Meshworks: Episode 2

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of publishing with a small press is its embrace of all the faculties, especially the hands. Not only does it stretch the brain with its wild styles and word art, but it also asks the mind to translate to the fingertips the very art it imagines, bypassing the mediator we call a computer. 

Book covers for “Why Poetry?” at Meshworks Press, Wilkinsburg PA © Michelle Gil-Montero.

Prior to our second trip to Meshworks, I’d never experienced screen-printing. Our SVC printmaking class last semester attempted it, but couldn’t compete with all the “big” gear with which Meshworks was outfitted—huge screens burned with the cover of Why Poetry?, every color of ink imaginable, aprons, an array of tools, generous work stations, and a fantastic instructor. Haylee Ebersole, founder of Meshworks Press, enthusiastically guided us, and even completed the remaining quantity of covers when we failed to produce 300 in our allotted time. Her dedication was touching, and she was a pleasure to work with! It was great to be back at her studio after our first excursion there (where we discovered the art of letterpress).

We began with a short lesson, and proceeded to team up at one of four printing stations, with an additional group of students mixing ink. Excitement swept the room when Haylee demonstrated the process and pulled out a brilliantly-colored trial print from beneath the screen. After selecting a blue-green theme, while allowing for some variance, groups set to work. Ours made a system: one person to run the ink through the screen, two to help her with set up and paper removal, and one to lay out our final copies to dry. We suffered through several failures as we adjusted how to properly flood the screen with ink or use the squeegee, and printing the bar code on the back of the cover proved a challenge. By the end of the evening, we were printing like pros and enjoyed the process immensely, despite our green and blue fingers! 

Something about seeing hundreds of covers flooding the floor, drying racks, counters, and every available flat surface, and knowing we’d produced them together, was inspiring. We chatted and laughed, while working diligently, and enjoyed Haylee’s encouragement as well as the supervision of artist Jim Kozak, who had designed the cover from a block print he created. When we first entered the studio and greeted him, I was shocked to find he looked familiar. In October, I took a block printing class at Ligonier’s art center, Main Exhibit Gallery, and he had also participated in that. I hadn’t put the face to the name, but it was a pleasant surprise! 

Learning to screen print was an epic adventure, and gaining “bragging rights” to say that we hand-printed the covers for the books was well worth it. A beautiful sense of healthy pride comes with handiwork, and we received a generous dose of it on our excursion, not to mention deepening our class camaraderie!

A Peek Inside: Designing a Chapbook’s Interior Layout

“Blurred Book Pages”. Photo by Caio (Creative Commons CC0 1.0) – public domain image. https://thoughtsonfantasy.com/openfannedbook/

Last week, my team met to work on the interior layout for new author Joe O’Connor’s chapbook, Why Poetry. When asked to volunteer for our desired team during our last class period, I chose this one because I thought it would be interesting to open my eyes to some of the challenges of a book’s physical production. I had no idea how many other windows would be unveiled to me as well in the short time we worked together! 

The most revolutionizing discovery proved to be my newfound ability to find and download other fonts to my computer. As a Mac user, I’m bound to their version of Microsoft Word, a program called Pages. While I like the program itself, I was always wanting for new fonts, but never knew there was a way to obtain them…for free! When our wonderful and diligent group leader, Julia Snyder, instructed us to search on dafont.com, for possible fonts in which to set O’Connor’s body text, I found hundreds of new letter styles at my fingertips. I cannot contain my excitement (and my shock that I’d never heard of this miracle before)!

I selected several serif fonts, some of which were plain enough for body text but still had a little more style than the monotonous Times New Roman every student has memorized. I also found a few that could potentially work for titles. While we opted with Robot Thin, a sans-serif font, for the main text, selected for its “open” appearance, our group did choose Angleterre Book, I font I picked, for use in the numerous titles throughout the work!

Julia then introduced us to Adobe InDesign, similar in layout to Adobe Photoshop, which I currently use in AR-330: Digital Photography and Post-Production. I liked how, by creating a Master Page, we could keep the same placement of body texts versus titles or page numbers, and the same margins on each page-in-progress, which gave the chapbook a uniform, fluid feel despite its gorgeous poems and unique covers. Laying out each page was a laborious process, but together we wrestled with the font size and copied and pasted each title and each poem to its appropriate text box. 

