Essays Fine Art Poetry

From the Printer Poet

Spoken Word Poetry and Paper Sculptures

Mary Oliver says,
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand,
this, too, was a gift.
from The Uses of Sorrow by Mary Oliver

I know exactly what she means. Darkness, the kind she’s talking about, is there, along with the light, as surely as night follows day. Wendell Berry says the same thing, in his way,

To go to the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

To know the dark, Wendell Barry

I know what Wendell means, too, because I do spend some time looking at that darkness within—don’t know entirely why or exactly why. It just seems to be a part of what I do—sometimes a big part. And that part of what I do gets expressed most often in conversations I have with myself. I mean real, out-loud conversations, which is to say in my poems—because my poems always come to me as spoken words. I talk to myself a lot—like right now, like I’m talking to you—out-loud.

Let me share with you a short part of one of those conversations—the one I call, Of fear and old fashioned play — a conversation I had with myself back in early April of2008. It goes like this—the part I’m sharing:

That dark stuff was there, no doubt about it and I do hold on to those memories, as I say,

and I share them when I am able but I hold on to the other stuff, as well,

and I still do love to play—

just take one look at our studio ceiling,

down there at Painted Tongue Studios

in the old Calous building at 29th and MLK,

in Oakland,where I go play every day on that old Heidleberg windmill,

mixing up those colors and laying down theink just right—

look up and you’ll see hanging from the light fixtures and from the pipes, paper sculptures,

dozens of ‘em, crafted from cutoffs, little bits and scraps of paper,

all kinds of paper, long ribbons of paper, short stubs of paper,

black scraps, yellow thin scraps, red with gold leaf scraps,

thick deckle scraps, thin floppy scraps, white and cream scraps, green scraps,

eggshell blue scraps, scraps I just can’t bear to throw away,

all woven or twisted or glued together in geometric or fantastic shapes.4

So, there’s the other side of the dark, if we’re going to split things in two, like night and day—and that’s ok to do sometimes, I think. So these SCRAPS, as I call them are expressing the light side of me, the fun,the play that seems to need to come out for no particular reason except . . .except . . . it’s fun. I love doing it. And speaking of fun, I had a little fun talking at the first gallery show, about how these SCRAPS came to be. I call this conversation:

SCRAPS and the origin of the universe

SCRAPS, the show, not unlike The Big Bang,

is the creation of something

out of nothing—which, I suppose,

is pretty much the case

with all artistic endeavors

and its existence is, certainly,

if nothing else,

a gigantic


to me.

If, like some brilliant astrophysicist

searching the heavens

for that very first explosion,

I try in my own tiny way

to figure out where SCRAPS came from,

working backwards as a physicist might do,

I find myself at the very beginning—my own, I mean—

for SCRAPS is more a collision

of certain forces, conditions and events

(only partly, if at all, under my control)

than an outright explosion,

and it emanates directly from

my very nature, my seeming

inability to throw things away—

whether its food or wood or paper,

whether in my fridge, my hallway

or my workspace at Painted Tongue Press—

scraps pile up around me,

while visions grow inside

of what I might make next.

And there’s the second inescapable force—

the joy I take in making things.

It’s like singing to my soul.

And then, there are those external forces and events

that have played a pivotal part

in the origin of SCRAPS.

Briefly, I’ll share the most important.

As I labored to learn the Heidelberg1

in two thousand five and six

and Kim2 was off in Chicago,

I began, one day, to play with the paper scraps,3

as a way of relaxing when printing was not going so well.

And I hung my little ditties from the ceiling.

And there they hung one day,

when Kim came back for a visit

and exploded, more or less, with excitement,

the way she does, to see them hanging there.

And that explosion was contagious—

no stopping me then and paper sculptures

proliferated across our studio ceiling

and visitors and apprentices and students alike

seemed to enjoy them, these hanging things,

and told meso, and now and again,

suggested that I should do a show.

So, here we are with our


BD 6/25/08

Now, there it is—the light part, the fun part. But sometimes there’s more than two parts to things. And with these SCRAPS, there’s the sharing part, the eye candy part, especially when they play, all by themselves, with air and light and shadow—moving the way they do and casting ever changing shadows on the surfaces around them. And then there’s the trading part, the part where I give to you the one you love and you give something back to me in exchange—could be money—could be something else. And that’s fun, too, and with a little luck can even help me to keep body and soul together . . . to make more poems . . . to make more SCRAPS!


1. The Heidelberg windmill press at the Painted Tongue Studios inthe old Calous building on 29th Street in Oakland.

2. Kim Vanderheiden,artist, entrepreneur, mother, founder, owner and artistic director of Painted Tongue Press.

3. The paper scraps are the cutoffs left from the large sheets of fine art paper used for printingjobs at the Painted Tongue Studios—papers like Waterford and Somerset, Mangni and Moriki, hand made papers from India or Canada or extinct papers like Larroque Colombe black .

4. For all my poemsand some photographs of the paper sculptures, go to andclick on poems or click on gallery and enjoy.