on making a chapbook 2

January 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

When you make your own book, with your own hands, you must evaluate the worth of the poems you will include—are they worth the time and effort it takes to make each physical book? worth the environmental resources of paper, ink, and glue? Every decision is your own—which poems to select, their sequence, the typographical layout, the kinds of papers you use—and will shape the final appearance of the book, just as the marks of your labour will appear as imprint or trace in each copy.

Many years ago I took a one-day workshop on making chapbooks with a local poet called Tim Lander. He told us, “Sew your books on BC Ferries. Cut your pages with a penknife whose blade is dulled from pruning tomato vines. If you prick your finger while sewing a signature, erase the drops of blood.” If not stained with actual blood, every object carries the signature of its maker—traces of the work that went into it: the awl pierced the paper here, not here; here she slipped and made two punctures; here the end pages are somewhat crookedly glued in (a lapse in concentration, the last chapbook made that day?) These are the marks of your own labour. I sewed the book here and here. I wrote the copy number on the title page here. This necessarily alters the relationship between reader and writer, in that it becomes more intimate, as if we have almost, not quite, touched.

Within the context of a complex argument about making, Elaine Scarry describes Marx’s insistence on “the body’s presence in the made object (e.g. a bolt of woven cloth)” which “is soberly, often movingly, pointed to again and again. Marx’s designation of the single artifact as a ‘body’ is at some moments based on the concept of use value (the woven cloth refers to the human body because it has ‘use to’ the living body, at once objectifying and eliminating the sentient problems of temperature instability and nakedness) and is at other moments based on its being the materialized objectification of bodily labour (the woven cloth is a material memorialization of the embodied work of spinning, for it endures long after the physical activity itself has ceased: ‘the worker has spun and the product is a spinning’).”[1] I want to come back to this later, but what I like here is the insistence on the contact that is made between labouring body and artefact, and on the way in which an artefact can carry a memory of this labour.

Jan Zwicky’s Songs for Relinquishing the Earth was originally made by hand, and sent to people as they requested a copy. Now it is reproduced as a ‘facsimile’ by Brick Books as she couldn’t keep up with the demand. There is a note inside my facsimile copy explaining this: “Part of Jan Zwicky’s reason for having the author be the maker and distributor of the book as a desire to connect the acts of publication and publicity with the initial act of composition, to have a book whose public gestures were in keeping with the intimacy of the art.” Inevitably, the memory of labour carried by a hand-sewn copy made at a kitchen table is lost, or at least dimmed, in a facsimile edition. Something similar happens with Anne Carson’s Nox, a facsimile we are told of a notebook of poems and images she made as an act of mourning for her brother. I felt disappointed by the tidy “recreation” of the notebook, if it did in fact exist—the tidiness and uniformity of the facsimile made me doubt in its existence, suspecting that it was always planned as a published book. Although perhaps there is more going on in Nox, some gesture towards the inevitable absence at the heart of language, that we only ever know others through representation, performance, memory—that there is no original. I don’t know if I find this gesture empty or compelling. Somehow the mass-produced book (especially if it is trying to appear hand-made) works against the fragility of the gesture of remembering. At least, this is my first instinct; Scarry warns against sentimentalizing the cottage-industry and the hand-made, that mass-produced factory objects also participate in the act of constructing and maintaining civilization; a mass-produced coat, for example, can also provide warmth and comfort, on a much larger and more accessible scale than a coat sewn by hand.

So far I have been writing only of the physical book, but it is also possible to think of language itself as material. The poems are made of inked letters; they are the fossilized trace of breath. This also carries intimacy. Jane Hirshfield writes: “Saying a poem aloud, or reading it silently if we do so with our full attention, our bodies as well as our minds enter the rhythms present at that poem’s conception. We breathe as the author breathed, we move our own tongue and teeth and throat in the ways they moved in the poem’s first making. There is a startling intimacy to this. Some echo of a writer’s physical experience comes into us when we read her poem.”[2]

But this isn’t the direction I want to go in for now. I am still interested in the chapbook as sewn book or pamphlet, as a physical object which bears the marks of—which remembers—a poet’s labour.


