"Snapping Intimately Within the Air": The Radical Humanity of the Hand-Typed Chipbook
Kathleen Rooney | August 2015
Emily Dickinson was a triple threat: poet, baker, gardener.
Chicago writer Eric Plattner is also one: poet, teacher, typewriter repairman.
Although she published virtually none of her work over the course of her lifetime, Dickinson gave her neighbors handwritten copies of her poems tucked into bunches of flowers that she had grown herself. This was one of the only ways that any of her family’s friends in Amherst even knew that she wrote poetry.
Lately, Eric, who earned his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1992, but who has published almost nothing in the twenty-plus years since (aside from his translations of German poetry, which you can find on his blog, Red Yucca) has been giving away handmade copies of a little chapbook of his poems called 31 MORNINGS, offering them for free to any of his friends who runs into him and happens to ask, “What have you been working on?”
Eric and I are founding members of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and our vintage, portable, manual typewriters, who set up our machines in various public places—street festivals, flea markets, public libraries, art museums, planetariums, storefront theaters, and so on—and write commissioned poetry on demand. Customers give us a topic, $5, and about fifteen minutes, and we give them an original, one-of-a-kind, typewritten poem.
With 31 MORNINGS, Eric is taking these ideas of artisanality and the limited edition to a deliberate extreme, typing each book by hand on various typewriters from his considerable collection. Lest any of this sounds overly self-serious, puns are involved: he calls them “chipbooks” in honor, as he says, of “the chipboard covers I’ve salvaged from the cheap scratch pads I use for the paper. The book designed itself. Durable, cheap, simple, unassuming. The visible-tool-mark aesthetic. 1960s Dragnet Institutional.”
My copy, the very first one in the series, has a note in the back that explains:
These poems were typed on
a 1970 Brother “Sears” JP-1
with Aggie at my side.
She was with me
from start to finish—
1/1/2015 to 5/12/2015.
I’ll miss her.
Aggie was one of his two beloved cats; she died this past summer. This note, with its mention of her, speaks to the intense humanity that the chipbooks possess, in their content, certainly, and especially in their form. Every letter, every word, every page of every single copy Eric decides to produce has to be typed up by his own ten fingers; there’s no other mechanical reproduction, and there are no shortcuts or digitization at any stage. None of these poems has ever been, or ever will be, sent out for consideration for publication by a magazine.
While this degree of microproduction is antithetical to what most authors do and want—which is work hard to make sure that their work is as readily available and as widely distributed as possible—Eric is not doing this hyper-artisanal version of self-publishing in opposition to any impulse of sharing, which he happens to largely lack. Nor is he pursuing it out of any feeling of contrarianism against the forces of commerce or the digital age. “The decision to not publish is a reflection of me, nothing more,” he says. “No manifesto, no larger critique. Just how I feel about myself in the world.”
Even as he was working hard on the poems themselves earlier this year, beginning on New Year’s Day, finding both their subject matter (the thirty-year anniversary of his godmother Sharon’s suicide, and the ten-year anniversary of his father’s death from AIDS-related dementia) and their shape (almost all of the poems are eleven lines long, and because the month of January has thirty-one days, there’d be thirty-one poems), he told almost no one, including himself, what he was up to.
“Purpose is toxic for me,” he says, explaining why he couldn’t, until the very end, really admit that he was writing a book. “Like a good walk, no destination means never being late and never getting lost.”
Even now, as he gives them out on a very small scale to interested requesters—to date, he has made and hand-delivered thirteen copies, and his list of people who want one is up to twenty—he remains ambivalent about the idea of having an audience, let alone charging for his work. “The desire to publish requires a conviction that somebody out there wants to read what you wrote. I lack that conviction. Why would anyone care?” he says. “I wrote the poems to dead people, and the moment they were written, they had reached their audience. They were published, right there in the typewriter. I’m very grateful other writers don’t feel this way; otherwise, I wouldn’t have their books.”
The poems themselves reflect that intimacy. Each poem is an elegy, and 31 MORNINGS could just as easily be spelled 31 MOURNINGS. But without the above information on whom the poems memorialize, a reader would be hard-pressed to figure out precisely who they are “about” and what exactly has “happened.” But that’s not really necessary to know in order to experience the poems’ almost inaudible beauty, nor is it really the point—the poems are meant to be, and succeed as, stripped-down whispers, minimalist and ascetic.
Reading them, holding the rough cardboard cover in your hands, feels like catching a glimpse of a person, unbeknownst to him, in the midst of a profoundly personal, specific, and private activity. Each thin white page is like walking in on someone having a cry in his bedroom, or praying in an otherwise empty church, someone who is lamenting an ineffable loss, experiencing a sorrow that he can never completely explain but whose depth of grief is powerfully clear.
Through both their content and handbound format, these austere and mysterious poems evoke, as in the final lines of “MORNING 30”:
Someone abandoning someone else.
The lunging of the dog
at the falling snow.
The stilling, inconspicuous
of the field.
Photo credit: Eric Plattner