Thursday, March 29, 2007

Whangarei Floods

Northland is flooding, so I joined the exodus of people leaving work early, taking over an hour to drive the route that had taken me 20 minutes in the pouring rain a few hours earlier. Crawling along in eerie mid-afternoon twilight, swerving to avoid overflowing gutters, grateful for the visible presence of police and other emergency services, I mused on the word 'burst', brought to mind by the two once-were streams I passed on to get to my car.

As I do these days, I imagined selecting each letter from a case of lead type and that led me to thinking about all the ways I physically know the word 'burst'. My fingers touched typed it onto my knee. Then traced it in print and cursive handwriting. I tried to remember learning to say 'burst' and had a strong sense memory of popping spit bubbles. In what context would I have first heard the word 'burst'? Bursting elusive soap bubbles? The shock of burst balloons banging? Tight tummy bursting from too many biscuits? The grossness of bursting a boil? The awesome power of bursting stream banks?

I made it to the edge of town and then the traffic tailed off and the water on the road really got scary. I was strangely reassured that I was following a school bus (bursting with excited children leaning out the windows into the rain) who led me around, and sometimes through, some stretches of watery road I might not have dared to traverse on my own.

This last photo is my trusty school bus, passing a car that wasn't as lucky as me. Note the flooding all the way to the centre line.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Parenting a poem

This week I finally seemed to hit my stride with printing. I understood what I need to do to get the results I want and I got some traction with the book I am making.

What is interesting to me at the moment is how this poem, Powerful Words, which I have been fiddling with for some years is now becoming something greater in the process of making it into a book. I persisted with the poem because I could see it had unrealised potential, and enough depth to keep me coming back over and over again. Yet I chose it to make this first hand-printed book precisely because it was not what I would consider my best work. I didn't want to 'waste' one of my favourite poems on a project whose primary purpose is learning.

What this means is that the very qualities lacking in this poem that I'm practicing with are developing out of the process of giving it a physical presence. Perhaps any poem, or text, would flourish under the extensive consideration that this one gets as a practice piece. But in the long, thoughtful conversation I am conducting with printing, design and the text itself, the poem is not a passive text being manipulated by arbitrary processes.

The content of the book I am printing almost certainly would not have existed without the slow collecting of each wooden or lead letter from its compartment. The constraints of the chase, the jigsaw puzzle of furniture, the sticky ink, my inexperience, the available typefaces and presses create a space in which the poem tests its boundaries. Answers to the technical questions of size and shape and flow and colour are found not only in the text that I started with but the text that emerges in response to those questions.

It's a bit like being a parent watching their precocious child become an admirable adult.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Post-WOMAD Vegan Halavah

No letterpress last week as I went on a little holiday to WOMAD in Taranaki. Too many punters and dodgey weather but lots of friends to catch up with and a couple of outstanding acts: Mariza and Ensemble Shanbehzadeh. To tell the truth, one of my highlights was the peach halava on the Hare Krishna combo plate. I went back for seconds it was so good.

Once home again I looked on the internet for a halava recipe, and found a couple on HK websites which revealed the awful truth about halava that I had deliberately forgotten . Like most of the most delicious food in the world it consists mainly of sugar, butter and wheat (in this case, semolina). In its Hare Krishna combination this triumverate of ill health tastes like manna.

Undeterred by the relish with which the HKs describe the buttery-ness of their halavah I decided that I could live with the wheat/semolina and should try and invent a vegan version. I substituted rice oil for the butter and dates for the sugar and honestly, it is almost as good as the real thing. The slightly looser texture of my vegan halavah could be attributed to
a) not chanting the HK mantra as I stirred
b) the liquidity of oil compared to butter
c) the water that evaporated while cooking down the dates and was thus unavailable to be absorbed into the semolina.

My vote is for (c) and I have adjusted the following recipe to reflect that assumption. You may want to try chanting while you stir, just to be on the safe side.

Post-WOMAD Vegan Halavah
1 1/2 cups dates, finely chopped
1 3/4 cups water
1 1/4 cups semolina
120 ml rice oil
1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped

Start simmering the dates in the water and leave them alone to melt while you do the following: Then put the oil and semolina in a larger saucepan over a very low heat. Stir frequently for ten minutes, nice toasty smells should start to waft. Throw in the walnuts with the semolina, turn up the heat a little and stir more regularly, making sure nothing sticks to the bottom of the saucepan. After another ten minutes of stirring (total of 20 minutes) it should smell good, not burnt. Take both pans off their heat sources. Pour the date water (which should be dark and syrupy) carefully onto the oily semolina and nuts. Expect lots of sizzling and spitting at first. Stir through then put back on a low heat stirring steadily until all the liquid absorbs into the grains, making a pudding-like consistency, pulling away from the sides of the pan. Then put a lid on, lower the heat as far as possible and leave for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let sit another 5 minutes. Eat hot or warm or cold, it's all good.