[1] Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain, p.247.

[2] Jane Hirshfield, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, p.7-8.

on making a chapbook 1

January 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

In June of last year I made a a chapbook of my 23-poem sequence ‘Karyotype,’ about half of which had already been published in little magazines. Although I wanted them to appear in these magazines, the poems also felt fragmented, torn from their original sequence, so I wanted to stitch them back together, as a whole.

To make a chapbook is to take making at its most material—to take paper, thread, glue, boards, cloth, and make a book of poems with your hands. You must think geometrically and spatially: how large should each page be, then double this for a folded signature; for the poems to appear sequentially, in the correct order, which ‘pages’ or ‘leaves’ should be placed on a single sheet? (for example, my Table of Contents and p.26 appeared on the reverse of pages vi and 25—I had to create a diagram to visualize the correct order once folded and interleaved); what of margins and gutters? page numbers? what usually appears on the publication page? the title page?; how many pages can safely be stitched into a signature?; how many milimetres larger must the boards be to cover the signature? how wide the strip of book cloth?; should I cut the papers with scissors or tear them with a ruler to create a softer edge? And so on. I used my copy of A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, published by the Richards Press in 1947, as the physical model for my own book because I liked its dimensions—12cm by 19cm, as well as the roughly cut papers and its feel in my hands.

Making a book of poems in this way takes time and care; it is a physical activity. I worked at the kitchen table where I could spread out all of the necessary tools: X-acto knife, cork-lined ruler, plastic ruler, pencil, sandpaper, white glue, paint brushes, a yoghurt lid to hold the glue, a wallpaper spreader to burnish the boards, needle, linen thread, awl. The cutting of the boards alone took one afternoon. Because I have no desktop publishing program, I had to lay out and glue a template by hand; this took another day.

Yet it is also fairly simply to make a book. Photocopy as many copies as you need of your template. Fold the printed sheets and place them in the correct order. Fold the end papers and add them to the outside of the signature. Mark the central spine where the stitches will go. Use the awl to punch needle holes. A simple saddle stitch to tie the pages together with thread—complicated to explain in words, but easy to see and to imitate; it is something your hands must learn to do. For the cover, glue the boards onto the narrow strip of book cloth, glue the paper covers onto the boards—tuck and fold around the edges. Glue the outer end papers of the signature onto the boards. Press overnight under a stack of heavy books.

Each morning I could make no more than five chapbooks—this took me about four hours. Then I became too frustrated, and my fingers became too sore. I began to make mistakes. My time improved a little as I figured out certain things. For example, I realised that I should treat the cover paper, once the glue went on, as if it were wet cloth which could be lifted and repositioned, the wrinkles smoothed out and folded over with my finger tips. I learned to put just the right amount of glue on, so that when I burnished the end papers the glue didn’t ooze out onto the cover papers. I learned to close the book once the signature had been glued in and then open it again to work out any wrinkles that accumulated in the end paper near the spine, which acted like a gutter where paper and glue collected.

Some mistakes I couldn’t fix. I’d chosen cover papers that were thin as tissue paper, and then used a laser printer to print the title ‘Karyotype’ in a typewriter font above a line drawing I’d made of the Beauty of Loulan, the iconic focus of the sequence. I realised after making the first ten books or so that the ink was brushing off some of the covers like dust (perhaps because of the random side of the paper they happened to be printed on? a fault in the laser printer? I don’t know). Those covers I had to re-ink by hand. Still, I liked the fragile paper and the faded ink: it was in keeping with the tenor of the sequence, which addresses the ephemerality of human texts—genes, cloth, poems.

It took me a week in total to make all twenty copies: three days to plan the template, to photocopy and cut and fold the signatures; four days to make the covers, stitch and glue in the signatures. That of course doesn’t include the writing of the poems, another kind of making. And it felt very strange, each morning, to take apart the stack of books I used as an impromptu press, and see this small pile of chapbooks accumulate in my hands, as if the sequence now took on a new life, by replication, in this material dimension, distinct from the illegible, handwritten manuscripts, and distinct even from their fragmented appearance in the little magazines. Now ‘Karyotype’ was a physical artefact, my twenty copies existing in and through time, as A Shropshire Lad does, in the 10,000 copies of my 1947 edition.

