Tangible and Beautiful: An Interview with the Editors of harlequin creature

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I first met Meghan Forbes and Hannah McMurray in 2013 when I learned about their ambitious and beautiful journal, harlequin creature. Both Meghan and Hannah are doctoral candidates at the University of Michigan, and happily for them and the reading public, their scholarly work dovetails fruitfully with the production of hc. In the blog format, there is no way I can give you a full sense of hc’s gorgeous materiality. All copies of the journal are hand-typed (on real typewriters!) by a slew of generous co-creators at hcs typing bees, and then bound by hand. The typing bees, in which I am eager to participate, have so far occurred in places like New York City, Los Angeles, and my own town of Ann Arbor. hc also runs workshops in order to spread typing fever and get kids interested in print culture. In this video, Hannah and Meghan discuss their workshops in more detail. Meghan, Hannah and I chatted about the journal via email. Here they discuss their inspired vision for the journal, their scholarly passions, ideas of interest, and treasured finds.

Could you describe harlequin creature (its mission, aesthetics, etc.) for our readers?

HM : At the core of harlequin creature is a desire to draw attention to the tangible and beautiful aspects of both the word and book, and hold on tight to them in a digital world, in which they are increasingly ephemeral. Each copy of every issue is individually typed up on typewriters in a print run of 100, before being hand bound and hitting up the shelves of bookshops, print studios and libraries across the USA and Berlin. harlequin creature is therefore, above all, an advocate for the physical word, and stands in support of writers, artists, the book arts, bookshops, and libraries. For us, the words on the pages of harlequin creature are not only tangible – they belong to someone: firstly the author, secondly the typist, who occasionally alters the meaning through typing errors, and lastly the owner of that particular copy.

Hannah McMurray with issue 4

Hannah McMurray with issue 4

When did the idea for hc first begin to germinate, and what inspired you to bring the journal into the world?

MLF : The journal grew out of a writing circle I led as an employee of NYU in Prague, in the year between completing my Masters’ and starting my PhD. With the University’s resources, we were able to put together a handsome little journal, and many of the students involved were eager to continue something like that once I returned to the US. This time around, however, I had to finance the project out of my own modest graduate student stipend. Because I wanted to create a physical journal, not just something to be downloaded as a PDF, I felt that the cheapest and most original way to do this would be to use a typewriter to produce each copy, thereby excising the cost of printing. (I quickly saw the error in my ways here: because of the high quality of materials we use, and the need to accrue a fleet of typewriters — the first issue, which came out in a very limited edition of 30 — cost upwards of $1,000 to produce, or about 2 months rent in those days!). Around the same time, I “crashed” a book arts class taught at the University of Michigan by artist Barbara Brown. She invited her colleague Alvey Jones to speak about his work to the class, and I was impressed by how his own artist’s books had successfully circulated into some major collections under the umbrella of a small press he had founded. Barbara also introduced me to Jim Horton, a seasoned printer & retired teacher, who has a home studio with a whole variety of presses and the largest collection of type I’ve yet to see. He very generously opened his workspace to me, and taught me how to print, a skill I learned on the fly as issue 1 was created in the fall of 2011.

Tell us about the process (the mundane, the tedious, the fun, the glorious) of putting the journal together.

HM : I always find it so hard to keep track of which issue is which, and what number we’re at! At any given time, we’re holding launch parties for one, reading through submissions for the next, and planning themes/format for the one after that! In many respects, harlequin creature is like any other journal: we have a submission period; Meghan and I then read through the submissions, making all sorts of piles for yes/probably/maybe/no; many meetings/Skype calls ensue as we try to fit them together into a cohesive issue; etc, etc, etc. What’s almost certainly unique, though, is the production. With 100 copies of each issue needing to be typed up, it’s then that the real hard work begins! And for that, we depend on the kindness of strangers and friends alike. Typing bees are held across the States in studios, bookstores and homes, as people come together to type up the issue. Once our typing enthusiasts – both old hands, and those completely new to the game – have completed a copy, their hard work is recognized as they date and sign that copy, and are able to dedicate it to whomever they choose. For me, the most exciting part of the process is the people we come into contact with at the various stages of production. Not only do they each contribute something different to the journal – they are an amazing reminder that there are a LOT of wonderful people out there, who are incredibly generous with their time, ideas and resources. It’s such an honor to cross paths with them, and, needless to say, many have become good friends along the way.

