Perhaps an entangled, “handwritten,” type font for the cover
Poems as snowflakes in the layout – and the rest of the space white
Keeps the messy, stream of consciousness feel while keeping it focused
Small font emphasizes the smallness
But, larger book size emphasizes the vastness by preserving the whitespace
Extremes – big, bold, uppercase of the title and the small lowercase of the author’s name, separated by the vastness and the divide of the whitespace
Something with a recycled quality but not a recycled color – more a cool undertone
Paper that is not noisy, but if you step on it, it will crunch
A base color with “feature sheets” – a pale blue/gray base with fibers, recycled qualities, and then a few red center sheets to vocalize the extremes (not a bright red, a dried red/orange) in a semi-circular pattern (vis-à-vis geodes, volcanoes, a wildness exploding beyond rigid control, etc.) – a “survival” feel of dried blood
Color and Cover…
“Slightly less black” – not gray, but something navy-ish for the font
Gradient throughout the pages – starting light and moving dark, or perhaps, starting dark and moving light
Demarcation of “Cold” title being very dark and then fading the color of the text out from there throughout the pages of the book
Visual of the geode on the back cover, but positioned so that its identity as a geode is ambiguous
Form of Printing…
Letterpress imprint for the cover
Blank impressions for line images, such as snowflakes
Edition in General…
Overlay the poems with a frosty layer of a vellum page with images and/or Icelandic words (from the manuscript) – honoring that this book is a responsive book to a place and to a translation
Framing the water poems by printing them in light ink on dark paper, set off from the white paper by the vellum paper of the image pages
A simple stab binding with either blue or red string
Icelandic as a ghost-like, backgrounding note throughout the book
Electio Editions prizes simplicity above all. The simplicity of their books draws the reader towards the text, and interspersed artwork, without distracting from that text by competing design. In a sense, the books are antiques, a window into a past that is now gone, and yet, as Alan Loney writes, “what’s past is present, and the present is ever reaching forward” (Loney, “fresh type from Parnassus”). In simplicity, time blurs together, and, indeed, Electio’s books shine with transcendent simplicity. This sense of simplicity arises, in part, from the roughness and thickness of the made-to-be-worn pages. Moreover, the books are sometimes purposely imperfect, and have fraying or sticking out threads. Electio is less concerned with perfection than with words and with humanity, a cycle of life that has new vitality in the hands of readers. Accordingly, the pages themselves have a recycled quality and are often not plain white, but white with a tone often derived from earthy colors that echo the solid-colored covers. Electio’s books favor simple, often primary colors and the pictures also retain this visual simplicity. Yet, the books are sturdy and well-made – the paper is thick, the ink is strong, and the letters ingrained, even indented, into the page in a style reminiscent of that which was once thought defective in the letterpress world but is now thought characteristic.
This intentional simplicity inspires a frank dialogue between author and reader which is not hindered by any formality or barrier. As artist’s books, Electio Edition’s books are artworks in themselves and are thus priced highly, but they also speak directly to the reader – and to the notion of book, as “every book is an equal participant in the concept of Book” (Loney 80). Because they are handmade, the reader is entrusted with a piece of the author and their mind. Like all books, Electio’s books are personal and cannot be separated from the personality of either author or reader, and, indeed, “something in that art is being expressed about the person who made it” (Loney 84). The design of Electio books in particular, though, underscores this intrinsic humanity. The dialogue is also ephemeral, as Alan Loney prints only a small number of copies of each book, and the books themselves are often quite short. They are a window, but only a small window, into the mind, and that mind is frequently racing from one thought to the next, creating a series of small books like those that Electio prints.
