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Bill Radke: The e-retailer Amazon has acquired exclusive digital rights to some of the great modern literary works. Amazon’s deal with The Wylie Agency will bring books by Nabokov, Cheever, Updike, and Roth to the Kindle. It’s the first time they’ve appeared on electronic devices. E-readers may or not be OK for prose, but they’re not well-suited to poetry, as former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins found out when he downloaded his latest poetry collection onto his Kindle. Billy, welcome to Marketplace.
Billy Collins: Thank you.
Radke: How did you find the meaning of your poetry changed on the screen?
Collins: Well it wasn’t so much the meaning, it was just that poetry comes in lines, like gaslone comes in gallons. If you wanted the name of the creature that is the poet, they are like homolinearium — they’re like line-making creatures.
Radke: Haha, yes.
Collins:And that’s what we do, we make lines. Charles Olson, the poet, said no line must sleep, every line in a poem should be wakeful to the lines around it. And when you put a poem on a Kindle, the lines are broken in order to fit on the screen. And so instead of being the poet’s decision, it becomes the device’s decision.
Radke: The line not only sleeps, it falls half-way out of the bed.
Collins: Haha, very good — it sleeps with its foot, one foot out of the bed.
Radke: What are digital media companies doing about this?
Collins: Well frankly, I don’t know if they’re aware of the problem or whether they would even consider it a problem. You know to a poet, it’s quite ruinous to have a poem distorted, out of shape, or squeezed, shall we say, into this tiny screen. But I’m not sure big digital companies are sensitive to the needs of poets. I mean I kwwo the rest of the population of America isn’t, so why should they be?
Radke: Haha. You are former poet laureate Billy Collins, I mean are you going to try to throw your poetic weight around with these companies?
Collins: Haha, I’m not sure there’s that much weight, it’s called phantom weight I think. I mean I’m all for poetry catching up with technology, and just as there are iTunes, I think we should have iPoems. I mean people should be able to walk around with their earbuds in and listening to poems on their iPod. And poems are perfect for something to listen to while you’re walking around, because they don’t take very long.
Radke: I think you just hatched a great idea on Marketplace: iPoems. The new digital attention span could be a boon to poetry.
Collins: I think, yeah, I think poetry has been waiting for people to be afflicted with short attention spans.
Radke: Former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins, it’s been such a pleasure talking to you, thank you.
Collins: Very nice to talk to you.
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