Why Small Press Publishing?

Poet Joe O’Conner // Photo from Eulalia Books’ Facebook page

Joe O’Conner’s Why Poetry? examines the function of poetry and its importance in our world. The goal of the book almost mirrors the goal of this class: to examine the function and important of small presses and their importance in the modern world. This class has provided a space for trying new things and dipping our toes in a whole new world of possibilities in the area of small press publishing. Throughout the course of this semester, we have learned all about notable small presses, the function of small presses compared to the “big six” publishers, and, most importantly, we’ve learned about how a small press operates to create a new work.

As I sat at the book launch and reading the other night, I couldn’t help but think about everything that we have learned to do in this course and how amazing it was that a group of college students could experience first-hand a new side of publishing with which many of us were unfamiliar.

From letterpress printing to our own publishing event, this class has gotten to experience a lot of important and all-encompassing aspects of small publishing. O’Conner asks “why poetry?” while this class, in turn, prompted us to ask “why small press publishing?” The answer I have come to in response to this question is pretty simple, though it is in several parts. Small press publishing is valuable because it allows the author to keep a sense of ownership over their piece, rather than surrendering creative rights to a board of a large publishing house. Small press publishing gives authors whose work may be overlooked by big publishing companies a place to present their ideas, directed at a very specific audience.

Why small press publishing? Because only with a small press can a group of college students in Latrobe, Pennsylvania help to create, assemble, and present a published book of poetry. This course has offered us an experience that few others will have—an experience that I know I will carry with me for a very long time.

The Value of the Hands-On Experience

It’s pretty remarkable how much hard work and careful thought goes into the process of publishing a book and advertising a book launch. When you hear about a new book or see advertising for a book launch, it’s hard to imagine how much work goes into the process of putting all of the things together to make the event and launch a success.

To prepare for the launch of Joe O’Conner’s book Why Poetry, there was a lot of work we had to do to get the books ready for distribution, set up the space for the book launch event, and advertise the event to the public. The process was long and took a lot of work, but it really paid off.

To get the books ready for distribution, we had to piece everything together ourselves. A few teams of students focused on formatting the layout of the book to ensure simplicity and clarity. As a class, we learned how to screen-print the covers of the books and sew the entire book together. This process took a while and learning how to bind and create the books was challenging at first until we got the hang of the process. Seeing the books come together at the end was incredibly rewarding.

Screen-printed cover of Why Poetry? // Photo by Johanna Philips

There were a lot of critical aspects to assembling the space for the book launch as well to ensure that all key components are in line for a successful event. Photographers have to be booked, food has to be ordered, a room has to be booked, and materials have to be set up to make a successful event.

The aspect of the book launch that I was involved in was the advertising. I helped to write the press release that would be used to publicize the event to the community. It was a bit daunting to write because it was an important aspect of publicizing, but it was interesting to be a part of.

This process of creating the book from scratch and setting up a publishing event was something incredibly valuable. This experience is not one that a lot of college students are able to take part in, and for someone who is interested in potentially pursuing a career in publishing in the future, helping with this event is something really special.

Small Press vs. The Big Six

Garth Graper // Image by Brooklyn Poets // brooklynpoets.org/poet/garth-graeper/.

In the discussion with poet and editor Garth Graeper, I was most interested to hear about his experiences working with one of the big six publishers compared to his work with small presses like Ugly Duckling Press. My prepared question reflected this interest: “How does editing and publishing differ between big publishing presses and small presses?”

Garth talked a lot about the intimate nature of the small press compared to the almost-industrial world of ‘Big Six’ publishers. The small press, he said, allows for a more hands-on approach to the publishing and editing process. Editors for a small press have more liberties with formatting and editing where they would be contained to a firm template in large presses. With smaller presses, the author is more involved and welcomed into the process of publishing. They have at least some say when it comes to how their work will be presented, whereas large presses do not normally allow authors to have a say in layout or final content for their piece. These differences are impactful for both author and editor. Both are restricted more by large presses, though the work is more widely distributed and advertised. Small presses do not reach as large of an audience but do give author and editor more freedom when it comes to how the book is presented.

