Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Writing in Time & Design

Another required stop in Ann Arbor is Hollander's, in the Kerrytown mall building, next to the farmer's market and only a couple of blocks from Zingerman's. Hollander's specializes in decorative papers, bookbinding supplies, and workshops.

A huge store full of handmade and designer papers, art books and supplies. They teach printing and book-making in the basement classrooms; this is Hollander's School of Book & Paper Arts, with year-round workshops. They have a whole shelf devoted to books on how to make paper, how to make books, binding, etc. A treasure trove for any artist interested in book arts, printing, typography, and their related arts. They even have a small section on brush painting, sumi-e, and calligraphy. It's a dangerous place for someone who loves books, who loves making as well as reading books, and/or who is a paper junkie. I never leave without making a purchase.

This visit, I treated myself to Keith A. Smith's Text in the Book Format, all about the experience of type on the page. Smith, who is a book artist and publisher of how-to books on book arts and typography, talks about the experience of reading, pacing, and space. He writes:

The book format is movement. Rhythms of syllables and moving pictures of implied imagery flowing within text is akin to music and cinema. Events depicted in writing unfold through time in space, alongside the physical act of turning pages.

Awareness of space of the page and composing the pages as well as the text revolutionizes writing styles because it is a departure from the concept of seamless writing of a running manuscript. The writer can take into consideration demands and opportunities of the multiple page format via the computer.

Pacing of the book is the synchronization or syncopation of the content with turning pages. The format can reinforce and even speak aside from the text. Writing specifically in the book format, as opposed to a running manuscript, brings to the reader a book experience.

I don't think writers think about time as flowing very often, which seems short-sighted to me. Reading is a process of reading-in-time, just as music is sounds-in-time, and cinema is images-and-sounds-in-time. Poets in particular, I think, get too caught up with the words themselves, and what they mean or don't mean, and forget all about the medium in which their words are presented: print, type, paper, screen. Poets tend to view words as static, and their poems as objects—more like paintings than cinema. Even the current wave of "visual poets" mostly produce static art rather than moving art. (Vispo is being proclaimed as something brand new and exotic, especially by some of the Language Poets and other mavens of the perpetual avant-garde; but little of it seems particularly new to anyone who's been involved with graphic design, or the history of design and typography, except in that the new computing technologies have made the production of such work ever easier.)

I have been experimenting for some years now with text moving on the screen, poetry moving on the screen as one layer of imagery among others, and of music combined with text and image to make multi-media cinema. This is still a new process for most poets. Most writers focus on the contents alone and ignore the presentation. This is, I believe, true even for concrete poets or visual poets, who still don't think of the entire book as an experience, but only their individual page(s) in the book.

Some of this is the self-centeredness of turf. The writer's goal is often anti-design and anti-presentation, whether they view meaning as central, or whether their purpose is a postmodern questioning of meaning itself. There has always been an uneasy tension between writers and book designers, with writers wanting their text to be paramount, and designers wanting not only to respect that but to enhance the book experience for the reader. Some typography is transparent, some more opaque. Regardless, writers tend to cling to the primacy of their text over all other concerns. The words over everything else.

There's a certain conservative taint to this impulse, even coming from the avant-garde. I've seen more than one poet approve of a published book that was much uglier than it needed to be, in terms of type choice, layout, paper, binding and design, because the poet could only see that the words were legible on the page. They didn't care about anything else. Sometimes poets become so overjoyed that their precious words have actually made it to print that they completely forget about anything else, just as the reader's pleasure, or lack thereof, in the presentation. I have certainly seen enough badly-designed poetry chapbooks that kill the poetry inside by making it a slog to read rather than a joy; that certainly doesn't help the poet's reputation, or make any reader (other than a poet) want to re-read their ugly chapbook.

The amount of bad design, making for an ugly and difficult reading experience, far outweighs the amount of good design. Online, the capabilities of user options in many public meetinghouses and forums such as MySpace and Facebook have set back good design by decades: just because you can include every dingleberry in the universe on your website, doesn't mean you should. online poetry boards tend to be very ugly. A few online literary journals do appreciate the value of good typography, illustration and design; but they remain in the minority.

Just because you can make your own chapbook on your computer, using desktop publishing software and tools, doesn't mean that suddenly you're a good designer, or know anything about legible typography. Just because you can, doesn't mean you know what you're doing.

Keith Smith's series of books are a tonic, and a solution to these problems and issues. I do recommend them. Next time I'm in Ann Arbor, I'll definitely be back at Hollander's, and I'll no doubt be looking at more of Smith's books there.

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