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/.