MLF : There is so much that is mundane and tedious about hc! And I say that in the fondest way possible (except for where it applies to 501(c)3 filings). The very fact that each copy is typed by a volunteer, most of whom have no prior experience on a typewriter, makes for very slow work, and Hannah and I always have to type several copies ourselves. What is mundane and tedious is also fun and glorious though, as typing a given issue over and over is a way to enter deeply into the texts we’ve chosen for publication. This without a doubt has honed my editorial skills, as I better understand now what kind of writing holds up after so many reads, and what sort of loses its initial impact. Because of this, starting with issue 4, I began to read submissions with an eye to what I personally could bear to type 10+ times, and I think the tightness of each issue has significantly benefited from this reading tactic. But I must say that, for me, the absolutely most fabulous thing about hc is collaborating with Hannah and various artists to design each issue (in terms of both form and content) and then watch it go bravely out into the world. As Hannah so importantly points out, we have met many incredible people thanks to the journal (including you, Ann Marie!)…hc has necessarily forced me to let go a little of my otherwise hermetic tendencies.

Meghan Forbes at Dia:Beacon

Meghan Forbes at Dia:Beacon

Both of you are also scholars doing work that relates to hc. Tell us a bit about your scholarly work and the ways in which it feeds into hc.

HM : I’m currently working on German artist and writer, Kurt Schwitters, and his collaboration with other members of the European avant-garde. His work was published in various journals in the 1920s and 30s, and during this time he founded his own avant-garde journal, MERZ. If the best advice to improving your writing is reading, I think the same goes for editing journals. Having spent the last year in Berlin, visiting archives across Germany, I’ve had the privilege of seeing many of these journals in their original form. That has been a very inspiring experience. Reading them triggers ideas, and it’s through opportunities like this that our vision for harlequin creature evolves.

MLF : My dissertation research deals with the relationship between the Czech avant-garde and other avant-garde and modernist schools of the 1920s and 30s in Europe, with a particular interest in how this relationship was manifested in letters, privately, and typographic design, publically. My interest in one Czech publication in particular, ReD, directly influenced the cover art of issue 2 and is probably the cover I’m most fond of for this reason. In my own (non-academic) writing, I am interested in playing with fragments of text that can be combined to tell a sort-of story while remaining as non-narrative and abstract as possible. I hope that is something hc does as well — i.e. that the individual pieces in a given issue tell their own tale while also working together to say something cohesive.

On a similar note, how do you feel the elements at work in hc (literature production and consumption, typography, book art, etc.) intersect and influence each other?

HM : I think we feel a constant tension between production and consumption, and that certainly influences many, if not all, elements of harlequin creature. And that tension has certainly been at the forefront of our minds even more so recently. The last issue, released this spring, almost sold out before we started the launch circuit. That was a first, and so exciting for us! But it also made us consider whether or not we could or should produce more copies per issue. In the end, we came to the conclusion that the ‘100 copy issue’ is central to the journal — not the number itself, but the fact that its relative scarcity points to it being something special. This is highlighted too, in the production techniques: the fact that each copy takes between 2-4 hrs to type, and each journal is then hand bound by Meghan and me. For us, it’s important that literature is seen as something to be treasured, something that deserves aesthetic attention, and something that, above all, takes time.

MLF : Absolutely. I would also add that just as I hope the individual elements of prose and poetry in a given issue work together coherently, so too do we endeavor to have the typographic design and book form of a particular issue speak dialogically with other elements of content.

What’s next for hc?

MLF : In the fall, we’re releasing a special “.5” issue. 5.5 is a record of spoken word with instrumental intro and outro. It was recorded and produced by our music editor (and my beau) Ian McLellan Davis at our home in Brooklyn, and is out of necessity more local in its scope than most of our publications — though we typically have an open submission policy, this time around we invited only a small group of multitalented NY-based artists who would be able to journey to south Brooklyn to record. The record is currently being pressed in the Czech Republic, and should be out by late August.

