Tuesday 19 November 2013

A Year of above/ground Press Reviews: Part 1

 A Year of above/ground Press Reviews: 
My First Installment as a Chap-Subscriber

I've had subscription to journals before; Prairefire, Crazyhorse, The Parish Review. Most of my subscriptions (the Flann O’Brien literary journal being the only exception listed here) are consolations after my own creative pieces fell short of the shortlist for contests or were rejected for publication altogether. My relationship to above/ground press is a little different. rob mclennan & I have traded subscriptions; he receives anything we do at Flat Singles and I get regular chapbooks in the mail from Ottawa. This first installment of reviews is a way of writing my thanks & giving chapbook presses some press.[1]

I think the problem I bring up about journal subscriptions & rejection pertains to marginalized writing. It’s an important issue and is (hopefully) accurately described.[2] Rae Armantrout’s Versed won her a Pulitzer in 2010, but most readers will disregard the flimsy yellow Rituals (September, 2013) from above/ground because it’s a chapbook. People who like & read poetry will miss a lot of it because of medium—many poems that comprise collections are published in ephemeral medium first rather than glossy journals sitting in bookcases somewhere.

The Art of Plumbing (January) by Brecken Hancock

“Gathering my hair off the pillow, I rise from the spill on our sheets our sheets to bathe” (1).

Beginning in with a mythological prologue and extending through BCE, predicting the apocalypse in the year 3300 CE, Brecken Hancock writes a history of plumbing. These sequential poems flow through fiction & fact, examining our internal plumbing and the external eccentricities of the public bath or the irrigation ditch. She gives new consideration to bathtub gin, or the depth to a statement like “I need to soak” hair that is “spilt,” (9, 10). At the heart of these poems all our conceptions of [un]cleanliness can be formed by The Art of Plumbing


“Many have found it useful
to lie down
as men
believing themselves
to be little girls” (Armantrout 5)

This work (though too short to have an impact without three or four readings,[3]) is a regenbogen whirlwind of “colo[u]r and sound,” “secret identity” gender “madness,” and “depression.” Of course, all of those references come from the same poem. But, Rituals is a sampling of real poetry—prize winning poetry, even.

As a chap, the work is caught in the act of becoming a bigger collection/a fully formed idea/a longer book/more heavily ‘themed’/“Holiday” from trade writing. Armantrout takes great pains to refine & order the poems in such a way that it’s hard to find them compatible with the incommodifable. And yet I have a sense of missing/wanting more—the read[s] make the chap seem more like a preview, but with each the poems become more & more resplendent.

An Overture in the Key of F (October) by Olivia Adams[4]

You flourished in the floss and flow amid memory and mummery,
those sweet drams that left us flush but anchored in the fluxion and
flyby-night wire. We were fog bound and focused on the convergence
of particles that begged an adversary, something attached, hung,
fastened, extended. (Adams 6)

Fabulous $four fare, fair—forceful (alliterative), funny as F---: fornicating, fortune, finely; an overture truly in ef, cleft. Font, faint, fanned, hot, prosey fiend poems. “Filmland and filmdom,” more than just F. But, F marks the spot where E & I converge in “a finger wave… fringed and slender…to be both healthy and convulsing,” fit. Flicker in pages of “flamboyant flak” flammable. Footnote frontage, the function of foramens (& forearms)—all revealed & revelled in—forget yourself.[5]

—Joseph LaBine

Works Cited
Adams, Carrie Olivia. An Overture in the Key of F. Ottawa: above/ground press, 2013. Print.
Armantrout, Rae. Rituals. Ottawa: above/ground press, 2013. Print.
Hancock, Brecken. The Art of Plumbing. Ottawa: above/ground press, 2013. Print.

[1] And boy! Am I tired of all the small-press-self-promoting we do for Flat Singles.
[2] I welcome any discussion. I think peer reviewing work (especially critical essays) is important. I’m very fond of the e-journal I receive from the Flann O’Brien Society. I submit to academic & creative journals regularly. This is all just small press fodder. But really, if we’re all pursuing journals, who cares enough to read chapbooks?
[3] Reading rituals.
[4] I will only use F—words to describe this book.
[5] There are no footnotes in these poems.