The most exasperating aspect hit us, coffee-less, at 8 am when we met again to finish the project. Nearly finished, we simply couldn’t adjust the print settings to allow us to print the layout we required for our mockup of the book interior. At last, we surrendered to Google, and found others had experienced the same problem; the computer program had added extra pages, and we had already designed it with a sufficient addition of blank ones. Any more, and the poems would not be printed in the proper order.  We followed online advice and were ecstatic when it printed correctly! Then we tried to find a stapler to finalize the tangible copy of our hard work…

All in all, I truly enjoyed working with the interior layout team, whose members were pleasant and hard-working. My mind has expanded in its understanding of books. I had no idea how much effort was entertained in the making of a single page!

The Man, The Myth…A Firsthand Experience with a Big-Name Publisher

How many students in a college English course can say they entertained a Big Six publisher for class?!

For our last excursion, we had the privilege of meeting, via Skype, publisher, editor, and writer Garth Graeper, and interviewing him! Each student, required to present him with a question, eagerly enhanced the conversation. 

On a personal level, I found Mr. Graeper inspiring because he can offer knowledge on such a wide variety of areas. He worked for a small press, Ugly Duckling Presse, as a very hands-on, paper manuscripts stacked to the ceiling, volunteer-based kind of place, and later switched to the other extreme, Penguin Random House and also Knopf Books, “Big Six” publishers who exist largely for profit, production-based operation. In his career he has edited work, published it, contributed to the physical aspect of the Small Press Industry, and even done his own writing on the side, some of which has been published. On top of it all, he is also a proud father of a girl and happily married, with all the familial responsibilities that accompany it. 

These things combined piqued my curiosity and led me to ask my question, which in essence was: how does he do it all? 

In reality, my question looked more like this: “My desired career is to be a writer and illustrator for young people, but I also want to have a family someday. How do you balance your own literary efforts and your work at Random House with spending time with your wife and daughter?” He liked the question and laughed a little. “When you have enough of a reputation,” said Graeper, “That can help.” He meant that already being securely established in his career and having some published work had been important to him in his capability of leading a family. For a daily lifestyle of family success, Graeper says he gets up bright and early each morning for his own work, and then goes to his regular job during his workday. Afterwards, in the evening, he devotes his time to his family. 

In all honesty, I believe this was the part of the conversation that most captured me, though I also enjoyed his tips for budding writers. I often look to the future as I consider the seemingly endless possibilities for my vocation, and I appreciated his advice. That’s why I asked the question I chose—I truly want to be a wife and mom someday, but I also long to exert my personal talents in writing and art for a good cause, something that can both further my vocation and help others in their journey of faith. To do that, and execute it well, I would need to maintain a healthy balance. 

I found it interesting that Graeper didn’t begin as a writer, actually only diving into poetry in his twenties when he stumbled across Ugly Duckling Presse and called to volunteer, launching him into the rather large world of small presses. The press stated, in an interview with Entropy, an online small press database, that some of their “most valuable” resources are their “interns, apprentices, volunteers, and editors.” Now he has the identity of both writer and editor, though currently he told us he identifies more as a writer, since he has not been as engaged in the editing process of late.

I found our session quite rewarding. I think it ultimately put the BIG world of books into the tangible realm for me, since I now can say I’ve “met” a real, BIG publisher and writer. He started even later in his writing endeavors than most of us English majors. I found his story and advice encouraging towards whatever the future may hold for me as I aspire to move beyond the classroom with my work! 

Works Cited:

Entropy, “Ugly Duckling Presse: Interview with Michael Newton and Emmalea Russo.” March 24, 2015. https://entropymag.org/ugly-duckling-presse/

A Radically Conservative “Owl”

“We find in common a love of honest work well done, and a distaste for short cuts to popular success.” (Graves, 5).

For my assignment, I selected a modernist journal titled The Owl: a Miscellany. Its bright and various illustrations attracted me, as did its whimsical cover, and further reading proved it to be filled with well-known authors and figures, T. E. Lawrence, Walter J. Turner, and Thomas Hardy to name a few. For a journal, it faced a remarkably short life—only three issues were ever created. Yet each one is filled with a remarkable array of drawings, prints, poems, stories, and even samples of flash-fiction. Perhaps the most remarkable feature, however, is its content. In an era devoted to modernism, where literary publications tended towards the radical and political, The Owl opted to remain completely independent of any agenda. 

“It must be understood that ‘The Owl’ has no politics, leads no new movement and is not even the organ of any particular generation—for that matter sixty-seven years separate the oldest and youngest contributors,” states the foreword of Vol. 1, published in 1919. The journal’s three issues spanned the next several years, with the last volume published in 1923. Using “traditional poetic technique” (The Modernist Journals Project) and childlike illustrations, the wide range of authors showcased the Georgian Poetic Movement, innovative in its day but viewed as obsolete by the time of The Owl’s debut. Its poems and images relate to romanticized ideas of nature, characteristic of the Georgians. By 1919, World War I aided modernism in altering the poetry landscape, and Robert Graves, editor of The Owl, was criticized for his meager inclusion of war poetry. 

