In Spring 2015 I was commissioned to write an article about working with the constraint of a theme in my second collection The Print Museum.
It was interesting to reflect on how I arrived at the collection I did, and how the theme constrained and pushed me forwards in equal measure.
‘Poet as escapologist’ first appeared in the wonderful Lighthouse Literary Journal (Winner of the Saboteur Award for Best Magazine) in Summer 2015.
The article was published in Issue 9, which has sold out, and the editors have given me permission to reprint the article here.
Do seek out a copy of the current Lighthouse Journal. It’s a magazine well worth reading, submitting to and subscribing to.
Poet as escapologist
Early on, when considering what to write for my second poetry collection, I made two rather rash decisions. One was I wanted to pursue a theme throughout the book. The second was I wanted it to be about print.
‘Themed’ poetry collections have their fans and detractors. Some think they’re too prescriptive and fall foul of poetry-by-numbers. Others love their cohesive depth.
Many books I admire work with acknowledged constraints in theme, format, or both. For example, Michael Symmons Roberts’ masterful Drysalter (1) with its 150 poems, each with 15 lines, working with the idea of psalms and the evocative, obsolete drysalter shop.
I’m a copywriter by trade and respond well to a brief. It forces me to work towards, around, away from and through. A famous advertising dictum is: ‘Give me the creative freedom of a tightly defined brief’ (2). Writing without constraint can be harder to begin, harder to focus, harder to know when you’ve got there. Tying yourself up in knots to resolve can be a good way to get going.
Be warned. Seeking constraints can become addictive.
In her brilliant book about art, writing and creativity, Lynda Barry challenges: ‘Can you stay inside the image?’ (3). Any poem creates its own world, with constraints around what fits, what is believable, what is connected, what is attributable to that world. The challenge is to be true to the rules of the poem, whatever they turn out to be.
Creating rules to help generate the poem is something I find helpful. It doesn’t always generate a ‘live’ poem. I wrote nearly 150 poems in drafting the book. Only ones that felt organically true to what I was trying to do stayed.
The escapologist seeks constraint.
When I first began seriously writing poetry, I was envious of novelist friends who always had work to pick up. I was fed up scrabbling around for a thought to pursue. So I chose a topic that intrigued me, but that I knew little about – science – and rather arbitrarily decided it would be my research area.
I researched and wrote for a while, but wanted another impetus – a narrower constraint. So I approached a couple of organisations about being their poet-in-residence. Folk at the London Science Museum’s Dana Centre were excited about the idea.
Each month they set me two or three topics based on events they were running, I wrote a piece and they put it up on their website to create awareness and provoke discussion. I often read as part of events too. It was terrifying but fantastic. Not all the pieces were my best work. I suspect
any writer working to commission has the occasional piece they wished had come alive more. But it made me produce poems, it made me push what I thought I was capable of as a writer. And it made me think differently.
I’m from printing stock. My dad’s a retired printer. I have vivid memories of his blue-black ink-stained hands, cracked shiny pink at the knuckles from working with all the chemicals. The sounds and scents of the print shop he had in Swaffham. The technical, evocative language. The phraseology that informs many turns of phrase today – upper case, out of sorts, hot off the press, mind your p’s and q’s, missing the point… (4). I visited the John Jarrold Printing Museum in Norwich with my dad and as soon as I stepped through the door it had that charge to it that any writer recognises. Here was my next subject.
I approached the museum about working closely with them – having access to their rare books, library, printing paraphernalia, but most importantly the volunteers who manned the museum, each with a life’s worth of printing knowledge, stories and passion to share. They were keen and I set about immersing myself in the wonderful world of print.
The more involved I became, the more I realised an entire way of life is being lost. Not one, but dozens of specialist careers – compositor, machine minder, bookbinder, reader, monotype caster… have gone by the wayside as technology has developed. The physicality of making books has been replaced by a push-button process, words in the ether. But also the digital revolution is moving as rapidly as the print revolution did in the fifteenth century. I developed a questionnaire asking about print, books to recommend, stories, what is being lost as part of the digital revolution. The impact that initial mass recording and distribution of the written word had on almost every aspect of society hit home.