Alan Loney’s blog also contributes to the dialogic nature of the press. He is quite willing to converse with those interested in his work (and at times even seems sad that there are not more readers of his now-defunct blog), which he frequently promotes online. On his blog, readers are given an additional view into Electio’s works, a look which reinforces that they are intentionally simple and sleek. Like in his books, Loney regularly utilizes sentences with no capitalization on his blog. These sentences do not take up visual space – they both look and are read as small and humble no matter the size of the font. Once more, they are simple, even timid. But, the text of the books is placed on a contrasting, streamlined background that only further accentuates the words. Loney, moreover, is willing to experiment within his books, sometimes intermixing varying fonts, colors, and direction of writing while still carefully maintaining the sleek aesthetic of the press. He toys with format and artwork, as it both contributes to and is contributed to by the text. Thus, the books are often puzzles, a mental challenge that engrosses readers first by curiosity and then by quality and uniqueness. Yet, for Alan Loney, contrasts, such as that between “‘harmonized’ and ‘dissonant’…poin[t] to the simplicity that writing and printing are” (Loney 70), and, within this simplicity, “the form of the poem and the form of the book overlap, intersect, interfere, overlay each other in the pleasure of the work” (Loney 74). The simple pleasures of work and reading, then, are echoed in the intertwining of poetic and material form and aesthetic, which in turn reflect the textual content within the books. Electio Edition’s books blend complexity and simplicity into a unity that radiates with the beauty of simplicity.
Based off of the poetic examples of Electio Editions, I composed two poems, which I placed alongside accompanying drawings. I placed these poems and drawings on a green page. Although Electio Editions uses mostly white or white-ish paper for the pages and earth colors for the cover, I wanted to amplify the resonance between text and color in my own work, inspired by Electio’s works, since I do not have a traditional “cover” and distinction between cover and page. I closely followed the inspiration of the Electio original for each poem for their structure and theme, and the content was also inspired, loosely, by the Electio poems.
My first poem is based off of one of the poems within Heart Sutra, published in 2009 and captured on Loney’s blog in 2015. I used the poem’s structure of indentation, inversion, and simplicity in my own poem, and chose to center my poem on quiet (rather than emptiness) due to the sentence structure of many of the lines in Electio’s books, which start with a lower-case letter. As these sentences read more timidly than sentences with more conventional punctuation, they themselves seem to embody my theme of quiet. Hence, I foregrounded quiet in the poem as the building block for each of the different emotions, which contrast strikingly with the repeated, lower-case “quiet.” This contrast is like that between ink and paper and between art and text, and both of these contrasts feature within all books, including Electio’s, drawing out structural contrasts that background any textual contrasts.
My second poem is based off of another Electio poem, which is found in Jenson’s Greek. The poem is striking, as it is almost entirely composed of verbs, many of which are repeated throughout. I ventured farther from the Electio poem in my own work than in the first poem, but also used the inversion and repetition of verbs in my poem. I used line breaks for emphasis, like in the original poem, and the repetition between inverted poems creates a sense of unity and continuity despite these breaks.
My drawings also find inspiration in Electio’s works. Like so much of Electio’s aesthetic, they are intentionally simple (and Loney’s blog even utilizes the BlogSpot theme that is, fittingly, entitled “simple”). The top drawing is based off of the following picture, which accompanies the poem in Heart Sutra which inspired my own poem:
I used the image of the heart in my drawing since I had centered my poem around emotions, vis-à-vis quietness. I also used the same yellow and blue colors that were featured in Heart Sutra, but in different ways. Like in the original text, my heart is yellow, but I drew only half a heart, bordered by an arrow, to show the pain and hurt that often accompany emotions (and which are found within my own poem). I also drew a series of blue triangles, rather than waves, which I placed as the second half of the heart in my drawing. As triangles are the most stable geometric figure, they seemed a fitting image for a poem that, inspired by Electio, is grounded in simplicity and intentionality.
My second drawing, like my second poem, is inspired by Jenson’s Greek. Whereas Jenson’s Greek uses a “phi,” though, I used a “psi,” which I recreated in red, rather than orange ink, to give it an increased pop against the green background of my own work. The original drawing in Jenson’s Greek looks like this:
In my own drawing, I wanted to capture the same simplicity of the Greek letter which was in Jenson’s Greek, but I also added the arrows to the end and a thicker base to my “psi” to make it look like a trident, the weapon traditionally associated with the Greek god Poseidon. I added this element of Greek mythology to link the image more strongly with the permeation of Greek, which is found throughout Electio Edition’s Jenson’s Greek. My poem, ostensibly, does not seem to be about Greek at all, but might nevertheless be a fitting depiction of the ancient Greek society which is so transcendent and immortalized throughout history due to its significance in shaping western civilizations.
