A Week of Lit House Events Featuring Peter Turchi and Cyrus Highsmith

By Meaghan Menzel

Copy Editor

Cyrus Highsmith

On Sept. 29, Typographer Cyrus Highsmith visited the Rose O’Neill Literary House to kick off the first event of this semester’s series, “The Verbal and the Visual.”

Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House and Associate Professor of English Dr. Jehanne Dubrow said, “Beyond the rigorous training he received in his field and the obvious beauty to his designs, what struck me most in my research about Highsmith is his wide ranging and inquisitive mind. For instance, his interest in the relationship between literacy and typeface, the value of handwriting and its connection to the processing information by the brain, his emphasis in the classroom on specificity and the need for context.”

According to Washington College’s website, Highsmith “joined the Font Bureau in 1997. As a Senior Designer, he concentrates on the development of new typefaces.” He has created typefaces such as Ibis Text, Quiosco, and Serge.

“The typographer’s job consists largely of adjusting the size of these white spaces, adding or subtracting distance between the letters, between the words, between the lines,” Highsmith said.

He is also an illustrator and author. For this event, he shared images from his book “Inside Paragraphs: Typographic Fundamentals” on a Power Point.

“It took me a while to write this book, but one day I realized that the best way I could teach typography… was to teach it from my point of view as a type designer, and then taking that even further, I realized that I could teach from my kind of specific approach to type design in drawing,” he said. “I explain typography through the different kinds of space that exist inside a paragraph.”

Highsmith’s book is very visually based. “There’s a diagram on every spread, and then there’s text that explains the diagram,” he said. “As a teacher, I found the more different ways that explains something, the better your audience will understand it.”

Highsmith’s book is also very small. He said, “The audience for this book was small too. It was for my students basically… [and] focusing on a small audience is what made it possible.” He was also focusing “on just a small part of typography—this isn’t everything you need to know about typography, this is just what I can explain as a type designer… so it’s thinking small that made this project feasible.”

“I think the underlying theme to all of this today is thinking small,” he said.

Peter Turchi

Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing Dr. Robert Mooney said as he introduced Peter Turchi, Class of 1982, along with the oncoming hurricane, “Literature is an indoor sport… something we strive to study and weave into our lives here at WC, preparing ourselves to make it a vital part of who we are and will be out there in the world where hurricanes come from… This is something our guest today has done.”

When Turchi was a student at WC, he said, “Two things stand out. One is I tried out for a play [freshman year]… and there were five male roles… Five males tried out, and I didn’t get a part. I took that as rejection.”

The second thing was when an author visited and looked at some students’ poems Turchi’s freshman year. “When he got to my page, he looked at these things, and he said, ‘are these poems?’”

Meanwhile, a little over three years later, Turchi was the 1982 Sophie Kerr winner. He said, “If things aren’t going quite like you dreamed, hold on. You know, things can change.”

Turchi has published six books and co-edited three anthologies. His work has been published in journals such as “Ploughshares,” “Story,” and “The Colorado Review,” and he has won several awards such as an Illinois Arts Council Literary Award and North Carolina’s Sir Walter Raleigh Award, according to the WC website.

Back in 2004, Turchi visited WC to talk about his book “Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer,” and this semester he visited the Literary House on Oct. 1 to talk about his most recent book, “A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic.”

Turchi uses metaphors to describe writing in “Maps of the Imagination” and “A Muse and a Maze.” He explained how in school, one generally tries to keep the content of different classes they are taking separate. “I was very bad at keeping those things separate. I was always thinking about sociology during American history or, well I hardly ever think about calculus except in fear,” he said. “Everything got mixed up, and that’s probably why these books about writing are pretty strange.”

In “A Muse and a Maze,” Turchi said, “I use puzzles… and magic as metaphor for writing which… came out of my trying to make a virtue out of a vice. I have probably wasted too many hours of my life doing various kinds of puzzles.”

“Generally we gravitate toward the puzzles that give us some degree of challenge or difficulty and yet some sense of satisfaction. That seemed to be a pretty good analogy for the way we seek out certain books,” he said. The books “we come back to are often books that give us some degree of pleasure but are also bothersome in some way.”

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