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  • Alex Grafen

(REVIEW) A Poetics of the Press: Interviews with Poets, Printers, & Publishers, ed. Kyle Schlesinger

An image of a book with a pale cream cover and abstract shapes in burgundy and grape coloured scribbles.
A Poetics of the Press

Alex Grafen discovers A Poetics of the Press (Cuneiform Press & Ugly Ducking Presse, 2021), edited by Kyle Schlesinger, and determines the messy pleasures that settle at the interstices between printing and poetry. Tracing nostalgia, typeface passions and the unique joy of pressing up against limitations, Grafen heralds the history of the machinery behind that which is read, felt and circulated.

A Poetics of the Press (Cuneiform Press & Ugly Duckling Presse, 2021) is subtitled ‘Interviews with Poets, Printers, & Publishers’. The interviews are conducted by the poet-printer-publisher Kyle Schlesinger; his subjects generally also exist at that intersection of roles. More specifically, Schlesinger is interested in publishers who are ‘also poets and letterpress printers’. It is the gambit of the book that those at the intersection have ‘a unique relationship to language as a visual and material form of art’. On the one hand, then, Schlesinger adds to a history of the printer-poet that one could trace at least as far back as John Rodker and Nancy Cunard in the early twentieth century. In this case, ‘poet’ is the more limiting factor of the category, suggesting a particular attitude to literature informed by involvement in a form whose cultural capital outstrips its consumption.

The emphasis on the letterpress corrals the category from the other side. As Schlesinger explains, letterpress printing is:

printing from type-high material, distinct from intaglio and lithography. It is the technology that introduced literacy to much of the world.

It is also a technology that has become commercially obsolete, giving way to offset printing (a form of lithography) as the main method for high-volume printing, with inkjet preferable for small-volume. Schlesinger dates that obsolescence to around 1945, the first indication of the stand-off between commerce and poetry publishing that runs through the book.

Discussing Asa Benveniste’s beginnings as a printer in the late 1940s, Tom Raworth comments on the shift in the history of letterpress:

[Offset printing] was around, but letterpress wasn’t peculiar and arty, particularly in those days, it was just another way of printing. It was just about to be equal but it took a while.

Raworth became involved in printing when the move to offset saw larger printers trying to get rid of their letterpress printers.

That’s probably how we got the press for Goliard, the bigger press, the bigger treadle press, just from somebody selling out. A little later, they did become junk, and then, like now, they became antiques and we saw wonderful fonts of wood letters broken up so you could have your initials stuck on your wall.

For a period, then, the letterpress presented itself as a viable option to the small publisher when it did not to the large-scale publisher. From being as good as offset if slower (Beneviste) to something affordable because it was being thrown out onto the streets (Raworth), A Poetics of the Press then charts a further stage of development, in which the letterpress has become something with less obvious motivations. When the fastest and cheapest way to publish a text is to set on a computer word-processor and print it offset or inkjet, the justifications for letterpress printing can no longer be located in ease or affordability; it becomes open to the charge of the ‘peculiar and arty’, or of being something precious or antiquarian.

It’s therefore not surprising to see the bibliophile, the artist’s book and the artworld more generally emerging as targets for suspicion. They mark the company in which letterpress printing finds itself, but they stand as inimical to the more counter-cultural and counter-commercial currents with which the 20th century avant-garde had become identified. One of the interesting results is a deliberate deviation from certain standards of craft. Lyn Hejinian describes how:

my decision to staple the chapbooks together was intended to undermine the commodity value of them. Staples are functional, and also somewhat damaging—they rust and eventually cause stains. As I said, I wanted to emphasize the immediacy rather than preciousness or permanence of the texts.

