The Art of the Chapbook: Paper

Every artist knows the agonizing gap between an idea and a work of art. In my experience, visual art is particularly frustrating this way – perhaps because whatever skills I developed have long since left me, but also because writing comes so much more naturally to me. But even writing brings with it that frisson between the thing you want to say and the thing you actually end up saying. The Internet-famous video blogger Ze Frank calls that gaps “brain-crack.”[i] The longer an idea sits around in your head without being executed, the more you get addicted to the fantasy of the final product. But artists can’t get addicted to brain crack, or they’ll never make any art.

A chapbook has been my brain crack since about 2009. While I’ve been writing steadily since the age of nine, a variety of obstacles kept me from pursuing my literary ambitions as fully as I would have liked. Some of them I overcame, and some of them I learned to live with and work around. And during that time, I learned to take small steps to incorporate poetry (the art form that comes most naturally to me) back into my life in a non-brain-crack kind of way. The small steps paid off, and eventually I was able to compile a chapbook manuscript. But what to do with it? Send it to contests? The fees added up quickly. Submit to a small press? I found some whose books I enjoyed – both in content and in form. But book quality varied greatly. And I began to question the business side of things. Why give up creative control to a publisher who may or may not market your book, which you may or may not be able to afford once it’s been printed? I’d always been interested in publishing as a medium – in fact, my romance with web design began in 1999 when I realized I could self-publish online. And by 2009, it was easier than ever to make small runs of print books.

Still, the brain crack persisted. It told me that this very first edition – my first foray into print publishing since college –  needed to be PERFECT. On a silver platter with glitter and rose petals and applause, as Ze Frank would say.  Hence this course. As initially proposed, I’d thought of it as a way to force myself to execute an idea that I’d grown far too fond of in the abstract. And in the process of this first month of research, that’s begun to happen. But the path toward brain-crack recovery pointed in quite a different direction than I’d thought. This is where Lesley – and Lori Desrosiers my IS advisor – really proved the value of an MFA program.

Lori had me take a step back from my manuscript to consider the entire process of creating a book, starting with the paper it’s printed on. Nicholas Basbanes’s book On Paper made me consider the substance in a whole new way. I’d heard of parchment and papyrus, but didn’t really understand how they differed from paper. “What the Chinese had discovered [when they invented paper] was a type of molecular cohesion distinctive to all vegetative matter and known to chemists as hydrogen bonding,”[ii] he writes. It’s a simple process, but one with room for infinite variation. Straw, flax, cotton, Japanese kozo, old rags, wood pulp – all of these and more have been used as the cellulose base for paper, along with uncounted proprietary additives used to regulate the formation.

Basbanes recounts in vivid detail a trip to China visit the few remaining mills where families still make paper by hand. His discussion of the different materials these artisans use and the different papers that result sparked my imagination, and his description of the simple process inspired me to try it for myself. I soon discovered – and Basbanes notes in his book – that I’m not the only one whose imagination had been captured. I found abundant materials online to help me with my own project.

The basic principle behind papermaking is to lift a screen through a slurry of pulp and water. As the water drains off the screen, the hydrogen bonding process begins and the sheet of paper forms. Then it’s necessary to transfer the sheet to a flat surface, sponge it off the screen, press it, and dry it. I had most of the materials I needed: paper,[iii] a shredder, a blender, a bin for the slurry, and a mechanism for pressing and drying the sheets. The most specialized piece of equipment needed was the frame and deckle, essentially two wooden frames: one free-standing and one with a screen attached. It’s possible to make a frame and deckle out of a couple of old picture frames and items from a hardware store, but for expediency’s sake I purchased one ready-made from Wooden Deckle, an online store that delivers through Etsy and Amazon. Papermaking studios press paper between sheets of felt, squeeze them in a big screw press, and then dry them with fans or heat – a setup too cumbersome for my kitchen operation. But it’s also possible to dry sheets by sponging them onto a window or a sealed piece of wood. I found a new purpose for my seldom-used drawing board: positioned in front of our heating vent, it makes a pretty good paper-drying station. Rather than take a trip to the fabric store for felt, I experimented with towels and old bedsheets, only to discover that the synthetic dishcloths included in the kit containing the deckle make an excellent substitute for felt.

Even after I had assembled all my materials, I still had to surmount the brain-crack barrier. I reminded myself that failure is a part of the learning process, and that it was unlikely that the first sheet would be perfect. When it came time to make the pulp, I took a note from the Khandroling Paper Cooperative, which recycles sacred texts to make its papers. I plucked drafts of poems (often printed on the back of memos from my corporate job) and scraps from literary collage projects out of the recycling bin. I threw in a tear-away from Poets & Writers Magazine for good measure. And because it was close to Valentine’s Day and I was aiming to make decorative paper, I added in some lavender and red construction paper. The first sheet of paper did indeed come off the felt a bit malformed. But I reminded myself that it was all part of the learning process, and over the course of the next four sheets (my drying board had room for no more) I got a feel for the sponge, the deckle, and the newly formed sheets came out uniform and beautiful. Initially, I’d thought the decorative focus of most home-based papermaking kits too frivolous. But I surrendered to the spirit of play and experimented with glitter and dried flowers on a few pieces. I even tried adding rose otto oil to the sheets with the flowers, but found that the scent didn’t hold very well. You can see photographs of the process in this Google Photos Album.

Making the paper gave me the visceral satisfaction of a physical act of creation, something that’s easy to lose when one is writing words on a screen, or even scrawling out a longhand draft. Along with reading Basbanes’s book, it gave me a new respect for a substance I’ve taken for granted all my life, and for the artistry involved in making it.

Making the paper also inspired me to print an actual prototype of my manuscript in a   6”x 9” book fold – the first time I overcame my brain crack to do so. As with the papermaking project, the first attempt wasn’t entirely successful. But that “failure” (aka learning experience) turned out to be a necessary part of the process, the one that turned my project from idea into physical object. The 5” x 7” sheets fit well inside as end-papers. At the beginning of the semester, I was thinking of having the bulk of the book created and bound by a digital printing company. But making paper by hand – and learning about its history – was so satisfying that I’d like to explore other hands-on aspects of creating a book, such as binding and letterpress. I’m thinking that a handmade first edition – even if it’s a first edition of one – may be the most satisfying product of this course.

[i] See a PG version of Ze Frank’s “brain crack” video here:
See the original version (with f-bombs) here:
Read a transcript of the video here:

[ii] Basbanes, Nicholas A. On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History. Vintage Books, 2014. Print. p. 10

[iii] As captivated as I was by the idea of processing plant fibers from scratch to create the pulp, I thought it best to start by recycling the multitude of paper we use at home every day.

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