HM : We’re really excited that issue 5.5 ‘words in revolution’ is just about ready to hit the shelves and record players in the States, and will be traveling back to Europe in the very near future! Every now and again, we like to do something a little bit different, and take a break from the typewriters, and this time round we wanted to revert back to the original medium for poetry (the voice, of course – not vinyl!).

MLF : The vinyl aspect, I felt, fit squarely with our resistance towards digital reproduction. Per usual, 5.5 will not be available online…no digital download cards here! This is risky business, I know, as not everyone who might like to purchase this issue will have a record player and we have 250 records to sell (the smallest pressing possible). But also per usual, this issue is more than the words on the page (or in this case, the words recited) and the tactile thrill of purchasing a physical record is emphasized — the covers feature letter pressed and rubber stamped elements, and each copy will include a typed page of liner notes. And who knows? Maybe ‘words in revolution’ will correlate to a rise in turntable sales.

HM : Earlier this year we also formed the harlequin creature collective, and we’re looking forward to experimenting more with that. For us, the collective is a fun way to keep in contact with the many ‘friends of the creature,’ and get creative, with a lot less effort than the journal. Every now and then, members receive a mailer in their mailbox – anything from a manifesto to a collage of what our members can do with 1 square inch! Meghan is working away right now on the second one, and I’ve got an idea up my sleeve for the third!

MLF : And finally, in the other direction, we’re also developing a series of very small edition, highly intricate chapbooks, and I’m working on the first one right now with Ian. The theme for the book is taken from a question that Anne Carson (perhaps my greatest living literary hero) asks in Autobiography of Red: “What is time made of?” I wrote a series of tiny poems as a way of working through that question, and Ian is setting them to music. The scores and text will stand side by side in an accordion binding, inspired by Anne Carson’s description of time as something that squeezes like “the pleats of an accordion.” I love that image, so desperate but also optimistic — for an accordion squeezes, after all, to make music, and it must also expand to squeeze again. To me, time can be just like that: overwhelmingly oppressive in its limitations, but occasionally, mercifully, expansive and limitless, generous in what it brings.

Finally, are you reading or looking at anything in your work (both as scholars and editors) that you think MQR readers might like to know about?

HM : Back when I arrived in Berlin last August, I discovered the online image catalogue of the Berlin Art Library and earmarked several archived adverts, posters, and letter heads from around the turn of the twentieth century, that I wanted to see. Since they weren’t directly related to my dissertation, accessing them wasn’t a priority, and I almost forgot about them until I saw an advert for the AVANTGARDE! exhibition, to be held at the Art Library. As it turned out, more than a few of the posters I was interested in were included in the exhibition, so I just had to visit. And what a treat it was! The colours are more vibrant than you can imagine, and the designs so wonderful (and surprisingly still modern to our twenty-first-century eye), it’s almost worth the trip from Michigan to Berlin, just for the show! So that’s my Geheimtipp (insider’s tip) for anyone visiting Berlin in the near future.

MLF : Ooh! Well, now I’m reading Anne Carson’s Red Doc>, which is a gift to my summer, and recompense for this past brutal winter still so raw in my memory. And of course, I’ve got to recommend a Czech! A recent translation of a collection of Bohumil Hrabal’s short stories, called Rambling On, is an utter delight. I may be biased in this last suggestion, as I wrote my Master’s thesis on Hrabal, and wrote a review of this book recently, but go ahead and take my word for it: it’s fabulous!

Meghan (left) and Hannah (right)

Meghan (left) and Hannah (right)

*** Photography credits: issue 4 and Hannah McMurray photos: Supalife Kiosk, Berlin. Photo: Marco Gogg. Meghan Forbes photo : Community Free Day at Dia:Beacon, July 12, 2014. Photo: Nicki Sebastian. Meghan Forbes and Hannah McMurray together. Photo: Dorothy Forbes.

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