A closer look within the magazine reveals an ordinary white page with centered type, and a narrative that reads like a story, rhymes like a poem, and yet has indications off to the lefthand side as if to denote characters in a play. Titled “A Frosty Night,” by Robert Graves, one poem opens to a ditty-like exchange between a Mother and daughter. The characters are expertly portrayed; readers can feel the young lady squirm with annoyance and embarrassment as her worried parent seeks to discover her reason for looking so ghostlike and at the same time ready to dance—is it a lover? The page carries no designs, but the type is elegant and gives the title delightful curls. All the letters are italicized, but this is standard throughout the work. 

Graves, only twenty-three, both edited and contributed to The Owl, a dream of his father-in-law’s, who granted him the position and supported the publications monetarily. Since he had always associated with the Georgians, Graves remained loyal to their impressive group of authors, maintaining a more conservative approach to his magazine. It was also an excellent opportunity to showcase his work alongside some of the greatest writers of his day. Published with the renowned men are the illustrations of Pamela Bianco, a girl only twelve years old! Additionally, in Vol. 1 each contributor signs their name, some pasted over from ink mishaps. The jagged list adds an air of personalization and teamwork to the volume, and helps to showcase the remainder as a unified effort of authors with a common joy: writing for writing’s sake. 

Outside the Box

“A ‘book’ is an idea as much as an object…shaped by the materials at hand and the need of writers and readers.” (Borsuk 111).

How perfectly this sums up my creative “book object” project for our class! My piece is both a book and a non-book, playing on aspects from traditional forms of bookmaking as well as teasing them and moving beyond their limits. Books have text, or usually do, and I included five original poems throughout my work. At home for a few days, I brought out ALL the art bins and boxes of fabric, scrapbook paper, beads, ribbon…anything I had at hand that I could remotely envision using on an art-book project. I found a cigar box that seems to be the average size and thickness of a typical codex, and moved from there to incorporate other forms of record-keeping that I enjoyed discovering in the pages of The Book

The box hinges like a hardback novel, but is plain on the outside. No one would guess at the bursts of color and hidden words within! It reflects the artist’s world. Not everyone realizes just how much potential and beauty are within the often plain and weathered features of the artistically talented. Inside, I lined the “cover” and the “back” with marble endpaper, actually marbled fabric to touch on the traditional side. Yet on the lefthand side, I used paper, fabric, and a sewing machine to make an accordion-style—or dos-à-dos—book. On the front is a paper pocket, with a “heart-shaped”(Borsuk 61)—or cordiform—book carrying the title of the project, “Inside the Box,” the date, and my name. I included a scroll…or is it? When unrolled, it has pages! And as a final touch, I decorated a matchbox, created a drawer, and folded up another poem which can be stretched from the drawer and read in a radical way. 

My object is geared for the creative mind that relishes the tangible: opening tiny drawers, untying ribbons, peeking in pockets, feeling wooden beads, feathers, twine, and fabric while enjoying homemade poetry. I wanted to appeal to a reader’s mind not just through the words, but also through both visual and touchable art. Anyone with dexterity could enjoy this project, whether a child who loves the little matchbox or the wooden block letters, or an adult who finds the medium an entertaining and enriching backdrop for the words themselves. I used a variety of my better poems, some more for children, and some more for a college student or adult. The object portion of my book incorporates bright colors and exploratory features seen on children’s works, but the paper is more sophisticated, especially considering the cigar box. What kid’s board book would advertise that? The “artist’s book,” as stated by Borsuk, is a “‘zone of activity’ by artists and writers,” and I intended to make mine just that (115). 

Works Cited

The Book, Amaranth Borsuk. The MIT Press, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2018.

Beyond Books

Handcrafted Zine, collection of Carnegie Library, Pittsburgh, PA. Photo credit: © Clair Sirofchuck

When I first read the article on zines given to us in class, I wasn’t all that excited. They seemed to merely be excessively explicit pamphlets cheaply stapled together. However, I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that, in the archives at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, PA, zines present an entirely new and unique level of art combined with writing, and a refreshing step back from commercial paperbacks. While some indeed were a bit intimate, many revealed captivating stories of real life people with very real struggles. 

