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Essay on Paper

Once, my time was valueless because I lived somewhere very cheap. After that, in a new town, I was unable to secure enough paid work, and my time remained untethered from cash economies. In the first town, I learned many small luxuries: seventy-five cent beers at the bar on weeknights; weeding at the organic farm in exchange for vegetables. In the second town, I pet-sat, sometimes sublet an apartment, sometimes lived in a friend’s mother’s basement. In those years I often made paper by hand, from extra-long twin sheets bought a decade before for a dormitory bed, or from t-shirts too sweat-stained to wear. I would prowl thrift stores to the sound of Christian rock, searching out the largest linen dresses with the fewest seams. A seam is wasted time or wasted material: one either slowly rips the stitches out or cuts the whole thing away. I watched water and fiber turn slowly in a Hollander beater, a machine named for the country of its invention.

In those times, I learned mostly through my hands, through my body, through the constant anxious hums of contingency. I became proficient with rice and dried beans, with paper grain, with a borrowed sewing machine.

Now, I live in a city in which I cannot access a Hollander beater. I pay, online, for my paper, and it arrives in reams, wrapped in hot-pink, from a family-run mill in Michigan. This is one way in which questions of material are also questions of time, of place, of money, of access to tools. In 1819, before he was a published poet, John Clare wrote to a local minister “Sir   I hope you will Excuse my Scraps of Paper but you know it is a Scarsity with me.” In my life as a scholar, I visit Clare’s archive, where I sit at a round table as folders are brought to me. In the folders: poems on ledger paper, on coarse blue sheets in which I suspect sugar was once wrapped for purchase, on a handbill addressed to the ELECTORS of STAMFORD (“Vote for those who will promote the Interests of True Religion, and you will vote for CECIL and for CHAPLIN.”) Clare’s famous sonnets are largely drafted on the folded paper in which letters were sent to him, and I wonder, briefly, if he turned to the sonnet because these small papers arrived regularly at his door, requiring him to pay the postage for their delivery. The cruelty of a world in which a poor man writing publicly  receives unending mail, mostly from strangers, and is made to pay for this unsolicited attention.

Thought is cheap; paper, expensive. Writers may have always feared their words would be worth less than the paper on which they were printed. The martyrdom of jakes and fire—a poem used to wipe shit or kindle flame. So Alexander Pope taunts his rivals in The Dunciad, a poem that grew and grew over the last fifteen years of his life. A century later, Isaiah Deck wrote a paper for the American Institute of the City of New York, called “On a Supply of Paper Material from the Mummy Pits of Egypt.” New York’s paper mills slavering over three thousand year old linen bandages, dreaming of the New Kingdom’s honored dead stripped bare for sheet music and newspapers.

An early lesson of letterpress printing is that type will wear away under the process’s repeated pressure. “Type is soft; paper is hard,” as my first letterpress teacher said. What goes: the dot on a lowercase “i,” the end of a comma’s thin tail. A serif here and there. The letters erased by staunch paper like old coins worn smooth by unnamed fingers. Like a dress worn by the body’s movements until its seams begin to give.


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