Friday 15 November 2013

"Thee Hellbox": Letterpress & Method

—Nov. 11, 2013—

“Thee Hellbox Press”:

A hellbox is a box that sits in the corner of the shop into which goes all broken and worn out type. I started with a hellbox of type so it seemed appropriate to call the press The Hellbox Press. Shortly after I had finished printing our first book my mentor Bill Poole, with tongue in cheek, suggested that I call the press Thee Hellbox Press so it didn’t get mixed up with all the rest.

Letterpress & Method

One might well ask, why spend all that time setting type; proofing and then printing pages, using metal and wood type on a vintage printing press, and getting your hands dirty to boot, just for a few copies of some book. Why do all that work when you can key it into a word processor and then have the pages photo copied? In reality both methods have limits and advantages. Let’s look at the photo copying first pro & cons—advantages: fast and low cost. Disadvantages: Limited to a narrow range of size choices & lousy paper choices so books all have a similar cookie cutter style and the art of the work can be limited.
Setting type, is to me, an enjoyable activity as I get the time to consider every word & phrase, root & meaning. The activity of setting type becomes somewhat like meditation and you normally don’t consider these things when reading in the conventional manner.
Some of the advantages of letterpress are: the impression of the type is tactile on the page and the type will sparkle in the slanting morning light. The range of artwork is quite large and includes lino-blocks, soft-blocks, wood-cuts, wood engravings as well as polymer plates. Art work can be overprinted or run off the page. The page size is somewhat limited to the press but with certain techniques the page size can be doubled. Letterpress lends itself to a wide range of papers; handmade, or mold-made that have a deckle edge that can be preserved in the final book. And yes it is proper to say deckle edge rather than deckled edge as the latter indicates that the deckle was added when in fact it is a natural occurrence secondary to the fiber seeping under the deckle frame. Most letterpress printers will always employ acid free paper and acid free adhesives used in the binding to insure longevity of the final book. I tell people that my books will last 500 years or I’ll give them their money back.[1]

Page Design:

Most designers agree that the block of type should be located on the page so that the gutter is narrow and the upper margin will be a little wider with the lateral margin being wider yet and the bottom margin being the widest. Some designers like to draw a diagonal line from the top center of the gutter to the lower outside corner of the page. The block of type is then designed to fit with its upper gutter corner and lower lateral corner bisecting the diagonal line. Such placements are both aesthetically pleasing and serve the reader well. The reader usually holds the book with thumbs in the lower and lateral margins and with wide margins in these areas their thumbs don’t impinge on the type.

Economic considerations are secondary; my objective is always to produce a book that is a work art in itself. Designing a book is like writing music for a symphony, one needs to have all the elements—type face, paper, size, text & binding, a front section of violins—all work together as creative team. It’s an open-ended problem (a problem that has more than one answer, none of which are essentially right or wrong, better or worse). In a problem of this class, one has the opportunity to think outside the Hell box and be creative—an opportunity to be direct or obscure.

It is not uncommon for me to use what I call objective abstract art in an effort to highlight some aspect of the text. I always work in collaboration with the author and the artist (if I choose to use an outside artist). I have had the opportunity to work with some very creative and intelligent people and the whole process becomes one of great joy. We have a tradition of putting the press to bed that includes the obligatory dram of single malt scotch and dinner at Chez Piggy. And the book launches change depending on the location of the author and other factors.[2]