Electio Edition’s books are an excellent insight into the world of publishing, where design and text exist simultaneously and influence each other. Their books shine with intentionality and an intentional simplicity that places additional emphasis on the text and artwork alike. Their aesthetic creates a dialogue that links author with publisher and then with reader to create a truly interactive exchange that characterizes the conversation of reading and spotlights the blending of artistic and literary worlds.
Burning Deck Press, run by Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop, undermined the commercial value of poetry through creating an avenue for poetry to be published in a small and affordable venue that generally prized distribution over artistic experimentation in craft or design. Rosmarie Waldrop recounts how, as a child in Germany, she was “more interested in the contents” than in the design and layout of what she read (Waldrop 17), and this interest in turn shaped the interests of Burning Deck Press. Indeed, for the Waldrops, the purpose and end of printing is the “enjoyment of composition” (Waldrop 19). This enjoyment is most possible through affordable and efficient distribution, particularly in the form of chapbooks, to which the press organically shifted. Yet, it is impossible to remain firmly on one side of an ever-evolving, dynamic issue such as the purpose of small publishing, and Burning Deck Press accordingly is part of this larger conversation. For Burning Deck, this conversation occurs between books themselves, not within the pages of any one book. Although their “typography tends to be classical,” one of their books, “Camp Printing is an exception” to this mold (Waldrop 19). The creative process of this book, Rosmarie Waldrop recalls, was not intentional but coincidental. Such creativity is boldly innovative, but not reminiscent of adherence to the genre of artist books that are primarily conceived as art, not literature. Rather, Burning Deck Press’ books negotiate the demands of material and content by prizing content and emphasizing form only when it is genuinely, even accidentally, refreshing. This practicality shines through in other ways as well, such as when Keith Waldrop reasoned that they published their own works because “nobody else was doing it!” (Waldrop 21). For the Waldrops, letterpress publishing is a means to push literary texts into the hands of readers. Their independence provides them freedom to write and publish what they find is most important or intriguing, removing them from the intricacies of the poetics and politics of a larger press. Fittingly, then, their books often vary in layout and interest, such as the three books arranged below. Their books reflect their current, ever-changing interests, exemplifying the unique position of a small press to shift focus when desired.
Kyle Schlesinger’s interview with Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop also elucidates how different people think of translation, especially as it relates to their very personal and literary identity. For Rosmarie Waldrop, after she moved to the United States, “it soon became difficult…to write in German. It felt artificial” (Waldrop 22). Thus, she shifted her identity almost entirely from author to translator (which is, of course, itself a form of writing) and found that “the space between languages seems [her] natural place” (Waldrop 22). The experimental and coincidental nature of small letterpresses, such as Burning Deck Press, allows for and even encourages for this type of literary soul-searching. Thus, small press books do not only encapsulate pieces of author and printer alike but are also intrinsically a celebration of experimentation and differences. Small presses can choose to follow the tracks of a certain printed path – such as the literary content or material layout – and challenge conventional assumptions about what a book is and can be. Moreover, they can provide a space for linguistic and cultural blending, such as that of which Rosmarie Waldrop speaks, that is rarely found in the books of larger presses.
Waldrop, Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop. “Burning Deck Press.” A Poetics of the Press: Interviews with Poets, Printers, and Publishers. Edited by Kyle Schlesinger, Brooklyn, NY, Ugly Duckling Presse, 2021, pp. 14-24.
Amos Kennedy Jr. is a printer who prints with passion and soul, embodying all that letterpress is and can be and especially highlighting its intrinsic paradoxes that underlie its character and charm.
Although letterpress was slowly extinguished as a commercial endeavor during the 1980s, it emerged again in the 1990s from the ashes as an art form. Modern letterpress celebrates those elements of printing that were considered “bad practice” in the early parts of the twentieth century, often through exaggeration, which now typifies the letterpress. The now-classic letterpress punches in paper were initially considered mistakes but today characterize letterpress. Such indentations are innately human and underscore the individuality behind letterpress. Kennedy’s devotion to his passions, which arose from a reenactment in Williamsburg, Virginia, cement him as a quintessential – and even “master” – letterpress printer. Indeed, he radiates with the joy of creation.
