Saturday, October 27, 2007

The touch of words

empty typecase

Every few years I get the chance to set a batch of poetry by hand to print using letterpress. It's a different thing to my usual piecework setting individual lines for titles or colophons. It's also a completely different thing to typing anything on a computer.

Have you ever stopped to think how many words we can write on a daily basis without effort? With computers, word production is almost inexhaustible. Churn out the letters, wipe them out if they're not working, print them out as many times as you like.

Old-fashioned letterpress (as opposed to linotype or monotype) is set letter by letter, side by side, line by line. It is a slower process than handwriting, but they are closely connected in relation to keyboarding. The personal effort made when writing legibly by hand closely connects the writer to the page, to the words, to the intention behind the words. The process is slow enough to allow the writer to consider very carefully the next word, the next line. I don't think computer keyboarding allows this to the same extent, although as I'm not a professional writer I'm not really qualified to make such a generalisation. But look at how much superfluous text is being generated out there, if only in blogosphere!

When I set a poem by hand, I think about these things. I can't think with too much absorption, otherwise I will set the wrong word. It's a bit like driving a car across the Nullabor plain: you can see a truck coming for hours, but if you don't concentrate, you'll still hit the bugger head-on when it finally comes close, even though there's nothing else around for kilometres. You can know the line of text you're setting off by heart, but if your mind wanders, typos creep in. But... the mind always seems to wander.


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