Letterpress Poetry Loves
The first poetry broadsides I remember encountering were made by Ken and Ann Mikolowski at The Alternative Press in Grindstone, Michigan as part of their project to put free poetry into the hands of the people. Ken was my professor and mentor at University of Michigan, where he exposed me to many poets of the Beat and Black Mountain schools, many of whom he’d published during the 1960’s. I have an Allen Ginsberg poem around here somewhere. Ken was generous with his artifacts and often passed along items that later became part of the special collections library at that institution.
Some of the press’s poets and artists were asked to complete, often over the course of years, 500 one-of-a-kind postcards in a series for distribution to subscribers and fans. Ken encouraged me to consider doing this, too, as a way to push my work or to flesh out an idea. While I’ve never committed to 500, I’ve often used versions of an extended series or sequence to stretch myself. A formal constraint of some kind will often break through old habits and initiate new modes of work.
The Alternative Press broadside that I’ve kept closest to me all these years is this one:
Then there’s “September, Inverness,” by Robert Hass, printed in 2006 by Chad Pastotnik at Deep Woods Press in Mancelona, Michigan. Part of a limited edition of 200, I received it as a gift when Hass presented an Earth Day lecture at Interlochen Center for the Arts during a literary symposium I was a part of. For many years it hung in my bathroom and I reread it often while brushing my teeth. It’s near my writing desk now. I feel I have an especially intimate relationship with this poem after so many years of sharing close quarters with it.
I wish I were able to get a better photo for you. The Somerset Textured paper is a lovely white, has a deckle edge, and is quite lovely to touch and look at, though I keep this one behind glass.
A couple of years ago the matter of Letterpress and poetry came up again, thanks to writer Katey Schultz, who was at that time working on a series of Alaska poems to be printed by a letterpress artist. I was so inspired by Katey’s plans, and by the art form that had brought me so many personally significant pieces of art over the years, I started looking for ways to learn more, and perhaps have some broadsides made to accompany my new book of poems.
Here’s one of my very first printing attempts, aided by a private lesson from Melanie Mowinski at PRESS: Letterpress as Public Art in North Adams, Massachusetts. Melanie persuaded me that doing it myself would be a worthwhile experience, and show me new things about my poem. Hand-setting type, one tiny letter at a time, will do that. I had many new ideas about the role of white space, and about layout, during that January day in her studio.
It’s a fragment from the poem ‘Bell,’ which appears in my book Pilgrim. I decided that as a first-timer, I’d focus on just a few words, thus reserving some attention for the visual elements, minimalist though they are. It was a revelation. Almost all the writing I’ve done since that experience a year or so ago, has relied on a deeper process of reduction. A new engagement with the idea of visual poetry. It’s all about working my way to those brief essences, which is also the inspiration for a workshop I’m co-hosting, with master printer William Muller on April 9th, 10:00 am-2:00 pm as part of Easthampton BookFest.
It’s called Press Your Poem: Letterpress Poetry Workshop.Come create and print poems in Big Wheel Press’s light-filled space at the Cottage Street Studios. They even have a Ludlow, so you’ll get to make your own hot lead type based on the font of your choice from Bill’s sizable collection. We have room for twelve participants. Details and registration are here.
If this sort of thing interests you, here’s a concise history of the poetry broadside, over at Kenyon Review Online.