One of the other interesting things we talked about with Garth were the Park Books, which he provided each of us with. These small books were distributed around Central Park for passersby to pick up and enjoy. These books were small and compact, which make them ideal for leaving in small places for others to find and pass around. In an interview with Brooklyn Poets, Garth credits his work with small press with helping his understanding and appreciation for unique poetry projects like the Park Books:

“[Ugly Duckling Press] helped me understand the myriad joys and difficulties that people bring to poetry (and how much I cannot be without it). The poetry community I first connected with had a very DIY spirit, which inspired me to create lots of handmade projects, including the Park Books, a series of little books of anonymous poems that I would leave in parks.”

“Garth Graeper.” Brooklyn Poets, 7 May 2018, brooklynpoets.org/poet/garth-graeper/.

The fact that Garth’s work with Ugly Duckling Press was so encouraging of this unique venture with the Park Books says a lot about the freedom of creativity provided to artists working with small presses. A larger press may not have supported or inspired such a unique venture, but a smaller press has the ability to interact more with authors personally and foster creative ideas.

The Crisis

The journal I am interested in looking into the The Crisis, which was edited and created by W.E.B. Du Bois. The journal was started by Du Bois in 1910 as a way to talk about segregation and racial injustices. At the time of its publication, The Crisis would have been one of the only pamphlets of its kind, making it incredibly important to those starting to fight for equal rights.

The Modernist Journals Project’s website includes a short write-up on the importance of The Crisis at the time and how important it grew to be. The write-up says, “Written for educated African-American readers, the magazine reached a truly national audience within nine years, when its circulation peaked at about 100,000. The Crisis’s stated mission, like that of the NAACP itself, was to pursue “the world-old dream of human brotherhood” by bearing witness to “the danger of race prejudice” and reporting on “the great problem of inter-racial relations,” both at home and abroad” (“The Crisis”).

At its time of publication, The Crisis would have been unlike any other publication with a wide-reaching circulation. It directly addresses the problem of racial inequality and offers instances of prejudice against the African American community, something that few other sources at the time would have had the courage to cover. The Crisis also gave a voice to some of the up-and-coming artists of the Harlem Renaissance including Langston Hughes. The publication gave a voice to a large group of people who deserved to be heard but were suppressed by the injustices of society.

Cover of “The Crisis” featuring Abraham Lincoln and Sojourner Truth / picture obtained from Pinterest

The intention of the editors to promote a particular idea is clear in this publication, whether it be in the title of the journal, the content, or even some of the cover art. The title, The Crisis, points directly to the intent behind publication: there is a crisis of vast injustice against a large group of people, and nothing is being done about it. The content, focusing on the artistic and social achievements of the African American community despite society’s vast disapproval as well as a detailing of the injustices done by society, further demonstrates a commitment to showcasing the achievements of African American society in the United States and pushing back against the unfair prejudice and violence shown to a whole community. One of the featured cover pages even demonstrates the intent of the magazine. A picture of Abraham Lincoln with Sojourner Truth is printed on the front of the booklet. Lincoln, who signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and Sojourner Truth, an influential advocate for African American rights.

“Sojourner Truth.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 26 Sept. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sojourner_Truth#%22Ain’t_I_a_Woman?%22.

“The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races Du Bois, W. E. Burghardt (Editor) New York: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1910-11 / 1922-12.” Modernist Journals Project, http://www.modjourn.org/render.php?view=mjp_object&id=crisiscollection.

The Value in the Non-Traditional

“The language of the book as a space of fixity, certainty, and order reminds us that the book has been transmuted into an idea and ideal based on the role it plays in culture.”

Amaranth Borsuk, “The Book” (194)
“Black Bear” Non-Traditional Book / Self-Photographed

A book is more than a collection of pages bound together by glue and wrapped in a hard cover. While this may be the image we are familiar with, it does not fully encapsulate what a book can be. As Ulises Carrion says, “A book may be the accidental container of a text, the structure of which is irrelevant to the book: these are the books of bookshops and libraries. A book can also exist as an autonomous and self-sufficient form, including perhaps a text that emphasizes that form, a text that is an organic part of that form: here begins the new art of making books” (Carrion). Books do not require the strict formatting we might normally see and be familiar with, and some authors may choose to abandon the traditional book format for a more artistic and expressive formatting technique.

