Papyrus. It’s so fluid and exotic; it feels so cryptic and authoritative, so…so….poetic. And also Impact. Why, doesn’t the very title of the font require its use when you want to make, you know, an impact with your writing? Or, just good old Times New Roman Italic. It suggests what you’re saying is special, is from the heart, is poetic. In our students’ visual culture language frequently means through its appearance; our students are savvy readers of visual rhetoric. So not surprisingly font inventiveness invariably shows up as a figurative strategy in their poetry – even when you have never, ever, ever during the semester ever given them an example of any poem published in any font other than the two or three journal-acceptable styles (Times New Roman, Garamond or a related font like Bookman, and variations on Ariel). Unlike the problem of a no-vampire policy, addressing funky fonts is prettily easily addressed with a single statement that “we don’t do that” – an answer that may be satisfying for some but not others, but which they are not likely to challenge since unlike re-writing your entire quest narrative about the sword that cannot be named, changing fonts is simply of matter of selecting and clicking.
But, really, why exactly don’t we do that?
Well, because we want the surface of language to be transparent. Because it distracts from the power of the “real” language. Because it somehow feels like a simple substitute for a more complex expression. Because…because it’s annoying.
Of course like all things in the teaching of writing, this is a slippery slope. The occasional funky font and the poem’s insistence on the materiality of language vis-a-vis typeface is really only a hop, skip and a jump away from using white space figuratively. And once you’ve given in to that why not just admit to “Easter Wings” and “Concrete Cat”? Further, students are very likely to have been introduced to visual poetry and even encouraged to “decorate” their poetry portfolios as part of a middle school or high school curriculum in poetry. (Yep, I’ve gotten some poetry portfolios with photographs of sunsets on the cover.) And geez, what are we supposed to say about the incredible work at Born Magazine?
I’m still not prepared to accommodate and encourage funky fonts in the introductory creative writing class as part of a poem’s final expression, but given our students’ immersion in visual rhetoric and their propensity to think and argue through visual signs (think, emoticons) perhaps there’s a value in bringing the discussion to the college classroom.
Does a student’s initial font choice – either for the entire poem or a single word or line — perhaps reveal a motivating emotion or argument in the poem? What’s the motive behind the choice that could that be expressed in terms of the poem’s primary (alphabetic) language?
How have you used the manipulation of typeface (or related features like color and size) in the invention or revision process with your students’ or your own work? If asked to illustrate an abstract noun like “despair” that appears in a poem, might that process open up access to other kinds of language for the student?
What are your responses to getting funky with fonts?