Perhaps one of the lesser-known (and least-enjoyed) tasks of letterpress printing is distributing type, or “dissing.” It is the final task of printing a text: it is the act of breaking up the text and returning the type to the case. While it doesn’t require the degree of concentration that composing does, it is nonetheless a painstaking task that should not be attempted when the printer is rushed or distracted.
I know a number of printers who leave their forms standing for weeks, even months, after the project is complete. It’s not an especially good practice, essentially rendering your type useless until it is dissed. I number myself among that group – and while I’m not proud of this habit, I’ve come to accept it as part of the emotional commitment I make to the text I’ve printed.
It’s an activity that signals the conclusion of your project. The end of a long, intense, and sometimes challenging relationship with the text you’ve selected to print. It signals a finality; that this text will never again be printed in precisely the same way on this press. This final act of breaking down of the form always makes me sad. Whether it’s something as short and cute as a greeting card – or something more significant to me, such as the “Desiderata,” I can’t begin to diss without first indulging in my little spell of grief. Then I will find the serenity that comes with good work accomplished.
Such is the case with the Erhmann poem, which I finished in late October. Aside from my crazy work schedule at the Museum – and the haste and rush of Christmas that pulled me away from my zenful press room – I simply didn’t have time to properly contemplate the end of the project. So it was only in the past few weeks that I was able to settle down, run my fingers over the form, admire once more the beauty of the type and how pleased I was with the result. Only then could I diss the “Desiderata.”
In preparing for the Grimsby Wayzgoose, my next “big” project, I find myself re-reading Clifford Burke’s most beautiful and excellent work Printing Poetry: A Workbook in Typographic Reification*. Part manual, part poetry itself, it offers up nuggets of wisdom for printers and lovers of poetry. On dissing, he writes:
The key to type distribution is your mental state. As long as it’s seen as unpleasant, distributing forms gets put off until it is no longer an integral part of making one book but a hindrance and a burden to the creative process of making the next. I’m not expecting that you’ll actually welcome the task, but if you can learn to see it as a kind of capping off of the work, as a release from the intense concentration on the vision of the growing book, you may come as I did to see distribution as a calm time between books.
While my form did stand for months before I dissed it, I am learning to embrace that “calm time between books” as an occasion to bid adieu to one lovely poem and to contemplate the next. And I can’t help but smile at the significance of the last work I dissed. It was “happy.”
*Letterpress printed in an edition of 2000, copies of Burke’s book can be hard to come by. Happily, several academic libraries keep copies available for inter-library loan, and occasionally some copies appear for sale on used-book sites.