Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Art of Written Objects: Three Novels

I don't know if this is a coincidence or popularity, but in the past three months, three of the 2014 novels I've read have an alternating chapter structure and some interesting similarities: they are told either in first person or present tense, they contain some beautiful prose, and, most fascinating to me, they are packed with objects.

Much buzz has been circling around Anthony Doerr's bestselling novel All the Light We Cannot See. So, being a curious animal, I wanted to see for myself. The book is 530 pages, but each chapter occupies less than ten pages each; the novel has room to breathe, with plenty of white space for the reader to muse, absorb, pause, and think.

The beauty begins in the first chapter, which is only one paragraph long, and builds from there. At 35 pages into it I was completely intrigued by the prose and by the format. I was happy  reading this vivid sentence, for instance, on page 24: "Smokestacks fume and locomotives trundle back and forth on elevated conduits and leafless trees stand atop slag heaps like skeleton hands shoved up from the underworld." Sold! Verbs: fume, truckle, stand, shoved. The last image tops it off. 

Here are the three novels, lined up in the order I read them.

Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish. The alternating stories of an undocumented young woman immigrant needing work (her object desired is an identity card); and a returning veteran with PTSD (his much-handled object is a gun); their eventual meeting and relationship in present-day New York City, a place piled high with bags and clothes and objects and food and trash. (It can be brutal in places. I've written more about it here.)

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman. The alternating stories of a motherless girl who lives with her odd father in a tourist attraction: a house of scientific curiosities; and a young Jewish man, also motherless, who runs from his father and religion to become a photographer; their eventual meeting and relationship in New York, Coney Island in particular, in the early 1900s. These chapters are in pairs: first person narration set in italics, then third-person continuation. As you read you become immersed in the thinking processes of each of the characters. The camera equipment, the objects focused on, the things in jars, and the people as objects are a main part of the story. I was mesmerized by the magical prose until the romantic plot revved up and the beauty gave way to a murder mystery. The mystery was compelling and made me read faster, but the end felt a bit too Hollywood for my taste. For much of it, though, the book gave me nice dreams.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. The story of Marie-Laure, a motherless French girl who becomes blind and lives with her wonderful father, is interleaved with the story of the German boy Werner, an orphan, who unwittingly becomes a soldier under the Nazis. Marie's father is a skilled woodworker and makes her puzzle boxes for her birthday as well as a model of her town, and he works at the Natural History Museum, a place full of scientific things. Werner has a talent for science, math, and electronics, and he spends much time with radio components. A precious object, a rare diamond, is almost the McGuffin here. The interweaving gives the reader the sense that these two are growing up together, yet apart, as the war moves in and back out through the years: ebb and flow of time in disorder.

For each of these stories, you know that the characters will eventually meet, and likely fall in love. Once their stories begin to intertwine, new characters and/or an outside plot will be introduced. By the end of Doerr's book, it is like trying to wind honey onto a spoon, trying to wind it up and put it away with just one more chapter, then one more long strand. But these last chapters surprised me with their emotional punch.

The stuff described in these books captivated me. The attention to the stuff: vivid descriptions of objects, lots and lots of objects, models, artworks. Look around your room: your stuff speaks about you. In these stories people are transient, constantly collecting and/or packing or rearranging their stuff. They have emotional connections to the objects and intense emotions toward one another.  People are described almost like objects: "Everybody had misplaced someone" (Doerr, 129). War collects its spoils and its human participants.

The people in each book ultimately become more constricted. You can feel their freedoms failing. Slowly, very slowly, new characters are introduced, essential to the tension, to add fear, the keep the plot moving forward. You watch them interact with their objects in different settings and contexts and learn about them. 

The objects are intriguing, the descriptions lovely, but what we are  ultimately interested in , and what all three novels provide, are strong characters to care about. And we do.


Friday, January 23, 2015

When You Need a Template

Some years ago, I was surprised by a comment about my first instructional book, something like, "This book doesn't teach you how to make anything." I was puzzled because the book was full of instructions for forty different bindings. I pondered the comment awhile and looked at other books of its type. They showed a book with say, butterflies in it, then showed how to painstakingly recreate the book in the picture. Some books had templates in the back you could photocopy and put together. If I were doing origami, yes, that is what I would want to know: here's a frog, here's how you make the frog. That is one distinction between art books and certain kinds of craft books. Please note that I said "certain kinds" of craft books. Each is good for what it does. 