Working with this particular constraint lead to an evolution in my work I hadn’t anticipated. As I became more conscious of the physical processes of printing – the weight of lead type amassed on a page waiting to be put through the press, the way a compositor can tell a typo because his hand movement to and from the letter case feels awkwardly out of sequence – the more I wanted to explore form on the page. I became conscious of how space is built into a page with leaden shapes.
I realised poems are as much about where to put the white space as where to put the words. As Glyn Maxwell has it: ‘Poets work with two materials, one’s black and one’s white’. I became conscious of poems as shapes.
‘Anyone looking at a printed message will be influenced, within a split second of making eye contact, by everything on the page: the arrangement of various elements as well as the individual look of each one… an overall impression is created in our minds before we even read the first word’ (6).
Working on a poem about the new J-shaped bridge that had just been erected by the museum in honour of Peter Jarrold, I began playing with the idea of making it a J. It was fun. I didn’t think it
was serious. But then it became serious play. I wanted it to be a proportionally decent J. With meaningful line-ends. Even on the stem down the middle. And around the arc at the bottom.
I amused myself by fitting in as many printing references as I could that also had ‘innocent’ meanings (e.g. ‘jogger’). I took it to a designer friend and asked if it was an okay shape. (He immediately flipped the page to see how it looked from the back, which was a great tip.) When I felt I had a draft, I sent it to Magma’s ‘shape of the poem’ issue and was overjoyed when they took it. Then realised it was too tall to fit in a poetry book. I’d need to proportionally reduce it. And wished I’d never written the damn thing. Then managed it. And will never write another J poem again.
My range of poetic thinking had shifted. I surprised myself by writing prose poems. Looking at the Gutenberg bible, the first printed book, I was struck by the deliberate beauty of the prose layout. I wanted to investigate conflating space – what that did to pacing, to narrative, to building a world on the surface of the piece. A couple of poems just came out as prose poems and felt instinctively right. I stress-tested them by breaking them apart, lineating them differently. They stuck to their form.
One prose poem contains lost phrases and voices from the world of print. (The word ‘wayzgoose’ started it.) Fragments of text came together in a disjointed narrative. Vanessa, a typographer and artist at the JJPM suggested setting it in multiple fonts, and made it look stunning. More, she was as playful in her choice of fonts as I was in the text. For example, choosing Baskerville for a man ‘So tall he was just furniture above the conversation’. (The typographer John Baskerville was tall and rumoured to be buried standing up. His typeface is elegantly tall on the line too.)
Not all poems in the book are about printing. Though in a way they are, as they are all printed. I enjoyed the language of print, typography, lithography, etching, bookbinding… Plus my son was beginning to speak, then learning to read and write as the years of writing progressed. I became interested in how we acquire language, letter forms and their heritage. So I set myself one final constraint. Every title in the book had to be drawn from the world of print. I was so immersed by then that this seemed cheating. Writing about climate change? Dimensional stability. (Paper’s ability to withstand changes in its environment.) Having a child? Descender. (The part of a letter that falls below the baseline.) Considering your genetic heritage? Lineage. And so on.
For me, that’s the crux of working with constraints. Whether self-imposed, externally-imposed or there in the historical make-up of your genre. My brain needs to find a way to work with them. And it comes up with things that surprise me. I’ve grown to have faith in my subconscious, working away at all hours trying to make patterns from the most bizarre things. I like shaking up my neural pathways and forcing my subconscious to invent a new route. It feels vital and challenging. It’s what we’ve always done to survive.
(1) Drysalter, Michael Symmons Roberts, Cape Poetry, 2013.
(2) Norman Berry, Worldwide Creative Director, Ogilvy & Mather.
(3) What it is, Lynda Barry, Drawn and Quarterly, 2008.
(4) See A quick brown fox , Vanessa Vargo, JJPM, 2011, for hand-pressed examples that live on the page.
(5) On Poetry, Glyn Maxwell, Oberon Masters, 2012.
(6) Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works, Erik Spiekermann, Adobe, 2013
‘The Print Museum’ came out with Bloodaxe in March 2016 and was shortlisted for the East Anglian Book Award. Electric Shadow (Bloodaxe, 2011), was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Centre Prize for Poetry. Find out more about Heidi’s work at www.heidiwilliamsonpoet.com