My book, or rather, my non-traditional book, is relatively simple: consisting of a poem that I wrote inscribed with black Sharpie on a cut rectangle of wood particle board. It does not appear to be a book at a glance but reading the words and understanding why these materials were chosen may help to identify what makes a poem on a piece of wood a book. In this case, the poem, which is more rustic in nature and “woodsy,” dealing with a forest and a black bear, lends itself well to the rustic feel provided by a board of wood. The material reveals more about the piece and presents more of the feeling that is intended through the piece’s content.

The material upon which “Black Bear” is written is very thin and relatively fragile / Self-Photographed

Artist Johanna Drucker examines the book as an art form, saying “A book…is not an inert thing that exists in advance of interaction, rather it is produced new by the activity of each reading…Thus in thinking of a book, whether literal or virtual, we should paraphrase Heinz von Foerster…and ask “how” a book “does” its particular actions, rather than “what” a book “is””(Drucker). So when evaluating this book object that I have created, we must ask how it carries out its intended purpose. In this case, this object’s purpose is to convey a story and present it in a way that is reminiscent of its rustic setting. For me, the piece serves its intended purpose, therefore, it can easily be labelled a book.

It’s challenging at first to look at a non-traditional book object and see it as a book, but once a certain familiarity with the idea of non-traditional formatting is adopted, a whole new world of artistic possibilities opens up.

Carrion, Ulises. “The New Art of Making Books.” Kontexts, 1975.

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

Drucker, Johanna. “The Virtual Codex: From Page Space to E-Space.” 2003.

The Art of the Zine

“Not Quite a Pittsburgh Zine” // Carnegie Library, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania

Zines present a really unique outlet for anyone interested in presenting an idea or thought. These mediums give people of all ages with differing opinions and backgrounds a voice that is not always possible through mainstream publishing companies. No longer are authors contained and controlled by their publishers. Zines provide everyone with the equal opportunity to present their thoughts and choose how to market their work.

The zines we looked at in the Carnegie Library’s collection expressed the personal ideas of individuals whose ideas were unique or underrepresented in mainstream published works. The zines were all shapes and sizes, and covered all kinds of topics from politics, to mushrooms, to comic art. The thing that made these prints so different was the freedom allowed by the format. No two books were quite the same, and each one reflects the creativity of the author and formatters. By a formal standpoint, the zines do not exactly fit in with other books in the library, but that is part of what makes zines so unique. They are their own kind of publication with their own “personality,” and that is something very unique in a literary work.

Zines do try to imitate some aspects of traditional books. The physical makeup of a zine is generally bound in a similar way as traditional books. Some zines look like they could be manufactured and printed by large publishers, adding to their “mainstream” look. But for the most part, the inside of zines are where they differ the most from traditional books. Zines use their content, production, and formatting to set them apart from traditional books.

By considering the way zines are made and the content they produce, we can get a better idea of the overlying purpose of zine production. Zines are handmade and personal, reflecting one individual’s style. There can be misspellings, misprints, or flaws in design that differ from copy to copy and creator to creator, but that makes zines unique. Zines are wholly the author’s work, a direct product of the author’s thought pattern, interests, and personality. With zines, we get the author attached to the work as a bundle, rather than just getting the disconnected writing of an author we know nothing about. As for the content they produce, zines are able to present ideas and concepts that are more directed to a community, interest or purpose. They are distributed for a reason and are intended for an audience who is interested in the subject matter. As stated in the article “A Brief History of Zines” by Chloe Arnold, “zines are as much about the community as the product” (Arnold). Like Arnold says, the zine is about the act of producing content, but the community reached and the content produced is just as important, if not more important.

Arnold, Chloe. “A Brief History of Zines.” Mental Floss, 19 Nov. 2016, mentalfloss.com/article/88911/brief-history-zines.

The Importance of Letterpress

Letterpress creation from St. Vincent College’s Small Press Publishing excursion to Meshwork Press.

It’s always helpful to be able to experience something you’ve learned about in person, to touch and interact with the object so that what you’ve seen and heard about from afar becomes more real to you. Watching the film on letterpress and the people who carry on the old traditions and practices was interesting and attention-grabbing, but actually being able to hold the type and arrange it to print your own design makes the process more real and tangible.

