Denise Brady on the unusual gift of letterpress

You founded Bradypress in 1988 that has published the work of many poets and writers such as Ted Kooser, Greg Kosmicki, Marilyn Hacker, and others in books, broadsides, and other letterpress, chapbook-length creations. You also co-founded Gibraltar Editions with Guy Duncan, son of master printer Harry Duncan. In nearly three decades of publishing, what have you learned about letterpress? What does the letterpress offer to the world of poetry that other forms of publication cannot?

Thank you, Madeline, for inviting me to talk about letterpress and publishing. Gibraltar Editions and Bradypress focus on publishing first editions of contemporary poetry. My interest is in presenting new writing — a poem or a collection of poems (any length) that I can’t get out of my head, that I think should be read. Once I have the text, I consider my collection of type, which is mostly book faces in 10, 12, and 14 points. I begin by selecting a face. Usually I set a poem in more than one typeface before deciding on the type. Of course, there is the page size, leading, margins, how the titles will be set. These are all considerations that result in the design.

The unique qualities of the manuscript guide this process: are the poems variable in line length? How do the poems break across the pages? Do the poems want drama or intimacy in a book format? My goal is to integrate the text with the typeface(s) and with the paper(s) to create a clear and consistent design that presents the text in the best light. When I’m successful, the book design carries through from page to page, poem to poem, front matter to colophon, from page design to binding, in a way that makes a reader want to handle and read the book and hold it and read it again.

Letterpress and poetry have occupied my interest for a long time. I have seen the number of poetry publications in trade and on-line editions increase dramatically over the last twenty years or so, and that has changed the editions that I make. My hope is that letterpress printers can continue to publish first editions of poetry that are read and appreciated by those who enjoy handmade things and contemporary poetry. It is still new poetry that drives my work. How to make these books affordable without devaluing the work that goes into them, how many copies to print, how to find our audience: these are questions that Guy and I continue to work on. These books have a visual and physical/tactile appeal that trade editions do not. I cling to the idea that the attention and focus of my work echoes and enhances the craft and artistry of the poet.

In “I Always Wanted a Big Life: An Interview with Denise Duhamel” in The Writers Chronicle, Duhamel also talks about the readership of poetry. She says, “Poetry has a small readership by design. Thats fine. You have to really love it to pursue it. You dont go into poetry for the fame or the money, because there is not much of that. No one is going to be knocking on your door asking for poems” (51). Talk about asking for poetry and love. Talk about the necessity of letterpress and poems.

I’ve made things with my hands for as long as I can remember, and I fell in love with poetry during my high school and college years. I’m fascinated with the infinite number of ways a poem can be constructed. When I found letterpress my fascination with poetry was combined with my love of making things with my hands. For me, the process (and satisfaction) of writing a poem is very similar, really, to the process (and satisfaction) of making a book.

While poets from time to time send me unsolicited manuscripts (which I welcome and read and consider), most often my process of acquiring a manuscript begins when I hear a poet read or I read a poem in print or someone recommends a poet or poem. After reading as much work by that poet as I can find, and if I feel the work is compatible with my work, I write to ask if the poet would be willing to send me poems to consider for a limited letterpress edition. I make limited first editions, so I look for poems that have not yet been collected in a book. I often read a long manuscript and select from it 10-15 poems that hang together. I need to connect with the poems before I can commit to printing them, not just because of the time and the focus I’ll need in making the edition, but also so that I can be an enthusiastic advocate for the finished book. My partner in Gibraltar Editions, Guy Duncan, now assists me too in the selection process, as does my husband, Robert Schenck.

I have been given an unusual gift: a working knowledge of an obsolete technology, so the “necessity” for me is to continue to use and practice and grow what I’ve learned and to share what I’ve learned with anyone who might be interested.

In working with letterpress, what constraints or freedoms do typeface offer designers in terms of punctuation and letter shape? In your answer, would you be able talk about some of the design choices in type, for example, on your recent printings such as Hadara Bar-Nadavs “Fountain” or Rebecca Roterts “L’avenir”?