[1] Hah.
[2] Here Hugh recounts this anecdote: “When I worked as an Orthotic Consultant one of my jobs was to see convicts at one of the local Kingston Penitentiaries. I knew that the ‘cons’ would try to use me and by about the third month a young fellow came to my clinic and said, “Ya know Doc, I can only wear cowboy boots.” Clearly, this fellow needed to apply to a higher power more than needed to apply to me for footwear. However, the next month I was used by management. They sent in a fellow who outweighed me by 150 lbs. and my job [they dictated] was to convince this fellow that he really didn’t have a problem. I did the job, but when I arrived back home I said to my wife, “Verla, I have just made a new Barclay’s Law and that is I won’t do a God Damn. thing that doesn’t give me joy & that prison job doesn’t give me joy so I’m quitting.” Verla said, “That’s good, I don’t like you out there anyway.” I have kept that law ever since and I’ve been working with intelligent people making books that are meaningful. The art form gives me joy. How many people have such opportunities—cowboy boots! I tell people, with a wink, that this activity keeps me off the street and makes Kingston a safer place.

Sunday 10 November 2013

Chapbook Correspondence: analog printing, letterpress, ins & outs

‘In My Small Way’—Colophons, Typography, & Ligatures:
An Argument for Analog by Hugh Walter Barclay
edited by Joseph LaBine
—Nov. 10, 2013—
The colophon gets its name from a city on the Silk Road that goes by the name of Colophony, their army that always made a big charge at the end of each battle. The colophon is the printer’s charge at the end of the battle.The existence of the word shows the influence and respect amongst typographers in the 17th and 18th centuries. For example, there was a law in Britain that forbade public gatherings. There was an exception to this law and that provided for meeting inside “Chappels.”[1] The typographers union designated their shops as chapels and would often elect a father of the chapel. In doing so they changed the word “Chappel” to the modern chapel. It was not uncommon for a typographer to be addressed as Doctor Printer as he walked down the streets of the town. You must remember that this person was one of very few in that town who could read, write, & make books for others to read.

When I began Thee Hellbox Press in the early eighties colophons were always written in the third person. I was working as an Orthotic Consultant at the time and as such I was obliged to write patient notes for medical charts. These notes were written in the first person and signed essentially to provide a paper trail. However, third person colophons that might say for example, “The type was set in 12 pt. Caslon.” always made me ask, “Who set the type, perhaps your mother?” It always looked to me as a method to avoid responsibility, back then. I began to write the colophon in the first person, to take responsibility.  I was frowned upon by my older colleagues & private press operators but I have persisted and will continue. No one has followed my lead and I’m sure they have good reasons.

An author’s name appears on the title page. It’s not an ego trip. It’s an act of taking responsibility for the text written. You will often say: so & so wrote this book, when in reality you should say: so & so wrote the manuscript for this book, someone else made the manuscript[2] into a book. Not that I expect that anyone is actually going to change the way they speak.  

My first book was published by The Poole Hall Press in 1972. Bill Poole asked me how I wanted my name to appear on the title page. I had actually not considered that so I thought for a moment or two and said, “Mathew, Mark, Luke and John only used their first names and they had a best seller so I will only use my first name.” It didn’t take me long to realize that I was trying to avoid taking responsibility for the work so I decided then to use my full name Hugh Walter Barclay in an effort to take responsibility & make certain I wouldn’t get mixed up with others by the same name.

Recently I’ve been using the colophon to make political statements by inserting a few lines about our retrograde Conservative government. This is essentially my contribution to Press for Responsible Government—a loose knit group of private presses. It is interesting to me that I am obliged to submit to the Library & Archives Canada because ironically they are [still] obliged to accept, all this in effort save heritage.

Most people think that typography started with Gutenberg; however, Gutenberg knew his new means of communicating needed to be as aesthetically pleasing, and equal to the work done by scribes if it was going to sell. Scribes had the ability to make letters wider or narrower to fill out a line, they could justify both right & left, and thus, they could eliminate negative word spacing and reduce rivers to a minimum. They developed ligatures as a means of reducing negative letter space. In addition to all this, their ligatures were aesthetically pleasing. Gutenberg had 290 characters in his type drawers. He had wide, narrow, and normal widths for each letter, and an abundance of ligatures. If you examine a facsimile copy of the Gutenberg 42 line bible you will see pages laid out in two columns, both justified left & right. If you lift the bible up so it’s horizontal & level with your eyes you will not be able to read the text[4] but you can see clearly the negative word spaces and any rivers formed by them. You should be amazed by the control of negative space because what you’re looking at is a textured page.[5] I have been told it is the only book printed letterpress that does not have a typo/not a nick in a serif. When you compare a page from the Gutenberg bible to a book printed with digital type the difference is night & day.

