At the forefront of poetry publishing, the digital explosion is pushing physical books to look better than ever. The new generation of publishers are embracing everything digital has to offer: online reading, social media engagement, e-books, and websites that are full of eye-catching gifs and high-resolution videos. In addition, their printed books aspire to sensory satisfaction: refined paper and designs that aesthetically extend the content of the poems. Digital and print are not in opposition but work together to create the possibilities that publishers and readers so value. Typesetting is done on screen, in a series of layered stories involving more fonts than you can handle, and printing techniques – such as offset litho – make for great prints from digital files. The covers shimmer like “shook foil”, to quote Gerard Manley Hopkins.
I meet Luke Thompson of Guillemot Press online. Guillemot is one of the publishers whose new books thrill the staff of the National Poetry Library. Luke lives in a color swatch office; samples of papers flutter behind him like tiny flags for future lands. Our appeal is alive with the scintillating language of different paper stocks. Mohawk Superfine. Wicotex magic. Favini Crush. The world of print is translated through his webcam in Cornwall, through my screen, to where I sit over 250 miles away in London. The more digital the world is, the more this new breed of publishers are making their productions aspire to something readers want to own, collect, with. Luke likes to have these samples of different papers handy as he develops the digital files on screen. Due to the high bandwidth connection in his part of Cornwall, it takes Luke a day to upload a video to YouTube, but that doesn’t stop him from trying. “I’m in it,” he said.
At Guillemot’s online launches, which are joined by regular viewers from around the world, Luke uses the interval to show the physicality of what he’s produced – a catwalk moment for each new post.
Luke describes the different papers he uses, which I match with the real books printed in front of me. At Astra Papachristodoulou Constellations is a series of visual poems based on star formations, using the Greek alphabet to suggest ways the reader might navigate the work. The dusty blue of the cover shimmers like a night sky – a sparkling luminescence – as a constellation shimmers in the electric light above my desk. Signals by Richard Carter is a book of visual poetry in response to Hans Freudenthal’s creation of an artificial language, in 1960, intended to communicate with extra-terrestrial beings. The cover shines with copper glyphs, like a futuristic version of the Gilgamesh. Narrower in size and published in hardcover, Alycia Pirmohamed and Pratyusha’s Second memory uses speckled egg paper which is drier to the touch; it makes a gritty noise when I touch it. Reflection by Derek Beaulieu and Rhys Farrell is a kaleidoscope of color: letterforms disintegrating into graphic landscapes of pink, blue, yellow and black. We have entered the future space of poetry. At Guillemot’s online launches, which are joined by regular viewers from around the world, Luke uses the interval to showcase the physicality of what he’s produced – a catwalk moment for each new post. “People like it,” says Luke. “People love books.”
Five years ago, there was an air of foreboding about the future of poetry publishing under the rapidly accelerating digital age. I’ve lost count of the many times someone has asked me or my library colleagues, “but won’t all those books in this library just be replaced by digital?” The National Library of Poetry has transferred long meters of audio to digital files that will soon occupy a single screen – but books? Never. Digitization extends print, reduce geographic distance and provide access to documents to those who need them most. The National Poetry Library runs a popular e-lending service, free to anyone in the UK, allowing you to download full collections of poetry onto any device you choose. But our collections of physical loans are more popular than ever.
There’s another element in the new editors that Hopkins would have liked: their sensitivity to the environment. One of Luke’s favorite types of paper is Favini Crush. Grape seed, which is made from leftover elements from the winemaking process, happily imbibing prints. New poetry publishers aren’t tempted by the slightly increased costs of doubling or tripling a print run, only to end up with a stock warehouse. Unlike offshore printing, local printing leaves no carbon footprint behind. It’s a surprisingly positive result of a change that was gloomily talked about just five years ago. Luke says the cover of his latest post is made from recycled ocean plastics. Hopkins would have loved it.