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[BKARTS] Designing poetry books-

Dear Galvin & Michael,

Thank you both for your very useful and thought provoking posts.  I saw Penn read a few weeks ago, and thought a great deal of her performance, particularly because it adds to our  discussion of the representation of language, both in oral and visual forms.  Very recently, I've been reading Havelock on the subject--an instance of tremendous complexity and on-going curiosity.  More to the point, in my own experience as a poet and book maker, I think the only aesthetic legislation that has held for every work are quite simple: a) publishing for the occasion & b) considering the making of a book an intimate collaboration between the writer and book maker.  

Early in the collaboration, I try to get as much feedback from the writer as possible, and think of my role as an "advisor" of sorts.  I try to help the author make their vision of the manuscript in book form materialize.  For starters, there is of course no substitute for having an intimate knowledge of the text, and a distinct understanding of the writer's other publications.  Once there is a context for the work that is both historically, aesthetically, and politically informed, I can begin to discuss the particular considerations with the writer, such as font, binding, paper, color, texture, colophons, indexes, pagination, etc. 

I consider all bibliographic codes an intimate corollary to the linguistic codes specific to the text.  If the writer has a less distinct vision of their manuscript in book form, I have found it useful to share my ideas in material form, i.e. I sit down with paper samples, typographic samples, and other books possessing properties similar to those I might imagine appropriate for their text.  I try to make it a material discussion, offering multiple combinations and options.  As Creeley notes, "Form is never more than an extension of content." (& later reverses the proposition to say, "that content is never more than an extension of form") it is important to observe the relationship between the two, as the book is that third element, always in excess of the sum of its parts.  

As for illustrations, pictures, etc. I think these are simply other factors operating in a nexus of visual information, which is inherently linguistic information, i.e.. language is a material, a thing in the world.  Has the poet or writer been working in collaboration with a visual artist?  Have they used photographs, postcards, paintings, films, etc. as prompts for their writing?  As Michael points out, texts don't need illustrations, pictures, etc.  If the writer has not specified any extra linguistic material, there is no need to resolve that this is a shortcoming that must be compensated for by the book maker.  As each manuscript is particular to the poet, each book must realize those particularities and translate them into another form.  The mark of a good book maker is always distinct, but they need not ask their writers to assimilate to their own aesthetic.  The printers and book makers I mentioned in my last post, for example, have held these beliefs in mind throughout their practices, which is what makes their work so dynamic, aesthetically sensitive, and exceptional in an age where remarkable poems are only too often conveniently forced into homogenous (anonymous) forms without considering the relationship between the text and the materials.  So goes the burden of the publishing industry and official verse culture as such.

In short, I think it is difficult to try to come to any resolve on "how" to publish poetry, as the more pressing question might be how could I best represent this particular piece?  Surely the break from any treatise that would support a standardized mode of production is a break in the right direction, an assertion in the ongoing adventure of book arts, small press publishing, and innovative writing.  A departure from the conventions of writing and representation have a profound impact on social and political bodies, and the potential to alter the way we read everyday signifiers.  Sorry to be so long winded and discursive in asserting these speculations.

All the Best,


----- Original Message ----- 
From: Gavin Stairs 
Sent: Tuesday, December 10, 2002 4:23 PM
Subject: Re: Designing poetry books-

I happen to be doing quite a few poetry books now.  My wife is Penn Kemp,
who is a sound and concrete poet.

I think there is definite room for illustrations in poetry books, but they
have to pull their own weight.  Cheap stuff may be used if it is
thematically useful, but simply mining the cut catalogues is a fairly
limiting procedure.  We tend to use original art done by
associates.  Because I do book design specifically for desk top production,
I can use as much colour as I like.  With the exception of one rather fun
book which used colour on every page, I generally tend to limit it to
occasional plates and accents.

What's the point?  Well, I find that heavily illustrated poetry often loses
the poems.  It seems to become more described art than illustrated
poetry.  However, I am going to give this form a try someday.  In the mean
time, I use the illustrations to relieve the monochromatic flow of the
lines: to break up the page turning a bit.  Poetry needs a bit more time to
consider each stanza, each poem.  White space can do the same thing.  It
can be used simply to set off a thematic entity, or to denote a break of
some sort.  If you are setting small forms like haiku, it can be effective
to set a single poem on a page, and an illustration can give an additional
hint to the imagery apparatus without being heavy and cloying.

One of the key differences between short poetic forms and long narratives
like most prose is this matter of flow.  In the case of short poetry, you
don't want the flow to be uninterrupted.  The opposite is true of long
forms, especially prose.  One of the differences between prose and poetry
is that prose uses throwaway words to set off more emphasized
passages.  Poetry rarely does this: every word and phrase is intended to be
absorbed deeply.  So the pace of reading is very different.  Prose may
depend on the pace of the flow for effect.  Poetry often does also, but the
reader is intended to go back and pick up the dropped phrases at leisure.
So the linearity is not intended to be preserved indefinitely.  Hence
illustrations a digressions can be effective.

That's all I have time for at present.  God bless all,  Gavin

Gavin Stairs
Gavin Stairs Fine Editions
525 Canterbury Road
London, Ontario
Canada   N6G 2N5

telephone: (519) 434-8555.
email: stairs@stairs.on.ca

Gavin Stairs Fine Editions is a small, computer press specializing in book
design and fine, hand-made books.

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