The standard of typography has declined since Gutenberg mostly due to the economic pressure on presses to print stuff & sell with little concern for aesthetic standards.

I employ several methods to keep negative word spacing to a minimum. My pressmark is a petroglyph turtle and I have some made in 12pt font for lines justified both left & right that have a final word that will not fit into the line and cannot be hyphenated. I will reduce the negative word spacing by inserting a turtle or two usually where a comma or period appears. Around the turn of the century certain printing houses used dingbats for the same purpose, however, I find the dingbats outweigh the type face and as such they become very noticeable and distracting.[6]

About a year ago, I met with Merilyn Simmons at the special collections library at Queen’s University to help explain the nuances of a Gutenberg bible facsimile. We examined the book for some time before Merilyn, in her playful but poignant manner, said “so who cares?” I replied: “well I do. But, you are very correct in thinking that it’s easy to ditch typography because uneducated readers will never notice and ultimately don’t really care.”

In my small way I place such an emphasis on typography to educate people. We have already ditched cursive writing from the curriculum and general assault on typography began when Gutenberg died. Books should look good—even when you don’t know why they look good.  

Ligatures derive their name from the Latin ligat, meaning to bind. In most fonts you will find fi, ff, fl, ffi, ffl, and sometimes ct, and st. Ligatures are necessary to reduce the letter space that occurs between letters such as f & i. In lead type the hook on the“f” overhangs the body of the type. This overhang is called a kern. If you try to place an “i” following “f” the dot on the i will interfere with the kern on the “f” as will the “l”. If you try to follow the f with an “f” the kern of the first “f” will interfere with the second “f” and this will increase the letter space between the two letters on the page.

 I recently had a young unmarried couple who wanted to learn to set type visit my studio. I ask learners to come in with a quotation of their choice & the main objective of the session is to print that text. While my visitors set their texts I impressed a large wooden ligature, using yellow ink, in the centre of a piece of handmade paper. We impressed their quotes above and below but overlapping the ligature so that they appeared bound on the same page. This was a good opportunity for me to appreciate the significance of printing over an image that has been printed in a lighter colour. This technique gives depth to the page and floats the image. And it takes time to do—10 or 15 minutes per line—they were here for hours. But, many digital faces have eliminated ligatures in an effort to reduce costs.

 I bought a copy of The Convict Lover (1995) by Simmons. While reading it, I noticed that it’s printed in Adobe Caslon—the digital typeface that’s eliminated ligatures. I have the original Caslon type face and know that there is a ct ligature in that face that would work with convict. I immediately made the connection between ligatures (handcuffs) and convicts. The temptation was far too great; I printed about 10 bookmarks (with ligatures) & left them in a paper bag on Merilyn’s porch. The bookmarks were well received and I made my point with a smile—people still care.

Letterpress & analog printing methods have their disadvantages too. Letterpress bookmaking takes an inordinate amount of time, compared to commercially produced books, this makes the analog product expensive, and these products get printed in limited numbers.[7] I don’t know anyone who is making letterpress books & driving a Porsche.[8] People in this “business” because print this way because gives them joy.[9] There are 20,000 books published in Canada each year and less than 20 are printed using letterpress & very few (high quality letterpress) using the methodology I have described.   

[1] Yep. It’s ‘pp.’
[2] Let’s not forget the profundity of editing.
[3] Here Hugh argues that press books should still be visually pleasing, that printers should mimic the scribes that worked beautiful inlays & decorations into their books. Of course, while it’s easy to disagree at times with the overall aesthetic, he does validate the ephemera quality of the chap.
[4] which is in Latin,
[5] Gutenberg’s type face is now known as Textura.
[6] The Roycrofters from East Aurora NY used the dingbat method. Negative word spacing can be controlled using 4-to-the-em spacer, rather than a 3-to-the-em spacer following a period or comma. You need to understand that the visual spacing between round letters such as e & o can appear greater than the visual spacing between letters with apposing extenders such as l & b, knowing this allows one to adjust the word spacing accordingly. Judiciously reducing or word spacing also assists in preventing rivers, or the use of a turtle, dingbat, etc.

