A Poetics of the Press: Interviews with Poets, Printers, & Publishers
“A Poetics of the Press serves an audience of those dedicated to recording and understanding literary publishing, a must for all serious libraries.”
Here is a monumental work that captures the history of contemporary letterpress literary writing and publishing in America. And it does it through detailed and engaging interviews with 16 of its chief practitioners. Though too often ignored by academic and the large critical marketplace, the work here is vital and far reaching. As editor Kyle Schlesinger writes, “Opening a book of poems, clearing a field. What do you see? What’s actually there? What does this way of seeing have to do with the making of meaning? With art? Technology? Literacy? Commerce? Compassion?”
Though some categorize such publishing as “art books” in limited editions, it stretches the meaning of “book” and “art” by its experimentation and attention to paper, fonts, graphics, and design. Many of its chief practitioners assembled here are poets, artists, and designers. They are also historians of a unique individuated movement from the 1950s on. They were there dealing with hot type, inks, papers, and a host of well-known writers who loved having so much care go into their work.
Following editor Kyle Schlesinger’s careful introductions, the reader steps into the river of personalities who share their stories and visions here. Some of the best also describe the writing and the cultural scenes and times. It’s a delight to see how writers like Robert Creeley rose from apprenticeship in the small presses to become our national Poet Laureate.
One of the best interviews is with Alastair Johnston of Poltoon Press who liberally shares inside stories of West and East Coast literary scenes along with discussion of some of the struggles and intentions of doing such publishing. Warning of “marthastewartizing” the work by playing to a larger commercial market, he clarifies larger goals: “I teach artists book classes to elementary school kids in the inner city, and they love it, the magic of discovering that books are not just commodities to buy. I make little one-offs for my own amusement or to give away.”
Most of the interviews were prepared online and carefully detailed, so prepare yourself for much font and printer talk. Scott Pierce of Effing Press (whose interview was conducted in a bar) provides a lively personal record of his life and work full of good stories and personalities.
Keith and Rosemarie Waldrop of Burning Deck Press document a long history of their work both as writers and letterpress publishers. Many of the interviews are with writer-publisher-teachers like Johanna Drucker of Druckwerk Press who takes us deep into her own philosophical vision of what a “book” is and why it matters: “My sense is that the function of aesthetic activity is the transformation of experience or thought or sensation into form. The possibility of giving form as a cognitive and social act is powerful inventing new forms of thought is a way to reimagine the world.”
A Poetics of the Press is liberally sprinkled with sample images of the works of these dedicated author-publishers. The book serves an audience of those dedicated to recording and understanding literary publishing, a must for all serious libraries. We owe editor Kyle Schlesinger a debt of thanks for documenting this vital part of the literature of our times.