The first printed pages in the West mimicked manuscript pages for the mundane reason that the printed text needed to be taken seriously – to look legit. As printing proliferated, so did the number of people who learned to read, and so did demand for secular books. The introduction of lower case letters and of punctuation is tied to increased literacy, the need for clarity and ease in reading, and the new constraints and conveniences of the technology.

Poetry is especially interesting to copy-edit because many contemporary poets purposely modify the standards of printed text (punctuation, capitalization, spacing, italics, etc.) for effect and meaning. So as an editor, I try to understand and respect the poet’s style and standardize only as needed to keep the reader from mis-reading and to support the poet’s intention.

I’ve had a couple cases of American Uncial type for a decade or more (thanks to Neil Shaver who passed it on to me when he retired The Yellow Barn Press) but I find that face tricky to use because it draws so much attention to itself and slows down reading so much. But as I was contemplating Hadara’s poem “Fountain” and considering the types that I have in the shop, the Uncial presented itself as the best choice. Its weight and angularity makes me think of wrought iron and the type creates, I think, a juxtaposition that parallels Bar-Nadav’s word play in the poem.

The ornament and coppery ink that I used for the ornament was chosen, of course, too, to imply an abandoned park from an earlier time. I had some fun creating the shoe prints to introduce the “child” to the playground. I found the children’s shoes in a second hand store, cut off the soles, and printed them without ink using black carbon paper.

The 10 by 10 inch size of the sheet was determined by the project that this is a part of: Invisible Cities Book Project coordinated by Karen Kunc at Constellation Studios. I needed a paper that was sturdy enough to take a fold and stand up to its own and selected the Stonehenge paper for its color and heft. The design was also defined by the requirement to fold in the center of the sheet so that the print could become part of a long accordion book.

Rebecca Rotert’s poem L’Avenir was printed as part of “All Along the Fence,” a collection of contemporary poems selected and printed in honor of  Harry Duncan, the father of 20th century American literary fine press movement. Wanting to highlight a local papermaker, I selected this paper from Porridge Papers’ seconds. Made of recycled fibers, the paper is thick, smooth on one side and textured on the other. I liked the neutral color and the texture of the front side.

Turning to my types I began to consider the design and what type might work best for this poem and on this paper. I had recently acquired the 48 point Ultra Bodoni and was itching to use it, so I set the title to see how it looked and how much space it required. With the Bodoni in mind for title, I looked to my text faces and decided that the 14 point Perpetua would be best. A transitional type, Perpetua is more vertical than the classical types in my shop and its bracketed serifs print clearly on the heavily textured paper. I have Perpetua roman and italic with both caps and small caps in two sizes, 12 and 14 pt., so I had options for the few lines of credits I wanted to include. The types, I think, present the poem with some gravitas without, I hope, any interfering allusions.

How do you define chapbook? Originally, the word referred to a book cheaply made. Today it seems to mean a short collection of poetry.

What makes a good chapbook? Compelling poetry!

What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? Compelling poetry!

I don’t really know how many short books of poetry I’ve read or that I own. I am drawn to books of any length that are nicely designed whether they photocopied, commercially printed, or hand printed.


Talk about your commitment to the chapbook writing community and the ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets. Is the chapbook writing community different from the writing community? Is it the college/university promotion system that has assigned a page length to books of poetry? I am interested in poetry that speaks to me and has something to tell me whether that something resides in the content or in the way of communicating. I do what I can to hear poets read, to read their works, and to publish new poets.

Residence: Omaha, Nebraska

Chapbook Bio: Denise Brady has made handmade limited editions books of contemporary poetry since 1984 when she studied letterpress printing with Harry Duncan at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. And she has been writing poetry (though not prolifically) for longer than that. She has published works by poets including Hayden Carruth, Marilyn Hacker, Greg Kosmicki, Jonis Agee, Michael Skau, Zachary Schomburg, Lynn Butler, and Steve Langan. Her next book to be completed this fall is by Rebecca Rotert. Denise has taught many workshops for children and adults and worked as coordinator of the Nebraska Book Arts Center at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, as Director of the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts in Nebraska City, and currently manages the Art Gallery at UNO.

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