Sunday, January 22, 2012

Swimming Into The Digital Age

Lately, I’ve been wondering if poetry books–if, indeed, any books– will survive in the digital age.

We’ve come a long way from the time when poets sat inside a cave and recited their poems around a fire to an audience hungry for words and stories. Now we sit in our cozy beds or comfortable sofas with our iPads, Nooks, or Kindle Fires in our laps, the glow of the screen replacing the campfire as the source of light, our appetite still hungering for words.

Yet the moment we click on our e-book readers, we find that the poet’s words are still there, still conveying meaning and warmth and satisfying our hunger just as they conveyed meaning and warmth–and sparked imaginations–centuries ago.

Two people helping expand the boundaries of poetry for children in this new digital age are Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong. Vardell, a professor at Texas Woman's University, is the author of Poetry Aloud Here, Poetry People, and Children's Literature in Action. Wong, a highly acclaimed poet and storyteller, has received numerous awards and honors for her books, including the International Reading Association's "Celebrate Literacy Award" and the prestigious Stone Center Recognition of Merit, given by the Claremont Graduate School.

These two poetry lovers have assembled three e-book collections of poetry over the past few years. Poetry Tag Time (April, 2011) focuses on poetry for children, while p*tag (October, 2011) is geared for teens, and Gift Tag (December, 2011) offers holiday poems for young readers from birth to age eight (and beyond). In designing these books, Vardell and Wong seem to have found a solution to the pesky line-breaks and stylistic issues that have plagued other attempts at translating poetry to e-book form.

If you ever played tag as a child, you'll love making your way through Poetry Tag Time, a collection of thirty poems by thirty poets. It's just like playing tag, except the game involves one poet tagging another poet, while the reader gets the chance to join along simply by "tagging" or tapping his or her e-book reader's screen.

Vardell and Wong asked the poets to follow just four rules: share an unpublished poem (either a new one or one from their files) within a day of being tagged; make the poem accessible to children up to age 8; keep the lines “short” to fit the e-reader (and cell phone) format; and write a piece explaining their poem’s connection to the poem that comes before it in the book.

With these rules as guidelines, poets like Jack Prelutsky, Joyce Sidman, Nikki Grimes, Lee Bennett Hopkins, Douglas Florian, Helen Frost, J. Patrick Lewis, and Jane Yolen are tagged, and in turn tag other poets, and they've come up with gems like the ones below:
by Alice Schertle

hammers the sun
into a flat brass coin
I'd gladly spend on one small patch
of shade.
And this:
Approaching storm
by Paul B. Janeczko

Lightening rides
the sea slate sky;
dog follows master
over crests of pasture.
In a window
of the white farmhouse,
a beacon:
a single geranium.
Or this:
After the Storm
by Laura Purdie Salas

Ribbons of color
In a
Over the
Wong and Vardell expand this game of tag in p*tag, a collection of poems aimed at teens, by using photographs as prompts to start the poets off. This time a tagged poet is asked to choose a photo taken by Vardell, then write a poem inspired by the photo, incorporating three words from the preceding poem, and adding a short explanation of how the poem came to be before tagging another poet.

Wong and Vardell invite poets like Marilyn Singer, Naomi Shihab Nye, Tracie Vaughn Zimmer, Arnold Adoff, Kathi Appelt, JonArno Lawson, Sonya Sones, and Jaime Adoff, and the results are stunning, such as Marilyn Singer’s "Time and Water," written as a reverso, a form that she created which consists of two poems.

“Read the first down and it says one thing," writes Singer. "Read it back up with changes only in punctuation and capitalization, and it says something else.”
Time and Water
by Marilyn Singer


Gift Tag, the third in this collection of e-books, relies again on photos -- an “‘ekphrastic’ approach (poems prompted by images),” Vardell explains -- to inspire poets to share poems about the holidays.

With poets like Allan Wolf, Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, Julie Larios, Bobbi Katz, Steven Withrow, Margarita Engle, Carole Boston Weatherford, Sara Holbrook, April Halprin Wayland, Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Pat Mora and others, you can’t help but be thankful for the results–
Thanks Giving
by Jane Yolen

We groan after eating,
that old story.
Swear never to eat again,
that old lie.
Remind ourselves
to give thanks
that are never given,
that old prayer.
Just happy to be together,
that old tale.
These poems are innovative in themselves, and these e-books offer a new, innovative way of reading them. Now, instead of turning pages, you merely touch a screen and watch as words and images flicker and appear like magic before your eyes.

For years I was resistant to e-readers, preferring the intimacy of a book–the feel of the page, the smell of the ink and glue– especially for reading something as intimate as a poem. I worried an e-reader would change my experience of reading, and I feared the words would feel different in my hands if I held them on the screen of an e-reader instead of on the pages of a real book.

But Vardell and Wong have allayed these fears, and they've added another dimension to the process of reading poetry, as well. With the interactivity of touch-screen reading, it’s almost as if a reader can retrace the process of how a poem came to appear in a poet’s mind (and heart)... and feel that spark as it's passed on in a game of tag, not only from poet to poet but from poet to reader.

Each time you touch the screen of your Kindle Fire, Nook, or iPad, you'll become a participant in this game, and you'll be able to feel the sparks of a poet's inspiration ... as long as your e-reader's battery lasts.

For more information about Vardell and Wong’s collections of e-poetry, visit:

For a further discussion about poetry and e-books, visit:

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