The Art of the Chapbook: Paper

Every artist knows the agonizing gap between an idea and a work of art. In my experience, visual art is particularly frustrating this way – perhaps because whatever skills I developed have long since left me, but also because writing comes so much more naturally to me. But even writing brings with it that frisson between the thing you want to say and the thing you actually end up saying. The Internet-famous video blogger Ze Frank calls that gaps “brain-crack.”[i] The longer an idea sits around in your head without being executed, the more you get addicted to the fantasy of the final product. But artists can’t get addicted to brain crack, or they’ll never make any art.

A chapbook has been my brain crack since about 2009. While I’ve been writing steadily since the age of nine, a variety of obstacles kept me from pursuing my literary ambitions as fully as I would have liked. Some of them I overcame, and some of them I learned to live with and work around. And during that time, I learned to take small steps to incorporate poetry (the art form that comes most naturally to me) back into my life in a non-brain-crack kind of way. The small steps paid off, and eventually I was able to compile a chapbook manuscript. But what to do with it? Send it to contests? The fees added up quickly. Submit to a small press? I found some whose books I enjoyed – both in content and in form. But book quality varied greatly. And I began to question the business side of things. Why give up creative control to a publisher who may or may not market your book, which you may or may not be able to afford once it’s been printed? I’d always been interested in publishing as a medium – in fact, my romance with web design began in 1999 when I realized I could self-publish online. And by 2009, it was easier than ever to make small runs of print books.

Still, the brain crack persisted. It told me that this very first edition – my first foray into print publishing since college –  needed to be PERFECT. On a silver platter with glitter and rose petals and applause, as Ze Frank would say.  Hence this course. As initially proposed, I’d thought of it as a way to force myself to execute an idea that I’d grown far too fond of in the abstract. And in the process of this first month of research, that’s begun to happen. But the path toward brain-crack recovery pointed in quite a different direction than I’d thought. This is where Lesley – and Lori Desrosiers my IS advisor – really proved the value of an MFA program.

Lori had me take a step back from my manuscript to consider the entire process of creating a book, starting with the paper it’s printed on. Nicholas Basbanes’s book On Paper made me consider the substance in a whole new way. I’d heard of parchment and papyrus, but didn’t really understand how they differed from paper. “What the Chinese had discovered [when they invented paper] was a type of molecular cohesion distinctive to all vegetative matter and known to chemists as hydrogen bonding,”[ii] he writes. It’s a simple process, but one with room for infinite variation. Straw, flax, cotton, Japanese kozo, old rags, wood pulp – all of these and more have been used as the cellulose base for paper, along with uncounted proprietary additives used to regulate the formation.

Basbanes recounts in vivid detail a trip to China visit the few remaining mills where families still make paper by hand. His discussion of the different materials these artisans use and the different papers that result sparked my imagination, and his description of the simple process inspired me to try it for myself. I soon discovered – and Basbanes notes in his book – that I’m not the only one whose imagination had been captured. I found abundant materials online to help me with my own project.

The basic principle behind papermaking is to lift a screen through a slurry of pulp and water. As the water drains off the screen, the hydrogen bonding process begins and the sheet of paper forms. Then it’s necessary to transfer the sheet to a flat surface, sponge it off the screen, press it, and dry it. I had most of the materials I needed: paper,[iii] a shredder, a blender, a bin for the slurry, and a mechanism for pressing and drying the sheets. The most specialized piece of equipment needed was the frame and deckle, essentially two wooden frames: one free-standing and one with a screen attached. It’s possible to make a frame and deckle out of a couple of old picture frames and items from a hardware store, but for expediency’s sake I purchased one ready-made from Wooden Deckle, an online store that delivers through Etsy and Amazon. Papermaking studios press paper between sheets of felt, squeeze them in a big screw press, and then dry them with fans or heat – a setup too cumbersome for my kitchen operation. But it’s also possible to dry sheets by sponging them onto a window or a sealed piece of wood. I found a new purpose for my seldom-used drawing board: positioned in front of our heating vent, it makes a pretty good paper-drying station. Rather than take a trip to the fabric store for felt, I experimented with towels and old bedsheets, only to discover that the synthetic dishcloths included in the kit containing the deckle make an excellent substitute for felt.