My experience at Meshwork Printing revealed a lot about the physical process of letterpress and the amount of creativity that goes into each work. Setting the type into a cohesive and appealing layout for printing takes a lot of work and forethought, since everything is dependent on the assembly. The process isn’t as quick or easy as it may seem when just watching a video or learning about the process from a book. Letterpress requires a lot of patience and knowledge of the craft, making it an art where repetition, research, and practice is key.

I believe that small poetry presses continue the art of letterpress because of the amount of creativity and imagination that go into every page. Every page of a letterpress-made book is unique and has a history behind them, and no page is like any other. Letterpress has such a history and tradition behind it that attracts so many because of the opportunities it presents. To use letterpress printing to produce a book of poetry adds a nice aesthetic touch and puts history into the pages. Each page is a work of art, and printing poetry on these pages creates an even more unique piece of art.

With the uniqueness of the art form comes the wonderful opportunity for creativity and imagination. To make each page, one must be able to have an idea of what they want before they assemble the page. Imagination is the very first step to creation in letterpress and is critical for the preservation of the art form. As author George Bernard Shaw said, “Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine, and at last, you create what you will,” (15 Famous Quotes on Creativity). Imagination is a critical step in the process of creation, especially for letterpress printing, where all format and style choices are prompted by the human mind rather than a format like we are used to in the age of technology.

Letterpress printing like what we experienced at Meshwork Press requires attention to detail, creativity and imagination, and, most of all, a desire and passion to create.

“15 Famous Quotes on Creativity.” TwistedSifter, 8 Nov. 2012, twistedsifter.com/2012/03/15-famous-quotes-on-creativity/.

Judging a Book by Its Cover

Picture this: you’re in a bookstore, surrounded by the greatest works of hundreds of authors. You are intent on buying a new work to add to your collection and won’t be leaving this store without a new volume. The only problem? You have never heard of these authors or their books before and have no idea where to begin searching. What do you do? The answer for some, like me, is to find the book with the most interesting cover and go from there.

Analyzing a book by its cover and physical dimensions is not something that people are encouraged to do. In fact, we are often told to not judge books by their covers and focus on the content first. As a result, the physical qualities that make up a book are overlooked and underappreciated. In The Book, the author, Amaranth Borsuk, addresses the imbalance in focus when it comes to analyzing a book, saying “even though innumerable material elements come together to make the book, these features have been naturalized to such a degree that we now hardly notice them, since we have come to see content as the copyrightable, consumable, marketable aspect of the work” (Borsuk 109).

I’ll admit that it’s not always my first instinct to analyze the physical makeup of a book, but by ignoring the uniqueness of the book’s appearance, we do lose some of the experience that comes with reading the piece. So, to examine first-hand the appearance of a book and evaluate it as an object, I chose to look at Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

© Leaves of Grass / Photo by Penguin Classics

The book itself is relatively thin and lightweight. As this is the first edition of Whitman’s work, it is significantly smaller than some of the later editions I have encountered. The book is a standard size and blends in with many of the other books on my shelf. The cover is divided into two noticeable sections: the cover art and the publisher and author information. The cover art is rather striking, even though it is done in black and white. We see a man, presumably the author, lying in a field of tall grass. Behind him, you can see mountains and cliffs along with a body of water. The man has a few blades, or leaves, of grass in his hand and appears to be examining them. The image conveys a sort of serenity and contemplation, something that the book’s contents also examine at different points. Below the picture is a big black bar with the author’s name and the title of the work. At the top of the bar appears the publisher’s name. This black bar with the name of the publishing company is a common design that is applied to all the “Penguin Classic” books I have encountered. The texture of the cover is matte, giving the book a rougher, almost rugged feel. There is a big difference for me between glossy covers and matte covers, and I find the matte covers much more appealing to touch. The slightly yellowed pages have an almost gritty quality to them. In my copy, the pages are dogeared and wrinkled in some spots, indicating that the book has spent some time being tossed around in my backpack. The smell of the pages is my favorite part of any book. There is something so alluring about the smell of fresh paper and the glue that holds the pages together. In this book, the scent has faded with time, but I can still smell traces of it.

After a thorough evaluation of the book, I can come to one resounding conclusion: it is alright to judge a book by its cover sometimes. The physical build of the book can speak volumes, but only if we allow ourselves to listen to what it has to say.

