I already know how I would design it
Margaret Bashaar is telling me about the new chapbook she’s writing, and four poems in, I already know how I would design it. It would be enclosed in a handmade vellum envelope, sealed with ribbon and wax. Inside, the chapbook itself. Extra-large outside margins to compensate for a bite taken out of the book block. Deep red cardstock, embossed with teeth marks, for the cover.
I find myself wondering if there’s a bite-mark print technique I could use—didn’t I see that on a dentist’s business card once?—or if I’d have to bite them myself to get the effect. No, I think, people would say that’s gross. Are there stock images of bite impressions? Man, I wish I had a 3D printer so I could make a pair of fake teeth. Can I buy one of those dentist’s teeth models off eBay or Etsy?
Twenty minutes later, I remember that Margaret hasn’t even finished this project yet, and I haven’t agreed to publish it.
I just decided that I should learn how
No one taught me how to make books—at least, not in the mentor-student way that people usually associate with learning a craft. One day, I just decided that I should learn how, spent many hours compiling online resources, and bargain-shopped my way to cardstock, colored staples, a saddle-stitch stapler, and a linocut kit.
More supplies would come. Curved needles discovered in a Wal-Mart bargain bin. Spools of waxed linen purchased with a 40% off Michael’s coupon. Book press made from recycled cabinets. Reams of fancy paper rescued from a print shop. Paper trimmer. Bone folder. Another stapler. Another bone folder. Specialty rulers. Specialty glues. Cardstock. Vellum. Wallpaper. Decorative endpapers. Envelope templates. A dozen or more book arts and papercrafts volumes.
But before my bookmaking supplies dominated my office closet, it was just me trying to figure out how to publish things.
I visualized the beaten envelope, the cover, and the strange, conspiracy-riddled pages between
When I first heard poems from Les Kay’s The Bureau in 2014, I flashed back to twelve years earlier, to handling Irk Bercegeay’s 2002 mixed-media book Found Object for the first time. I visualized the beaten envelope, the cover, and the strange, conspiracy-riddled pages between, and I wanted others to feel the same delight and dread that I felt with Found Object—except tailored to Les’s poems.
Sundress Publications accepted the chapbook manuscript for publication about a year later, and I called dibs on editing, design, and execution. Most of our chapbooks are digital, offered freely to anyone who visits the site, but I wanted this one to have a limited-edition print run in addition to the free version.
The typewriter text, file folders, and stamps were the first things I envisioned. I originally intended to retype the entire manuscript, manually redact it with a black marker, and scan it. Unfortunately, my typewriter broke before I could finish, so I opted for a typewriter app and PDF editing tools. This had the advantage of making the digital conversion process much easier.
I didn’t think of the slides until much later. Once I had that idea, I went to a local vintage market and examined every single slide in stock, searching for landscapes without people in the frame. Then, I examined every old office stamp they had. After hours of confusing the owners with my searches, I left with a paper bag containing three stamps and dozens of slides.
Finally, after weeks spent editing the manuscript, designing the book, running copies, acquiring materials, and binding with the help of four assistants, I had 100 copies of The Bureau ready for shipping.
They sold out in less than a month.
I had a thought: Shouldn’t I learn to do this for myself
before I do it for someone else?
In 2006, I had a chapbook—Balm—that someone agreed to publish. This was my first book, and I wanted to know how it was all done, everything from materials selection to layout to distribution. As we started hashing out the details, I had a thought: Shouldn’t I learn to do this for myself before I do it for someone else? That question haunted me, and after several days, I made a decision that many of my peers deemed “career-wrecking.”
I told my publisher that I wanted to pull the chapbook and self-publish it instead.
“This has nothing to do with you or your press,” I wrote, “but if I’m going to do this for other people someday, I should learn how to do it myself. Plus, if I fuck up, I only have to answer to myself. I won’t break an author’s trust.”
“Good,” she wrote back. “I’m proud of you.”
Most books really do “tell” me how they want to look
People ask how I come up with my book designs. I have a few stock answers:
“I like to be inspired by what others have done. There are a lot of really neat books out there.”
