With the rise of computers and smart devices, the clickety-clack-DING of the typewriter is rarely heard anymore, nor is the ratcheting tick-tick-tick-swoosh sound of paper pulled off a typewriter’s roller.
But Meghan Forbes (Ph.D. ’16) thinks we lost something more important than the old office soundtrack when we transitioned away from typewriters: the tactility of the page, the slower pace, the unique poetry of visible human error. Forbes grew interested in letterpress publishing practices while researching her dissertation on the avant-garde Czechoslovakian literary scene in the period between World Wars I and II. Forbes also had an affinity for Samizdat, an underground, unofficial publishing practice across Eastern Europe in the Cold War era that made creative use of typewriters. Forbes, an alum of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, took notice of the works of poetry and prose that were typewritten, printed on letterpresses, and bound by hand, and began collecting typewriters.
“I wondered what it would be like to make a publication that requires people to come together and type everything by hand, doing two copies at a time with carbon paper, in this moment when we don’t really need to do that because we can freely distribute information via the internet?
“What if we slowed down and all came together, typing up poetry and short prose?”
There was only one way to answer these questions, she decided. She bought a typewriter from Kiwanis in Ann Arbor, sat on the floor of her then-furniture-free apartment, and with the help of some friends, including Hannah Pröbsting, née McMurray (Ph.D. ’17), a fellow Rackham alum from the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, typed 30 copies of what would become a new literary journal, harlequin creature.
That first issue taught them they needed more typists and a simpler binding process. They had an idea about how to make that happen—an idea that would turn harlequin creature into a community.
This community took shape at get-togethers they called typing bees. “Meghan and I rely a lot on the kindness of friends and strangers alike,” Pröbsting says. “Each volunteer at the typing bee types up a copy of the journal, mistakes and all, and then has the opportunity to dedicate their copy to someone or something of their choosing. They also note where, when, by whom, and on what model of typewriter it was typed.
“These are the things that make each copy unique,” Pröbsting says.
Their first typing bee was held in the basement of Hollander’s, an Ann Arbor store and book-arts workshop. harlequin creature also held typing bees in Los Angeles and New York, and they continued to bind each issue by hand. “In the 1920s stuff you can see geometric patterns: how they put things together, how letters are pressed into paper to ink the paper, uneven ink,” Forbes says. In harlequin creature she found that tactility. For each issue of the journal, they produced 100 copies—a tiny print run for most publishers, but a massive undertaking for the labor-intensive harlequin creature process.
After producing the literary journal for a decade, Forbes, Pröbsting, and their co-editors Sherese Francis and Ian McLellan Davis recently launched the final issue. Readers received a handpainted box, with one of eight unique print projects inside—a journal shaped and printed like a deck of cards, or a disco ball, for example—each volume a celebration of the avant-garde inspiration for harlequin creature.
While the typing bee volunteers were graduate students and instructors, harlequin creature also introduced the joys of using a typewriter to wider communities. They partnered with 826michigan, an organization where programs and tutors help school-aged children with writing, to create Time Traveling with Typewriters, a workshop in which students imagine they are transported to 1913.
After a successful run at 826michigan, Forbes and Pröbsting took Time Traveling with Typewriters to the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, the Dia: Beacon, 826brooklyn, and Los Angeles Public Schools. Some wrote about their imagined lives in the time-travel workshop, while others used the typewriters to create images. One student, Forbes says, used the x and o keys to make an illustration of players on a soccer field.
Over time the literary journal grew into a small press imprint that produces handmade periodical publications, chapbooks, and broadsides. The harlequin creature imprint published the first English-language publication of “The Little Typewriter,” a story by the German Jewish author and film critic Siegfried Kracauer. The writer immigrated to New York during World War II and published this playful capitalist critique in German in 1927.
The press partnered with Johannes von Moltke, professor of Germanic languages and literatures, who translated the story, and with Slavic languages and literatures alum Vlad Beronja (Ph.D. ’14), who did the illustrations. “This is a very Michigan production,” says Forbes.
Launching the literary journal helped Forbes create a community-based publication that centered on self-taught printing and binding methods, which, in turn, opened the door to creating a press. Now she’s pursuing more formal and systematic training in a graduate program in book arts through the Center for the Book at the University of Iowa, where she is studying library and information science. Her dream is to work for a special collections or exhibition library that centers on community education and outreach.
She’s already built a strong foundation for this career. And with harlequin creature, she created a truly unique publication. Forbes is especially proud that she and her partners produced this publication while also forming a community—one that centered on the freedom to do things your own way and to make mistakes, Forbes says. “In our typing bees and our workshops, we banned Wite-Out. To quote the motto of our very first issue, ‘Human error is part of the point.’”
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