Printer's Devils: A Case Study


After the invention in the 15th century of the printing press and moveable type, "printer's devil" was the term for an apprentice in a printing house who performed menial tasks, such as mixing ink and fetching type. This young and inexperienced lad (in those days, they were always lads) could be blamed by the master printer and his journeymen for all manner of errors or sloppiness around the shop. Another origin of the term—a carryover from an even earlier era of hand-copied manuscripts whose demons haunted the work of scribes at their scriptoria—was the superstition among printers that a special gremlin haunted every print establishment, committing mischief such as inverting type, misspelling words and removing entire lines of completed type.

Printers' devils may seem like leftovers from the superstition-plagued Middle Ages, but I have had a few experiences of publishing books of poetry that prove to me that these imps, now in electronic form, still exist and work their mischief even today. Printers' devils in the 21st century are unaccountable errors that show up in printing jobs, usually too late in the process to be changed. As soon as a galley proof (paper or PDF) leaves the hands of the poet who has proofed it completely and sent it back error-free to her editor / publisher, anything can go wrong in the transfer between the final compositor's work and the moment that the printing presses begin churning out the book pages and cover for binding and shipping. In that interval—could we call it Book Bardo?  Literary Limbo?—the poet herself has no opportunity to see and correct any printers' devils that may have crept in to the process. And by the time the first box of copies reaches her, it is too late to catch any errors.

The book of mine most plagued by printers' devils was the winner of a significant prize as a manuscript, an open competition for poets at any stage of their publishing career, and which was then published by the press awarding the prize. The book was beautifully designed, with a striking cover image and blurbs from poets I greatly admired; but a huge error appeared in the printed book. Or, more precisely, a significant passage that should have been present failed to appear—this was an error that had not existed in the final galley proof.  In the months after receiving this much-appreciated award, I edited the hard-copy galley (galley proofs were still hard-copy in those days) with the proverbial fine-tooth comb, and I returned it by priority mail to the publisher. My unwitting error, though, was not to make a photo-copy of that galley proof, because once it left my hands and presumably served its purpose for the book designer and type-setter, it was never seen again.

One of the first series of readings I did to launch the book after publication was a mini-tour back in my native Pacific Northwest—workshops and readings at literary centers and colleges in Portland, Vancouver (Washington), Seattle, and finally the university town where the Press that had awarded the Prize was housed. Here my reading would be a small triumph, I hoped, with the Founding Editor of the Press in the audience. For most of this tour, I had read shorter poems from the book; but on this evening I decided to conclude the reading with one of the longer ones. It was a poem I had not memorized but had read aloud several times in the past, and so I had a sufficient sense, line by line, of what was coming next. About 30 lines into the poem, though, suddenly the next line . . . wasn’t there! Nor was the one after that, or the one after that. Lines were missing! I tried to improvise the missing lines, but there were too many of them, and I didn't have a typescript of the poem with me from which I could continue reading. I don't know if anyone in audience noticed my momentary faltering, but I finally continued the poem with the next line that appeared. 

Afterwards, as the editor was driving me back to the university guest house, I told him that lines were missing from at least one poem in the book, I didn't know how many: did he notice me falter I as read the last poem? The editor had not noticed, but he was quietly horrified when I explained the problem. When I asked what to do—since the entire edition was already printed, could an errata slip be included with all the copies not already shipped?—he replied, "Please keep quiet about this, and I promise you that when the first printing sells out, we will do an error-free second printing."

Later, back home after the tour, I checked my typescript and electronic copies of the poem against the version in the book and identified which lines were missing: 29 of them, in one grouping, right in the middle of the poem! Nothing else was missing, I checked carefully, elsewhere in the printed book. The galley proof had no uncorrected errors when I mailed it back, so (I wondered) couldn't we simply reference it? 

But the galley proof could not be located—somewhere in that university town, between the editorial and page designer's office and the print shop, it had gone missing. I thought that publishers kept such materials for their archives, but in this case, apparently not—the galley seemed to be lost. I regretted not making a photocopy of that document before I sent it off—a glance at the relevant pages in it would at least have eliminated one possible source of the error.

Years later, as book production technology evolved and I came to understand it somewhat better, it occurred to me that I could have asked to see the electronic file from which the book's text was printed, surely that would be saved on somebody's computer?  In any case, I sensed that I shouldn't press the issue—the fates seem to have ensured that there would be no way to trace how and where the printer's devil had crept into the print run of this book, and the editor had promised me a perfect second edition.

In the next several months, the book was the recipient of other awards after publication (the Oklahoma Book Award in Poetry and an American Book Award among them), and it did indeed go on to sell out its first edition. In early 2005, the editor sent me a note: "Time to Reprint!"  In the interim, the independent press that had published the book had become an imprint of the Press housed at the University where the editor taught, and it had thereby acquired a higher profile and the advantage of a more extensive distribution network.

