Hands-on Experience: The Thrill of the Letterpress

My English teacher and I recently had a conversation about why she’s choosing to make the midterm a handmade poster rather than a test or electronic project. With students using electronics as a means to get assignments done, she wants to encourage them to take a break from the screen and create a poster; even if it’s something as simple as gluing pictures to poster-board and talking about it, she’ll accept it as long as it’s not a Powerpoint presentation.

While watching the film Pressing On, I couldn’t help but notice the same conversations occurring among small press publishers. Many of them even argued that if more people from my generation were introduced to a letterpress, they would take the opportunity to learn how it works for the exact same reasons.

“Person holding a letterpress roller tool” by Hello I’m Nik. Image found on Unsplash.

We had a letterpress in high school, but I never got the chance to really use it. I did once, but all I really did was pull a lever and “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost suddenly appeared on cardstock. All’s that to say is my biggest regret in high school is not taking more chances with learning about the letterpress. I do, however, have some designs from my school’s letterpress hanging in my dorm: one of a rat playing the violin with the caption “Literary Rat” written on the bottom, a poem from a friend’s manuscript, a pink poster with the words “LAVA: IT WILL MELT YOUR FACE OFF” on it (inside joke), and — while I nor the friend who gave it to me are Jewish — a blue dreidel. (Sadly, I was unable to get the poster of a pin-up girl on it that said “Your just my wood type,” which, of course, was made with wood type letters.)

You know how people say no two snowflakes are the same? That also goes for products of the letterpress. It was briefly mentioned in the interview with one of the “letterpressers” that they received positive reviews for the lack of ink on some letters and other imperfections. Their customers quickly stopped them to say they love it because it makes it more real.

The letterpressed I have in my room also have these imperfections, but I find it special because I know the hands that made them. It’s like having a little bit of them with me, even though we’ve all moved on, and if I were to buy from a seller I didn’t personally know, I’d have an equal amount of appreciation because of the time, effort, and planning put into it.

Accordion Experiments: CC1

I’d say my book is a mix between a visual and structure book as it’s in an accordion style–and a rather sad one at that. I’m good friends with the term “no qualifiers,” but I have a hard time making things look pretty when it comes to crafts, which is probably why I’ve resorted to creating a book’s content over creating the object the content comes in. Nonetheless, I’d love the chance to redo my book in a cleaner way.

The “messier” side of my accordion book. Photo taken by me.

One half of the accordion is painted watercolors with warm colors and is accompanied with Robert Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” (let’s just say my affinity for S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders has never faded). That was the half I impulsively placed things as I went along, lacking a great bit of planning.

The opposite, however, are polaroids of the cemetery on campus, specifically of graves that were desecrated or have been long abandoned. I wanted to focus on how we go through a great deal of embellishments when it comes to death, yet it doesn’t matter in a few decades, leaving vandalized headstones grown over with weeds. The poem still goes along with that idea, but with a lack of materials and the lab portion, it was a little difficult to properly execute.

Originally, I planned on having a stained glass look on the opposite side, which is why I cut out the back of one of the polaroids and have pink shards of film scattered on the pages. The flowers were ones I picked off of campus in hopes of making it look prettier and to focus on that idea on the temporary.

The “cleaner” side of my book. Photo taken by me.

As for future readers, I think I anticipate someone who has low standards (I joke), but really, someone who doesn’t want a full story or any sort of narrative. Maybe it’s because I’m presently listening to “Nothing Else Matters,” but honestly, if they can get that idea along with a sense of comfort, I’d be happy because that was my message.

As for the language/text parts of my book, I wish I steered clear of it. I wish I took more photos instead to tell my story, though I plan on doing something that’ll hopefully better illustrate that. The whole poem didn’t fully capture what I wanted–and I may have a copyright lawsuit on my hands–and quite honestly, I want to leave room for the reader to interpret my intent. Even in poetry anymore, we’re told what we’re supposed to take away to an extent. The series of polaroids and where they were placed can do just as well–and probably better, in this case–job to narrate something to someone.

