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Poetry on Paper – part I

Eileen’s Xmas paper

No matter where you might be on the spectrum of environmental awareness, most of us who exchange gifts or cards over the Christmas period, (myself included) in the aftermath can feel twinges of remorse about the sheer amount of paper it takes to deliver ourselves some seasonal happiness.

As much as possible, I try to repurpose paper, paint my own wrapping and make cards out of recycled material… but I have yet to take a more sensible or radical stance (depending on how you look at it), to abandon the practice altogether. A part of me finds the added value of wrapping a gift, or taking time to write a note on card significant enough to continue doing it. Nevertheless, one of the responsibilities of this phase of urgent climate reflection is to tease out where some of our compromising impulses come from, whether it is culture, economics, habit or otherwise.

I also happen to love paper. Especially beautiful, artisan craft paper which is an important component of my work as a book-binder. It is rare for me not to have a slim book of poetry, as well as a hand-bound journal slipped in one of my pockets. I like recording my thoughts in long-hand. I like the physicality of thumbing through a book. What we recognise today as modern pulp-based paper can trace its lineage to the earliest production of paper from ancient China. The rise of paper, moving from East to West saw widespread literacy, advances in print-making and proliferation of literature and libraries, marking the beginnings of textual culture. It is a technology that has a close historical relationship to the arts, human knowledge and expression.

Origami swan by Eileen

Paper became central to the three arts of China – poetry, painting, and calligraphy. In later times paper constituted one of the ‘Four Treasures of the Scholar’s Studio,’ alongside the brush, the ink, and the inkstone. Timothy Barrett

Ironically, paper also transformed ancient society’s relationship to money and currency, and brought the exotic practice of using toilet paper into mainstream mundanity.  By the time the technology took hold in Europe, the process became mechanised and wood-pulp replaced a process where previously there was a much higher recycled component: a blend of cloth rags, quick to grow plant fibres such as hemp, along with a lesser percentage of wood fibre from mulberry or sandalwood trees.

According to the industry, today’s paper, mostly from timber and cotton is considered a renewable resource, unlike petroleum or fossil fuels. So long as our production continues to be mitigated by sustainable forest management, such as certified paper from the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC), and post consumer waste shows a good percentage of compliance of paper and card recovery in a recycling system, long-term paper production should not be detrimental to the environment.

Recycling paper keeps it out of landfills, and since paper fibre has a long recycle life (reusable up to seven times), paper is actually a very environmentally friendly material, provided it’s used and produced sensibly. ASL – Managed Document Solutions, Cambridge

In reality, how straight forward are those assurances? How justified are the concerns  that paper as a cheap, worldwide commodity is a more serious issue than just a benign nuisance to our ecosystem? There is still a certain amount of deforestation taking place in order to meet global demand; paper waste contributes significantly to solid waste in landfills; pulp and paper production generates considerable emissions, toxic waste and pollutants into air, water and land; plantation forests created for industrial use are often monocultures which may be detrimental to the land’s ecology.

The use of paper as an indispensable resource of our modern lives has two sides. Organisations such as Two Sides with members from the graphic communications supply chain create forums for the industry to work together on environmental standards. This is an interesting link for anyone interested in exploring some of the myths versus facts about the impact of paper, particularly useful for industry knowledge about initiatives in the UK and Europe.

This time last year, when Fiona Moore asked me to join her as co-editor of The Climate Change Issue, Magma 72, during one of our first conversations, I shared with her my personal difficulty bridging the gap between my environmentally conscious lifestyle and my work as a poet. I expressed wanting to use the editorship to interrogate those gaps, as well as the publication process, make tangible changes where possible, and start a discussion that would go beyond the writing of compelling eco-poetry, addressing its production and consumption.

From Eileen’s strawbale house in Italy

Although those ideals were important to me, I wondered how possible it would be to realise. I had already made the commitment to live and volunteer on an organic hillside farm in South Italy, completely off-grid. At that stage, we were looking at a daunting and fast-paced production schedule that didn’t allow for extra admin. We also had not yet secured an Arts Council England grant and had no guarantee of any budget. At our first editorial meeting between myself, Fiona and Matthew Howard, we discussed our aims for the issue and the division of tasks. It was important to me that we made a genuine effort to make the issue as green as possible, and I was especially excited about the idea of sourcing recycled paper.

We were in agreement that recycled paper would be distinctive and in the right spirit for the issue, but where to start? All new to Magma’s production process, how easily could any changes be made? Having previously worked as a publishing trainee for Carcanet Press and also casual employee for James Cropper Papermill, I felt I had enough background to at least start sensible enquiries.

For anyone already involved in publishing, or interested in initiating greener projects requiring print, one of the most important, early decisions is to work with a printer that has an environmental policy regarding its paper, waste disposal, and uses sustainable, vegetable-based inks. The process isn’t flawless, however, it is much better than working with a press that uses petroleum or mineral based inks, which are connected to emission and renewability problems.

In our case, I was pleased to find that Short Run Press, Magma’s printer, had a very good environmental policy, stating that they produce books with a carbon neutral footprint, using vegetable-base

d inks and FSC paper. My first correspondence with Short Run was to find out the specifications of a typical Magma issue: paper type, size and weight for the inner leaves and outer cover. The answer: 115gsm, silk-coated gloss inner leaves and 270gsm laminated card for the cover on B1 size sheets.

James Cropper Papermill and G.F Smith – recycling coffee cups. Image: Handover Agency

Mid-January last year I prepared a letter to James Cropper papermill in Cumbria asking for a support-in-kind contribution of paper to our unusual issue. As a former

employee with a strong fondness for the company, I was aware of their strong environmental ethics, and their recycled paper production, particularly their Cup-cycling Campaign which has been one of their high profile activities for a number of years. I also knew that they are a very large international company, inundated with requests and wasn’t surprised not to get a reply.

Towards the end of March, I decided to contact the marketing communications department by telephone. Of course, they had been very busy, with royal visits and many operations. Nevertheless, once the channel had opened, they were very willing to engage with Magma, thus beginning a three-month correspondence. It was towards the end of June, after sending confirmation about the size of our print run, that I was informed that due to an executive decision, the paper-mill could not help us with our request. After all of the energy and excitement, this was difficult news. At this point, Fiona, Matt and I were at capacity with the submissions, and facing a number of other tasks. Although in receipt of an Arts Council grant, we hadn’t been able to allocate any budget towards any out-of-the-ordinary production costs and therefore had no financial bargaining power.

G. F Smith art with paper: more on GFS in Part II, which will be up here shortly.

One of the most heartening aspects of this journey was an intervening email from Lisa Kelly, Magma Director, to our contact at Croppers, offering Magma’s marketing capacity, potentially leading to publishing contacts interested in pursing a greener strategy, as well as a green-light for paying something towards the paper costs. The reply was sympathetic but the outcome was the same, our request was ‘too small to warrant a production’ and they did not ‘hold any stock items that fit the bill.’ The message ended with ‘…my hands are tied on this one.’

At this point I made a couple of adjustments in perspective about the entire situation: a) The strong support of the Magma board made the pursuit of the paper less like some kind of personal victory and more like a collective one, which immediately made the outcome more meaningful. b) The scale of poetry, in industry terms, is humble. Why did that surprise me so much? I wondered what both of those realisations meant. And bringing into focus the question: what was this whole endeavour of publishing poetry about climate change really about anyway?


Barrett, Timothy Hugh (2008), The Woman Who Discovered Printing, Great Britain: Yale University Press, ISBN 978-0-300-12728-7 (alk. paper)

@shortrunpress; @GFSmithpapers; @jamescropper

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