Poetics of Pencil, Paper and Contradictions

Reflections of a writer who transits between the analog and the digital, the material and the virtual.

Children's Art Classes, Lismer's, boys drawing

Children’s Art Classes, Lismer’s, boys drawing. Canada, 1939-1951 | Ronny Jaques, Library and Archives Canada | Public Domain

We learned to read with printed books and our memories lie in photos enlarged from negatives. Today we live in a digital environment brimming with promises and benefits, and even so it seems that our brain demands regular doses of touchability, craftsmanship and material. Writer Jorge Carrión reflects on this contradictory transit between one medium and another: from the signing of a book full of scribbles or readings overflowing with annotations, to the need to draft ideas with a biro or draw to observe and understand, including using mobile phones to take notes or photograph quotes.

Today, on a low-cost plane that is, however, crossing the ocean, I read these verses in an extraordinary little book: “I write by hand with a blunt Mongol No. 2 pencil / with the sheets of paper on my knees. / That is my poetics: writing with a pencil is my poetics. / […] The blunt pencil is essential for my poetics. / Only that way do the marks remain on the paper / after the letters have faded and the words are no longer / understandable, or they have gone out of fashion, or whatever.” [1]

Yesterday, minutes before I started the lecture I had to give in Buenos Aires, an elderly lady approached me to sign her copy of Librerías. It was filled with underlined paragraphs and folded page corners (“every bookstore condenses the world”, I always thought the same, yes sir), with visiting cards and photographs of bookstores (“this leaflet from Acqua Alta is from when I went to Venice, a wonderful trip”), with newspaper cuttings (“look, this is the article in Clarín that talks about the death of Natu Poblet, how sad”) and even of letters (“I wrote this to you when I finished your book and suddenly found myself alone again”). It is not my book, I answered her; you have appropriated it: it is totally yours, it belongs to you. Sideways on, the volume looked like the cardboard suitcase of an emigrant or the geological strata of a cliff. Or a 3D-printed map of the elderly lady’s face.

Last week, in my house, I read this luminous passage from A History of Pictures from the extraordinary book by David Hockney and Martin Gayford, published in Spanish by Siruela: “In a photograph it’s the same time on every part of the surface. That’s not true in a painting. It’s not true even in a painting made from a photograph. That makes a considerable difference. It’s why you can’t look at a photograph for too long. In the end, it is just a fraction of a second, so you don’t see the subject in layers. The portrait of me by Lucien Freud took a hundred and twenty hours of sittings and you see all that time layered into the painting. That’s why it’s infinitely more interesting than a photograph.”

Children's Art Classes, Lismer's, boys drawing

Children’s Art Classes, Lismer’s, boys drawing. Canada, 1939-1951 | Ronny Jaques, Library and Archives Canada | Public Domain

Some months back, on the high-speed train that links Barcelona and Madrid, I read an article on an incipient tendency: there are now various museums around the world that prohibit photos from being taken during visits; instead, they give you a pencil and paper, to let you can draw the works that interest you most, so that in the necessarily slow process of observation and reproduction, you look and you think and you digest with eyes and hands alike.

We live in absolutely digital environments. We produce, we write, we create on keyboards and screens. But nearly always at the start and the end of the creative process, there is a diagram, some notes, a drawing: a pencil or a biro or a marker pen that slides over post-it notes or sheets of paper. As if at one end and the other of the digital, there were always a pre-digital phase. And as if our brain, in a new world that – as is astutely explained by Éric Sadin in L’Humanité augmentée – has already duplicated itself algorithmically, will demand of us regular doses of tact and craft and material (coca tea to combat altitude sickness).

Two and a half years ago, after my last house move, I spent a while flipping through the album of photos of my childhood. Those aged and palpable images not only document my life and the fashions and customs of the ‘70s and ‘80s in Spain, they also speak of the evolution of domestic photography and of photo developing processes. Perhaps each photo is only an instant (an instant without a second chance, without editing, without filters, without anaesthesia), but the pages made of card, the notations written in black marker pen or with a blue Bic biro, the changes of camera and the prints in gloss or in matt together create an ensemble (a book) in which the material dimension of time can be reconstructed and touched, whether eloquent or faltering, sharp or blurred, as though in an archaeological dig. Or like a 3D-printed map of my future ageing.

Today, now, I have just read the extraordinary little book of poems, Apolo Cupisnique, by Mario Montalbetti, which has just been co-published in Argentina by Añosluz and Paracaídas. And I close it, with verses underlined, pages with the corners folded over, the entry ticket to a couple of Buenos Aires museums and an Ikea pencil that will probably stay there, forever hijacked. And in the low-cost plane I start writing this text thanks to my mobile phone, because I am (we are) no more than one endless stream of contradictions. I copy the quote by Montalbetti directly from the book, but for the Hockney one I have to resort to a photo that I took of that double-page spread last week. On the left the text, on the right the portrait that Freud produced of him. The photo of the portrait. One can see, sure enough, the dynamic layers that one hundred and twenty hours of immobility left in the painting. Using my index finger and thumb I enlarge his eyes and for a while – in the nighttime that dissolves into jet lag – our gazes meet on the screen without strata.


[1] “Escribo a mano con un lápiz Mongol Nº. 2 mal afilado / apoyando hojas de papel sobre mis rodillas. / Ésa es mi poética: escribir con lápiz es mi poética. / […] Lo del lápiz mal afilado es indispensable para mi poética. / Sólo así quedan marcas en las hojas de papel / una vez que las letras se borran y las palabras ya no / se entienden o han pasado de moda o cualquier otra cosa.” (The English translation is ours).

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Poetics of Pencil, Paper and Contradictions