One of Kennedy’s posters contains the quote that “life is short, but as long as you got it, make something of it.” This quote is the thread that runs through all of Kennedy’s life in the printing sphere. It is the rare person that would forsake a seemingly perfect life in corporate America for the scarcity of an artist’s life, but that is exactly what Kennedy did. Almost like a traveling salesman, Kennedy is interested in putting art into as many hands as possible and in creating engagement with uncomfortable racial realities through images and provocation. His “nappy-grams,” for example, landed him in trouble with university police – a situation that reflects exactly how little people are comfortable with his work that demands engagement with the racial issues that plague America. His artist’s books are about encountering the world as an African American man, and he uses color and font in his art to hook people into his agenda of active political engagement and consistent dismantling of racial injustices.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Kennedy, his work, and letterpress in general is how they escape precise description and thrive on paradox. Although a printer’s studio is often cluttered and chaotic – like Kennedy’s is to an organizational mind – the printer must nevertheless be conscientious and detail-oriented in order to succeed in the world of letterpress. Each piece of material in the studio plays a role in the creation of the final print. Kennedy’s prints themselves are often multi-layered and blend together five or six layers of color and font. Such prints combat easy characterization and instead foster engagement and resistance, in line with Kennedy’s own artistic, literary, and political goals. Moreover, his website is also unique and accordingly exemplifies the qualities of his works. His enthusiasm spills through the exclamation point; his website is entitled “Kennedy Prints!” and not “Kennedy Prints,” and that exclamation point conveys much of his personality that also shines through the documentary.
This print is indicative of much of the interest in Kennedy’s work and letterpress itself. It blends the old with the new and intimates that the process of creation is one that is always ongoing, always leading to new books and artwork. Yet, the antique also holds a privileged place. An old coat teems with humanity, character, and history. Traces of the “old coat” run throughout all letterpress prints as they, too, emphasize these characteristics and celebrate the simultaneous harmony of flaws and detail within any one work. The power of letterpress, and printers such as Amos Kennedy, is how they blur conventional boundaries between new and old, valued and un-valued, and product and process.
All of the interviewees in “Pressing On: The Letterpress Film” highlighted the importance of the letterpress’ physicality. The letterpress, perhaps unlike the book it produces, engages many of the senses simultaneously. It is rhythmic, it smells of ink, it is tangible, and it is ordered but also creative. One interviewee emphasized that the act of setting letterpress is so physical that it can easily tire you out; even the machines constantly yearn to be active – and were built to be active forever. Another interviewee noted that the familiar process of setting type can be relaxing and a diversion away from a world that usually values mental work above physical work. Letterpress, by contrast, is both physical and mental, yet now most authors and designers have been separated from the process of physical printing.
This separation removes most of the passion and thoughtful attention to detail that features so prominently within the letterpress world. In the current printing process, for example, we do not generally gravitate towards type that is imperfect. Yet, in letterpress, printers did not repair a dropped piece, but rather continued to use it. The products printed with the dropped letter felt much more real and much more human, as the product could not help but be imperfect and finite. Moreover, the demarcation of author, printer, and product strips the book product of much of its character, aesthetic, and history. There are a multitude of microscopic decisions and actions that lie behind letterpress printing. Indeed, the painstaking process of setting up letterpress demands a letterpress aesthetic that strings all the products of a particular press, such as Hatch Show Press, together. Modern presses lose much of the aesthetic and character that comes from decades of use of a singular printing innovation.
As designers and authors are physically separated from the press, especially by the advent of technologies such as the computer and Internet, it becomes easier and more efficient to print any piece of writing. Yet, ease and efficiency are each double-edged swords; they allow for faster, more streamlined dissemination of material, but demolish the history and even community behind the act of printing. As printing moves out of the hands of individuals and into the screens of computers and machines, it becomes all the more difficult – and all the more imperative – to preserve the tight-knit printing community, of which so many of the film’s interviewees spoke. A hidden advantage of the switch to technological printing, however, is the nostalgic urge it produces, creating a reversal as many people flock back to letterpress. Tiger Lily Press in Cincinnati, OH, is one example of a letterpress store that opens its doors to new generations of printing; they offer printmaking classes for every level of printers as well as letterpress goods that perpetuate letterpress’ resurgence within the literary and artistic worlds (see their website, http://tigerlilypress.org/, for more). It is the humanity and physicality of letterpress which attracts new printers to it, and which prevents it from being relegated to the dusting corners of obsolescence.
