26 December, 2011

Change the Default Settings

Though I never formally studied visual art, I'm an amateur painter (and have made a few bucks selling pieces), and was fortunate enough in my college years to study the music industry, marketing, pre-internet/digital publishing, and work for journals like Ninth Letter, which was a combined effort on the part of the Creative Writing department and Art & Design at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.  The longer I write poems, and the longer I work in the business of formatting poems for publication--currently doing all the interior layout design for Cooper Dillon Books--the more I think about how poems occupy physical space. From there, I wonder why we poets don't include spacial consideration in composing our work.

A painter, before beginning a piece, considers the size of the canvas that will hold the work; a woodworker will measure a space for an intended piece of furniture; a choreographer will consider practice and performance space, and adapt as necessary.  Artists of these disciplines understand and consider space, but we writers seem to open our word processing programs, and do out work in 8.5 x 11, then save the file in that format, and send to journals or calls for book submissions, and keep them in 8.5 x 11, knowing full well that the poem will not be appearing in that size.  We know this, and we think of our lines, spaces, letters and words so carefully in a space that simply isn't realistic real estate that will be available when we are actually able to share the work with the community.

Two quick stories:

* When I was in a workshop, one of my peers brought in a poem that was set in landscape, and in an exceptionally blocky font--something like Bank Gothic.  It was visually interesting, and, as it happens, really served to help the poem's pacing.  Without even giving it a read-around, the professor disregarded the work, and demanded that all poems appear in standard 8.5 x 11 portrait, and use a standard serif font like Times or Garamond. Nevermind that, pedagogically, the professor alienated that particular writer, and a decent portion of the class, effectively turning the safe intimacy of the workshop into a toxic environment. What he or she also did was completely shut down even the potential to educate us on the role of typography in our work, and how it feeds and engages the language, thus changing the experience of the poem for readers. Or, perhaps because of the aggressive shut-down and moratorium on perceived "standards," it moved some of us to think about formatting in a whole new light, if only with the initial intent to rebel against such a rigid requirement.

* Nate Pritts has a magnificent poem called "Endless Summer," which appears in The Wonderfull Yeare.  He was meticulous in formatting the lines of this poem, so when we had to make the move to a book format (we do 5.5 x 8.5 in the Cooper Dillon shop), there was a decision to make.  To preserve the spacing, we could have reduced the font size to fit in the 5.5 margin; this would have made it near impossible to comfortably read, and would have also undermined the original effort and care in conceiving the spacing in the first place.  The other alternative, which won out, was to swivel the poems so they were landscaped. Not only did this preserve the original visual elements that Pritts intended, it also added a little something different to the book.  At some point he asked, "Can we really do that?" and I replied, "If D.A. Powell can do it for an entire book, we can do it for 6 pages!"

Like I said, I was fortunate to learn about certain elements of business during my education in poetry, but I can't help but feel that I missed out on certain essential skills: book-making was not available, nor was any sort of survey in typography or text design.  Therefore, I've had to make efforts to acquire these skills on my own time.  While there might be comfort in perceived standards, as a community, I think we should embrace using all of the tools at our fingertips to be more artful in our craft.

I write with "invisibles" showing, so I can see design markers as I write. Just this morning, I changed the default settings of my page from 8.5 v 11 to 5.5 x 8.5.  It seems reasonable that when the poems appear in a print journal, or finally in a finished book, they'll appear in either that size, or maybe in 6 x 9. Rather than go through headaches of trying to make the conversation after the fact, or to, perhaps, be a bit more considerate to whomever decided that they can stand behind my poems, I think it's the right move.  We don't have to use the default, just because that's how it opens up.  I know that not every writer is tech-savy, and easily able to go in and mess with settings and preferences, but in this day and age, it behooves us to extend our skills, and not only think of language, but how that language is presented.

Perhaps it's a short-coming of writing programs that there isn't more emphasis on learning about space, but I have faith in my community to be at least a little autodidactic.  People get paid to know these technical elements, but that doesn't mean we can learn them, especially if it means enriching our artistic efforts.

No comments: