Talking with Gina Caciolo of Stamped Books

At the LA Times Book Festival, Gina Caciolo gifted me a copy of How To Ride A Bicycle in Pittsburgh, the first chapbook from Stamped Books. I was touched by her generosity and amazed by the craftsmanship of the chapbook. After returning home, I became curious about Stamped Books, so I checked out their website. What struck me: they document every step of how they made the chapbook! I really love this because it made me feel part of the entire process, from mock ups to final product. Usually my relationship to a press is simply through the product, or through the product and its editors (who I may happen to know). Never before had I felt this intimately involved in the process of actually making the book that I had just read. And of course, I had to read it again after seeing the process. Lastly, this is a great way to teach their readers how we can make a similar chapbook, if we are so inclined. 

Gina was kind enough to answer a few questions about the press, and I hope you will check out their website, subscribe to their blog, and follow them on Facebook because they are going to be doing some cool and innovative projects in the future. Please Share!

CSP: Tell us a little about yourself, how you came to poetry and book making?

GC: I have to thank one person for pulling me into poetry, and that is my undergraduate professor Michelle Gaffey. It was an Intro to Poetry class I took at Duquesne University that changed the type of books I read. Michelle taught the class poetry about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. It’s where I read Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping With The Dictionary. We read Ginsberg’s “America.” She taught us work that showed the urgency of writing and its socially conscious side. While the class was not a workshop class, it sparked an urge in me to write poetry. I had gone to Duquesne as a Psychology major, but over the next year I changed to English (Creative Writing) and it all started with that class. It’s been about 6 years since I had her class, and I still have and revisit the course packet she made for us.

My final semester at Duquesne, I took a Poetry Workshop class with Justin Kishbaugh. (I still have his course packet too!) He helped me understand, over the course of the semester, what my voice was in poetry. How an honest sense of self is important. He also introduced me to Naropa University. I applied to Naropa’s Summer Writing Program for the summer of 2008 after learning about Anne Waldeman and Amiri Baraka in his class. (I also applied because Harryette Mullen was going to be there, and she was the first big influence of mine.)

Turned out I was accepted. I had Dodie Bellamy, Harryette Mullen, and Anne Waldeman as teachers that summer. After that, poetry was all that I wrote.

My newest influence for poetry and bookmaking is Jen Hofer. I’m an MFA student at California Institute of the Arts in Critical Studies (Creative Writing) and Jen is my mentor. I took a Documentary Poetics class with her, as well as Literary Citizenship: Tiny Press Practices. Each class inspired me toward the two big projects I’m working on now. (1) My thesis: documentary poetics about my hometown Allentown, Pennsylvania. (2) My press: Stamped Books. I really have to thank her for pulling me in the directions that are nearest and dearest to me.

CSP: Why did you start Stamped Books?

GC: I had wanted to start my own press for some time, but I wasn’t sure how to go about it. I had started an online blog after Naropa about television shows, music, and food called Dinner Is Foreplay For City Folks. Died after about three months. Then my friend Eric Frankenberg and I started talking about having our own press. Talk about pipe dreams to the max. But, to be fair, it’s because we had no idea how to do it. Oh man, I just remembered another idea I had where I was going to publish around each solstice, and the journal was about duplicity. I contacted people I wanted to be my editors, but the usual stuff happened. People are busy. Then I come to CalArts, and take Jen’s tiny press class. The world of “how to start your own press” suddenly became accessible. And I realized, all I needed was little old me.

I’m the type of person who loves to work with their hands in creative ways. I crochet all the time. If I’m at a literary reading, or at home watching television with my boyfriend, I’m crocheting. So when I learned about handmade books, I moved right for it. I also decided, in Literary Citizenship, I wouldn’t make my own book. I decided to start my press right then and there. I’m in graduate school, I’m in a creative writing program, my mentor makes handmade books, and I’m in a class learning about handmade books. Basically, the timing was incredibly perfect. I like perfect timing. (I think it may like me too.)

There are three reasons I started Stamped Books over any other press idea I had: 1) The Grateful Dead, 2) collaboration, and 3) diversity in writing.

The specific idea behind Stamped Books is all thanks to the Grateful Dead. Over their 30 years of playing live shows, they never played the same set twice. They knew they had a huge following at their live shows, and they wanted every show to be a unique experience. This is what I strive for with Stamped Books. Every book is hand stamped with a rubber stamp in a unique way so that each chapbook is the only one of its kind. Also, every book will be designed differently. Some may be slight modifications of another, but that’s exactly as the Grateful Dead would have it. They sometimes played the same song, but would do a different jam in the middle of it to make it different.

Stamped Books is also about collaboration. I collaborate with the writer on the design and the stamp choice. I collaborate with a wonderful woman named Martina Webb (who owns Blossom Stamps on Etsy) for the stamps. My favorite example of this is the next project I’m working on. The title of the book is Big Women, Big Girls by Cate Stevens-Davis. Cate and I decided that we’d like a sexy stamp. One of a plus sized woman in a bathing suit or corset. I sent this idea to Martina, along with the comment that I didn’t want it to look cartoony. Martina found a woman on Etsy selling plus sized bathing suits. She sent an e-mail to the bathing suit woman asking if she could use one of the pictures of her model in a bathing suit for a stamp. That woman said yes, Martina made a mock-up and sent it to me. It’s seriously the coolest stamp I’ve ever seen in my life.

Oh! And finally, Stamped Books is about the diversity of writing. I didn’t just want to publish poetry. I don’t just read poetry, even though it’s what I mainly write. I wanted people to get a little taste of everything. I’m publishing poetry, fiction, critically essays, song lyrics, non-fiction, plays, news articles, and anything else I can get my hands on.

CSP: I love the design, look, and feel of "How to Ride A Bike In Pittsburgh." Can you tell us about how this project and the design came together.

GC: Once I had the press idea under my belt, I came up with a list of four people I would love to publish. The first person on the list was Robert, and he responded excitedly with this project.

As soon as I read the text, I imagined a bike riding along the pages. I quickly realized the best way to have the book mirror a bicycle trail (and show the stamped trail) was to use an accordion fold. I also decided very early on that I wanted circles for the covers. A book about a bike needs bike wheels! I came up with two different designs that used an accordion fold, and presented them to my class, Literary Citizenship: Tiny Press Practices. One was nicknamed the 'taco' and the other, the one that was made, was nicknamed 'quesadilla.' People brought up excellent points for both, but I found the 'quesadilla' points more convincing. Some said it looked more like a road map. Others said that with the circle covers it looked like a bicycle. Even the simple sound of the pages opening out; how they mirrored a bike's sound. I decided after that session I would go with the 'quesadilla.'

Last was the binding. I wasn't totally clear on how I was going to bind it, until we had a bookbinding workshop ay Jen's house. I learned the pamphlet stitch, and it all came together.

CSP: I love the blog and that you are documenting every step of the process. Why did you decide to reveal the process to the public? 

GC: I love learning about bookmaking! Sometimes I look at a handmade book, and before I even read it, I'm looking all around it, trying to figure out how it was made. So it only made sense for me to document all the steps. I show every step on the site that I would want to see. For me, the process is everything. I enjoy finding out about how the final product was made more than the final product. That show, How It's Made, is so great!

CSP: Besides following the blog, how can we keep in touch with Stamped Books?  

GC: Facebook! will be a wonderful website in early June. Also, books will be available for sale thanks to Half Letter Press/ Temporary Services.