The purpose is usually to acquire a skill. I have an instructional book on my shelf of Japanese brush painting. It shows, step-by-step, how to make the bird, the branch, the clouds. Making the bird, the branch, the clouds is not the end. It is assumed that once you familiarize yourself and perfect your skills, you will create pictures with your own content. If you want to get serious about it, copying can be a jumping off point for your own work. I took this into consideration for my fourth book, Painted Paper. It is technique-based also, but shows exactly how to paint what is in the picture, including the colors I used. It seemed that this would be the best way to get acquainted with the materials and to see what they could do.

For your own work, it is often difficult, even painful, to figure out what you want to say. It takes quiet moments and a willingness to look inside. It takes emotional energy. Right now, right here, what am I happy about? Irritated? Angry? Joyful? Sad? Grieving about? Amused? Curious? What makes me feel one, just one, of these things? What's the story behind it? That's where the art has to come from. You don't even have to put the story into words: you can just begin choosing colors, shapes, patterns, or the book structure that feels right. In the third book, Expressive Handmade Books, I added a section called "Preparation," that might serve as a starting point for the content.

For me, the most useful template comes from when I have to do something multiple times. I need to align a circle to cut out, I need to cut out a window, draw a box, create a recess in a hard cover. The template, in this case, is a shortcut so I don't have to measure or think every single time as I make 20 or 30 or 40 copies. A template of a project in someone else's book or online can make it easier to make something pretty or fun without thinking too hard, and sometimes that's all you want or are able to do. There is a whole continuum for making things, (I've written about it before, here) and all have their place.

My intent is to teach skills, and, it is to be hoped, provide inspiration. But again, for me, in order for the art to be truly satisfying, the content—although it may be a response to an outside source—is not dictated by an outside source; it comes from inside. That is making something, making art.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Set up a Four-Page Chapbook in Word

A chapbook is usually a single-signature pamphlet that contains a small amount of text and/or images, often poems. Here is a simple example of how you might arrange two pages, front and back, to print double-sided, long-edge. The design below allows for 5 content pages in addition to the title, half-title, decorative endpapers, and colophon.

Document: margins are .5 at the top, left, right; .8 at the bottom.
Header and footer: .5
Columns: 2; 3.25 each with 1 inch between them
Always use a "column break" at the end of each column.
Details about type and design are contained in the pamphlet.

To print one out yourself, download a pdf here.
Instructions for a more complicated, 12-page booklet, with multiple signatures are here.

First page

Second page





Binding instructions on page 95 of 

Cover paper used here: Strathmore Charcoal paper

Note: the decorative page may be placed between the cover paper and the title page instead of how it is shown here.

Monday, January 12, 2015

New Letterpress Book: Words Collide

Inspiration lately has come from Hedi Kyle's Fishbone Fold (I've posted about it here and here and here), creating poems searched for and found in dictionary definitions (more examples here), and the photographic work of Erica Baum, who takes fascinating pictures of printed materials, some of which may be found in her book, Dog Ear. It all came together in this new handmade book, Words Collide. I set the type by hand and printed it on my letterpress, then wrestled with the ruler, using blue tape to mark it like a template so I could create uniform scores and folds for all twenty-five copies. 

The slipcase is open-ended, since the book can only safely slide one way. It also has a window that shows a glimpse of the title. I'm still interested in books that breathe, that flow, and I find that covers and slipcases can stop the flow I'm searching for, unless they have windows or holes.

This side has six poems with words taken in order from the dictionary definitions for:
meet, opposition, collision, violent, direct, oppose.

The opposite side has all the same lines, but rewoven: colliding and creating six new poems. 

Inside, the poems collide with themselves and with their dictionary word.
Titles are part of each definition as well.