But after hearing people from class have a better appreciation for it than I did really stuck with me, especially since they liked the part I hated with the watercolors. They wanted the more messy side of it, which I found a little odd. Perhaps I should “practice” my impulsiveness a little bit more than I want to. Even with all my complaining about the book, I’m glad I was able to get my message across to people who saw beauty in the ugly parts–almost like how I see beauty in the cemetery despite its connotations.

Pies, Pop-ups, and Paris

Mei-Ling Hom’s In the morning looks nothing like the books we’re used to seeing, which is what’s so eye-catching about it.

Women’s Studio Workshop describes it as a “three dimensional, semi-circular book with pie shaped pages that has text printed on the exploded fore edge.” If one were to wedge their fingers in between two pieces of pie, they’re greeted with a white pop-up that represents something the author experienced in Paris.

In the morning by Mei-Ling Hom. Photo taken from Women’s Studio Workshop website.

I think what’s so appealing to me about this book is that it’s very much something a publisher would consider for a children’s book because of the interactive element and the fact that it’s a pop-up book. In fact, Women’s Studio Workshop lists this under “Toy and movable books.”

While the book speaks personally about the author’s experience in Paris, I rather like the lack of words — or paragraphs, rather. Some may not like this approach, I think it’s a rather bold and creative of Hom because it forces us to take something out of it from our own interpretation rather than being told what we should see. We only see words on the outside of the book, and it seems to be only one scene out of what I assume would be many, considering we have multiple images inside the pie. The filling is the pop-up portion, but it reminds me a lot of the vignette writing technique. We’re given images, but they’re not exactly clear. They’re rather abstract, especially since the pop-ups are white against a white background; very minimalist and clean-cut use of silkscreen, letterpress, and die cuts.

Example of the interior of the pie. Photo taken from Women’s Studio Workshop website.

Another thing that interests me is the binding. It’s listed as, “Folded pages connected together at spine.” As we were creating accordion books in class, I wondered if this is a complicated accordion technique Hom created or was inspired by. Like an accordion book, there’s no exact starting or ending point. The reader could start at either end or even in the middle and would still understand the gist of the story, if there even is a story in it.

Sources:

Hom, Mei-Ling. (1990.) In the morning. Women’s Studio Workshop. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from https://wsworkshop.org/collection/in-the-morning/.

The Appearance of Quinn Rennerfeldt’s Sea Glass Catastrophe

I’m not sure what drew me to pick up Quinn Rennerfeldt’s book over the other chapbooks sprawled across the table, but upon thinking about it, I think its simplicity drew me closer.

Sea Glass Catastrophe by Quinn Rennerfeldt. Photo taken by myself.

The most striking thing about the cover is the title with its screen-printed and metallic look. The letters are also on top on the cover, which makes the reader trace each letter.

Another thing that’s interesting about the front and back cover is how thin the paper is. The whole book appears to be made from version of thin construction paper, but the cover is even slimmer than the actual pages. As for books that are published by places such as Harper Collins or Penguin/Random House, we typically see books with covers that are made to last, as if the cover is the only thing protecting the paper from damage. Though Rennerfeldt’s book is in good condition while the opposite is occurring.

If one were to flip through, they’d immediately notice how simple the poems are formatted here. Prose poetry would be a more appropriate term as each piece is written in a paragraph or two with a serif font. The titles are traditional as they’re written at the top and center, although, unlike the content of the poem itself, the title is in a sans serif font.

The most eye-catching thing about Sea Glass Catastrophe is probably the color of the pages. Some are white while others are mint green. Both are ridden with specs and lines that aren’t distracting to the reader. In fact, it adds to the element of beach sand, and the colors reflect off each other, truly giving that feeling of sea glass.

The inside of Sea Glass Catastrophe. Photo taken by myself.

Adding to its simplicity is how the book lacks most publishing information one may expect. There’s no “About The Press” page or anything of the sort. Instead, on the inside of the front cover, it says, “https://francis.house” and “009/100.” (Personally, I like the numbering of copies in books like these.) On the inside of the back cover is the author’s acknowledgements, then on the other side, it states the publisher again: “Francis House.”

I think the lack of publisher information is my favorite part about Sea Glass Catastrophe. It’s closed off in a good sense, and it beckons me to find out more on my own, especially since this is a small press and not a big-time publisher. Though their website seems to keep that mystery going, and while good in some places, it doesn’t give the complete picture and leaves one to fill in the blanks about the place.

