Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Bookmarks in Libraries

I’m continuing to use public libraries as a mechanism for distributing my large edition letterpress work. I printed about 270 bookmarks with the second (hopeful) part of my Big Storm poem, the storm dates and this URL. I also embossed the Te Kowhai Print Trust kowhai blossom onto them because it is such a pretty decorative element, and to honour the wonderful place where I do my work. And then I mailed* a little stack of bookmarks to every library in Northland with a letter asking the librarian to put them out where people could see them and take one if they wanted.

The idea for printing bookmarks and giving them away through libraries is lifted directly from Centre For Fine Print Research's Bookmark project. A kind reader of this blog directed me to their website in response to one of the Addicted to Capitalism posts. Unfortunately I was too late to sign up for this year’s international project, but the idea of making some bookmarks was too compelling to be postponed until next year.

I like the way that sending out the After the Big Storm bookmarks links up the libraries and gifting elements of my Addicted to Capitalism postcards, and the creative and emotional epiphanies of my Big Storm books, and grounds those themes in the here and now of my region this winter, Northland in July 2007.

I’ve also been thinking about what it means to have created what I think of as tiny pieces of art, multiples, a hand-made, hand-crafted edition of poetry and letterpress: the words set letter by lead letter and every one of those strips of card handled by me through three different pieces of cast-iron antique technology; and then to put it out into the world to sit on a table surrounded by the social marketing ephemera that is also given away in public libraries.

My thinking weaves ideas about ‘new genre public art’ and non-traditional audiences; creativity and compassion; how art and books and text and letterpress are valued and recognised (or not) and my place in/out of the Art and Literature Worlds; the history of letterpress printing as a catalyst for radical change… all these ideas woven together like a kete (basket) carrying the bookmarks out to little libraries in little towns digging themselves out of the mud while it just keeps on raining**.

What the bookmarks will mean to the librarians and library users who receive or choose them, I would love to know. I hope that someone who encounters an After the Big Storm bookmark is moved to comment here or contact me directly and tell me their reaction. But my rigorous non-attachment training through writing poetry in chalk this wet winter makes me feel (mostly) equable that I may never know the fate of a single one of my bookmarks. I am free to imagine some crumpled in the recycling bin and some treasured in precious books- both outcomes seem likely and while I prefer to envision more of the latter, the possibility of former doesn’t distress me.

* Delightfully I was able to stamp the envelopes with these very cool stamps which play with language and some kind of heat sensitive technology in a kooky and kitch manner. Sometimes I love New Zealand’s civic quirkiness so much.

** Last time I went to the library I didn’t borrow an otherwise desirable book because it was so freshly moldy and damp that I didn’t want to bring it home. Another book I did borrow turned out to be more discreetly rotting and it’s pungent fumes hit me whenever I go near the pile of books. Another legacy of the weather, like all the fallen trees everywhere. I wonder how many library books have been damaged or lost in the storms? Is anyone counting that cost to Northland?

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Broken Window

Yesterday afternoon when a friend mentioned that there was a heavy rain warning for tonight, I felt my body curl back towards the defensive posture that the last storm folded me into. I had let myself be lulled by a week of little rain and some glorious sunshine but it wasn't until noticing my physical response to anticipating another storm that I realised how viscerally I have been responding to the weather.

As I write, it's early, early Sunday morning, rain and wind have been battering my windows for hours of darkness and I long ago gave up trying to sleep. I used to enjoy the sound of rain falling heavily, but that was a couple of weeks ago, when I still maintained the illusion that being inside a house would keep me dry and safe. Then I found out just how fragile my sense of self is once the sheltering membrane of a house is breached by a storm.

This is the second of the series of three books made about the big storm of 10-11 July using prints in which meaning was washed out of the text. Turns out that those prints (made a week or two before) were the perfect expression of my response when the wind broke a window and the storm invaded the house like an angry soldier, bent on senseless destruction just because he can.

Broken Window is a unique book, letterpress printed on a Turkish Map Fold.
Photographs by Marguerite Kent.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Weathering poems

Three days so far since my wild session of chalking poems in the park on Saturday afternoon and there is still plenty to read. I've been detouring through Cafler Park on my way to and from work to check out the survival rate of my words, and every day I've been pleasantly surprised. A couple of poems are still almost intact. A couple have disappeared almost without trace, with just a few flecks of pigment clinging to the pavement. Most poems are marked only by a few words left legible and some faint traces that probably only I can interpret.

