An Adventure Judged by Its Cover

I was that person who was only aware of screen printing as “that thing you do when you want to put an image on a t-shirt” before November 6th. I knew some of my favorite heavy metal t-shirts had been screen printed into existence, but back then I was unaware of its greater depth as an art form, and of its future significant in my junior year of college.

While the fall semester of 2019 enters the home stretch, the notion that we’re making a real bool, a chapbook to be more precise, still feels incredibly surreal. However, our final class trip down to Meshwork Press in Wilkinsburg to screen print the covers of Joe O’Connor’s Why Poetry? brought the swirling fantasy one step closer to a concrete reality. The ever-brilliant and hard-working Haylee Ebersole had four workstations primed and ready to print, but first, took a moment to explain the nuances of the screen printing. She demonstrated techniques like flooding the screen (coating the print area with ink before pressure is applied for the final print), as well as the best way to spread the colorful inks to get a fading effect on the cover.

The completed covers. © Elspeth Mizner

The cover in question was designed by Micaela Kreuzwieser and her team, featuring a photo by Joe’s Saint Vincent roommate, Jim Kozak. A simplistic shot of trees and the moon (or the sun?), we were directed by MGM to use color in way that riffed off of a comment Joe made regarding Walt Whitman’s poetry collection, Leaves of Grass. My station-team, which consisted of myself, Elspeth Mizner, and Micaela, mixed sea-foam green and a light blue, and while our covers may not win the prize for best fade, I’m quite fond of the icy teal that anoint our covers. I immediately claimed the most physical task, manning (perhaps “hogging” would be more apt) the squeegee, firmly pressing the ink into the blank templates that would become our covers. Once my team and I found our rhythm, we churned out cover after cover.

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, it feels appropriate to acknowledge the important people in this journey. So, thank you, Haylee, for your skill as an artist and as a teacher. Thank you, MGM, for willing this course into existence, and for providing exuberant mentorship. Thank you, my classmates, for your curiosity and nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic. And finally, thank you, Joe, for your lifelong commitment to poetry.

Flooding the screen before the next print. © Elspeth Mizner

Destroying The Book

The Wasted Book © Danny Whirlow

To create my “book,” I initially drew from Borsuk’s discussion of the ephemerality of the book, particularly the idea of deconstructing it and leaving it vulnerable to the elements. She says: “Not only are their physical physical forms (including the tablet, scroll, codex, and variations) susceptible to decay, their power to spread ideas makes them vulnerable to censorship, defacement, and destruction, particularly motivated by ideological and political difference (179).” I sought to pair this with a physical engagement to the text, so that the reader would have to destroy the “book” as part of the process to read the text (the reader could also just ignore the text if he or she deemed the title uninteresting). I did this by gluing the pieces of notebook paper together at either end, thereby binding the text in a short of paper capsule.

However, this is not a secure capsule by any means. The notebook paper is fragile, and can easily be damaged by water, swept away by wind, or torn with too much force. In order to obtain the knowledge which the reader seeks, he or she must be able to give up the notion of a book’s physical perfection, while also sacrificing some of the knowledge itself in the process (this further engages the reader allowing him or her to piece back together severed strands of text).

I chose to use notebook paper as my material of choice because as a studious (?) college student, I have a great abundance of it. This is also how I landed on the using graphite-spewing mechanical pencils to transcribe the text. The freehanded nature of this transcription gives the text a loose quality, and the graphite is just as fragile as the paper; it can easily be erased or smeared. Its dull gray color also evokes a colorless wasteland, which inspired my choice of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land as the poem I would transcribe.

Building on this aforementioned looseness, I turned the notebook paper sideways, favoring the immense width of the Landscape style over the confining narrowness of Portrait style. With space for the text to breath, this action also turned the typically horizontal page lines to vertical. This was beneficial because I would write against the lines, rather than with them. All of these format and design choices were in an effort breakaway from Ulises Carrión calls “an ideal space (3).” I sought to subvert the streamlined nature of academic equipment I am surrounded by, in an attempt prevent, as Borusk says, “bleary-eyed” rereads of a significant poem.

Works Citied

Borsuk, Amaranth. The Book. The MIT Press, 2018.

