“Each triumph is a conquest by the body, fingers, muscles. You live with your hands, in acts of physical deftness.”
A reader analyzing this quote without context could be forgiven if he or she believed Nin to be discussing some form of athletics in the third volume of her personal diary. And yet, as she goes onto describe the sublime process of printing, parallels do emerge. Athletes pride themselves on their ability to triumph by melding rigorous physicality with mental fortitude, qualities which are both refined through discipline. Similarly, printers draw on discipline to achieve victory, which is to say, ensuring their work “exists” at the end of the day. They scrutinize each type in search of “the right one,” gently place it into the machine, and actively spin their ideas into reality. A triumph worthy of its own gold medal.
Though I arrived late, I immediately became acquainted with this subtle aspect of letterpress printing. After patient instruction by the brilliant Haylee Ebersole, I began to inspect each typeface, holding piece after piece up to my eyes as if I were examining diamonds. Eventually, with my idea in hand, I began to fit it in the chase, sharing the space with Elspeth Mizner’s design. Securing the perfect fit proved to be more elusive than anticipated, and I dashed back and forth between our corner of the press and the shelves of furniture in pursuit of it. Finally, the last wooden block was slipped into position, and it was time to take our designs to the press.
The letterpress laid dormant in another corner of Meshwork, kindly waiting to be used, as it might’ve waited in the years before Haylee acquired it. As I approached it, I was not immediately awe-struck like I thought I would’ve been. Instead, through cranking the throw-off lever and spinning the flywheel, I became more intimately acquainted with the machine revered in Pressing On. To borrow more from Nin, it mobilized my energy, and helped me attain what I desired: my own creation.
I could now appreciate the intimacy of letterpress, of which I had heard so much about in the account prior to this excursion. That blending of the mind and the body, all wrapped up in the soul, must be the reason letterpress printing is still used by small poetry presses. Together, they blend the beautiful fluidity of language with the acute liveliness of artisanal work. This is how the purest poetry is created, with letterpress printers!
Nin, Anïs. “The Diary of Anïs Nin.” New York. Houghton Mifflin. 1971.