Even after I had assembled all my materials, I still had to surmount the brain-crack barrier. I reminded myself that failure is a part of the learning process, and that it was unlikely that the first sheet would be perfect. When it came time to make the pulp, I took a note from the Khandroling Paper Cooperative, which recycles sacred texts to make its papers. I plucked drafts of poems (often printed on the back of memos from my corporate job) and scraps from literary collage projects out of the recycling bin. I threw in a tear-away from Poets & Writers Magazine for good measure. And because it was close to Valentine’s Day and I was aiming to make decorative paper, I added in some lavender and red construction paper. The first sheet of paper did indeed come off the felt a bit malformed. But I reminded myself that it was all part of the learning process, and over the course of the next four sheets (my drying board had room for no more) I got a feel for the sponge, the deckle, and the newly formed sheets came out uniform and beautiful. Initially, I’d thought the decorative focus of most home-based papermaking kits too frivolous. But I surrendered to the spirit of play and experimented with glitter and dried flowers on a few pieces. I even tried adding rose otto oil to the sheets with the flowers, but found that the scent didn’t hold very well. You can see photographs of the process in this Google Photos Album.

Making the paper gave me the visceral satisfaction of a physical act of creation, something that’s easy to lose when one is writing words on a screen, or even scrawling out a longhand draft. Along with reading Basbanes’s book, it gave me a new respect for a substance I’ve taken for granted all my life, and for the artistry involved in making it.

Making the paper also inspired me to print an actual prototype of my manuscript in a   6”x 9” book fold – the first time I overcame my brain crack to do so. As with the papermaking project, the first attempt wasn’t entirely successful. But that “failure” (aka learning experience) turned out to be a necessary part of the process, the one that turned my project from idea into physical object. The 5” x 7” sheets fit well inside as end-papers. At the beginning of the semester, I was thinking of having the bulk of the book created and bound by a digital printing company. But making paper by hand – and learning about its history – was so satisfying that I’d like to explore other hands-on aspects of creating a book, such as binding and letterpress. I’m thinking that a handmade first edition – even if it’s a first edition of one – may be the most satisfying product of this course.

[i] See a PG version of Ze Frank’s “brain crack” video here:
See the original version (with f-bombs) here:
Read a transcript of the video here:

[ii] Basbanes, Nicholas A. On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History. Vintage Books, 2014. Print. p. 10

[iii] As captivated as I was by the idea of processing plant fibers from scratch to create the pulp, I thought it best to start by recycling the multitude of paper we use at home every day.

Craft Annotation: Denise Levertov’s Use of Argument and Rhetoric

The concept of argument and rhetoric as craft elements of poetry is very new to me and still feels slippery in my mind, which is why I wanted to focus on it. It’s a novel way to approach the art form and calls attention to a poem’s ability to persuade. According to Wikipedia, literary argument is a brief summary at the beginning of a section of poetry or prose, often used to orient the reader within a larger work. Another definition of argument is a poem’s central idea or thesis. Argument is the thing being said, and rhetoric is the way it’s being said.

In his book Poetic Argument: Studies in Modern Poetry, Jonathan Kertzer writes, “poetic thinking demands an intricate display of reason, which must call forth and submit to its mysterious double, known variously as unreason, the irrational, visionary, intuitive, or transcendent.” This extra element, which gets beyond the purely prosaic and into the realm of unconscious beliefs, yearnings, and desires, is the one that seems to baffle those who “don’t  understand poetry.” Prose writers also employ rhetoric and appeals to emotion, but poetry allows for leaps of intuition and seemingly random association more difficult to sustain in prose.

William Carlos Williams famously said, “no ideas but in things.” The poetry of Denise Levertov illustrates this aesthetic. While her poems easily evoke a particular feeling or even an idea, it can be difficult to tease out a poem’s argument, especially without converting it to dull prose. Continue reading “Craft Annotation: Denise Levertov’s Use of Argument and Rhetoric”

Craft Annotation: Elizabeth Bishop’s Use of Rhyme

by Frances Donovan

In her book The Discovery of Poetry, Frances Mayes discusses rhyme within the context of repetition. This element of craft goes far beyond the end-stopped pure rhymes (mop/top) most people associate with poetry. Rhyme can be any kind of repetition of sound: slant rhymes (month/up); internal rhymes (the loud cloud growled); alliteration, consonance, and assonance (“tremendous fish,” “speckled with barnacles,” “coarse white flesh”); repetition of words, or repetition of entire lines.