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

Passion for the Press

© Photo by Bayonet Media

In today’s age of technology, very little thought goes into the process of printing. A document is sent to an in-home printer and it is available almost immediately. No prolonged thought, no human touch, no uniqueness. Everything uniform and identical. The art behind the assembly is lost and the human connection with it.

One of the things I found so interesting about the film was the immense passion and dedication that those who were doing letterpress work had for their work. These people from all different backgrounds and levels of experience are all spending their extra time and money to pursue a field which, due to the availability of other cheaper and easier printing options, has all but disappeared from the public eye.

So what makes it so appealing? Why would someone devote such a huge chunk of their free time and money to pursuing a field that is dying? I think the answer was very accurately delivered in the film. People love letterpress because it is part of history. By preserving the machines and techniques, the history is kept alive for new generations to study and grow to love. On top of the historical preservation, letterpress provides a unique artistic outlet. Every piece is unique due to the craft’s dependence on artist assembly, and each piece is a wholly new work of art.

Convenience and speed are necessary for some situations, but the art created with hard work and dedicated attention to detail in hand-printing makes letterpress appealing for both the consumer and the artist. For consumers, letterpress pieces provide a uniqueness and sense of historical value that has become desirable. As for the letterpress artists, the process provides a wonderful outlet for creativity. In the film, one of the printers described her experience with letterpress, saying “when I first tried letterpress, I was intrigued ‘cause it meant I got to get my hands a little dirtier…you might be worn out by the end of it and that was great” (Pressing On: The Letterpress Film).

For the difficulty and time it may take, letterpress offers an interesting alternative to automatic printing that both preserves the past and allows artists to express their passions.

“Pressing On: The Letterpress Film.” Pressing On: The Letterpress Film, http://www.letterpressfilm.com.

Silent Study

Painting by Jean-Baptiste August Leloir of Homer telling a story

I can’t remember the exact last time I read out loud outside of a class. All my reading is done in silence and completely alone so that I can avoid distraction. On top of that, any reading that I have done recently tends to only contain required reading for classwork with little to no time on reading for personal enrichment or entertainment.

I think the last time I read out loud may have been when I was a camp counselor and the kids wanted me to read to them from the books I carried with me to read alone in my down time. I’d gather the group and read them whatever I had, usually a Harry Potter book. If for some reason I wasn’t carrying a book that day, I would create a story for them on the spot.

Now, having read Borges’ article aloud and silently to myself, it’s easy for me to understand the difference in the way I relate to the text. When I read to myself, the text is just words on a page. Sure, I can derive meaning from Borges’ words and gain a more complex understanding of his topic, but something is lost in the silence. When the words are read aloud, the text becomes more personal. Yes, the words are not mine, but in the moment, I am the “storyteller.” The words don’t just exist on paper anymore but are spoken into a new sense of reality. It’s the same with my readings of Harry Potter at day camp. The world of the novel doesn’t change if I’m reading silently to myself, nor does the plot, but when the story is read out loud, it gains a new reality, a sense that this story was something meant to be passed along in spoken existence.

In Borges’ article, he includes a quote from St. Augustine in which he talks about his teacher, Ambrose and his silent reading habits. Augustine says, “we wondered if [Ambrose] read silently perhaps to protect himself in case he had a hearer interested and intent on the matter, to whom he might have to expound the text being read if it contained difficulties…If his time were used up in that way, he would get through fewer books than he wished…Whatever motive he had for his habit, this man had a good reason for what he did” (St. Augustine. “Book VI.” Confessions.) Augustine assumes that Ambrose has good reason for silence in his studies but writes later that he was still troubled by the thought of a man reading silently to himself.

For modern readers, silent reading is often the only kind of reading we partake in, but for readers like Augustine, silent reading was unusual. So why did we choose to shift from the oral storytelling of our ancestors to silent reading by ourselves? I assume we choose silence because silence is more convenient and less work, but in silence we lose some of the impact of written work. Written words for our ancestors were meant to be shared with one another in a communal setting. Stories were the glue that held civilizations together and helped to separate us from animals. Cavemen shared their stories aloud, aided by painted pictures inside their caves, the ancient Greeks used theater to tell their legends and myths, minstrels sang ballads for the courts of medieval kings. Today, we get many of our stories in silence, and the extent of the meaning and impact is lost on us.