, to skip back and forth over words, phrases, lines and stanzas. We can look at the code of a written poem and linger until we derive something from it. This ability to visually linger makes the written poem unique, we can do things mentally with written words on a page because the relationship between the mind, the eye and the subconscious facilitates so much interaction. The poem is there continually before us, it is not elusive. A sound-only poem is very different.”

What truly endears him to me is his overall love of sound, that there could be more to poetry than just words, written or spoken. “With pure audio poetry, including audio with added sound, I believe the listener should be kept rolling in the bow wave of it. As if the listener is caught in an undertow that keeps them in the current. It’s one of the reasons that I try to make sure the language is simple, even if the image isn’t.” “I tend to think that this process of sound linked with or without words creates atmosphere…”

Interactive Books, First Excursion

For over 30 years I’ve wanted to produce books that include not just my words but also my drawings/paintings. Back then it was impossibly expensive, even to do it in black and white. Adding audio to my repertoire in 1996 put it even farther out of my reach.

Now we have digital publishing. The possibilities are overwhelming. They are more titillating and frustrating than satisfying, because there is no universally readable format. (Pariah Burke lists the current formats, their pros and cons, in ePublishing with InDesign CS6. Discussed are: EPUB, PDF, digital replica, interactive magazine, and HTML—and the variations of each.)

But, it’s fairly affordable.

I decided to start with something already in existence, a chapbook I produced in 1984. It was called Essay (verb, to try something difficult) and was my first foray into self-publishing. Originally it was printed by a quick printer in black ink, no half-tones, on highly acidic paper. The text was done on an old office typewriter (manual, not electric) by a not-so-competent typist (me) with drawings that were pretty basic and, so I thought, easily copied (they weren’t, because I couldn’t afford to do half-tones). I knew so little about making books that I even botched the binding (see photo below), stitching from the side rather than through the spine (side stitching is common in traditional Japanese binding, I love the look of it and use it from time to time, but what I did with Essay was nothing but incompetence).…I made 50 copies. A few friends bought them. The Amazing Alonzo’s paperback exchange in Duluth put a couple on the shelf on consignment (I was a good customer). Cheng-Khee Chee, then head librarian of the UMD library, graciously bought a copy.

Chapbook cover. Essay. With inept binding.

The cover of Essay, 1984, showing the inept binding.

The first step was to scan all my original printer spreads (yes, I still have them) and then break them into individual pages. The awkward part of this book, and what makes it a poor choice for a first try, is that it’s all images. Ordinarily you’d create a book in InDesign or QuarkXPress by creating text and image boxes that will reflow to fit the screen of the viewing device, depending on what format you choose to export this as. I still might try to do this one as a fixed image epub, like a children’s storybook.

The first attempt at interactivity was to add navigation. Because I didn’t want to do anything to conflict with the look of the original I did not create visible buttons. So far everyone who’s played with this has found the navigation buttons pretty quickly (most of them are what you’d find in any format of epublishing).

Then I decided to take a step into the future (or recent past) by adding audio. I read a description of each page or read the poem. Conscientious artisan that I am, I cleaned the background noise from the recording (that would be the fan on my computer), compressed the vocal to make it more consistently audible, tweaked the EQ (also to make it a little easier to hear), and added a pinch of reverb to make it more aesthetically pleasing. Of course almost all this work disappeared as soon as I converted the files to 32-kbps MP3 files—sounds like shit but it makes the overall document file more internet friendly (it’s still about 10MB).

It’s easy to embed any kind of media file into an InDesign document. A little file player is created that can be placed anywhere on the page.…On playback of the finished PDF I found it becomes an ugly gray box that won’t go away until the file is reopened. It took some fooling around to find a place that was consistent from page to page but would never cover any of the text.

A replica of the table of contents where I define all the navigation points and the button for the audio player.

Here I define all the navigation points and the button for the audio player.

What seemed like an almost universally supported file format, the PDF, has failed everywhere except on PCs. It only worked the way a printable PDF would on Macs and mobile devices, both Android and Apple operating systems. That is, the navigation buttons still worked. It seems that InDesign creates a Flash player when embedding the audio. (I need to further explore what’s happening. So far my searches have not been informative, much less suggesting alternatives.)…I tried attaching the audio files in Acrobat, which also worked on my desktop. On my NOOK HD this version would no longer open the PDF reader navigation with page thumbnails.

Click the link below for a fully operational copy of the book. Your feedback is welcome.

essay interactive electronic 2013

Okay…I tried a preview on my computer, a PC running Vista 64-bit, and everything worked.

As I continue to explore electronic publishing I’ll keep you posted at this blog. I’m looking into other possibilities as well, such as a bonus feature with a CD download (a printable PDF with images and text).

Addendum, March 7, 2013: Because people are running into the same difficulties playing the uploaded PDF as they had at home when various family members tested it (no audio on Macs or mobile devices) I’ve uploaded the audio to soundcloud.com. To hear the continuous set go to the sets tab or to the sounds tab for the individual tracks (which can be downloaded, for your convenience). One thing to say in favor of the recordings posted on SoundCloud is that they are higher quality than the 32 kbps mono versions embedded in the PDF. They are 256 kbps “stereo”. Supposedly CD quality.