Another Life, written by Daniel Lipara, translated by Robin Myers, and published by Eulalia Books,provides an exciting synthesis of classical texts with introspective and innovative poetics. At the reading on September 27, that blending of old with new and traditional with original became clearer. Simultaneously, the role of translation in conveying these messages proved particularly fascinating. Robin Myers mentioned how she, at first, felt beholden to both the original texts to which Lipara’s work consistently alludes as well as the new notes, themes, and ideas present in the book and her own translational voice and view. This balancing act, she concluded, was difficult but crucial to maintaining the book’s integrity. The reading was an insightful glance into the mind of a translator, existing vis-à-vis author, reader, editor, and publisher all at once. A press like Eulalia Books, dedicated to publishing an author’s first work of translation, has a tremendous role to play in the process of bringing forth – and even transplanting – a work from one language and culture to another. Such small presses are perhaps uniquely suited to this work, focusing intensely on the translational and editorial process and ensuring the continual infusion of humanity and personality in the work. Another Life, for example, is quite clearly a deeply personal and poignant book of poetry, but so too is it in conversation with the books around it. Eulalia, as a small press, makes room for that conversation and spotlights it. The conversation between Lipara, Myers, and the audience at large underscores the dedication and diligence which every person involved poured into the project and draws readers in because of that attention to the personal. This attention is perhaps most visible in books published by small presses, where every element is thoughtfully and lovingly handcrafted.
Both my bullet journal and my OneNote notebooks are organizational books that question traditional ideas of what a book is and can be. A bullet journal, though it is in the form of a conventional codex, is sequential, and is sized like a normal book, is unique in that it intermingles art with words to truly capture the rich entanglement of the human mind. A OneNote notebook, on the other hand, does not adhere to the conventional codex form at all. It does not, in fact, even exist outside the realm of OneDrive and the laptop. Yet, its content resembles that of a book. Although it is written in, it is made primarily to be read. Like the bullet journal, its primary reader is also its author, as it is facilitated in a way that prizes organization of one mind in particular – that of its creator. My bullet journal and OneNote notebooks both capture the organizational tendencies of my mind and creating a loading dock for memories and ideas. They reach this goal, however, in completely different ways.
From the outside, my bullet journal looks suspiciously like a book and so I easily view and read it as a book object, although its content is non-conventional. It has a hard cover, a spine and corners, front and end pages, a fly leaf, and so forth. Its binding is very traditional and gathers all the pages together under a single cover. It does not appear to test the boundaries of the book form. Instead, it conforms neatly to traditional ideas of a codex and what it should look like. Ulises Carrión, as quoted by Amaranth Borsuk, contends that “bookworks take on greater importance when the codex itself seems to be imperiled” (Borusk 145). This is not the case for my bullet journal, which I chose for its unassuming and conventional nature; its importance is at the personal, not public, level. Its blank cover, indeed, is a blank slate for creativity.
Rather, a bullet journal toys with the entanglement of text with artistry. In fact, mine has very little text so far, though I envision adding more in the future. Its very form is ideal for artistic creation, albeit a creation that is bounded by the conscribes of the codex’s covers. The paper is thin and dotted, not lined; the dots imply a sense that the book is unfinished – which it is, as the book comes sold without any text added other than that of the introduction and table of contents (and which itself plays with traditional ideas of language as it is written simultaneously in German, English, and French) and without any art added yet. This type of book, one that is intentionally unfinished at purchase, reminds us that “reading is an exchange, and one that is only completed when we arrive” (Borsuk 154). Indeed, many of my bullet journal’s pages currently lie dormant, awaiting the flowing vitality of a pen and human hand.
