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)

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