Ask to see it next month at the Seager Gray Gallery table at the Codex Book Fair,
Craneway Pavilion, Richmond, CA, February 8-11, 2015.
And it should be available soon as well through Vamp and Tramp Booksellers.
For now, I can take checks or money orders.
$65 each (+ sales tax for CA deliveries).
Website for address: http://neverbook.com/contact.htm

Monday, January 5, 2015

Oddlinks and Endlinks

On my winter vacation, I am back in the studio, sewing, setting type and printing, cutting and folding, working with the fishbone fold, but also writing and reading. Several of my poems and stories were published by someone else in 2014, and I wanted to mention the interesting literary magazines that published them.

An online digital scrolling story was just published in Diagram Magazine, 14.6. In 2011, as I worked in my studio and listened to the radio, I began writing down the items that were announced as blocking lanes of traffic on the local freeways. In 2014, I built the list into a timeline, and wrote a tiny story to go with it, making it the piece you would see if you look here. Diagram is a quirky online magazine that likes lists, obscure diagrams, and a human connection to both.

My first poem in a series of 26 alphabetical erasure poems called "(de)fine (poe)try: from act to zephyr," which is adapted from dictionary definitions, was published by the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts December 3; one poem will be featured each week on Wednesdays through May, 2015, I believe. This journal is interested in short forms of writing that are densely layered; they include an unusual category called "triptychs" that employs a tiny story flanked by definitions.

I was pleased to learn that my poem "Woodshop Encounter," which was published in Up the Staircase Quarterly #27was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. This is a poetry magazine only, easy to read and nice to look at, edited with heart.

And a curious concept in Paper Nautilus, where they published three of my tiny poems in the "Aphorisms" section. They are not aphorisms, per se, that is just the category. In the print journal, they have printed my poems (and six others' ) on one side, a bio on the other, with dotted lines all around. It comes with the editor's directions: "1. Cut on dotted line. 2. Leave on empty train seats, tucked in library books, in a bin of apples at the grocery store, or anywhere else someone might find and enjoy them." Pocket poems, I think!

A full list of links to my published creative writing is here

Sometimes I stitch words together, sometimes cloth.
A quilt for a friend.

Onward! To the next chapter!

Monday, December 29, 2014

Fishbone Fold and Fibonacci

After posting about the Fishbone Fold here and here, I got a comment from reader Susan J, who mentioned a book about Fibonacci numbers "and, among other items, their relationship to botany." I asked the members of my household if they had heard of Fibonacci numbers. Both had. "Any elementary school kid interested in math and science knows about the Fibonacci numbers." Well, okay. That hadn't been me.

Fibonacci numbers are a sequence, published in a book for Western European audiences by Fibonacci (Leonardo of Pisa) in 1202, although a version had appeared earlier, in Sanskrit (200 BC). Apparently, you can see the pattern in ferns, pineapples, and pine cones. 

The next number in the sequence is created from the two preceding numbers.
1  1(+1)  2(+1)  3(+2)  5(+3)  8(+5)  13(+8)  21(+13)  34(+21) 55 89 144 233 377

I began with the image of a nautilus shell and with the inspiration of John Zurier's work fresh in mind as I painted 37" wide paper. If the nautilus shell doesn't actually contain the sequence, it appears to.

This one has the sequence used on the pages, with 1/2" backbones.
1/2   1/2  1  1/2  2  1/2  3  1/2  5  1/2   1/2

This one, about 21 inches wide when closed, 
has the sequence used on the connecting backbones, with 3" pages. 
1  3  1  3  2  3  3  3  5  3  8  3  1

I liked the long one as a paper sculpture, but decided it needed covers for storage. Hard covers would have made the outside appear heavy and would detract from the delicate colors and lightweight paper inside. If I'd wrapped boards in painted paper there would be no point to the inner painted paper; it would give away any delight or surprise too soon. I settled on soft folded covers to echo the folds of the inner structure and that could be arranged like waves as well. White seemed the right background. I cut window slits in the same sequence for the front cover, so I knew which way was up. Leftover pieces of the painted paper were glued to the inner cover layer to show through the slits. Gluing them there allowed for more dimension: the shadows could fall through the slits as well.

Wishing you a serene and creative new year!