No Blood, No Band-aid Bookbinding

Typically, crafts of any sort make me want to stab whatever I’m making out of the lack of patience I have in seeing my artistic abilities being put to the test.

Luckily, it seems that bookbinding satisfies my want of creating and my urge to stab my creation.

Beginnings of my book in the binding process. Photo by yours truly.

I actually already have a small experience with bookbinding from my high school, where I studied in the Writing and Publishing department. The publishing side of things included the chance to volunteer at BatCat Press, the only high school student-run press in the United States.

I, of course, did not take the chance to volunteer there. Instead, I worked for The SIREN, which is the school newspaper there, so while my friends were making beautiful coptic notebooks and chapbooks and becoming fluent in the ways of the letterpress, I would look across the room and witness their success instead of listening to the rather important lecture on libel law (which I do understand, by the way).

My sophomore year of high school was my first year on the newspaper staff, so I wasn’t too interested in joining. Junior year, I would’ve participated in both the small press and newspaper, but I was learning the in’s and out’s of what it takes to be an editor. Senior year was COVID, so that threw any chance of learning how to do complicated bookbinding techniques out the window.

All that is to say that I was thankful that I was finally getting that chance to learn about bookbinding from scratch with my meager experience. I’m also proud to say that I didn’t draw blood as many do while using the awl to stab the paper.

My finished book and the kit I used. Photo by myself.

I was quite excited upon the finished product, especially since I made up the binding design. Then I saw how I lacked a criss-cross design on the bottom rectangle of the binding… and the holes where a little too far from the top and bottom… and then one of the main problems from my high school experience came back: making the binding too tight to properly open the book.

Soon enough, I snapped out of my nitpicking and became proud once more, and let’s just say I’m looking forward to the next project I get to do while simultaneously keeping my record of a bloodless book up.

The Silence of Saint Ambrose

Image of bees, as Saint Ambrose was the patron saint of bees and beekeepers. Photo by SHOT on Unsplash.

Saint Augustine, merely a disciple back then, was disturbed to a degree when he saw Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan. The Bishop’s eyes were moving along the page and across the words scattered upon it, yet his mouth remained shut.

Over a decade after witnessing the sight, Augustine was still as confused as ever.

Saint Ambrose’s actions would’ve possibly horrified Clement of Alexandria, as he firmly believed spoken-word and verbal communication was superior over that of words written to a page.

Of course, after living in today’s world — where there’s words sent through texts, emails, posters, and so many other forms of media — one could only wonder why Clement felt this way. Why would he be against the sharing of ideas through pen and paper if it meant carrying his ideas further along? If it meant writing sentiments to a loved one? If it meant advancing education through textbooks and passing history to the next generation?

Perhaps Clement’s fears and dislike are rooted in the accurate prediction that using one’s mind to concentrate will do one of two things: 1) a writer’s idea(s) will get lost as a reader attempts to make it their own, or 2) there’s a lack of connection and understanding between the reader and the writing.

When one opens a text message they have difficulty understanding, they will often mumble it to themselves, trying to crack a code that’s hidden. Oftentimes, students will complain they had difficulty understanding a problem or a block of text until they hear it read aloud for the first time.

As time wore on and people began writing things for the sake of entertainment and not a guide on how to live better, Clement’s predictions became true with people taking the time to read on their own schedule.

However, it became very popular — especially among small presses with the space for it — to hold readings of almost any genre. We still have plays because even if it were performed on a bare stage, it’s more enjoyable for a play to be read than it is to sit and attempting to imagine all these things at once.

Perhaps Clement had the right to fear for what oral reading has become, or the lack thereof. But there could have been an even bigger greivance aired if it weren’t for silent reading: the lack of classic literature and poems that would’ve been tossed aside simply because we began reading and writing in our heads too late.

Plus, Saint Ambrose seemed to have made a fine name for himself, despite these shortcomings.

Works cited:

Borges, Jorge Luis. “On the Cult of Books.” Selected Non-Fictions. Translated by Eliot Weinberger, Penguin, 2000, 358-363.