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Accessible Poetry

A sign that says 'Poetry' inside a row of books.
A handwritten sign in black marker that says 'Poetry' wedged between a row of books on a table.
Image source: Nick Fewings/Unsplash

Poet Jane Hirshfield suggests that other forms of writing including most journalism, analysis, and research attempt to capture something that is known while poetry invites the unexpected. Poetry is a way to share ideas, express emotion, and create imagery. Poems can be structured or free form and, on the page, poetry is visibly unique. Lines of a poem may be indented or lengthened with extra spacing between words and the white space that frames a poem is an aesthetic guide for how a poem is read (Billy Collins, 2021).

Poetry & E-readers

Author Lisa Rutledge has cerebral palsy and only reads e-books and materials online. While font, margins, and line-spacing settings can be adjusted on most e-readers, in the case of poetry, indentation, line breaks, complex spacing, and line justification are often intrinsic to impact. In their article, "Why Poetry Books Often Aren't Accessible to People With Disabilities," Rutledge notes that the e-book version of the Billy Collins collection Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems includes the following after the table of contents:

The length of a poem and the poet's use of stanza breaks give the poem of physical shape, which guides our reading of the poem and distinguishes it from prose. With an e-book, this distinct shape may be altered if you choose to take advantage of one of the functions of your e-reader by changing the size of the type for greater legibility.

Doing this may cause the poem to have line breaks not intended by the poet. To preserve the physical integrity of the poem, we have formatted the e-book so that any words that get bumped down to a new line will be noticeably indented. This way, you can still appreciate the poem's original shape regardless of your choice of type size.

Accessible notes that with poetry there are considerations about the physical shape and stanza breaks, sizable requiring more research and in-depth study. They recommend that poetry books implement as many of the general guidelines as possible.

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Spotlight: Word Problems by Ian Williams

Word Problems book cover
Word Problems poetry book cover by Ian Williams.
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When the format of a text is integral to its meaning, how can publishers create an accessible format without sacrificing meaning? Complex text like poetry presents a challenge for production teams, one with which authors are particularly qualified to help.

The 2020 publication of Giller Prize-winning author Ian Williams's 96-page book of poetry Word Problems presented a unique challenge for publisher Coach House: the author's innovative use of physical page space was integral to both the poems and overall collection. This necessitated producing the e-book in fixed layout since reflowable layout would not adequately reflect the author's meaning. But when it came to creating a braille edition in collaboration with CELA, how would formative meaning be preserved in a different alphabet?

Fortunately, Williams was "very excited" to take part in creating a braille format and is reworking the book to fit the braille medium. There's no information yet as to when the braille edition is to be published, but it will show the integral role that authors can play in providing unique accessibility solutions.

American Sign Language (ASL) Poetry

Animated illustration of hands using the ASL sign for 'story'
A screenshot of The New Yorker website featuring a collection of poetry from "Deaf Republic" by Ilya Kaminsky with Illustrations by Miwan Yoon.
Image source: The New Yorker

In 2019, The New Yorker magazine published a multi-media poetry feature drawn from Ilya Kaminsky's Deaf Republic, a contemporary epic that captures the sweep of history and the devastation of war. Kaminsky writes deafness as a form of dissent against tyranny and violence. The article features illustrated animated ASL titles by Minwon Yoon and includes audio versions of each poem.

Animated hands depicting the sign for 'earth' from 'Deaf Republic" by Ilya Kaminsky with illustrations by Miwan Yoon.
Image source: The New Yorker.

Animated hands depicting the sign for 'hide' from "Deaf Republic" by Ilya Kaminsky with illustrations by Miwan Yoon.
Image source: The New Yorker.