Special Collections and University Archives

-Suzanne Sawyer

Creative writing graduate students in Associate Professor Emilia Phillips’ ENG 682: The Structure of Verse course visited SCUA on the afternoon of April 20, 2022. Students, some fiction writers and some poets, met with SCUA staff members Carolyn Shankle and Suzanne Sawyer for an immersion experience in spontaneous composition, typesetting and letterpress printing, and an exploration of SCUA’s collections related to the history of individual and collective improvised composition.

Readers may be familiar with the Surrealist pastime “Exquisite Corpse” in which a group collectively composes a poem or story. Each participant writes a line or sentence on a piece of paper, folds the paper to hide what they wrote, and passes it to the next participant to repeat the task until everyone has contributed. Finally, the page is unfolded and the poem or story is read aloud. The technique has also been applied to drawing; one participant draws the head of a figure, the next draws a torso, and the last draws the legs or feet. As you might imagine, unexpected and sometimes nonsensical results are revealed, though nonetheless entertaining.

Surrealists often get credit for inventing this game, but they were not the first to employ the entertaining improvisational technique. Carolyn Shankle notes “Consequences began as a parlor game in the UK, gaining popularity during the Victorian era, which makes sense with the rise of the middle class, increased literacy, and leisure time.” In Hodges Reading Room, Shankle introduced half the class to a pop-up exhibition of works about variations of collective composition, examples of artists’ books incorporating Exquisite Corpse or inventive play with text on the page, and a collection of resources tracing the evolution of creative writers’ explorations of structuring verse literally and figuratively.

Concurrently, the other half of the class met with Suzanne Sawyer in the Researcher Room to learn a brief history of letterpress printing before collectively composing a poem on the spot. Students used the Exquisite Corpse technique as each student composed a line, with the guidance from Associate Professor Phillips that it must be composed in iambic pentameter. After composing, each student folded the paper and passed it along to the next writer. Once all had contributed, the paper was unfolded and the lines were read aloud. Students then set their lines in type in preparation for printing the poem later in class.

After the two groups of students switched places so that everyone had an opportunity to explore the exhibition and compose a line of the class’s poem, all the students met together at the library’s A.B. Taylor Company No. 2 Iron Hand Press to each make their own print of their spontaneous and collectively composed poem. Students completed the class session with a letterpress printed poem; hopefully a better understanding of printing history; a rich, hands-on review of some of SCUA’s holdings; and experience with collaborative, spontaneous composition that stretched their creativity muscles.

Though it is always a rewarding experience for SCUA staff to work with UNCG students, it was particularly special to have students back on the printing press after a long hiatus due to the pandemic. The printing press is housed in a hallway and it makes for close quarters on the best of days, but simply was not a safe place to be during the pandemic. We look forward to more class sessions with the press and our collections in the fall.

A Day in the Scriptorium

– Carolyn Shankle

Inspired by the success experienced with Dr. Amy Vines’ classes ENG 336 Introduction to Chaucer and ENG 343 Beyond Chaucer, SCUA hosted a student centered event, A Day in the Scriptorium. Students stopped by to color reproductions of medieval manuscripts or try their “hand” at different styles of medieval calligraphy. The event was advertised on social media. A selection of facsimiles of medieval manuscripts were on display as well. We plan to offer this experience again in the fall semester!

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