The Forge in the Garage

The 2017 documentary “Pressing On: The Letterpress Film” opens with sounds of clicking and clanking, of metal hitting metal. Without images, one might imagine that these are the sounds of a blacksmith’s hammer striking hot iron, fashioning a mighty sword or an ornamental grill. But as the camera focuses, it becomes clear that this is not the case. It is revealed that these biting sounds are the product of a letterpress machine in use. Its operator, an older gentleman, deftly pressing inked type onto paper, forging ideas into reality. Though very different, the link that ties these two mediums of creation together is their intimate connection with the human body and the senses.

“It has a smell, it has a sound, it has a rhythm!” notes Rick Von Holdt, one of several letter-pressers interviewed in the film. This connection is also what I feel makes letterpress printing appealing to poetry publishing; together, they deepen the bond between the body and the mind in ways few processes can replicate in the modern age. Much thought by the poet is given to the words that are to express their ideas, as does the printer when selecting the right font with the intent further convey the heart of the poem. And as the poet subtly traces words into their notebook, so to does the printer painstakingly arrange each letter of type in the press before birthing a new poem into the world.

I believe this nurturing, artisanal care that follows the poem through the entire creative process also makes letterpress printing invaluable to small press printing. Standing in contrast to the mass-production engines of the Big 5 (6?) publishing companies, letterpress printing allows a small press to engage more personally with the work it publishes, thereby establishing a better link between the press and its authors. This in turn could strengthen the passion the press has for what it publishes, which I feel would be to the benefit of everyone (the readers, the workers, and the authors).

Looking to a picture bigger than just one small press publishing company, the use of letterpress could allow a small press to connect itself to the greater letterpress community. This community showcased towards the ending of “Pressing On” resonated with me the most during the film; from the oldheads like Rick Von Holdt and Jim Daggs, to the younger generation spearheaded by Tammy and Adam Winn, each presser exemplified a beautiful passion, authenticity, and endurance, traits I see as shared by small printing companies.

These same traits are what I believe will keep letterpress printing relevant long after fads like polaroid cameras and typewriters have faded away. What “Pressing On” captures is the slow revitalization of a medium that never truly went away; a medium that is intimately connected with the human desire to create.

2 thoughts on “The Forge in the Garage”

  1. Beautiful response! As I read through these responses, I’m finding that lots of you are playing with ways to articulate the merging of the physical and intellectual aspect of book-production in letterpress: “Together, they deepen the bond between the body and the mind in ways few processes can replicate in the modern age.” Here we are, actually after the modern age, or in some late digital extension of modernity, and the threat of losing the embodied rhythms, the clink and the clank, of book production is very real…it has already happened! You describe the printer as a kind of post-poet, and definitely a participant in the creative process. The printing process as an extension of the poet’s work: “as the poet subtly traces words into their notebook, so to does the printer painstakingly arrange each letter.” The printer meets the poet’s level of personal engagement and truly participates in the creative process. Printing is, then, to poetry, an in-kind art?

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  2. I enjoy your introduction! The comparison of a letterpress sounds to that of a hammering blacksmith was interesting! Not only do both involve a physical aspect, but both are things that people likely think are not around any longer, at least outside of specialized tourist locations.

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