Writer in Residence · 06/20/2013

Some fragments [6]: Intersections

Woolf’s diary, 24 June, 1918:
“Before tea this afternoon I finished setting up the last words of Katherine [Mansfield]‘s stories—68 pages.”

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In 2004 I walked into a large room on the ground floor of a university building, a humid day, August, the river rising with mist, the bright blue of the sky signaling autumn and the end of the year approaching. The smells of oil-based ink, press grease, asphaltum, Dutch mordant, copper disintegrating in acid, unwashed human bodies, gum arabic, mineral spirits, lithotine. And the air from outside, carrying a load of late-summer pollen and smog, the smell of decay in the river, my own nervous sweat. The machines were waiting for me there, although I didn’t know what they were then. The etching presses with their silver wheels, the hot plates and the acid baths, the heavy line of grease on the lithography presses’ tympans, jars of ink sweating on narrow shelves. Glass-topped counters bore thin scratches. We worked copper plates with styluses, sitting at big tables.

Before this I had taken a bookmaking class at the university. The natural offshoot of the book being the multiple: I hadn’t thought how integral movable type was to making books until I made some without it. Enrolled in printmaking for the next semester. From that time on immersed in the print: among printmakers, in the printshop late at night, breathing air that carried molecules of every chemical I used. My arms got muscles from the heavy litho rollers. I could take the ink off an ink station with a flat razor, clean it to a shine with almost no spirit. I bought green rubber gloves and picked my plates out of the recycle box. I got good at using a razor scraper to erase images from copper. Hard ground gleamed on my drying plates. In a small room with running water I wore a piece of limestone down in minuscule increments, using a levigator : a heavy disk attached to a rotating handle. Moved in hundreds of circles over water and grit, it evened the stones’ surfaces. I drew on those stones with lithography crayon, grease, my own skin’s oil, with tusche wash.

A total concentration on procedure (this and then this, else this) still left plenty of openness —time for thinking. Absorbed in physical work (it simply takes the time it takes to smooth a stone or to draw an image; to coat a plate; to etch an image into stone; to set up ink, roll it out, and print—or to ink a plate, take the ink down, dampen paper, print), after a while I found that I had much space within which I could roam. My mind was not always or did not always need to be completely occupied by process. At the same time, I had to be bodily present where I was: I couldn’t run off to do something else (most of the time). The result was lots of hours of thinking things through, listening to music on my headphones, absorbing rhythms of work and song.

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One thing I did not realize in advance was the way that printmaking would teach me about writing. Not only the open and welcoming communion of printmakers, who understood things about sharing space and tools and knowledge and process—about working together, essentially—that weren’t givens in the writing program where I was. That was important, what the printmakers taught me about being-together. Also the value of work: they had to show up. To be taken seriously, so did I. To make any work at all, in fact, we had to show up. Not all printmaking depends on being in a printshop (you can make relief prints at home easily—potato prints, for example, or even woodcuts to print by hand), but unless you have a lot of money and room, processes like lithography and etching are more likely to happen in a shared or public workspace. Showing up, day after day, made the community stronger. It made my work stronger. It made my work as a process visible to me. It also (no surprise) increased my skills. It gave me time to think about writing outside of the desk-classroom-workshop triangle, and confirmed my sense that my best writing happens in concert with other work, especially work that uses my body. It gave me a specific and evocative vocabulary.

Most importantly, it gave me a sense of the multiple, the most valuable thing I learned during my formal writing studies.

Almost all prints are multiple: this means that they are made in an edition, (usually) numbered. There is no original; in cases like lithography where the drawing is physically effaced, there is not even a matrix to go back to, as there might be for a print made from a copper plate, for example. (In Venice one summer, I saw plates Caravaggio printed centuries ago, marked through with deep gouges that signified the end of the edition.) A sense of the multiple pervaded the printmaking I learned: not only that one could make the thing more than once, but that the matrix (the plate or stone with the drawing on it) could always be reworked, redone. The word the printmakers most disdained was ‘preciousness’, as in a sense that one had to be conservative, delicate, mincing about the work. They valued boldness, risk, daring, and exorbitance (all things given lip service in my writing workshops), and they enacted them—doing things that put their work on the line materially, like completely etching out parts of a plate, making random marks on a matrix, destroying prints. They did this because they worked with a sense that the object (the single print) was not the goal. The goal was process itself, or was a series of objects that led to one another. I began to think about my writing as a multiple (so easy with copy/paste on a computer): instead of one poem, to be painstakingly line-edited and redrafted to the tiniest detail, I could make a hundred copies of the poem and obliterate each of them, destroying even what I originally loved. Rather than tinkering in micro-view, I could risk losing everything by making changes in macro-view, because I still had the other copies. Or I could make something else—could go on in the direction I’d begun or change direction, leaving the original work behind.

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After I left the MFA and the US, I continued to make prints. But in the last three years, my interest in multiples and my interest in writing as also joined in the form of MIEL and 111O . Reading Woolf’s diary, where she writes about her own press (Hogarth) within a year of having started it, I feel strongly kin. Ninth of July, 1918: “Now I’m in the fury of folding & stapling, so as to have all ready for gluing & sending out tomorrow & Thursday. By rights these processes should be dull; but its [sic] always possible to devise some little skill or economy, & the pleasure of profiting by them keeps one content.” The multiple can be tedious, and it does take time, but it is not without its pleasures (which for me are the accumulation of objects, the way that accumulation marks time’s passing, and, in the case of making books of others’ work, the pleasure of knowing that they will go out in the world—and that they will make the writer happy). In the absence of a printshop at the moment, making books—the process of design, which I do by hand and in the computer, as well as the process of binding by hand—also provides me the space (for thinking about writing, for just thinking) that printmaking did. Besides my conviction that as a writer it’s my job to make opportunities for and to support the work of other writers, making books is a way that I support my own work, by inserting a span of time where I have to be bodily present but can daydream/wander in my mind, and by reminding myself of what the multiple can do.

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posted by Éireann Lorsung