There has been one light shower that I know of, but mostly conditions have been frosty and clear so I've been trying to make sense of why some have lasted so well, while other's haven't. It's a lot to do with exposure to weather and traffic. Poems in sheltered places and words on vertical surfaces are doing better than most. Also I think the vigour of application has much bearing: the poems I impressed into the asphalt using all my body's strength are hanging in there, where as the poems that were written with more grace and speed are almost gone.

I'm really enjoying reading the remaining fragments aloud as I walk around the park: hearing how the words fit together in ways I didn't intend and which bring new meanings to light. In a couple of places, traces of a poem written on Friday are still legible, entwined with a different poem written on Saturday, creating interesting juxtapositions, if not always ones that please me.

There is one poem left in particular, the longest one, which stretches right around two sides of the library and half way behind Forum North. I like reading the surviving words of this one backwards, walking from the end of the poem, written in a long string of words (which is mostly intact) to the beginning written in stanzas (which has been heavily trafficked into near obscurity). From memory, that experience goes something like this:

asleep I fall until
hear we animals night about
stories me tell you warmth
for together leaning
surface pool's across slowly pass reflection
its watch to us rouses
and late rises moon shaped egg
light of tongue flickering a fire
small a mouth canyon's over
draped curtain spangled becomes sky
navy, cobalt, mauve through falls
dark water glassy deep of pool
round by camp make and
packs our off pull we until
shadows lengthening through
on walk we
upwind still and quiet
willows the dapple rest midday
walk hand in hand
gnarled ancient tree trunks
rust and sunlight
maroons of a veteran's faded ribbons
when you are ready
imagine the warm breeze collecting
embrace, imagine
tender swollen
unpack your bags looking
put my toes to the very edge

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Love letters at your feet

I'm just back from completing Love Letters at Your Feet, a collection of my love poems written in chalk in Cafler Park, Whangarei, in association with the Mid Winter Arts Festival. It looks beautiful and was great fun to do. I'm exhausted and aching all over but I want to try and share some of the highs and lows before I collapse and then get busy with the next thing (letterpress demo at the Quarry tomorrow).

All Friday I watched the sky, listening to the weather forecasts, wondering whether the afternoon would clear. Amazingly it did, right on schedule for my chalk-writing posse to come and help. As we wrote, the park was busy with people heading home from school or work, or coming to see the fur seal pup that had landed up on the banks of the stream. Many people stopped to look at the poems and comment curiously or appreciatively. It was incredibly thrilling for me to see my vision being manifested, with the help of my friends, under a clear sky. By the time we finished at dusk I was on a high of pleasure and excitement.

Saturday morning, as the sun rose I walked around scarcely believing my luck that the chalk had survived the damp foggy night so well. I started writing another poem and then fat, heavy drops of rain started to fall from the sky, slowly at first and then in a torrent. I railed at the wet clouds, as though shouting 'no, no' at the sky could make any difference. Then I sheltered under a tree and watched the rain dissolve my words, literally, before my eyes.

At that moment a friend called and offered the first of many affirmations that got me through the rain that morning: celebrating the Buddhist concept of impermanence that has informed this work through all the planning; delighting in all the metaphors offered by rain and chalk in a work about love; keeping me connected to the true intent of the work and it's vulnerable, fragile nature. The rain fell heavily, then steadily and then long and lightly through the morning and into the afternoon. I hung out with friends in cafes, then went home and rested, then walked up the hill in the rain to where I could look out across Whangarei, and remember the aspect of Love Letters that is about loving this town and wanting to give it a gift. At that moment, ragged patches of blue started to appear in the sky and the rain died away.

Back down the hill I went with a bag of chalk and poems. I started writing before the ground was even close to dry, writing through puddles in a couple of places. Two of my posse showed up to help and we wrote and wrote through the afternoon, much more spontaneously than my carefully controlled set up on Friday afternoon. We wrote passionately and wildly and persistently. In the middle of it all Marian found me: the woman who was my second mother during my troubled teenage years and who I haven't seen for a decade or more. As I wrote, we talked about love and family and death and art, and seeing her again was a gift.

The writing was so physical. Big, whole body movements that allow a whole different way of engaging with the text than typing or reading or even typesetting. Some of my helpers commented on how powerful an activity it was, all said they enjoyed it. For me it was exhilarating, liberating, cathartic magic. I realised in one place that I was writing my most recent poem over the dissolved traces of one of my oldest poems and that seemed fitting. Peternel chose to write one of the poems I had held back earlier out of shyness or shame, and then I decided I would also write out some of those I'd held back. In the end, nothing was reserve. I gave my all.