Elizabeth Bishop uses all these techniques. Rhyme runs through her poetry like a subtle thread: always there, but not often when or how it’s expected. Even her prose poems (“Rainy Season: Sub-Tropics”) contain internal rhyme, alliteration, consonance, and assonance: “My sides move in rhythmic waves, just off the ground, from front to back, the wake of a ship, a wax-white water, or a slowly melting floe.” One can also interpret the overlap of events in these prose poems as a kind of rhyme. In each piece, the titular animal speaks but portrays the same encounters from a different perspective: “Beware, you frivolous crab,” says the toad. “And I want nothing to do with you either, sulking toad,” says the crab. “Cheer up, O grievous snail. I tap your shell, encouragingly,” says the crab. “What’s that tapping on my shell?” asks the snail. Continue reading “Craft Annotation: Elizabeth Bishop’s Use of Rhyme”

Craft Annotation: Voice and Point of View in Sylvia Plath’s Poetry

by Frances Donovan

One usually hears about point of view as a craft technique in the context of prose. Students of poetry tend to focus on the speaker – “the eye of the poem,” as Frances Mayes puts it. But the two are linked. The mode of narration (first person, second person, third person limited or third person omniscient) informs the kind of “I” from which the poem unfurls. All poems have a speaker; it may be a strong presence that affects the whole tone of the poem, or it may be unobtrusive, a hidden narrator presenting facts without editorializing.

Continue reading “Craft Annotation: Voice and Point of View in Sylvia Plath’s Poetry”

Craft Essay: Nonlinear Time and Poetic Structure

by Frances Donovan

An issue I’ve struggled with time and again is how to incorporate multiple scenes in a single poem while still maintaining unity and clarity. Dividing a poem into separate sections with roman numerals or asterisks may work, but not all poems are long enough to justify multiple parts, nor does this method evoke the seamless way a particular sense perception or situation can trigger associations with another time and place.

Proust and his madeleine are a famous example: the taste of a cookie kicks off the epic, multi-volume novel Recherche du Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things Past). Few modern poets have the luxury of such sprawl. But regardless of the length of the poem, one must still learn how to deal with nonlinear time in a way that mitigates the possibility of a confused reader. We experience time in a single dimension (past to present), but the way we think about time is multi-dimensional. It includes past, present, future, and possible divergences from a single outcome.

I set out in search of poems that dealt with the issue of multiple moments (past, present, future, and possible). Continue reading “Craft Essay: Nonlinear Time and Poetic Structure”

Dispatches from an MFA: Nonlinear Time

As so many writers do, I’ve been letting the perfect get in the way of the good when it comes to these dispatches. I thought it would be a simple matter to re-purpose some of the prose that I sent along with my monthly packets, but the work involved in creating the packets (along with all of my less writerly responsibilities) makes even that relatively easy task more difficult than anticipated. I’m sure I’ll share that work at a later point. But for right now, let me discuss a thorny problem I’ve been having when it comes to my own poems — a craft element, as one would call it in the creative-writing MFA world.

The great problem I’m working on this month is the use of nonlinear time in a single poem — how to transition from one scene to another and to another or back to the first while making the poem feel all of a piece. There’s a lot of talk about keeping the reader in the “moment” of the poem, so this feels like an advanced technique to me, and one that I really want to master.

I did a lot of hunting for poems that use this particular technique and finally had to resort to crowdsourcing (thank God/dess for one particular Facebook community of women poets) to find relevant poems. So far, most of my work this packet has been of the thinking, reading, and researching variety, so it’s a relief to have at least half of one craft annotation finished. I’m trying not to think about the relatively short time remaining before the entire thing is due. As Anne Lamott would say, you do it bird by bird.

Here’s a listing of the poems I’ve found so far, with links where appropriate and bibliographical references where not:

So far, the key seems to be anchoring the work in one particular image or phrase, especially by beginning and ending with it. While I’ve been aware of Robert Pinksy’s work since I moved to Boston 16 years ago, it wasn’t until I read “Shirt” that I became aware of the depth of his own craft. This poem in particular swings back and forth from the moment of putting on a shirt to all the implications of the object itself — stitched together most appropriate with the poetic technique of cataloging and the metric iambs he uses in his lists.

Do you know of a particular poem that also deals with nonlinear time?

Two clock faces photo credit Ron Kroetz via Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0