Binding words

This entry is part 3 of 20 in the series Poetics and technology


Publishing houses that will print poetry are almost extinct (I know Dave B. Porcupine would argue that so are readers of poetry), yet the numbers of people writing poetry seem to have grown at an equal or greater rate. Some of them self-publish online or at print-on-demand shops like, but there can be a considerable cost to doing even small numbers in this way.

Just to get a bit low-tech on you for a second: you can hand-bind books yourself.

Through coverWhen a poet friend, Rachel Barenblat, had a miscarriage earlier this year and worked her way through the trauma and grief by writing poetry, yet wondered how to make these poems available to others going through a similar experience, I suggested a small hand-bound edition. Ten poems, title page, table of contents, acknowledgments: this adds up to 15 pages, plus one blank at the back. The magic 16. (Bookbinders think in multiples of eight and get super excited when all the pages add up to multiples of 32…) We settled on a tall, skinny format which conveniently fit on a standard letter-size sheet, folded in half: a pamphlet.

How to do it

Get familiar with your printer, and with whatever software you use to produce sheets with your poetry on them. (I use Adobe InDesign because I’m a designer but you can do this quite adequately on a word processor.) Always make a dummy and number its pages and then unfold them, so you know where the poems are going to fall. And then put them all together before you run off large numbers to be sure it still works. You can use imposition software but it’s not necessary; what IS necessary is a good understanding of where each page is going to end up after folding. Automatic pagination is not your friend here.

Find the longest line of any of your poems and work backwards in the design of your page from that (if the line will be split, find the longest line that won’t). Try and leave a generous gutter/central space, which should almost never be smaller than the optical margin of the outside when the booklet is held open. Remember to leave a wider margin at the foot of the page than the top and outside margins, to avoid that sinking feeling.

Through middleIn terms of typography, remember that you can use a relatively small font size if you allow generous leading (interline spacing). Look at books of printed poetry and see what they do and what you like, and why, and what you don’t like, and why, and use those to guide your page design. Try and identify the character, the personality, of typefaces and match the character of your poetry. Less is usually more with typography… it is almost never a good plan to use more than two typefaces in a book of poetry (or much else), and if you are tempted to do this, ask yourself why. Let the poems sing for themselves rather than be tripped up by clunky type.

You can use a simple sheet as the cover or you can use different paper, or papers. You can do collage, you can paint on them, you can use photos. Experiment. You don’t have a publisher’s marketing department breathing down your neck! Just make sure that the grain of the pages matches the grain of the cover or it will buckle.

There are many online resources for bookbinding.

  • Short chapbooks can be bound with a simple pamphlet (figure 8) stitch.
  • A longer book can be done easily as a stab-bound (Japanese-style) book, where the folded edge faces the outside, not the spine.
  • Accordion-fold books are sculptural and lend themselves well to open display, though require a long sheet which may not work well in most printers — consider hand-lettering or cutting poems or stanzas out to stick to this format.

What you need

  • paper for text pages and cover
  • cutting board
  • metal ruler
  • utility or exacto knife
  • bone folder (optional, but this is a great tool)
  • awl or long needle to punch holes
  • needle for sewing
  • linen thread, silk ribbon, etc.

A better reader

Through last pageAs I folded the sheets for Rachel’s book, 176 in all, getting engulfed in the rhythm that comes from doing a repetitive task for love, I started seeing the same lines over and over. A different word would jump forward. I noticed connections within stanzas, within poems, across poems. In short, I was reading the poems in a different way. A better way. Binding poetry makes me a better reader. Try it; I think you’ll discover new things about your poetry — or someone else’s. And you’ll have a few hand-bound booklets to give or keep or even — gasp — sell.

—Alison Kent (Feathers of Hope and Bird by Bird)


Still to come in this series, I hope, are guest-written pieces on typewriters, Twaiku, Facebook update poetry, Second Life, and more. If you have an idea for an essay you’d like to contribute, let me know.


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14 Replies to “Binding words”

  1. Thanks for soliciting and running this post, Dave — and Alison, thank you for this insight into the beautiful work that you do. I remain endlessly grateful for the copies of “Through” which you made.

  2. Oh, this is fantastic – beautiful yet functional with clear excellent directions, thanks so much Pica! What a marvelous gift for Rachel! Dave, thanks for posting this… I’m going to bookmark this in case I ever try making my own books.

  3. I’ve been curious about the admirable simplicity of your site design, so the revelation that you’re a designer doesn’t come as a surprise. However as simplicity is a quality which many aspire to but few achieve, it’s clear to me that you’re one of the good guys. The cover design of ‘Through’ is beautiful, as is the Colophon, or at least what I can see of it in the cropped image..

    I know a little about bookbinding. Theory only, and mostly picked up from my work illustrating for The Old Stile Press. (Four books to date, plus one chapbook and the cover image for the OSP bibliography.) But my knowledge is a jumble of picked-up ideas, and so I too shall bookmark your excellent chapbook directions, ready for the day when I can turn away from my easel for long enough to produce a little something handmade from beginning to end. That’s not going to happen any time very soon, but the seed has been sewn. Thank you.

  4. Rachel, thank you. Marja-Leena, thank you also.

    Clive: I am grateful for your words. (The site design for Feathers of Hope really ought to be credited to my partner Numenius.) I think a jumble of picked-up ideas about bookbinding really sort of describes my own process, but there are several books I think are truly excellent, including Keith Smith’s non-adhesive binding series.

    I see from your site that we share a mentor in Eric Gill?

  5. Thanks so much, Pica and Dave, for this guide to dodging the usual channels in so creative a way. How useful it would be to have some central bank where such thoroughly practical resources for poets could be placed.

  6. Pica, you share your love with such simplicity and clarity . . . it’s like listening to a child’s heart through her words.

    You make it tempting for me to learn more and to perhaps dive in one day. (I was at a printmaking studio in a large art college this past week. I wanted to stay and watch all day.)

  7. Wonderful post, Pica – and the booklets are really beautiful. What you say about reading during the work and finding newness rings very true to me. Thanks to Dave for soliciting this excellent series.

  8. I meant to thank you for this – it makes the fingers itch! And interesting about how handling text in print could make one read and see it differently.

    Nice to think that the web will lead to people exchanging ideas about low-tech ways to do things. I saw a poster for book-binding courses a while back – I’ve been wondering about pursuing it…

  9. Thank you, Dick, Peter, Lucy, Beth. Lucy, definitely check out classes — I think you’d love this.

    Ivy: A/P is “Artist’s Proof.” This means I made a couple extra outside the predicted numbered edition of 20, insurance against mishaps (in printing, as in etching or lithography, you need to include quite a few extras, the more “passes” you do the more extras you need.

  10. Great to see others out there making their own chapbooks – but a question for you, how do get these accepted in mainstream book stores or otherwise promoted?

    1. A lot of stores will accept stuff on consignment. And I hear good things about for selling handmade stuff online — check out their books and zines section. Also, check out the resources section of the DIY Poetry Publishers Cooperative site. Promotion is pretty much up to the author these days even if you go with a conventional publisher, so in some ways there’s never been a better time to self-publish. If you have a blog and are a good networker, you can probably expect to sell out your inventory of hand-made chapbooks fairly quickly.

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