Unlike books from the Big Six publishers, zines relish in freedom of both content and form. They’re not restricted to any particular medium; some of the examples we flipped through were littered with sketches, others used the words themselves to make art, pasting them on different backgrounds of paper or lace. One of the zines had a cloth cover, another plastic, while many were simply cardstock and printer paper. Some had clearly been mass-produced, but my favorites were those that looked specially handmade and were probably one of the only copies in existence. There was something sacred about holding a little object that had the appearance of a book yet remained one of the only (if not the only) copies of that volume in existence in the entire earth—and I one of the only readers to ever lift its cover!

Handcrafted Zine, collection of Carnegie Library, Pittsburgh, PA. Photo credit: © Clair Sirofchuck

Their content, too, isn’t narrowed down or hacked apart by big name publishers and editors desperate to appeal to a mass market. With their artsy pages, zines lend a voice to the voiceless authors who might never have been published otherwise. Indeed, most of the zines I picked up were written by minorities, whose methods of expressing radical views may have likely seemed too abrasive for big publishers’ targeted audiences. In essence, they make their readers consider, what is a book? Zines are clearly considered a valid enough method of writing to reserve a space on the Carnegie’s shelves…and even have tours devoted to them! While small presses seem to take the key and unlock the cage surrounding our traditional sense of the word “book”, zines break through the bars with their eye-opening opportunities to literally do anything, depict anything, and write anything, all without fear of rejection from a publisher.

As a visual artist and English double major, I’ve always delighted in the crafty books normally restricted to five-year-olds. They entertain hidden pockets, words pasted everywhere in fun fonts and colors, flaps, textures, puzzles, windows…in other words, they have a healthy dose of visual creativity. For better or worse, I will always be more attracted to buying a well-illustrated paperback as opposed to its less-colorful counterpart. My eyes experience the text just as much as my mind. Why not make it enjoyable? Exploring the world of zines for a few hours was an intellectual treat. I had no idea such an intriguing form of publishing was available, but now I’m eager to try my hand at it, with at least a personal attempt! 

With My Own Hands

Have you ever looked down at your hands and simply marveled at them? How amazing is it that our Creator gave us the ability to hold, touch, and create! With the rise of computers, cell phones, and the digital life, not only has our ability to communicate with others fallen from a physical conversation to a string of emojis, but our ability to create has also moved away from dexterity. Now everything is visual, synthesized, “in the cloud”… in other words, fake. The things we make are done through a computer by clicking this and pressing that; to create, then, we’re chained to media beyond our comprehension, so that, when it fails us, we’re helpless to repair it. 

My first experience working with Letterpress at Meshworks Press–located in Wilkinsburg, PA–helped me to understand what we miss when we merely tap out a class paper on a computer keyboard. Our fingers don’t get sticky with black ink, they can’t feel the cool metal letters and weigh them in comparison to the buoyantly light wooden type, and they fail to rummage through drawers of fonts desperate to find exactly the right style. At Meshworks, I loved listening to the relaxing hum of the printing press while it clicked and whirred, producing beautiful student projects. Fishing through open trays of type designs brought a new level of creativity to words and turned them to poetic art: my group selected a decorative cross for the “t” at the end of our phrase, “Be A Light”. I’d never have thought to do that on my laptop (and Times New Roman doesn’t exactly offer that as a function). 

Letterpress Project, created September 11, 2019. © Clair Sirofchuck.

One of the lessons that most impressed me, though, is excellently summarized by author Araïs Nin: “You pit your faculties against concrete problems” (Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3). Hayley Ebersole, founder of Meshworks, stated something similar during our workshop when talking about her platen press. Unlike digital printers that magically consume ink or computer software that stubbornly refuses to function unless it’s updated for the sixth, seventh, and eighth time..and style mysteriously crashes directly afterwards, printing presses and the process of typesetting have tangible, visible, comprehensible problems that are often easily fixed by something as simple as slipping a piece of packing paper behind a letter to give it a deeper impression in the final copy. 

Certainly, the difficulties are still frustrating. Our group originally began with letters of a variety of fonts and sizes, and quickly realized that we didn’t have enough furniture of the right sizes to space it firmly enough. Even after we managed to change the font to a consistent size and tighten everything (in an excited frenzy since we realized our classmates had long finished), we found that one of the furniture bars was placed incorrectly and nothing could print! So we manually undid everything, rearranged it, and fixed it in the press to ink—only to discover that the cross wouldn’t print! Haylee solved it with a bit of paper and an ink roller, inking the stamp separately. Our finished product is now hanging by my bed as a beautiful reminder, and I relish tracing over the deep imprints of the letters, knowing I made that, with my hands. 

Saint Vincent College Students at work, Meshwork Press, Wilkinsburg, PA, September 11, 2019. © Clair Sirofchuck.