The park was full of people, mostly come to see the wonder of the stranded seal pup, some from the Festival, a few looking for the poems. Children read aloud as they followed the trails of words. People followed me slowly as I wrote to the end of the poem, wanting to see how it would turn out. Couples meandered hand in hand. A small child delighted in scuffing as much chalk as she could. Many bicycles and a van wove and drove across the writing. Some people ignored it, walking past without looking. Two dogs, a pair of ducks and a black cat all came to see what was happening.

The sky was still clear when dusk fell so perhaps the chalk will last the night, but really, it doesn't matter. The work was done (twice), it was beautiful, many people enjoyed it, not least those of us who did the writing. Let the rain come when it will and wash the words away.

My thank you speech...
I am enormously grateful to all the people who helped and supported this event, often through apparent adversity. First and foremost, my chalk-writing posse: Susan and Peternel (who came both days!), Alan and Summer, Kate, Nip and Mary, and Daniel. Thanks too, Liz, for hanging out with me during the rain and helping me realise what a difference an events manager would make to the future art 'happenings' I'm already dreaming about. Thank you to Kaari, the organiser of the Mid Winter Arts Festival for inspiration, encouragement, publicity and funding. Special thanks to Paula and Mags for taking photographs (not the ones on this post, these are off my phone- real photos to follow at a future date). Thanks to Daniel and Tonya for feeding me, nourishing both body and spirit. Thanks, too, to all the people who took the time to come and look and say nice things as we were working. Deep thanks to the seal pup who attracted so many people to the park who might not have otherwise had any poetry in their lives this weekend, and divine thanks to the rain and the sun for falling when and where they did. Amen.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Big Storm: The Book

I'm too tired for words but here is a beautiful photograph by Marguerite Kent (a photographer I cannot recommend highly enough) of one the three different books I made during/about the big storms last week. This one is called Big Storm. It's an edition of 3, with 2 of them for sale, price on application.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Big Storm

Life is defined by membranes.
When the storm smashed a window
and shouldered its way into the house
I stopped thinking I was safe.

* * *

Waking early into silence
after the big storm
the starry sky seemed like a gift
I couldn't close my eyes on.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Love letters dissolving in the rain

It’s raining again. It seems to have been raining every day for weeks. I am particularly sensitive to rain this winter because I am writing fragments of poetry in chalk around Whangarei, and they last only until the next rain, though a sheltered spot might remain legible through a swift shower.

Officially, my chalk poem fragments are teasers for Love Letters at Your Feet which will involve about 15 of my love poems written in chalk along the hidden paths and quirky concrete structures of Cafler Park, as part of the Mid Winter Art Festival. Unofficially, I am practicing chalk legibility, training my thighs for extended squatting, indulging my poet’s ego, healing the bruises on my heart, meditating on non-attachment, playing at transgression and offering gifts to friends and strangers.

Sometimes I pay attention to the weather forecast and their usually spurious promises of sun or showers, and sometimes I try to interpret the arcane code of scudding clouds, and sometimes I go out with my chalk even though the pavement is wet, the sky is grey and I know it will be raining again soon.

When I am organised enough to be responding to the forecast I’ll usually have some fresh text prepared to copy onto suitable surfaces. When a spontaneous urge to write in a rare dry spell coincides with having enough chalk with me, I usually end up adapting something from memory or making it up on the spot. It has turned out to be very freeing to know that what I am writing is ephemeral. It doesn’t have to be perfect, just legible (and spelled right). And if the rain washes it away over night or in the next hour, well, that just means the surfaces are being cleared for me to write on again.

In two weeks, weather permitting, it will be a different story for the Mid Winter Arts Festival. I have chosen a selection of love poems that I wrote between 1987 and 2007 and I have persuaded some friends to come along and help me chalk them around Cafler Park. I know which poems I want written where: the sundial, the wishing well, the amphitheatre, the old swimming pool ledges, the footbridges, the paths that wind aimlessly through the shrubbery and the lovely smooth asphalt around the new Library.

If the weather is too dire on 20-21 July then my alternate day for Love Letters at Your Feet is the following Friday the 27th, which just happens to be Montana Poetry Day. And whether or not it is raining during the Mid Winter Arts Festival, I welcome visitors at Te Kowhai Print Trust, at the Quarry, where I will be setting type and printing on the Arab press from 9-4 on Sunday 22nd. Examples of my letterpress prints and artist’s books will be on view and available to buy.