Carrion, Ulises. The New Art of Making Books. Aegean Editions, 2001.

The Magnificent Zine?

The zine is unlike any medium of communication I have ever beheld. Bold designs, strange text, and imperfect imagery immediately set them apart from the polished name-brand magazines that lined the walls of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. The simplicity in a zine’s creation resonated with me as well: to exist is to be published. Subverting the traditional publishing techniques, creators birth their ideas straight into print. The passion put into each pamphlet is palpable, and a reader can feel the pure zeal put into each word and artistic choice. To craft a zine is to craft a comet, in essence releasing a radiant spear across the fringes of the literary world.

When we were given these remnants of comets to pore over, I was promptly drawn to a zine that struck me as an oversized. It was almost the size of an average magazine, and I wonder if this was a deliberate choice to emphasize the issue at hand: an observation of the tense relationship between masculinity and the American military. To further stress this theme (and further grabbing my attention), the sizable zine was covered in sheared dark olive-green military fatigues, written on in thick black sharpie. It was rough, unafraid to get dirty, and evoked guerilla warfare. Inside, the zine continued to riff on a convention magazine (or even a book) by dividing the main topic up into three tributary “chapters.” This is where that riff ended though, as the militaristic pamphlet took an artsy-crafty turn. A-shooing the pristinely glossy and well-organized pages of mainstream magazines, this zine’s content solely consisted of Microsoft Word documents, cut up and glued onto construction paper. The heavy gluing began to reveal the clumsier side of the zine as a medium, and the lack of any cohesive design reinforced this notion of mine. Near-illegible titles were drawn with a mix of blue and black marker, and a message was scrawled on the final page in pen; I’ll speculate that it was an author’s note, but it was impossible to read.

These flaws, while primarily graphically related, compound with the subversion of mainstream publishing companies to form a credibly deficiency. I don’t mean to say that mainstream publishing companies are the be-all-end-all overlords that get the final say in what content is legitimate or not; however, the lack of any respected authority in the creation of a zine could diminish this legitimacy in the eyes of a reader.

In this gap between mainstream publishing companies and zine culture is where I believe small press printing (especially of poetry) fits perfectly. Here, the small press is connected enough to the creators as to preserve the authenticity of their works, while simultaneously refining its form and giving the works a leg or two to stand on. Small presses can draw on zine culture by tapping into that same zeal to push the boundaries of their mediums, to dodge mainstream publishing agendas, and to revolutionize literature, in form and thought.

On Meshwork Press and the Gold Medal for Printing

“Each triumph is a conquest by the body, fingers, muscles. You live with your hands, in acts of physical deftness.”

-Anïs Nin

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!

Works Cited:

Nin, Anïs. “The Diary of Anïs Nin.” New York. Houghton Mifflin. 1971.

Forgetting Your Skeleton While Seeking Your Heart

I have watched several interviews with older musicians discussing their affinity for vinyl records. The factor that consistently came up interview after interview is that vinyl records provide something physical to engage with while the music filled the listeners’ ears. This connection between the material and the immaterial seemed quite foreign to me. In fact, the closest physical experience I have with the music I listen too is the clamping of a pair of headphones on to my ears. And yet, as I read Amaranth Borsuk’s The Book, it became clear to me that this connection is unique a part of the book’s being. She writes:

“…the chosen material formed part of the fabric of existence for its users and likely shaped not only how information was transmitted but also the very nature of thought itself (pg. 34).”

How ironic that what the vinyl-lover seeks out so fervently could be utterly ignored by someone who claims to appreciate books. When I was handed my copy of Jeannine Marie Pitas’s translation of Romina Freschi’s Echo of the Park, I immediately opened it. Joyfully, I glossed right over the cover, ignored its subtle weight, and barely acknowledged the smooth matte finish. What I wanted wasn’t material; instead, I wholly yearned for the ideas and the concepts hidden inside.

Until recently, this is how I continued through Echo, negligent of the “ubiquitous structure (pg. 36)” I held in my very hands. Now, I won’t go as far as to claim my view of the book has been forever changed, but as I held Echo, I could feel that weight timidly tug at my forearms. The matte finish evoked feelings of books I’ve held before, and the spine, thinner than what usually lines my shelves, strained. It was as if it was challenging me to a strength contest, that I was going to need to work for the contents it encased.

