Wednesday, February 09, 2011


To do something well

One of the events I attended at AWP was a panel called "Hands On: A Conversation about DIY and Craft Culture in a Digital World." This touches on a range of things I've thought a great deal about throughout my life, and especially in the past 20 years or so.

When I write poems, I write them by hand, on paper, in a spiral-bound stenographer's notebook (the kind that measures roughly 6" x 9", with the spiral binding along the top. I've found it nicely compact and portable. Writing on paper has a number of advantages: I don't need electricity to write. (That's not altogether true -- at night I do need some source of light, which generally means electricity, although once or twice in the middle of the night I have in fact written by moonlight through the window.)

I can write in almost any environment: I've written poems in shopping malls, at the bus stop on a busy street, sitting on a park bench, sitting on a stone ledge a couple of hundred feet above the Mississippi River, alone in my apartment, at the library, at various of the dozen or more coffeehouses in the neighborhood. I worked a little on a poem during a couple of the panel events at AWP in Washington.

For many years I typed my poems (once I had finished handwritten versions), and whatever else I needed to type, with a portable manual typewriter. It's a bit noisier than a computer, and slightly more cumbersome to carry around (though I don't carry a computer around with me either), and it does have the disadvantage that if you make a typing mistake, you either have to use correction tape or liquid white-out, or -- if the mistake is more than a couple of letters, or an omitted word, etc. -- you have to retype the whole page.

In recent years I've typed my poems on my computer, using MS Word. Much easier to edit, if I make a mistake I don't have to retype the whole page. I have a (limited) choice of fonts. (I say "limited" -- years back I did typesetting for a living for a little while, and became familiar with hundreds of fonts and their variations.) MS Word is basically what you get when you take a typewriter and turn it into software. Typesetting is making software from one of the old linotype machines that printshops used to use.

I write most of my poems with irregular margins on both the left and right sides, and all things considered, it was easier to do the irregular margins with the manual typewriter (just move the carriage to the spot where you want to type, fine tuning with the spacebar if needed) than with MS Word.

With all of the (essential) talk about saving trees, I find it quietly ironic that when I type poems with MS Word, using the standard default formatting, it actually takes more paper to print the poems from MS Word than it did to type them on the manual typewriter. (On the typewriter I could get about 55 or 56 lines on a page, leaving margins at the top and bottom; with MS word, in standard formatting, I can get 45 lines on a page. I could, of course, tinker with the linespace formatting in MS Word, though as the space between lines shrinks the copy becomes harder to read.)

When I type poems on my computer, I can e-mail them to people. I can also send paper copies by paper mail. It takes longer, and costs a little money. (How much does internet service cost? How much does a computer cost?) Am I really in that much of a hurry to send someone something?

Paper doesn't crash. It can, of course, catch fire, be damaged by water, blow away in the wind. Though not usually without warning. I've sat typing at a computer that suddenly went dead. (Total crash, permanently dead.) On the other hand, never once when I've been writing in a paper notebook has it suddenly burst into flames.


I'm not dogmatic about paper vs. computers. Each has its advantages. Each is a tool. (Here I am writing this in this blog. This blog is, among other things, a tool.)

The panelists at the DIY/Craft Culture panel handed out a (paper) handout, with (in addition to short bio notes about the panel members) a list of questions related in one way or another to the panel topic, and relevant quotes from a couple of other sources. Here's a little of what was in the handout:

Some questions

Why are there (still) books?
Why are there (still) handcrafted books?
What is a book (for)?
What does letterpress mean now that's similar/different from what it has meant in the past?
What advantages, if any, does a physically published book offer over its digital version?
In what ways is the digital book (re)defining the physical book's form/function?
What does the xeroxed 'zine have to say to the Copper Canyon broadside?
What are advantages/disadvantages of a micro print run?
What is ephemerality?
How are the digital and handcrafted/hardcopy distinct? At odds? Synonymous? Symbiotic?
What can theories and practices of craft offer us about teaching and learning in the 21st century?
How about reading and writing? Thinking? Living?

