EMBODIED POETICS: THE CONTEMPLATIVE PRACTICE OF LETTERPRESS PRINTING // Jade Lascelles

15 Aug 2019 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

Anyone who has spent time in a letterpress shop can attest to the introspective pull such a space can wield. The shop is a place where time easily blurs, where microcosmic tasks seam together into an intense but sustainable concentration. As with any meditative practice, there can of course be days of frustration, of extreme dissonance between the printer and the equipment, of never being able to shut off the mind’s chatter, of incessant bodily fumbles. But if it is one of those golden days of printing, enough goes right that you can fall into the dance of it—the act and art of creating a print quieting all else. 

In the Harry Smith Print Shop at Naropa University, I regularly witness a pedagogical enactment of this dance. Naropa is a Buddhist-inspired school whose curriculum is rooted in incorporating contemplative practices and insights within classroom content. The goal is to provide students with a depth of wisdom and transpersonal growth in addition to an academic education. Contemplative credit hours are required for all students via classes on traditional Eastern arts, including meditation, yoga, contemplative poetics, qi gong, and ikebana. Having students already attuned to contemplative approaches helps heighten the experiential thoughtfulness that seems to naturally arise in print shop settings.

Regardless of the students’ skill levels, it is fascinating to track the moment when a specific, calm focus overtakes the shop. The initial lack of confidence—usually manifested as asking questions before each movement they dare to make—eventually softens into something less anxious. It is not that the students suddenly know what they are doing. Rather, a hinge occurs where you can witness them yielding to the learning process. The voices in the room fall silent, replaced by the sounds of careful fingers placing type into a composing stick. Questions transform from preemptive and cautionary to retrospective. Even if still relatively novice printers, a sense of self-trust and self-confidence begins to take shape in the students. There is a palpable movement from words as they are spoken (floating, invisible, impossible to capture) to words as they exist concretely (physical things that can literally be grasped between their fingers). Even a noticeable shift in breath may happen. The bodies occupying this shared space fall into a rhythm of breathing not dissimilar to the pranayama limb of yoga. It is a breath of intention, of attention, and it quite often arrives inadvertently, organic but simultaneous among the students. Not that our shop becomes monastic per say; we are still proponents of the power that loud music and unabashed humor have in the realm of creation. But there is a quietude that manifests surprisingly, considering we are in a room filled with loud, heavy, mechanical objects.   

Admittedly, there are some variables at work that create an atmosphere ripe for these kinds of reactions. As I previously mentioned, these are students already used to contemplative modalities and pedagogy in the classroom. Additionally, most of them are studying writing within the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, meaning there is a predisposition to considering and working with language in experimental or theoretical ways. However, I do not think any of what I’ve witnessed in my students is unique to Naropa. Many physical actions, including athletics, performing arts, and manual tasks, can be catalysts for enhanced or deepened mental concentration. I imagine printers from across history and cultures would identify with the phenomena I describe here—just using a different vocabulary for it.     

Within the context of Naropa, I have long been a champion for letterpress classes counting toward contemplative credit requirements. I frequently joke that the shop is a place of embodied poetics within the Kerouac School, as on any given day there is a collection of writers building, shaping, holding language. There is also a deeper intellectual experience accessed by transcending through the (sometimes quite repetitive) physical actions of printing, and because of this, I consider the print shop to be one of the best editorial tools a writer can have. The focus, consideration, and sheer amount of time given to hand-setting a piece will do wonders for truly understanding potency and economy of language. Every punctuation choice must be intentional and important, a deliberate act of dropping the comma or em dash into the stick. When page layout becomes a somatic endeavor, as when locking up a forme in the press, the abstract notion of the page as a field for composition evolves into a tangible concept. The act of printing is a meditation on both the materiality and the meaning of content. It is an evolving practice of sitting in these spaces alongside the words being conjured. 

I sometimes wonder what it would look like to bring attention to the contemplative nature of letterpress to the forefront. If we printers approached our art as a consciously meditative act, how would that affect the ideas of what letterpress printing communicates to the world? Would our relationship to our materials and equipment shift in any way? Or would it be a case of retroactive language, of a vernacular at last available to what and who we’ve always been—heads down, eyes sharp, carefully feeding a sheet of paper toward the possibilities contained within its blankness?


Jade Lascelles (she/her/hers) is a poet, editor, and letterpress printer who harbors dreams of someday being a rock n’ roll drummer. Her work has been featured in numerous journals and the anthologies Precipice: Writing at the Edge and Women of Resistance: Poems for a New Feminism. In addition to an editorial career, she manages the Harry Smith Print Shop at Naropa University.



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