Commentaries - May 2008
A few years back we bought three letterpresses along with friends in Fine Arts and Rare Books. (The basics-minded founders of the Writers House back in '95 originally hoped to have a letterpress in the house itself — but we couldn't find the right space and went on for ten years before finally establishing it elsewhere on campus: in the old old Morgan Building on 34th Street.)
With our partners, collectively, we call it the Common Press. Our own imprint is called "The 15th Room Press" (the old 1851 cottage at 3805 Locust Walk has its 14 rooms).
Recently the Pennsylvania Gazette ran an article about our project called "The Leaded Word" (good title). Here's a link directly to the Gazette, and here is how the piece opens:
"In an era when publishing a poem or a political tirade takes little more than a mouse click, the basement of the Morgan Building is an incongruous place. The printed word is everywhere — draped over worktables and festooned on the white cinderblock walls — but it doesn’t flow from keyboards or toner cartridges. Indeed a quick glance at the posted list of commandments suggests that flow isn’t the right verb at all.
"CLEAN ROLLERS, INK KNIVES, GLASS PALETTES WITH VEG. OIL FIRST, THEN SIMPLE GREEN OR MINERAL SPIRITS, reads one of the rules. LEAVE NOTHING IN BIG SINK IN ACID ROOM, says another.
"Hanging from a nearby coat rack, next to a line of heavy aprons, an AOSafety brand gas mask promises protection against “organic vapors” and sulfur dioxide. Peek around the corner and the heart of the operation comes into view. Standing amidst cabinets filled with movable lead type are three letterpresses that weigh into the tons and have a combined age exceeding 250 years."
The Common Press site includes some examples of the good work done on the presses, as does the 15th Room Press site. Matt Neff (a painter now addicted to printing) and Erin Gautsche (the KWH Program Coordinator) will be together teaching an undergraduate seminar in the fall semester called "Grotesque Forms: Writing/Printing/Bookmaking." So far as I know this is the first time Penn has ever offered a course like this - a combination writing and printing/bookmaking seminar. Very exciting.
Oh conventional, well-adjusted American students of art, thwart your attraction to Gauguin, don't sign up for a Pacific troop transport and fight World War II for the wrong (namely, aesthetic) reasons. There can be only one right, well-adjusted reason to fight in the Pacific circa 1944. Aesthetic obsession ain't it. To me, this is the gist of Raditzer, Peter Matthiessen's third novel (1961). Click here to go to my 1960 blog, and read a bit more about the American named Stark who drift inexorably into his aesthetic heart of darkness.