A Poetics of the Press: Interviews with Poets, Printers, & Publishers
The letterpress is a haunting object. Its small bed and moveable type have an obvious kinship with Gutenberg’s 1440 creation. But the letterpress, Kyle Schlesinger reminds us, “became commercially obsolete around 1945.” Post-WWII, commercial publishing of all kinds shifted to offset printing, leaving behind their drawers of miniature type (today popular among hipsters as wall cabinets for curios) and artisanal labor for cheaper, easier mass publication.
In the aftermath, poets and artisans rescued letterpress typography from the scrap heap. The type was rearranged and “forged in hot metal” to produce the profusion of lovely, carefully assembled books of independent poetry that marked a transformation in literary culture. Scrap and salvage shifted an art form.
Kyle Schlesinger’s book of interviews takes on the marvelous whys behind that shift. “What,” he writes, “is the difference between publishing an ebook and printing the same book on a letterpress? What is the difference as a reader, writer, publisher? What is it about this obsolete technology that continues to allure readers, writers, and publishers?” He brings these questions to both publishers and poets, across three continents and multiple generations, seeking insight into the unexpected charm and, perhaps, the imperative of literary creation as an utterly physical act.
Each of the 16 interviews is prefaced by a short history that intertwines writing, publishing, and the people who bring them together. These offer crucial information for the non-specialist reader. Schlesinger gives us intimate access and knowledge, so that each interview, as we reach it, becomes an elaboration of what we already understand.
The mechanics of the press itself are never far from the center of conversation. Schlesinger is obviously fascinated by the technical aspects. Interviewing the Keith and Rosemarie Waldrop, the founders and operators of Burning Deck Press, Schlesinger begins with an insider’s gossip: “Someone told me you have a Heidelberg. I thought it was a Chandler and Price?” The equipment forms a launch-pad for discussion of cover design, typography, and self-publishing. It’s utterly delightful: we listen in on excited, engaged discussions of publishing arcana, learning as we go like breathless apprentices.
The interview format is crucial to A Poetics of the Press. Letterpress publishing wasn’t and isn’t monolithic. Each press, each publisher and poet who engages, does so as a personal project, seeking to create art and play out the history of the book. No one gets rich in the process, but this isn’t work for profit, but for delight. Lyn Hejinian of Tuumba Press demands, “Don’t you feel that part of the intense pleasure of making these books is the pleasure of craftspersonship? These days I do a lot of the typesetting for the Atelos books in Quark, and even that—which is much less beautiful than letterpress—is still fun. . . . It’s all really incredibly satisfying in a way that is much less painful than trying to write.”
The pleasure of creation is at the heart of these poetics. (Poetics today usually refers to the techniques of literary composition, distinct from content. But of course, the term descends from Aristotle’s Poetics, the first real study of the nature of literature.) Schlesinger suggests that the relationship isn’t accidental: “the root of the word ‘poetry’: ‘to make, create, compose,’ or ‘to pile up, build, make.’” Poetry is making, and letterpresses make poetry material, concrete objects compressing poetry into concrete objects.
While A Poetics of the Press is ultimately probably most interesting to readers already deeply interested in printing, poetry, or both, it’s a charming and accessible book. Its roots in conversation grow into a friendly dialogue about the joys of making. These are joys coming back into vogue. Even as ebooks proliferate, readers declare a preference for the printed page. Craft has arguably never been more widely practiced, with ever-increasing numbers of people reorienting themselves to work as an act of creation, unalienated from its product.
And this is a book that creates possibilities: it offers the reader new possibilities for knowledge and skill. You could learn to do this. You could visit these archives. You could salvage/restore/reclaim such a machine. You could/can/should hunt down these tiny volumes that circulate through the dusty catalogues of antiquarians. One more anthology. One more poet. Join the club: 16 interviews are more than enough to create an invitation to print, both as a form and as an act.