Visually, Echo‘s rustic color palate conjures up imagines of Statue of Liberty, or of an archaic park bench. Coupled with the title’s acknowledgement of the resonance of the past, and the cover’s smooth, familiar texture, it seems to communicate that the past will always be relevant in one’s life. The cover’s art also contributes to this notion; orderly lines remind the reader well-laid bricks, now contorted, and on the verge of being consumed or transformed by a neutral entity crawling up the cover.

Caught somewhere in the middle of this transformation, I now perceive the artifact known as the book is uniquely equipped to bind together the physical and the mental, the material and the immaterial, the real and the imaginary.

Works Cited:

Borsuk, Amaranth. “The Book.” Cambridge, Massachusetts. The MIT Press. 2018.

Freschi, Romina. Pitas, Jeannine Marie. “Echo of the Park.” 300 Fraser Purchase Road, Latrobe PA 15650. Eulalia Books. 2019.

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.

Reflections in/on Silence

I can remember a time when I did not read alone. In my boyhood, I would nest in my mother’s warm embrace, and she would read to all kinds of stories before I drifted off to sleep. Now, at 20, many of these tales have faded from my memory, but one continues to stand against the tide of time: Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet. I remember my mother effortlessly articulating each word aloud, filling my ears with sounds that augmented the symbols I followed on the pages. Sometimes, I would even try to decipher the symbols aloud, celebrating each correct pronunciation. Soon I would be asleep, overwhelmed by the beautifully stimulating experience, but my childish imagination continued to forge a link between myself and the literature.

Now, I read alone. Not always in solitude, but in absolute silence. I do not remember when I started to do so, but I feel as though this change was accompanied by praise for a step towards independence; no longer would I need someone to read to or for me. With this greater sense of self came a greater understanding of it’s insecurities and fragilities. Why I don’t read aloud anymore strikingly resembles why I don’t like to sing: a fear of my own voice. When I read a section of Borges’ “On the Cult of Books” aloud, I waited till my roommate was out of the room to undertake such a task. Initially, I tried to read at the speed I can proficiently read at in my mind; however, I found myself hampered by mispronunciations, and I would say words that weren’t on the page.

To combat this, I slowed down my reading, and paid greater attention to the text itself. The sounds and the symbols once again united, this time to drown out the noise and insecurities that plagued my mind. I could hear my voice aloud, and it sounded different. Gone were the crude tones of my casual voice. In its place was a voice of clarity, methodically picking sentences apart, painting ideas into my mind. Nonetheless, I couldn’t shake my embarrassment of this voice, as it seemed to grind against my preconceived notions of myself as a merry extrovert. That the boy who once tried so hard to be the class clown could sound like a well-read and a thoughtful man was almost too good to be true!

Perhaps this is what makes the “strange art of silent reading” so strange; devoid of concise vocalization, our minds and imaginations have the opportunity to obscure the deeper ideas of text. Such obstructions could stifle personal growth, just as avoiding discussion and conflict does. St. Augustine puts a similar notion forward in the Confessions, when he reflects on St. Ambrose’s inclination for silent reading (Book VIII). By hiding from “difficult questions” or even just synthesizing whatever he chooses to read, Ambrose does not enter into any crucible to test his knowledge. Therefore, it could be argued that he stunts his intellectual and emotional growth.

I can’t confidently advocate for a return to the exclusive oral tradition of antiquity, as I feel such a thought is far too ambitious and unrealistic. However, that does not mean we should just brush of vocal reading as a relic of the past or an occupation for children. If we wish to continue to strive towards a higher truth in this life, I feel that it falls on us with regards to how we utilize vocal reading to share our thoughts, even if it is just to ourselves in solitude. With that established, I still believe that our ideas are worth sharing, and that by vocalizing the words I read, I trust that I can attain a greater understanding of the knowledge I absorb, thus expanding my mind and allowing me to engage with my neighbors more thoughtfully. Maybe I could even inspire them to do the same.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, A Reading from Homer, 1885

Works Citied:

Augustine. Confessions. Circa 397 CE.

Borges, Jorge Luis. “On the Cult of Books.” 1951.