Now I'm confident about the method I intend to try various combinations of fruits, nuts and spices (cardamon, almonds & apricots? cinnamon, walnuts & pears?) but not too often as I find this treat irresistable and simply couldn't stop myself eating out of the pot all afternoon until it was almost all gone and I hadn't left hardly any for Al.

Monday, March 12, 2007

A passion for printing

In my experience people who love hand printing or/or book binding love the craft in an extraordinarily generous way. The two organisations I belong to, the Association of Book Crafts and Te Kowhai Print Trust, provide incredible value for low membership fees, seem to run very efficiently on 100% volunteer efforts and welcome new members with warmth.

Since wading into the world of letterpress (has it only been a month since I started?) I've been touched by people both near and far who are willing, nay eager, to share their knowledge and even their time. This afternoon I went to visit Mr Murray Inder of Inprint Design who has been in the printing business since handsetting lead type was the norm. He showed me around his printery, patiently answering all my questions , demonstrating, naming, and explaining until my brain was full. Yet I know I have barely brushed the surface of his deep knowledge of all kinds of printing.

I especially appreciated his enjoyment of the vocabulary of printing that I too find extremely alluring. I have been attracted to words like frisket, tympan and quoin just because they are great words with letterpress associations but he knows what those things are and pulled them out of drawers to show me*. For me it was a thrilling hour in print heaven, and it can't have been too painful for Mr Inder because he offered to come along to TKPT and help me get the platen jobber press going there.

*He also showed me a flong which I hadn't heard of before and am not sure I really understand how it relates to letterpress but it wins the best printing word of the week prize, and can be made out of papier mache so it's extra cool.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Never argue with a poem that knows what it wants

A certain amount of reinventing the wheel is surely inevitable when one is learning an ancient craft without an expert teacher by one's side. I know I shouldn't feel embarrassed about not knowing things that become obvious as soon as pointed out. I appreciate that making mistakes is a time honoured way of learning. I am, in fact, exhilarated by the process of figuring things out for myself and I'm a courageous asker of questions to all and sundry. But heavens, last Friday was a slow clamber up the old learning curve.

I decided to work on my printing project first and my cleaning project second, which meant that only two drawers of lead type got the vacuum this week. It was lovely to don the printer's apron and set up the etching press in the relative cool of the morning. My two tone experiment worked like a dream so registration became nothing but a bad memory. But I just couldn't seem to get a crisp, even quality to my prints.

Rightly or wrongly I do have a tendency to blame my materials or equipment when things don't go my way. Irritatingly, the scrap paper I had fished out of the recycling bin at work seemed to take the ink much better than the nicer cartridge paper I was planning to use- something to do with the smoothness of the surface I think. I ended up with a lot of prints but none I would bind since the ones on marked and creased scrap paper look better than the ones on clean paper.

It's not that I don't like the imperfections, I think they look edgy and interesting as well as ugly and dirty. I can imagine circumstances in which I would use prints like that, for example in works relating to punk, protest or peripatetic* discomfort . But I want to be able to choose where I use that effect, not just impatiently tolerate my beginner's incompetence.

Expert advice arrived after I had started cleaning up and pointed out a couple of variables that either I hadn't thought of (adjusting the felt) or given enough attention to (pressure). So maybe it's not necessarily a paper problem that's causing my prints to look like crap. These are all factors that require further testing next time. One sensible thing I did manage to do was take copious notes on each print about what I was doing to produce such crap images.

On the other hand, it's amazing how much better the printed text looked as soon as I folded the pages into vertical quarters. On the flat paper the words are, well, flat. In the mountains and valleys of an accordion fold the words march along full of rhythm and energy. The text stands up proudly and somehow manages to look crisper. It's as though the poem is rejecting the passive structure I had been planning and is demanding to be housed in a much more dynamic book.

*My newest best word... means itinerant.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Letter Press Therapy

I couldn't help myself, the steering wheel seemed to have its own volition, swerving through rush hour traffic into the turning lane that would take me to the Quarry instead of home from work. Tired and agitated from a demanding, complicated day in the office I was nonetheless drawn back to TKPT for 'just a quick visit'.

