A Letterpress Shop Survives, Printing Poems in the Era of YouTube

Cap letters

The Harry Smith Print Shop at Naropa U. makes good use of its collection of historic presses and type.

Boulder, Colo. — It’s fast-food, Fox News America I’ve been driving across for the past six weeks. Golden Arches peer over the trees at every other freeway interchange, while talking heads babble above news tickers beside the breakfast buffets of a thousand Holiday Inn Expresses. Poetry—and I say this as a fan, sometimes a dabbler—is no more relevant here than dust.

TypeSo to come upon a place like Naropa University, where poetry is written and read and listened to and discussed, is a delight. And then to get a tour of Naropa’s Harry Smith Print Shop, where verse is lovingly printed—with old metal type and antique presses, yet—well, it’s both Disneyland and Dollywood for dactyl addicts, an enchanted kingdom of fonts and figures. I could gladly have spent hours pulling out drawers of type (Caslon, Garamond, Perpetua, Valiant, Van Dijk), leafing through chapbooks and broadsides, poking among ornaments. Everywhere I looked something caught my eye—poems tacked to the walls, pica rulers, paper cutters, Celtic capitals.

The poet Andrew Schelling, who teaches poetry, translation, and Sanskrit at Naropa, showed me around the shop, which is not much larger than a garage. It’s named for a legendary music archivist and filmmaker who lived at Naropa for several years at the end of his life.

Andrew Schelling“We have historic equipment from several presses,” Mr. Schelling said. In one corner is the shop’s first press, a small antique Chandler & Price platen press that belonged to the poet Lyn Hejinian, who used it to publish poetry chapbooks under the Tuumba Press imprint. She sold it, Mr. Schelling said, to David Sheidlower, “a very fine and exacting printer” who also published a number of works on it.

“In 1992 David phoned me up and said, ‘I’m tired of printing. I think it’s really too old-fashioned—the future is video,’” Mr. Schelling recalled. He raised $2,500 to buy the press and have it moved to Boulder.

In another corner is a plain Vandercook proof press that once belonged to a Santa Fe print shop. The larger Chandler & Price press in the middle of the room, he told me, dates to 1915. “These are the kinds of presses that were in every little town in America. Any town that has newspapers, restaurants, business cards to make—these are the presses that did them.”

A press is nothing without type, of course, and the shop’s fonts have a rich history too. Some came from Ms. Hejinian’s press, some from the same collector who had acquired the shop’s Vandercook, and some from Ken Mikolowski’s Alternative Press, in Ann Arbor, Mich. The type, of course, is all set by hand, which is why the shop’s output is so small. Typically, each semester’s printing class produces just one complete poem. “Letterpress is a slow, painstaking craft,” Mr. Schelling said.

Poem "Allen This Instant"But the payoff can be spectacular. Mr. Schelling opened a handmade box with a copy of the shop’s magnum opus, a collection of 13 beautifully printed broadsheet poems, each written and signed by a different poet, among them Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ms. Hejinian, and Mr. Schelling. The project, which is largely the work of students, has gone on about 10 years—so long that four of the poets have died, including Robert Creeley and Barbara Guest.

But it is, Mr. Schelling said, “the finest project that we’ve done here.” It would make any poet proud and any book lover covetous. And the shop’s less ambitious works are no less lovely, even if they’re just covers for poems that students have printed off their computers. In our YouTube era—video really was the future, it turned out—anything printed by hand looks like a treasure.

Orphan type

Please put away

Poem "Storytelling"

Poem "Haibun Dark Forest"

"I saw America changed"

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