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.