After a weekend's pondering on a possible bypass to the registration challenge that blighted my Friday's work I had to test my theory, just to be able to sleep at night before my next LetterPress Friday. Sure enough, my hunch proved correct and the wooden type and the lead type are very sensibly the same height, which means (theoretically) I can set them together, ink them carefully with different colours and make one print... no registration issues!

Naturally I couldn't stop at just measuring the two kinds of type, I had to have a fiddle and see how they would fit together. Twenty or thirty minutes of happy jigsaw-puzzling ensued until I was assured it would work, but wasn't something to try and complete in a hurry. Back in the car, I discovered my day's tension had slipped away, like the syrupy traffic at 6.00.

Once home I found this lovely email from my dad, sharing part of his life I never knew of:

You reminded me of how I learned to set type in Montauk junior high school. Print shop was the only one I really enjoyed and learned anything useful from. Woodworking and electrical wiring were not my forte. But using the old fashioned type fonts and presses has always helped me visualize the beginnings of print culture.

Sunday, March 04, 2007


Reflecting on my second LetterPress Friday I can see at this point I am learning more about myself than I am about printing. And I'm learning a lot about printing. And cleaning.

Practically the first thing I did when I arrived was devise a filter for the vacuum cleaner nozzle (isn't nozzle a great word?) which enabled me to vacuum the dust out of cases of lead type without ending up with a vacuum bag full of pied type. This was a much quicker and cleaner method than the others I considered (e.g. tipping it all out to brush clean) or tried (e.g. blowing with a hairdryer). It still took the better part of four hours to clean 13 drawers of one cabinet. Oh, but that cabinet is not only usable but positively inviting now (especially since Shonah cleaned the outside while I did the insides).

After that exercise I am, inevitably, much more comfortable with finding my way around the cases of type now. I had imagined that learning to typeset would be like learning to touch type but it turns out that the type drawers are not necessarily arranged identically. The lowercase letters are consistent but the uppercase, punctuation and numbers seem a bit more random. Finished with cleaning for the day, I set four lines of type, in a conveniently generous 30pt Univers (sans serif much like the big wooden blocks I used last week).

Ah, this is what I'd been waiting and working for: An encounter with my text slowed down to a thoughtful search for each letter. Remember your first attempt to write with a keyboard? Imagine that initial hunt and peck exercise slowed by a lack of labels, and the requirement to make sure each piece of type is oriented correctly. Imagine putting together words and sentences backwards. Imagine handling slivers of punctuation the width of matchsticks. Imagine having to insert tiny blocks of lead between words and line to make spaces. It's slow, labourious, painstaking work, especially the first time. Not coincidentally these are the qualities of craft I most like to ground my imaginative work with.

Thanks to Shonah's proofreading (note to self: don't try this without a proofreader who can read backwards) I was ready to try overprinting onto the big grey CAPACIOUS I printed last week. There are a lot of variables to consider in printing and registration was the one I was least interested in, since (perhaps erroneously) I didn't anticipate overprinting to play a big role in my letterpress future. The sugar paper to hand last week when I had my first go at printing is perhaps too rough for the fine detail of lead type, and is such poor quality that I felt little of the perfectionism that drives me when working with $4 sheets of paper. Then there was the mid-afternoon Northland summer heat drying up the ink and making me feel hot and bothered. Suffice to say I wasn't getting the results I wanted and I couldn't/wouldn't/didn't figure out what to change.

Nothing is ever wasted and forty-eight hours of subsequent reflection have milked extraordinary value from my second LetterPress Friday. In response to the technical experience and challenges of the day I have developed a detailed plan for the book that will contain CAPACIOUS and my other powerful words, including paper, structure, size, type and (loosely) colours; and game plan for making it.

Mulling over my feelings, reactions and decisions during the day I had an insight about my art practice. I like to work alone and this is how I've always made the books I care about. When I work alone I have clarity and focus, courage and insight. I set my own pace and rhythm. But I also enjoy company during some aspects of book making. Particularly while learning this new skill I need and appreciate being around people with knowledge who can help and advise me. And I like Shonah and Toa and the other people who hang out at TKPT. So my challenge is to bring into the shared studio all my own clarity and focus, courage and insight, and a commitment to trusting my own pace and rhythm. I have a feeling that if I can achieve that, there will be a ripple effect enhancing many other areas of my life.