Though Hejinian, like Rosemarie Waldrop, had encountered printing first through the printed labels for wine bottles, the idea that her own printing might be for something which could be changed out for wine is unsatisfactory. She disarmingly describes starting a press as the ‘smartest career move’ she could have made. The assessment does not exactly refute Dale Smith’s advice to Scott Pierce that, to run a small press, ‘you need to really learn to love to lose money’. What it does, however, is to highlight the peculiar economic bind that the avant-garde tends to find itself in as long as it defines itself against commercial interests, even while reproducing some of the patterns it theoretically opposes. Unpaid overwork abounds and is exemplified in Annabel Lee’s account of being left with a year and a half of limited physical movement after her work for Stonehill Press exacerbated a spinal problem.

This book, then, is also a history of the avant-garde. A Poetics of the Press takes consciously as a precedent Robert Dana’s Against the Grain: Interviews with Maverick American Publishers (1986). While Pound looms especially large in Dana’s interviews with James Laughlin, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and John Martin, the hinterland of A Poetics of the Press is more clearly defined with reference to the San Francisco Renaissance and the Beats, the Black Mountain College and, with misgivings in some quarters, Language Poetry. Academic positions and grant applications become more prevalent in the book. There are fond memories of times and places where you could work a part-time job that paid enough and that still left you enough time to make books.

Schlesinger’s interviews are flexible things, adapting to the shape of the interviewee’s interests, but they aim, on the whole, at getting a career overview as well as some statement of artistic principles and a commentary on broader publishing or literary trends. The shape is often (but not always) chronological. What’s lost from this approach is a systematic picture of the operation of the letterpress. Given the assertion implicit in this book –– that these printer-poets and their methods speak to one another through collection in one place –– the absence of an index is regrettable, since it would have made it easier to map continuities, tracing a web of technologies, colleagues and influences.

A greater risk is that the interview format reinscribes an idea of individual genius, even while the argument of the text often runs against it. Printing is proposed as an activity that can erase the self in a way that writing one’s own poetry might not, but which an art like translation might. There is also the risk that publishing the work of others might diminish one’s own potential as a poet, that it leads one, in Pierce’s words, to ‘[neglect] some of my own shit’.

Of course, the relationship between poet and publisher can be more fraught. Alastair Johnson observes that ‘[m]ost writers have pretty conservative expectations for their work: big margins, nice large letters. They tend to be more concerned with external matters like the cover art or color choice’. The extreme of the opposition between printer and poet is represented by Johnson’s recollection of being hired to print Clayton Eshleman’s Nights We Put the Rock Together:

I hated the manuscript, so I set it in 16 point Van Dijck Italic which is pretty unreadable as a text face. [Jeffrey] Miller thought it looked fine. Eshleman made constant revisions and I had only enough type to do 4 pages at a time, so I was mailing proofs to LA and waiting for him to send them back, then sending revised proofs and so on, and it dragged on and on and became a real headache. To make matters worse Joanne Kyger was over at my shop and started writing marginal comments on the proofs also! Miller threatened me (he actually flashed a gun!) so I gave him the sheets and he had [Graham] Mackintosh bind them and make the cover.

As the above suggests, what’s gained by the loose conversational form of the interviews is a wealth of anecdote, gossip and insight into the personality, passions and gripes that would be hidden in a more rigidly formulaic text. Raworth steals Methedrine from the pharmacist he works for so he can set type throughout the night. Hejinian solicits a manuscript from Isaac Asimov under pressure from her son; Asimov refuses. Philip Gallo plays an 18-hour pool game. Aaron Cohick has a ‘long torrid affair with Palatino’.

Even greater than these pleasures are the ones allowed by Schlesinger and his interviewees talking (print)shop: there’s the good, grainy and musical jargon of precise and intricate detail, as when Annabel Lee describes how:

I typeset The Traveling Woman in Journal Roman. I chose Frutiger for the text and Meridien for the blurb on the back, both designed by the Swiss designer Adrian Frutiger for Conversations with Rudy Burckhardtby Simon Pettet. Rudy was Swiss. The type was set by a type shop on Broadway in Manhattan. Even though I did not set the type for Rudy and Simon’s book, I did lots of calculations when designing the type. For one thing I had them set the text line for line from the manuscript I provided. I measured Simon’s longest lines (his questions) and the longest was 81 characters wide. With 2.58 characters per pica in 11 point Frutiger, this meant I would specify a 32 pica width. And given the height of the pages, determined by the photos and especially the photo chosen for the cover, the Frutiger was set 11 on 13 to balance the white space on the pages, based on shortest and longest text pages, as well as the shortest and longest question and answer sequences in their interview.