(Tues. 26 June 2012)

Emily Brontë: The Gondal and Honresfeld Notebooks

January 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

Winifred Gérin, in her 1971 biography of Emily Brontë, describes the notebooks used by Brontë in 1844 to transcribe fair copies of her poems:

“Emily’s year alone with her father had ended. It had brought her, with the gift of liberty and solitude, the peace in which to find herself. The new year [1844] shows her collecting her poems in two carefully kept notebooks, as if in acknowledgement of the fact that, at last, she knew the worth of what she was writing. No more unpretentious receptacles for great poetry exist than the limp-backed, wine-coloured, faintly lined notebooks (they have been compared to laundry books) in which she set about copying her verse in the cryptic writing that she had evolved. From the old much-scored notebook and from the scattered scraps of paper on which she had jotted down the lines and verses as they had come in the past, she selected those poems she intended to keep. Though the actual copying began only in February (at a time of renewed tranquillity in the house) the purpose was clearly formed before, and the final division made between her Gondal Poems which she copied into one notebook and clearly marked ‘Emily Jane Brontë. GONDAL POEMS‘, and the poems that were not about Gondal copied into another, and whose purely personal character is thus established. Her later violent opposition to the idea of publishing the poems does not necessarily prove she never intended doing so; it only proves that she did not feel ready to do so then, and wished for time before communicating her most secret experiences to other people. The action of collecting her poems did not in fact mean that she was even ready to show them to her sisters, but merely that she knew they were worth preserving”.[1]

In this way, Emily Brontë was also making small books of her poems, however limited and private an edition, perhaps only for herself at this point, and however flimsy the physical state of the “limp-backed, wine-coloured, faintly lined notebooks,” akin to laundry books (notebooks used to record clothing and household linens sent out to be laundered). Again there’s the domestic reference—the tidying of Dickinson’s unruly poems into fascicles, Brontë’s poems recorded in laundry books. Her decision to begin to fair-copy the poems in two separate notebooks also suggests that she is beginning to think about artistic selection and preservation. The Gondal poems are poems she wrote about characters in the imaginary North Pacific island kingdom of Gondal, created by Emily and her sister Anne. Her more personal poems were placed in a separate notebook[2]. Unlike Dickinson, Brontë included her name in the notebooks, and recorded the dates of composition. Yet at this stage, the poems were still intensely private, recorded in her own separate notebooks. When her sister Charlotte happened to find one of the notebooks (probably the Gondal Poems notebook), and then proceeded to read the poems, Emily felt this as a violent intrusion. Charlotte described what happened:

“One day, in the autumn of 1845, I accidentally lighted on a MS. volume of verse in my sister Emily’s handwriting. Of course, I was not surprised, knowing that she could and did write verse: I looked it over, and something more than surprise seized me, —a deep conviction that these were not common effusions, nor at all like the poetry women generally write. I thought them condensed and terse, vigorous and genuine. To my ear, they had also a peculiar music—wild, melancholy, and elevating.

My sister Emily was not a person of demonstrative character, nor one, on the recesses of whose mind and feelings, even those nearest and dearest to her could, with impunity, intrude unlicensed; it took hours to reconcile her to the discovery I had made, and days to persuade her that such poems merited publication. I knew, however, that a mind like hers could not be without some latent spark of honourable ambition, and refused to be discouraged in my attempts to fan that spark to flame.”[3]