A rare moment of sunshine in Whangarei, at the Quarry entrance.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Washing away the meaning

I am constantly experimenting with printing. I never seem to be content to develop my next project in a way that will consolidate the new skills I have learned, but rather I keep wanting to jostle up against the boundaries of what is possible. Inevitably, this is as frustrating as it is interesting- long stretches of faffing about without much to show for it in the way of satisfactory finished product. But every once in a while it all comes together and seems worth doing the hard way.

My latest exhilarating reward follows a long, tedious engagement with setting type in vertical lines, instead of the horizontal that everything in letterpress is designed around. I've seen pictures of others' vertical work so I knew it must be possible. A more experienced printer might not have taken three days of trying and being disappointed, trying and failing, trying a different way, failing again and almost giving up, getting violently ill and while immobile figuring out yet another, ultimately successful, way to spend another day on it once back in the studio. But then, I console myself, a more experienced printer might not have even bothered to do something so damn weird.

The goal was to print covers for Love Falls, the vertical flag book I've been working on for a while. I wanted the covers to give an impression of water falling. For some reason that I no longer remember I decided to set it in a galley (a tray open at one end) instead of the chase (a closed frame), possibly because the area I wanted to print was almost as big as the chase leaving not much room for furniture, and the one hint of 'how to' I had gleaned in relation to vertical type was that I wouldn't be able to lock the type in anyway.

Taking proofs of the first few lines confirmed that I was going to get the look I wanted so I persisted with the infinitely slower and more fiddly type setting. It's slower and fiddlier because even though 18pt is all exactly 18points high, to line up in a perfect row, every letter is a different width and so doesn't come close to lining up in a perfect column. See what I mean:
It's not easy to get the l and the i to not slide around in the big space that the m is holding open. My technique involved using up all the little spacers I could find and then screwing up tiny pieces of paper to wedge around the letters. Not elegant. Not quick. But eventually it did work.

Because the type, even wedged with hundreds of bits of screwed up paper, could not be locked tight enough to sit in the vertical bed of the Arab press I ended up printing on the flat bed of the trusty proofing press (after some disastrous experiments on the etching press). Once I finally got everything to behave, it all worked like a dream and I printed my twenty or so cover sheets (pictured below) in about an hour.

Way back weeks ago when I started setting this vertical type I was setting the words of the poem to be contained in the covers, and when I ran out of those words I was making up new lines as I set them. There were no gaps between the words but in the manner of a 'find-a-word' puzzle, it was possible to read sense into the lines. However, my repeated disastrous attempts at printing kept dislodging the type. Often visitors were chatting to me as I was wedging the letters into place again and very quickly I lost any attachment to maintaining the meaning of the words. I was just trying to get type to stand up straight in columns and not move around on their own account.

But in parallel with my line setting activities at TKPT I have been meditating on Buddhist concepts of non-attachment, particularly in the context of romantic love- the subject of Love Falls. The printing process washed most of the sense out letters, leaving the waterfall-like pattern unattached to meaning and thus providing a conceptual continuity between what I was thinking about love when I wrote the text on the pages (years ago) and what I was thinking about love as I was making the covers.

The problem with the putting all this effort into the outside of Love Falls is that when the book is displayed, the covers won't be visible. Yes, I invested all that time and effort for an subordinate element of the book. Which is typical of book making- often the most time consuming elements are invisible.

But as a printer I was all fired up from my hard won success and wasn't about to just take my three days of typesetting apart and disperse those letters back into their compartments and move on, nope, not quite yet. Not to mention I had mixed up a big old puddle of blue-grey ink too good to waste. So I kept on printing and experimenting. I printed the pattern repeatedly on long strips of paper and big wide pieces of paper: learning something aligning the edges of the pattern. I printed on little strips used to mask out chunks of the pattern on bigger paper. I overprinted multiple layers, experimenting with density. I printed on old paper bags. I printed on shiny, matt, thick, thin, light and dark. I printed more in one day than I ever have before.

Some the printing was pretty ho hum and some of the prints made me dance around the room because my delight was too great to be contained. The beauty of the letter-forms and their unconventional, mostly non-sense arrangement on the page is quite seductive and having so much patterned paper at my disposal seems to have unleashed a new wave of inspiration.