Saturday, December 3, 2011

Embodied Poetry: Lessons from Typesetting

The writing process, like many things, has its seasons. When I’m in a dry season in which no new ideas or images spontaneously generate within me, I often take time to go through the ever-accumulating pile of notebooks in my study and type up first drafts that have not yet made it out of those spiral bound pages. Here is an essay I found on one of those discovery missions, which speaks to another potential dry-season activity.

For a time, before I found a full-time job and Gian moved to Connecticut, I worked one day per week as an editorial and production assistant at Quale Press. I spent Fridays in Gian’s small basement office while his experimental music droned or plunked in the background. The majority of my work involved typesetting; not setting physical type in a printing press, but using design software to format our books and the texts of our clients: contemporary literary journals and publishers of poetry.

A perk of this gig was that I got to read poems, stories, and essays more deeply than usual since I was literally, as well as mentally, interacting with them. I got as close as digitally possible to manipulating letters with my hands. This work complemented what I did during the four workdays at my other job, which involved either writing articles someone else would format or proofreading text someone else had written.

After flowing the text into the template (a fancy term for copy & paste), I’d review the piece and make decisions about how the words would best be read, perhaps changing the spacing of a line to avoid awkward hyphenation, or choosing which style of section break to employ. Then I would send a proof to the editor, and make subsequent changes based on the editor’s notes.

Throughout this process, I might read a story or poem five times, as I initially laid it out and then returned to it with the author’s and editor’s corrections. I often read the stories in a nonlinear, fragmentary way, since the prose formatting took place at the level of paragraph, not sentence. Once, months into the process, I was surprised and distraught to learn that a story's main character had died.

But the poems I read in their entirety, because the formatting happened at the level of the line, sometimes of the word. I worked with each poem until I had shaped it into the form the author intended (and with certain poems, this took several rounds of email exchanges between editor and author). Any poetry lover will tell you that a poem needs to be read more than once, but I do not always make time for this. There are so many poems in the world.

The poems that fought back—and consequently got my attention—were the more unwieldy or unusual ones. They would come to me in a Word document typed in Times New Roman 12 pt font, but when copied into the journal’s template, the new font’s characteristics would reformat the text so that I needed to go in line by line to recreate the author’s word arrangements.

Sometimes a poem had very long lines that did not fit on a narrower page and I had to decide where to break the line. Or a poem had staggered lines. I learned that tabs & spaces come in different sizes. Or they had some other way of occupying space that I'm unable to recreate here.

Impatient person that I am, I tended to get aggravated by the unwieldy poems, but in that aggravation there was attention. There was, “why is this necessary?” and then I might come up with an answer, or at least an interpretation. Typesetting, or simply retyping (the easier approach you can take in the comfort of your own home), is a great way to read. Impractical in everyday practice, but a great way to learn about writing.

Some skills, like plumbing or sewing, can be learned by taking things apart. With a poem, the putting it together again is also key: the arranging is part of the creating. So, if you’re bored with your own work or you’re at a loss for what to do next, I suggest retyping and formatting a few contemporary poems from current literary journals. See what happens in your experience of embodied poetry.