Charlotte in truth was snooping, and violated her sister’s privacy by reading her  book of poems. Yet Emily did agree in the end to participate in Charlotte’s plan to publish poems by the three sisters, although Anne and Emily insisted that they all use pseudonyms. Emily selected 21 of her poems, removed any references to Gondal, and carefully edited them in preparation for publication. It was Charlotte who did all of the thankless work of contacting publishers, eventually finding a small firm, Aylott & Jones, of No.8 Paternoster Row, London. They agreed to publish the volume at the authors’ own risk. She also had to begin to think about the physical dimensions of the book, its typography, the kind of paper to be used. In a letter dated 31 January 1846 Charlotte to ask them for an estimate of what it would cost to print an octavo volume of “200 to 250 pages…of the same quality of paper and size of type as Moxon’s last edition of Wordsworth.”[4]

The sisters eventually paid £31 10s 0d for a slimmer duodecimo volume. Juliet Barker notes that this sum was “just over three-quarters of Anne’s annual salary at Thorp Green,” where she worked as a governess. That they were willing to spend such a large sum on their poems suggests how important the publication was to them. They finally received their first copies of Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell on 7 May 1846. It was a book of 165 pages, bound in “bottle green cloth with a geometrical design on the front”, price four shillings.[5] A year after publication, with three somewhat favourable reviews, only two copies had been sold.

I don’t know if Emily took any greater pleasure in the bottle green cloth-bound book of her poems than in her hand-copied “limp-backed, wine-coloured, faintly lined notebooks.” In a world without typewriters or personal computers, the difference must have been striking, a metamorphosis from cramped, ornate, ink-soaked individual pages lettered by hand to multiply produced letter-press books. Here is another kind of tidying, the personality of the hand-formed letters systematized and organized by uniform metal type. She must have felt there was some value in the process: transcription, selection, editing and revision, proofs, print, like a difficult if alienating birth. But she must also have found value in the earlier act of transcribing her poems by hand, for herself alone, into the two wine-coloured notebooks.

(Thurs. 28 June 2012)


[1] Winifired Gérin, Emily Brontë, p.159-160.

[2] The Gondal Poems notebook is currently held by the British Museum after many years in private hands. The location of the notebook of personal poems, known as the Honresfeld Notebook, is unknown.

[3] Charlotte Brontë quoted in Juliet Barker, The Brontës, pp.564-565.

[4] Information on the publication hisotry taken from Juliet Barker, The Brontës, pp.572-3.

[5] Barker, p.580.

Emily Dickinson’s ‘fasicules’

January 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

fascicle   1. a separately published instalment of a book, usu. not complete in itself.  2. a bunch or bundle.  3. Anat. a bundle of fibres                                    —Oxford English Dictionary

Emily Dickinson never used the word ‘fascicle’ to describe the bundles of poems she made in the years 1858 through 1864. It was her friend Mabel Loomis Todd who referred to them as “little fascicules” when she was attempting to sort through the poems for publication. Dickinson makes oblique reference to these booklets (perhaps) in poem 675 (No. 772 in Franklin’s Reader’s Edition of 1999):

Essential Oils — are wrung —
The Attar from the Rose
Be not expressed by Suns — alone —
It is the gift of Screws —

The General Rose — decay —
But this — in Lady’s Drawer
Make Summer — When the Lady lie
In Ceaseless Rosemary —

I love the word ‘Attar’ here, and the sudden shock of ‘Screws’ — as if torture methods are applied to the rose petal flesh to produce the essential oil. There may also be an allusion to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 5:

Then were not summers distillation left
A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glasse,
Beauties effect with beauty were bereft,
Nor it nor noe remembrance what it was.

I haven’t checked if Dickinson was familiar with Shakespeare’s sonnets, but whether or not she was, the connection is strong between these two poems. The fair youth is being encouraged to reproduce in order to preserve his beauty in (and for) the next generation—a distillation or preservation of his essence. But in Shakespeare’s sonnets the flesh is soon abandoned for the poems themselves, which can offer a different kind of preservation in words.

Similarly, the fascicles—the poems—in the poet’s drawer—will ‘Make Summer’ when the poet is dead (‘In Ceaseless Rosemary’—when she lies only in memory, when only the words remember her—Rosemary for remembrance). There’s the same kind of allusion as well to the treatment of prisoners—screws, pent in walls of glass. The words of a poem imprison but also preserve.