[7] But, still, limited numbers suited to a chap series.
[8] I will try to ensure that Hugh knows this statement is a non sequitur. Chapbooks & Porsche have no implicit relationship.
[9] Slightly sadistic, as it is…

Thursday 7 November 2013

Hugh Barclay on chapbooking, printing, & the Canadian archives

“Hugh Barclay’s Insights on ‘Chapter books’& Making Chaps”
Edited from correspondence with Joseph LaBine

—Sept. 24, 2013—

…I would offer to come down and speak to a group about private press books, broadsides and ephemeral as I'm sure they would find it interesting. I look forward to receiving a few of the chap books Flat Singles Press has produced. You may find this interesting; the phrase chap book refers to a thin book by today's standard. However, the phrase has roots in a time when books were published and sold in Britain by the chapter. These were, by nature, thin books and were sold by nice chaps door to door. The house wife could afford a few cents to purchase one and buy the next chapter the following month. I think that some of Dickens' serialized books were sold by this method.

Many of these are concepts that I have never consider. Often I consider a text as a definitive element and rather than a continuum. I see books as a package for ideas and as such my goal is to design a package to express those ideas. Books are open-ended problems, being those problems that don't have a right or wrong answer or a better or worse element. These ideas make me think that we should invent a new phrase for narrow poetry books as Chap-ter books clearly refer to prose. Of course this is a mammoth undertaking to re-educate the world but that has been part of my life's work.
In my opinion, there are only three ways to learn; read a book, have someone demonstrate it to you, or simply jump in and get your feet wet by doing the thing.[1] The latter is by far the best way to learn, however, when it comes to setting type and printing, these activities have a habit of becoming addictive because this is where you get your "highs."
In addition, a composing stick doesn't have a spell check or auto correct. Furthermore, when you attempt to tell others what a great activity setting type and printing on handmade paper is you will find that they glaze over or look at you quizzically as if to ask, "You stupid man, haven't you heard about a word processor"?  Now I've hogged the floor which I tend to do (sometimes).

—Oct. 10, 2013—

I was just out for dinner and this gave me an opportunity to think of some other things that might enhance this discussion of chap books. You may be aware that the National Library of Canada considers anything with eight pages or more a book. We all use the term chap books to refer to these thin books.

Under the Library Act, I am obliged to submit one copy of any book I print if the print run is under 100 and 2 copies if it is over. I have done this consistently, for two reasons: the author deserves to be in the National Library and to do otherwise is saying to the author I don't think you belong in the National Library. The second reason is that any book is part of the mosaic of Canadian culture and the job of the Library and Archives is to preserve our heritage, at least until Stephen Harper became Prime Minister. I am quite aware that most of the private presses don't submit books and this is because feel that they are losing money. However, that is their business. I expect that many of Phil Hall's Flat Singles Press books were never submitted to the National Library and the result is that they are lost forever. Does the Press submit books now?[2]

[1] The thing Barclay refers to here is the actual Chandler & Price manual typesetter he uses to make chapbooks for Thee Hellbox Press.
[2] An excerpt from the “Colophon” section of Thee Hellbox book, X, best illuminates Barclay’s argument regarding the National Library Archive. He writes “The Canadian government has slashed funding to Library and Archives Canada to such an extent that it no longer has the ability to function. Archival material is being refused. I have waited six months to receive a simple acknowledging receipt for legal deposit books. I understand that one is required to wait six months to see an archivist. The wait times must be frustrating to researchers, academics and graduate students. This is our heritage that is being lost. Press for responsible government” (Barclay with Hall and LaRose).