“You know, the book is really an extension of the writing itself.”
“The book will tell you what it wants to look like.”
“The point is to have fun with it and be proud when you’re done.”
All of these are true. I have a pretty extensive collection of handmade books, from stunning letterpress editions to single-sheet ’zines on copy paper, and I’m as inspired by their physical forms as the text between their covers. Most books really do “tell” me how they want to look, and I really enjoy the process.
Still, I spend a lot of time figuring out how to execute the ideas I get. There are considerations—materials, equipment, labor, skills, etc. I might want to try a caterpillar stitch, but am I up to the task? Is it possible to make 50 copies of a chapbook using a star-shaped stab binding in six weeks?
When I decided to design and bind Skate or Die, a collaborative chapbook with Erin Elizabeth Smith, for the Dusie Kollektiv, I knew instinctively that I wanted either dos-à-dos—like Dan Moynihan’s Catching the Moon and Our Pet Moon—or tête-bêche—like the classic Ace double novels. I decided on dos-à-dos but didn’t want to lose the back-and-forth of the poems, so I opted to face one set of poems right-to-left. This made the project more complicated than I imagined, and
I got the whole thing wrong more than I’d like to admit:
Most people don’t get to see you screw up, though; all they see is the final product in their hands.
Writers have a lot to learn from the do-it-yourself spirit
of the crafting community
Crafting has a number of negative associations. For one, crafts are rarely considered art. Remember that “and” in “arts and crafts”? The crafts are separate, dismissible. Crafters are often women, and there’s this notion that what they do is not serious or important because it’s domestic. Bookmaking, though, walks a wobbly line between art and craft, domestic and public. It’s an outlier.
I knew several other crafts before I took up bookmaking, but I sometimes find myself wishing that more writers were crafters. Writers have a lot to learn from the do-it-yourself spirit of the crafting community. Directions for knitting a simple scarf can be as jargon-riddled as literary criticism. Tying off the final strand of a necklace can be as rewarding as revising a poem. The sigh of completion, the knowledge that one’s effort has resulted in something tangible and worthwhile, is the same for writers and crafters alike.
There’s something else, though—something that took me almost a decade to realize.
If someone had asked me early on in my learning process, I might have said that learning how to make books would teach me about publishing and protect me from unscrupulous people.
Ask me now, and I’ll tell you that it’s protected others from me.
I was stunned by how beautiful they all were
After the completion of Skate or Die, Erin asked me to visit her poetry writing class and talk about chapbooks. Her students had already spoken to Margaret about them, but she wanted another person to come in.
“You’ll probably say a lot of the same shit,” she said, “but that’s good because they need to hear it again from someone else besides us.”
“Rule of threes, right?”
She laughed. “Yeah.”
So, I went. Showed them mockups of chapbooks I’d made, print and digital, as well as a few choice examples from my collection. Answered questions with my stock answers. Told a lot of stories. Went on a tangent about the history of ’zines, the stigma of self-publishing, and the value of bookmaking in a world where we hold more computing power in our calculators than NASA had for Apollo 11.
“Sorry about that,” I said to Erin after class. “I got a little carried away.”
“It’s cool. I think they liked it, and like I said, they needed to hear it.”
A few weeks later, she invited me over to look at the chapbooks her students had made. Most had opted for print. Some were bound with staples, others hand-sewn. One was burned at the edges. Another had original illustrations by the author. I was stunned by how beautiful they all were.
“I think,” Erin said, pouring me another glass of wine, “that y’all made a difference.”
T.A. Noonan is the author of several books and chapbooks, most recently The Midway Iterations (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2015), Fall (Lucky Bastard Press, 2016), and The Ep[is]odes: a reformulation of Horace (Noctuary Press, 2016). Their work has appeared in LIT, Menacing Hedge, Ninth Letter, Phoebe, Reunion: The Dallas Review, West Wind Review, and others. A weightlifter, artist, teacher, and priestess, T.A. is an Associate Editor of Sundress Publications and the Development Director for the Sundress Academy for the Arts.