This is how Dickinson made her fascicles.[1] She copied her poems onto sheets of stationery, which came prefolded from the manufacturer, to form two leaves. Once a fair copy of a poem was made, she destroyed earlier drafts. To make a fascicle, she took anywhere up to 6 or 7 folded sheets with their copied out poems (12 or 14 leaves) and placed them one on top of the other—that is, she didn’t insert one into another, which is the more common way today to make a chapbook. She then stabbed two holes from front to back through the pages along the folded edge, and then threaded a string through the holes, tying the pages together at the front. She gave individual poems no titles; the fascicles had no labels or page numbers; her name didn’t appear anywhere either. Franklin notes that her unit of poetry was the sheet—she would begin a new poem on a new sheet, often leaving the end leaf blank, rather than begin a new poem; if the poem was long and she ran out of room on the sheet she would pin another leaf to it (does this suggest that she wrote out these poems earlier, and then chose which ones to place in a given fascicle?). After 1864 she continued to make good copies of her poems onto sheets, but didn’t bind them—we don’t know why. There is endless speculation about both the artistic ordering of the poems within these forty fascicles, and the many textual variants she recorded for words and lines.

Shortly after Dickinson’s death the fascicles were discovered by her family, but then taken apart and disordered in order to prepare them for publication (another long complicated story). It wasn’t until the late 20th century that Franklin used material evidence to reconstruct the original order: stains, smudge patterns, paper type, soiling on the first and last sheets, pin marks, paper wrinkles, the “puncture patterns of the binding holes,” even stress effects visible on the paper as a result of the fascicles being browsed.

Why did she make these booklets, and why did she stop with less than half of her complete output of poems bound (there were 1789 known poems in total at her death)? Franklin thinks that she began to bind her poems in fascicles in order to organize the poems which had become unruly in their large number—with fascicles, she could flip through the booklets, browse, select; he argues they helped her to order (and constrain?) them. Once she stopped binding them into fascicles after 1864, there was unruliness again—poems copied out on all kinds of scraps: “When she did not copy such sheets and destroy the previous versions, her poems are found on hundreds of odds and ends—brown paper bags, magazine clippings, discarded envelopes and letters, the backs of recipes.”[2] He argues that she made no attempt to group the poems in particular orders according to aesthetic or thematic design.

Other scholars disagree with Franklin, and see these gatherings of her poems into booklets as conscious artistic choice—some fascicles containing narrative arcs, others thematically linked, one poem illuminating the next and revealing new meaning once placed side by side. Her lyrics are short, riddling, numerous. Wanting the lyrics to be bound into fascicles according to a higher aesthetic principle satisfies our own desire for order and pattern. And it is not unthinkable that a poet would be tempted to group her poems into particular patterns as she bound them—why not? But we can’t ever know if this was her intention.

Still others emphasize her indeterminacy: why choose only one word or one version of a poem when they can exist simultaneously on the page, like a palimpsest, just as every word carries a diachronic memory of its past? This is also appealing.

Yet I like Franklin’s idea that the fascicles (and the later, unbound fascicle sheets, known as ‘sets’) functioned as a workshop for Dickinson. When she wanted to send a poem to a friend, she would consult the relevant worksheet or fascicle, choose the word or line variants appropriate for the receiver of her poem, and copy out a fair copy for them. This makes sense to me. We might think of the fascicles as the equivalent of today’s computer folder or file. And as she chose never to seek publication beyond this kind of private self-publication, there may also have been pleasure in creating these distinct bundles, like jars of preserves or rose attar in glass vials.

I like Emily Dickinson. I like her riddling poems, and I like her choice not to publish, but to take refuge (if this is what it was) in a manuscript culture. Like the circulation of blood within our bodies, she let her poems exist for themselves in their own dark life.

(Wed. 27 June 2012)


[1] I take the details of her technique from an essay by R. W. Franklin, “The Emily Dickinson Fascicles,” published in Studies in Bibliography 1983. You can also see images of her fascicles at the Emily Dickinson Museum.

[2] Franklin, “The Emily Dickinson Fascicles,” p.16.

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