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.

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