Or that dimly translatable admiration that exists between experts, as when Jonathan Greene observes that P. J. Conkwright:

could just freehand take a piece of paper and start in lettering in faces he was most familiar with, say Bulmer display, and then could scribe a page of 10/13 Caledonia! Amazed me to see this.

And as new technology comes in, the same articulated sentences re-emerge with new moving parts. Greene describes how, in 2015:

My workshop is just our son’s former bedroom with one fairly up-to-date iMac and one ancient Power Mac G3 which provides access to old Zip and floppy files. And two old Epson color printers I don’t really use now since Dobree [Adams] has a new Epson Pro 3800 in her office.

Schlesinger’s glossary, which is eccentric, partisan, valuative and witty, may do something to undercut points in the interviews where the definition of terms like ‘artist’s book’ or ‘fine press’ are subject to different interpretations. But it extends the pleasure of the language that enlivens the book as a whole. Though it isn’t mentioned in the interviews, we are told that ‘a receptacle for broken or worn type to be melted down’ is known as a ‘hellbox’ –– and we are happier for the information! Another entry in the glossary alerts the reader that the book they’re reading uses ‘hanging quotes’, information that for me made an invisible feature of the text suddenly apparent. That encouragement towards an attention to form is valuable –– and, in the interview with Anna Moschovakis and Matvei Yankelevich of Ugly Duckling Presse, there’s a distinct pleasure in reading a printers’ comments in a book they have printed: it continues the pattern of making visible textual features that to the lay reader lie obscured.

At times, the interviews wander into a nostalgia for a print culture more exclusively letterpress. Are people not ‘tired of the perfection and instant gratification of 2D reality’? As might be expected with such nostalgia, its goalposts move. From anti-offset, to anti Print-On-Demand. These critiques generally centre on a distrust of the overly neat, of something that becomes inhuman, that is either too ephemeral or too permanent. It’s hard not to see in this a lack of imagination, especially when one brings to mind, for example, Kumau Brathwaite’s Sycorax video style. More hopeful visions emerge too. Cohick sees different media extending one another, dying only if one attempts to freeze them in time. Adaptation is heard alongside or instead of resistance.

Rather than an Arts and Crafts insistence on the coherent, handmade, beautiful object, letterpress might maintain its connection with the avant-garde in particular because both find similar pleasures and productive possibilities in pushing up against limitation and constraint. Or, put another way, locating the resistant matter and seeing what terms it sets and how one can work with them. Any such approach would by necessity see the letterpress as one form among many: if the narrative is not to be one of supersession, it must at least be decentralisation. If the risk is that it becomes preciously or comically virtuosic –– playing video game music on a harpsichord or making Michelangelo’s David out of fresh cheese –– then the key is to make sure that its analogies to –– and relationships with –– readily recognisable or generalisable constraints are apparent. That the limits engaged are shown to be of interest.


See also:

For more on the early twentieth-century history of the printer-poet, Lisa Otty, “Small Press Modernists: Collaboration, Experimentation and the Limited Edition Book”, in The Aesthetics of Matter: Modernism, the Avant-Garde and Material Exchange, ed. by Sarah Posman and others (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013), pp. 128–43 (p. 133).

Audrey and Philip Ward’s The Small Publisher (1979), while outdated in parts, provides an example of a more systematic approach to analysing the British small press scene. Not only Bill Griffiths’ Pirate Press, but a range of small presses, including one specialising in the local history of Chepstow, list annual turnover and profits.


Text: Alex Grafen

Published: 16/11/21


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