Unlike most traditional books, the bullet journal is personal. It is not made to be read by others, but rather to record the innermost thoughts and outward mundanities of its owner. In that sense, for a bullet journal-er, “everything in the world exists in order to end up as a book” (see Borsuk 134 and Mallarme’s notion of the book). The table of contents works hand-in-hand with the journal’s purpose to organize thoughts and ideas that would otherwise remain unorganized and even chaotic. To this end, the bullet journal exists as its own, self-contained world. The cover ribbons, moreover, concretize this notion of “closure” and “self-containment.” Yet, there is also a sense of transcendence and temporality alike, found through the thinness of the paper. Not only can the reader, holding the paper up to light, see through to the next page and set of writing, but so too does the writing material itself bleed through, no matter the instrument. These writing instruments, furthermore, are not chosen for their functionality, but for their beauty, as the bullet journal is first and foremost a work of art encapsulated within the covers of a book. My own bullet journal, for example, combines several different types of pens, including the Papermate InkJoy pens, traditional thin-tipped Sharpies, and Zebra Mildliners. These pens are very stylistic of my own personality and feature often in my own life. Thus, even the materials used in the creation of the bullet journal are subtly personal.
The bullet journal differs most differently from the traditional codex because it is quite literally designed to be written and drawn in. Like with other books, the exchange of time and thought with the page is critical; yet, this process, in a bullet journal, does not occur through meditative reading but through vibrant, dynamic creation. In this sense, a bullet journal is akin to an artist’s book, although it does not often test the conventional structure of the codex. It draws the attention of its author alone and foster an expressive space on the page for them to exist and create within the world of the book, making even non-artists into innovative and original creators.
Although my OneNote organizational system contains many of the same strands of content as my bullet journal, it deconstructs traditional notions of what a book is at all. Unlike even the earliest of books, scrolls, it does not exist in the physical world. Yet, it can still be considered a book. Borsuk’s earliest definition of a book is “a portable data storage and distribution method” (Borsuk 1), and there is nothing as portable as the Internet cloud and the laptop used to view it. Moreover, like papyrus, OneNote is popular because “its greatest asset [is] mobility” (Borsuk 19). And, like traditional material texts, OneNote exists “largely for administrative purposes” (Borsuk 21), that of organizing my academic and personal life under a single roof. The names of its subsections – notebooks, sections, and pages – connote the characteristics of physical notebooks, which have merely been moved to the digital realm. Also like a traditional book, in OneNote, “writing’s form and materials developed in dialogue with one another” (Borsuk 24). I write differently in my bullet journal than I do in OneNote. OneNote celebrates multiple ways of writing, thinking, and reading as it allows me to type, highlight, and handwrite simultaneously, whereas a bullet journal celebrates primarily the aesthetic qualities of the handwritten and hand drawn.
My bullet journal and OneNote setup contain much of the same content, yet I am much quicker to categorize my bullet journal as a book than my OneNote. This is because of the digitization of OneNote. But, I consider an e-Book to be a book as much as a physical codex is, because there is often a palpable sense that the e-Book is merely a book uploaded online. OneNote, by contrast, originates online and does not function well physically. It draws on the capabilities of the technologies that house it to encourage a unique dynamic of constant exchange and modification, like the ideal book does between author and reader. And, indeed, OneNote shares many traits with a traditional codex, as outlined above. Because “writing develops alongside, influences, and is influenced by the technological supports that facilitate its distribution” (Borsuk 3), OneNote represents a shining innovation in what we deem a “book.” Its organization is different than that of a bullet journal because of its many sublayers, which are possible only within the digital realm. Within each notebook (Fall 2019, Spring 2020, etc.), are as many as twelve subjects, each with tens of pages within them. This level of organization mirrors the organization I yearn for within my brain and works in tandem with the artistic and aesthetic organization of thoughts and ideas within my bullet journal.
There is no glaring reason, then, for my OneNote to not be a book. In fact, it is perhaps more of a book than a physical book is because it can be easily modified, thus creating a space that simultaneously fosters the preservation of ideas while ensuring that reading remains a truly interactive exchange. Both my bullet journal and my OneNote notebooks record thoughts that would otherwise go unrecorded and organize ideas that would otherwise go unorganized. They differ in how they align with the characteristics of the codex – and the extent to which they align – but are nevertheless both deserving of the title “book.”
