Sweat Themes: Turned-type and Upside-down Poetry

Not, it must be admitted, about indexes, but I recently wrote a blog piece for another site about an Oulipo-style writing exercise I’d done. In a nutshell, I wanted to see how much turned-type errors (letters which accidentally get spilled onto the floor then reinserted upside-down during printing) could alter the meaning of a work if we assumed that they were a lot more virulent than they probably are. To this end, I wrote a computer programme to determine how many of the words used by Shakespeare could form other valid words if one or more of their letters were flipped upside down (e.g. map can become mad, etc.). The next step was to try to write something that used as many of these words as possible, and which would be thematically coherent in one sense with the words one way up, and in another if they were flipped.

The result was a pair of poems – ‘Sweat Themes’ – which took their name from how Spencer’s sweet Thames might have come out if the printers had bungled the e and the a. One way up, it just about makes sense as a poem about errors in a print shop; the other, I’m not really sure, but it seems to be about sex.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to print it for real using the type cases and hand presses of the Bodleian Bibliography Room, and with the aid of its Superintendent, Dr Paul Nash (unsurpassable in patience and expertise). Instead of the letters falling out accidentally when I daubed the ink on with inking balls, in this case I used tweezers to pull them up and invert them. Other than that, I managed to stick to the constraint pretty closely, except for one rogue switch. In the third line ill set becomes il faut: a dropped l changes position and becomes a u. I can live with that. The Oulipo would call it invoking the clinamen; I prefer to call it cliuewau.

Here’s how the printed versions looked:
IMG_1926 IMG_1927IMG_1827IMG_1831



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