Sunday 31 May 2015

The Printed Snow; noticing things

In March last year I was driving through tree-lined Norfolk country lanes with Michael Mackmin, on the day of the nature tour prize for the Rialto/RSPB poetry competition.  I said I’d recently started to feel frustrated that I couldn’t recognise different trees in winter.  So Michael enumerated them as we drove past: ash, oak, oak, ash, oak, some alders over there, poplar, poplar, poplar, oak… 

Spring was about to burst out, but when winter came I started trying to learn the shapes of trees.  I think I am now quite good at oaks.  The same thing happened with birdsong a few years ago – beyond already known songs by woodpigeon or blackbird such learning is a slow and painstaking process for someone with a poor ear.  The wren, singer of the same set of flourishes again and again, was my first success.

When HappenStance publisher Helena Nelson announced that she was producing a pamphlet on typesetting poetry by poet and Dark Horse editor Gerry Cambridge, I was intrigued.  The Rialto is expertly designed by Nick Stone, so when we get the pdf proofs back it’s mostly to check for missing lines, verse breaks gone wrong, etc.  Our occasional discussions about the presentation of a particular poem on the page are my only experience of the design side of typesetting...  Apart from choosing Verdana for this blog because it’s plain and supposed to be easy to read online.  And having a discussion with Helena Nelson about whether a long-lined poem in my pamphlet should be printed vertically rather than horizontally – she said No, it would draw attention to the poem’s vertical appearance rather than the contents. 

I’d already benefited from Cambridge’s typographical skills because he’s advised HappenStance on design.  I ordered The Printed Snow (here) and it was austerely elegant, as one would expect.  With lovely blackberry-coloured end papers.  One feature of it is this: in several places the first word in a line has an inverted comma before it, to open a quote.  The inverted comma lies slightly outside the left-hand margin – it sticks out.  Presumably that’s a characteristic of this particular typeface, Trinité 2 Roman.  Would I have noticed, had I not been reading about typography? 

The Printed Snow soon had me reaching for the pile of poetry books on my table (two piles actually) to look at, and for, things I hadn’t noticed before. Or things I’d only noticed in poorly typeset books: as Cambridge says,

Setting inner text is a scrupulous business in which, like the art of forging banknotes, a creator’s invisibility is a sign of success.

One of the pleasures of reading this pamphlet-monograph is its physical form.  It’s nice, and rare, to hold in the hands a short, pocketable piece of non-fiction prose that’s not part of a newspaper, magazine or website.   

The pamphlet isn’t a comprehensive treatment of the subject but an “idiosyncratic essay” (with a bibliography for those who want more).  Here are some of the things that struck me, a mix of unknown unknowns, unknown knowns and known unknowns.

Design perfection on the computer screen may be something else entirely on the page.  A pamphlet page can be read almost to the central gutter but the binding of a paperback reduces page width by up to 20mm. 

Some typefaces are more economical than others with space across a page. 

Typesetters enjoy finding or making links between the typeface chosen and the writer and/or subject; Cambridge used a typeface called Tacitus (after the Roman historian famous for his irony, unusual vocabulary and the extreme compression of his writing) in a pamphlet on the Gaelic poet and scholar Derick Thomson. 

There is a typeface called Turnip. 

Unlike prose blocks in a book, the varying shapes of poems can lead to ‘show-through’ of type from one page to the next.  I suppose I had noticed this, but not enough to… notice.

Poetry dilemma: do you set the same left-hand margin on each page, or use an imaginary centre line to place the poems?  The latter may be necessary for a mix of long- and short-lined poems.  Sharon Olds’ Stag’s Leap happened to be on the table: I opened it and read with new eyes.  Her poems may be mostly blocks but the line length varies from middling to quite long.  Cape, her publisher, chose the centred approach.  This does – now – look slightly odd when one leaves through, but the other options would have been to squeeze the shorter-lined poems right over to the left, leaving lots of space on the right; or turn the longer lines over, ie run them on into the next line.  “Love” must have been maddening to arrange on its first, full page: the left-hand side of it almost disappears into the central gutter so as to accommodate all the lines … except line 1, which has to be turned over.  But then this is how the first few lines read:

I had thought it was something we were in. I had thought we
in it that day, in the capital
of his early province – how could we
not have been in it, in our hotel bed, in the
cries through the green grass-blade.

The initial awkwardness gets read into the argument of the poem.  In this case that works rather well with the emphasis on the forced line break “we / were”, two key words for the poem and indeed the whole book.  So I’m now almost wondering if the turning-over here was deliberate.

Cambridge compares writing poetry and typography because both “require almost neurotic levels of attention to detail”.  I’m no designer but am now engaged in noticing typesetting, along with birdsong and the silhouettes of winter trees.  

PS: I know the text of this blog post starts too far below the title.  I’ve been messing around with it for 15 minutes and have only made it worse…

PPS: I’ve just seen that Dave Coates (at Dave Poems, see the blog list on the right) has won this year’s Saboteur Best Reviewer Award.  Hooray!! and congratulations to him. 


  1. Dear Fiona

    I once read a book on recognizing different trees. It's a combination of their overall shape plus, of course, their leaves. I'm no expert on the subject but I'm much better than I used to be. It's good to see that Dave Coates has won this year's Saboteur Best Reviewer Award. He is honest to a fault and isn't always trying to curry favour with other poets which makes him compulsively readable.

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

    1. Yes, absolutely excellent news about Dave Poems!

      Leaves don't help much in winter, though they are useful if one doesn't recognise the tree, goes up to it and scours the ground for the prevailing dead ones. Provided the tree isn't close to lots of others...