For this reprint, once again I proofed the galley (this time an electronic file), returned it with all errors corrected . . . and once again, when I received the carton of books in late summer of 2005 and opened one copy of the new printing, I instantly spotted new and more complex printer's devils, this time affecting both the Table of Contents and the related link between two poems in the text!

I telephoned the editor immediately, explained the error in detail, and calmly stated that I would not accept this printing with such errors. There would have to be another attempt—the promise of an error-free second edition had to be fulfilled. Of course this re-do would cost time and money for the press, but the editor was true to his word . . . and later it was discovered that the glitches in this edition were electronic, caused by one employee whose valiant efforts to correct the problem only exacerbated it! 

Happily, the second attempt at an error-free second edition was successful—this time I copyedited the electronic galley with the Founding Editor of Lost Horse Press, Christine Holbert, who had also recently accepted for publication my next book of poetry, A Change of Maps.

The following spring, my much-bedeviled book was reprinted error-free, as a title of the University Press for which the original independent press was now an imprint. With the Notes on the Poems restored at my request, a new ISBN number, and a few changes to the book's cover that made the striking cover image and typography even more attractive, the new printing—technically a second edition, not merely a straightforward second printing— was beautiful, a book for which I was grateful and finally, fully proud! 

Carolyne Wright's latest books are This Dream the World: New & Selected Poems (Lost Horse Press, 2017); and the bilingual volume of Chilean poet Eugenia Toledo, Trazas de mapa, trazas de sangre / Map Traces, Blood Traces (Mayapple Press, 2017), a Finalist for the 2018 Washington State Book Award in Poetry, and also for the 2018 PEN Los Angeles Award in Translation. Her ground-breaking anthology, Raising Lilly Ledbetter: Women Poets Occupy the Workspace (Lost Horse, 2015), received ten Pushcart Prize nominations. Carolyne has five earlier books of poetry, a volume of essays, and three volumes by Bengali women poets in her translation. Forthcoming from Lost Horse Press is a memoir in poetry, Masquerade. A Contributing Editor for the Pushcart Prizes, Carolyne teaches for Seattle's Richard Hugo House and for conferences and festivals worldwide. She has held Fulbright and other fellowships to Chile, India (Kolkata), Bangladesh, and she returned to Brazil in 2018 on an Instituto Sacatar residency in Bahia. She has also received National Endowment for the Arts and 4Culture grants, and a 2020-2021 Fulbright Scholar Award will take her back to Bahia after the worldwide CoVid-19 travel advisory is lifted.





PRINTERS’ DEVILS in the Defective Second Edition of Seasons of Mangoes and Brainfire (Eastern Washington U Press, 2005).


The designer removed the title of the fused poem ("Aymara Woman on Socabaya Street") from the Table of Contents, then readjusted subsequent page numbers in the TOC apparently because she couldn’t locate the poem’s title and text on its correct page in the text (see below).


TOC (Part I) WITH CORRECT PLACEMENT OF REMOVED POEM TITLE (this title does not appear in the TOC of copies of the defective second edition)


I.       Seasons of Mangoes and Brainfire


            My Last Night in Bahia  / 3

            The Conjure Woman  / 6

            Survivalist  / 8

            After Forty Years  / 9

            The Miracle Room / 11

            Wander Luís  / 13

            The Opening Up, 1972  / 17

            La Push  / 19

Aymara Woman on Socabaya Street*

            Eugenia / 23

            The Grade School Teacher During Recess

            Victor Jara (1932-1973)

            Survivor's Story

            Sierra Walk

            The Retarded Woman on Cooper Street


            Post-Revolutionary Letter

            Coplas for Violeta Parra (1917-1967)


            The Hammerer

            The Room

            The Peace Corps Volunteer Comes Home

            Message to César Vallejo

            Josie Bliss, October 1971



*[this poem should have started on page 22]



The title of this poem ("Aymara Woman on Socabaya Street") has lost its top line margin where it should have appeared on page 22, where the poem should have started. Instead, the title and epigraph are fused to the end of the previous poem, and the title (and its bolding) have been lost; but the epigraph (Potosí, Bolivia) retains its tab indent and its italics. 


Top line of page 21--------------------------------------------------------


Whatever we might have wished

mere signals that went up in smoke,

exhaust of a homebound fisherman's

late-model van.  The lift he gave us

through fire-scored salmonberry

and Oregon grape:  singe-marks


inevitable as skin and its many obligations.

He drove us back to the state's

resurfaced road and on to a clinic

in Hoquiam, and waved away the crumpled

bills we offered for gas fare.


At evening's sidereal frontier, the sun

slipped into the undivided sea.

Aymara Woman on Socabaya Street

                        (Potosí, Bolivia)


She squats on the corner,

a cud of coca wadded in one cheek.

Whatever the inside of a stone thinks

must shine in her

as she spins a spool of wool

in and out of her fingers,

the center in a wheel of skirts.

Onions in baskets and bowls

filled with corn gruel at her feet.

Shrug of her shawl to ward off my eye

and she's faceless.  A padded

alpaca hump.


Faint bulbs strung in a mine
glow on hands sorting
over the moving belts.