And, from an interview with Richard Sennett (by Suzanne Ramljak) in the October/November issue of American Craft magazine:

"The modern economy privileges pure profit, momentary transactions, and rapid fluidity. Part of craft's anchoring role is that it helps to slow down labor. It is not about quick transactions or easy victories. That slow tempo of craftwork, of taking the time you need to do something well, is profoundly stabilizing to individuals. When people are forced to do things quickly it becomes a type of triage. In the process of working very fast, we don't have the time for reflection and being self-critical. We tend to go into autopilot and mistakes increase. Self-critical faculties decrease with speed, and the brain does a better job of processing when it goes slowly than when it goes rapidly. The capitalist economy sacrifices the logic of craft, which results in poorly made objects and a degraded physical environment. This capitalist model of productivity then feeds back into the schools, so the very training of people becomes industrialized. The craft model of education -- slow, concentrated, repetitive -- is seen as dysfunctional and irrelevant in the modern world... Pedagogically, we teach people that the moment they learn to do something, they can move onto something else rather than dwell on that lesson. When musicians practice something over and over again, they get deeper into the music, expanding it from within, exploring problems, and so forth. Our pedagogy doesn't tend to do that. We go by the notion that once you've solved something, the actual experience of doing it is secondary. That whittles down attention. This is a terrible problem in the teaching of music in schools, where the length of time that children can practice becomes reduced. We disable the actual experience of repetition, and that eventually cuts down on our capacity to concentrate."


At the heart of this whole discussion, for me, is the basic and obvious fact that we're not machines. We're animals. We're human beings, who live in (and as part of) the animal world, the plant world, the land and ocean and sky world, the sun and moon and stars world. We can (when we choose) use machines, but we're not the machines.

I self-published my first book of poems, The C.I.A. Plans the Invasion of Portugal, in 1976, in the spring and summer, while I was a student at the U. of Minnesota Experimental College. I had a limited budget, and did as much of the work myself as I knew how to do.

I typed the book pages on my typewriter. I typed one poem to a page; the book was going to be 5 and 1/2" by 8 and 1/2". On a manual typewriter, it's standard to insert two sheets at once, one to type on, and one as a "backing" sheet, to act as a slight pad or cushion so that the typewriter keys don't cut all the way through the first sheet. On the backing sheet, I measured and drew (with a dark marker) a 5 and 1/2" by 8 and 1/2" rectangle centered in the sheet. When the two sheets were inserted in the typewriter, the rectangle on the backing sheet showed through enough that I could use it as the guideline for keeping the poem text inside the page area.

I did the front cover type using Press Type -- I'm not sure if the stuff still exists -- pressing the letters onto the paper sheet by hand. (I was lazy and didn't bother to get the letters evenly spaced or in a straight line, which lent a nice, if inadvertent, graffiti-like effect to the cover lettering.)

I took the pages to a local printer who worked in the basement of his house. I knew of him through many friends who had had things printed there at one time or another. As I recall, it took a week or two for him to print and fold the pages and cover, 500 copies, a 32 page book (as I remember) including the cover, 14 poems. The print run on the book cover came up a little short, so I had to make another trip over there to pick up the rest of them.

The pages weren't collated or bound; I did that myself. I found an extra-long stapler that would reach from the edge of the page to the book spine. (I still have the stapler -- never know when I might need it again one day.) I collated every one of the 500 copies by hand, and stapled every one of them, two staples in the spine. I didn't know how to hand-sew books, and not sure if I would have attempted that, though might have, at least a few copies, if I'd known how. It took me at least a few days to collate and staple all of the books.

Altogether it cost me easily under $100.00 to self-publish the book, most of which (about $70.00) was for the printing and folding. That was in 1976 -- don't know offhand what it might cost these days, with the available minimum technology. I can imagine doing it for not a great deal more.

I gave away nearly all of the copies over the next couple of years. I'd been writing poems for just a few years at the time, and I doubt that I would republish any of the poems at this point, though over the years I've reworked a couple of them -- one basically a revised version, another more of a rewrite from scratch -- that I've included in later books.

I've you've never done anything like this -- making a book by hand, or partly by hand -- I encourage you to try it, at least once. The earth needs us, and we need each other, with our animal minds, with our friendship with trees, with our human bodies, with our living hearts, singing in the sun and rain, dancing in the moonlight.

Thanks for the DIY session write up. That was one of the ones I really regretted missing--so many good sessions, so many of them at the same time!
Very interesting post. I write by hand first, too. Can't imagine typing a poem at first go.

I have two mini collections I've thought about putting together myself. I have a program called clickbook that lets you print front and back. I've just not yet gotten into the logistics of the type of paper, cover paper, etc. I don't want to do these to sell but just to get out to read. At most I might ask for postage but shoulder the rest myself.
Kristin -- Pris -- thanks for your comments here.
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