Recently, in a series of essay-discussions on letterpress & method, Hugh Barclay (of Thee Hellbox Press) posed this question about the work that goes into the kind of chapbooks he makes:
why spend all that time setting type; proofing and then printing pages, using metal and wood type on a vintage printing press…getting your hands dirty…just for a few copies of some book. Why do all that work when you can key it into a word processor and then have the pages photo copied? (“Thee Hellbox”: Letterpress & Method, par. 2)
Looking at Phil Hall’s X, the 47th book to come off the Hellbox, it’s no real question why Hugh does it; the books themselves are artworks—beautiful collaborative projects & the labour of a small vintage-press-love-affair.
The book interrogates printing and writing. It examines the collaborative act that created it while probing that process. It takes up its own perspective in language, the very idea of drafting; Hall writes that he “works on a poem for nearly a year / when it is aping nothing-else / & everything-else” (6). But, the collaborative everything-else—with its hand cut paper & wood block illustrations—is something else!
The poem most attentive to the idea of collaboration begins with the line “what is the dot above the i called.” In this sequence Michéle LaRose’s illustration serves as a question mark completing the syntax of the sentence. When Hall references the i type stating “Hugh knows it’s a tittle,” he draws our attention back to Barclay’s efforts in printing the material book (2). The speaker of this poem (& X) is not just a problematic “i” it’s an “us too.” It’s a book of three; poems by Hall that are completed and overlaid with LaRose’s abstract artwork that serve visual, imaginative, and syntactic functions. Barclay reminds us that these come from the painstaking process of making it all a thing: for the “enjoyment” of it—the “pride” of draft.
To avoid yammering about X, I am including some comments others have made (& passed onto the collaborators directly). These ideas and readings (while not my own,) are reviews en abîme. The notions they put forward about the book are three-affirming: I agree with Cameron Anstee that the work is one of the “most beautiful books on my shelves,” but anatomizing this idea forces me to consider its questioning poetry, beautiful artwork / medium, and the collaborative production—these comprise the “most.” The thoughts at the bottom regarding jazz poetry are Gord Sisler’s (Emett Press). These come via Barclay, whose essay-discussions about letterpress which I mentioned (& briefly cited) here only really make sense in the context of a work like X. The visual, and the material do not enhance the poetry, they’re vital elements (& contributions) to our interaction with all three.
22 November 2013
“Have you ever seen the books that Robert Rosewarne illustrated and printed for Jay Macpherson’s Emblem Books? Alden Nowlan’s Wind in a Rocky Country, and Al Purdy’s The Blue in Between. The style of art included reminds me of Rosewarne’s distinctive work. X has gone right to the top of the list of most beautiful books on my shelves” (Cameron Anstee)
“Gord Sisler mentioned turning the pages and seeing and hearing the jazz greats and named a number of them. He asked me to pass his comments along to the other players, collaborators, which of course I did. I think I had spoken to him on a previous occasion about our need to write and publish jazz poetry. I don’t know what that might be but unless we ask impossible questions and strive for such things we will stay in the shallow waters…” (Sisler via Barclay)
Barclay, Hugh Walter. “Hugh Barclay’s Insights on ‘Chapter books’& Making Chaps.” Flat Singles Press.Ed. Joseph LaBine. 7 Nov. 2013. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.
—. “Another Review.” Message to Joseph LaBine. 21 Nov. 2013. Email.
—. “‘In My Small Way’—Colophons, Typography, & Ligatures: An Argument for Analog.” Flat Singles Press.Ed. Joseph LaBine. 10 Nov. 2013. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.
—. ““Thee Hellbox Press”: Letterpress & Method.”Flat Singles Press.Ed. Joseph LaBine. 15 Nov. 2013. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.
Hall, Phil. A Rural Pen. Ottawa: Apt. 9 Press, 2012. Print.
—. “note from Phil.” Message to Hugh Barclay and Michéle LaRose. 18 Nov. 2013. Email.