Borsuk, Amaranth. The Book. Cambridge, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2018.
Artists’ books intricately link the reader with the author of a book. They reinforce the idea that reading is, primarily, an exchange, a codification of ideas and discourse that simultaneously encourages active engagement. Artists’ books, perhaps more so than any other form of book, lay bare the connections between text and art, neither of which fully encapsulate the whole of human experience, but which do so more fully in tandem with each other. Moreover, as Amaranth Borsuk posits, “artists’ books continually remind us of the reader’s role in the book by forcing us to reckon with its materiality and, by extension, our own embodiment” (Borsuk 147). Yet, so, too, can artists’ books expand beyond materiality and embodiment, as is the case with Natalia Zapella’s book, Nights, the Cosmos, and I.
From its very title, Zapella locates the human person in a realm far greater than any individual being. The placement of “I” at the end of the title both downplays our significance in the face of the cosmos and also emphasizes humanity and our even-staccato-esque individuality. The book’s form is also significant. As an accordion book, the book is “a sequence of spaces” that “implies its capacity for animation” (Borsuk 157). Yet, as a sequence of spaces, an accordion book also implies an “other” beyond the physical page – such as the cosmos. Similarly, the tiny white font contrasts with the vastness of the dark page and destresses our importance in the entirety of the universe. The neutral colors of the thread also highlight simplicity, even as an accordion book – and artist’s book in general – is usually a more intricate form of book than a traditional codex.
Zapella also, however, purposely designed the book so that the threads could never be completely hidden away. In doing so, she makes space for finitude and limitation, qualities which are very much human qualities – even as the threads are used to construct images not of humans, but of galaxies and stars, for example. She therefore blends the human, earthly dimension with an interstellar cosmos far beyond human grasp. Likewise, the text intermingles personal and cosmic. The speaker first writes that they “can’t sleep” and that, at night, they “can finally see the stars” (Zabella 2, 7). Yet, they also direct the readers’ attention towards the constellations and galaxies (Zabella 8, 9). Thus, the text is a microcosm of the whole book (as object and content combined), which inextricably links human and cosmic elements. So, too, though, is the whole book a microcosm of human emotions, such as awe, placed atop an interstellar scale that spotlights the smallness of all things human.
Borsuk, Amaranth. The Book. Cambridge, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2018.
Modern chapbooks, such as Rae Armantrout’s Entanglements, challenge the divorce of the book as object from the book as content by inextricably linking text and design to create a unified book entity. Though they are produced on a printing press, like a more conventional book, they nevertheless resist the separation of “the idea of the book from the object,” a separation that is often proliferated by the very act of printing (Borsuk 76). Entanglements is merely one example of a chapbook that blurs the induced divisions between object and idea. In the author’s note, Armantrout writes that the book is called Entanglements “not only for the baffling way two particles can become entangled so that they appear to communicate instantaneously, but also because of the way my daily life experiences and emotions became entangled…with what I was learning about physics” (Armantrout 1). The chapbook explores the intersection between science and humanities, but so too does its form as chapbook explore the intersection between the book object and the book content.
The layout of Entanglements underscores its goal. At the surface level, the book’s entanglement is how it blends science with humanistic disciplines such as philosophy and art. The computer-feeling paper, sharply capitalized titles, and Calibri-type font are all reminiscent of the sciences, while the mandalas on the front and back covers introduce an artistic element to the book’s design. Of course, the mandalas themselves are also entanglements, demonstrating wordlessly just how interconnected everything around us truly is. Yet, the back cover is even more of an entanglement than the front cover, as it expands the focus out from the mandala into the combination of mandala, computer-type design, and the simple word “poetry.” The green color on the cover introduces natural and scientific themes, but this green is neatly mixed into the overall cover design.
Moreover, the simple binding brings all the pages together (rather than creating different bunches of pages). This simplicity once more unites the sciences and humanities. Clearly, then, the book’s design is quite intentional and one that purposefully entangles traditional notions of “literature,” “art,” and “science” together, much like its content also does.
The book’s text is infused with the entanglement between disciplines with which Armantrout was especially fascinated. On page 20, for example, Armantrout writes that “metaphor is homeopathy,” combining language with medicine, while the poem “Inscription” questions what it means to be human in its lines “as if you / could become another person / by setting off / an automatic / cascade of responses / in his/her body” (Armantrout 21-2). These lines are particularly fascinating. Their shortness calls to mind a series of computer code, as does the slash between “his” and “her,” almost as if the poem is providing a programming input. So, too, however, does the placement of the page break (and might this placement be intentional?) yanks readers out of the self-contained world of the poem, reminding them that they are guests within a book.
As poetry that addresses philosophical questions, the science beneath the poems is not made explicit. Instead, it is buried beneath a web of entanglements that are present in both the text and the book object.
At the broadest level, a chapbook itself entangles notions of what a book “is” and “should be” by crafting an object that is both like conventional codices and also markedly different from them, all while including text like that found in a traditional book. A chapbook is at once at home with larger, more traditional codices – as it is made in the same general style – and yet is also a form of active resistance against the standardization of books. The chapbook calls to mind the fervor of printing and reading through both form and content, pushing out content as easily as possible while also remaining decidedly intentional in both layout and content. Thus, the chapbook format of Entanglements is itself a form of entanglement. The book purposefully entangles tradition with resistance, science with humanities, and design with content.
Armantrout, Rae. Entanglements. Middletown, CT, Wesleyan University Press, 2017.
Borsuk, Amaranth. The Book. Cambridge, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2018.
Amaranth Borsuk’s exploration of the history of the now-conventional codex places Christianity at the forefront of the shift from scroll to codex. Along with the new religion, it seems, came a new form of the “book,” separating Christianity from Roman tradition while also keeping their Christian ideas belowground, in codices. Borsuk writes to readers that “when you picture early books, it is likely monastic illuminated manuscripts that come to mind” (Borsuk 48, emphasis original). These illuminated manuscripts encapsulate our perceptions of medieval time, as they blend art and text with religious messages. They are evidence of how fully religions was enmeshed with daily life. These illuminated manuscripts, however, were far from common, accessible only to the literary elite – the only people who could afford them. Their relative inaccessibility likely made them all the more precious to those who possessed them.
Illuminated manuscripts are the product of time and expense, as their ornate and intricate decorations suggest, but so, too, do they imply the unity of book as object and as content, perhaps more so than any other form of book. Their opulent decorations speak to the richness of the literature inside them, whether that be classical Greek and Roman literature or Christian scripture and stories, each preserved carefully through the centuries. But it is the art laid side-by-side with the text that testifies best to the inseparability of art and word. The book as object, consisting of a codex filled with illuminated illustrations, cannot function without the text that describes these illustrations; yet, the text is never fully complete without the illuminations that provide access to another side of lived human experience – art. The presence of the illuminations, in other words, admits that text alone cannot comprise the entirety of the bookish, reading experience, though that text – as it shapes the illuminations and decorations – is still highly significant. Illuminated manuscripts toy with the pervasive idea that a text contains only words, questioning what it means to be a text, even while adhering to the emerging codex tradition and preserving stories from centuries prior. These manuscripts, then, are both traditional (in the literature they preserve) and innovative and emboldened (in the art they infuse alongside the text), presenting the book as an object that resists binary categorization while always remaining dynamic.
Illuminated manuscripts have largely faded from public view, however, though with one notable exception, the St. John’s Bible. This iteration of the biblical text of the Old Testament blends familiar words with new art, meant to probe and inspire the mind through its presentation of an unfamiliar (sometimes even uncomfortable) image of the story being relayed.
Clearly, the Bible as it is presented here differs vastly from our conventional understandings of the Bible – even as its words are drawn from the same sources as every other translation and iteration. This difference is due to the artwork, which both reinvigorates the lost tradition of illuminated manuscripts while simultaneously providing a fresh interpretation of the text. The St. John’s Bible, like the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages, is evidence of the key role that the book as object plays in mediating our understanding of its content through its melding of art and written text.
Borsuk, Amaranth. The Book. Cambridge, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2018.