Printing Techniques: Letterpress

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Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

I have said it before, but I must once again recommend Steven Clay and Rodney Phillips’ A Secret Location on the Lower East Side. I reread it and it is as informative and fascinating as ever. This book, more than any other, shaped my understanding of the little magazine in the post World War II era. The pictures and bibliographies are fantastic, not to mention essential, for the Burroughs collector.

Before Clay’s book, I believed that the magazines and books of the mimeograph revolution were all made on mimeographs. Actually, only roughly half of the magazines in Secret Location were produced with that technology. The introduction states, “Direct access to mimeograph machines, letterpress, and inexpensive offset made these publishing ventures possible, putting the means of production in the hands of the poet.” I had a dim understanding of what a mimeograph was and how it worked, mostly thanks to my experience with a ditto machine (which is different I later learned) in grade school. Later at the University of Iowa (I was there for two seconds in the Ph.D program), I met Kim Merker of Windhover Press and saw various print technologies up close. Secret Location encouraged me to delve more deeply into the technologies behind the little magazine boom.

Even after some research, I am not as knowledgeable about printing as I would like. I have never seen a stencil and I do not have a full grasp how the whole mimeo process works. The same goes for the letterpress and offset printing. If there are any errors in the following piece please correct them. In addition any information on printing techniques would be appreciated. That said, I have definite ideas about what little magazines I like and admire. As I look at my book collection, I find myself returning again and again to the same favorite magazines, like Fuck You Magazine or The Outsider. At the same time, there are magazines that languish failing to attract my attention after the initial purchase, like my Evergreen Reviews. These preferences I have found take into consideration how the magazines were produced. Close examination of my collection reveals that mimeo, letterpress and offset all have their own characteristics that obviously dictate format. In some cases, the production method chosen by a poet publisher directly affects the content. As Charles Olson wrote in Projective Verse, form is never more than an extension of content. I will share some of my impression of various printing methods used in the mimeo revolution below.

I will start with letterpress printing. The letterpress goes back before Gutenberg in the 1400s. Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type and later the mechanization of the letterpress process made mass production of printed matter possible. (For more one how the letterpress works and pictures of the letterpress, see and Wikipedia.) Yet for me, the letterpress represents the handmade, not mechanical process. This dedication to the handmade highlights the passion for the book as object and the creation of the book as art. The magazine that jumps to mind is The Outsider printed by Jon and Gypsy Lou Webb in New Orleans. Burroughs along with several other Beats appears in The Outsider. The recent Edwin Blair sale presented the rare, and in some cases once in a lifetime, opportunity to purchase publications from the esteemed Loujon Press. Like the books published by Loujon, such as Bukowski’s It Catches My Heart in its Hands or Henry Miller’s Order and Chaos Chez Hans Reichel, The Outsider is a miracle of printing. Painstaking attention was paid to the illustrations, the typeface, and the layout as well as the selections of prose and poetry. As Gypsy Lou Webb writes, “This No. 1 issue was printed on a C & P handpress, with handset type, & it took us, the 2 home editors, about 4,500 hours to get the job done.”

The results are well worth the time. Full of varying typefaces, types of paper, photographs and drawings, The Outsider was a labor of love. As you read through the pages, the incredible amount of manual labor that when into its construction screams out. Webb continues, “Because our press is a no motor job, with a 5lb handle pull, & it takes a minimum of 9,000 pulls to bring off just one page of the Outsider. Goes like this: 1 pull makes 1 impression, but there are extra pulls for inking and we printed 3,100 copies of each No. 1 page… And we’ve done it easy — for one hour. But with some 299,999 impressions to make ahead of us for just the birth of our baby (it took us exactly 9 mos to do this issue), or close onto a million handpulls equaling a l-i-f-t poundage of Four Million plus.” On the thin pieces of paper, you can see where the typeface bit into the paper. The magazine possesses weight; stands out as a physical object. As Keats wrote, “You should load every rift of your subject with ore.” Many pages are crammed with text in tiny type. The magazine is busy always grabbing the reader’s attention. Issue 4/5 dedicated to Kenneth Patchen is massive and beautiful; more of a book than a magazine. The issue is a work of art with emphasis on work. It seems that the Webbs worked their press like a laborer in a factory. Endless repetition and back breaking toil. Like Bukowski who The Outsider helped discover, the magazine is a curious mix of counterculture and blue collar sensibilities.

Another magazine that comes to mind when I think about the letterpress is Wallace Berman’s Semina. Semina ran for nine issues from 1955-1964. The book Semina Culture: Wallace Berman and his Circle contains photographs of the first published inventory of Semina‘s individual components. Semina was one of the first magazines to publish a piece of Naked Lunch. Burroughs appears in issue 4 which was dedicated to Mexico and the drug experience. The run of the magazine featured Allen Ginsberg, Alexander Trocchi, John Wieners, Michael McClure, Baudelaire, Jean Cocteau, Herman Hesse and Artaud as well as artwork and photographs by Jess, Cameron, Dean Stockwell and Walter Hopps.

The content is extraordinary, but even more powerful is the format. Like The Outsider, Semina is an art object. Michael Duncan describes the magazine as follows, “Although a journal comprised of contributions from a number of unique voices, Semina stands as an artwork in its own right, a new kind of assemblage of images and texts. Seven of its issues were printed on loose-leaf pages inserted in a sleeve; five of those issues had no prescribed order or sequence. Photographs, drawings, and collages by Berman and others were juxtaposed with texts, often on the same page… While he clearly conceived of it as a literary journal including both contributions from friends and submissions from readers, Berman also created in Semina a new expressive form.” As Duncan points out, Semina relates to the work of the surrealists; Eisenstein montage; Marcel Duchamp’s The Box in a Valise; little magazines like Dial and transition; and art magazines like View. The magazine presages mail, concept and Pop Art. Wallace Berman strained against the magazine format in the same way Daisy Alden did in Folder and Phyllis Johnson did later in Aspen.

If the Webbs used their letterpress like a laborer, Wallace Berman utilized his press like a priest or sorcerer. Semina mixes religion and magic. Berman shows that it is impossible to separate the two. As Berman wrote, “Art is love is God.” Hugo Ball, a founder of Dadism and an influence on Berman, wrote, “Magic is the only worship worthy of divinity. Without the use of magic which builds the bridge with God man cannot be saved.” I have only seen Semina in photographs, but even in reproduction the magazine possesses an aura. Unlike The Outsider which exudes weight and physicality, I am struck by Semina‘s weightlessness. It is ephemeral and ethereal. The magazine refuses to stay in one place or remain in one category. Due to its scarcity, I may never be able to touch it. I do not own a single issue, let alone a complete run. I would pay money just to hold an issue. The first issue costs $5000 on the rare book market. The run would cost around $15,000. If I could own one magazine in its entirety, it would be this one. In 1967, Herms printed a tribute to Berman and Semina called “A Portent Semina — Semina #6” in 100 copies. This item is eagerly sought after by collectors. Berman the printer still inspires bookmakers today. In 1991, fine bookmaker Alastair Johnston of Poltroon Press, created a facsimile of the complete Semina for the Love Press. This reproduction signed by George Herms is quite a collectible in its own right continuing the handset letterpress tradition practiced by Berman. Not surprisingly, Burroughs appears in both these later projects.

In its own time, Semina was legendary. Only a couple hundred copies were made of a single issue. Copies could not be purchased. Instead they were distributed through the mail to those in the know. To receive the magazine was to be initiated into a sacred society. In some ways, The Outsider and Semina seem to be at opposite ends of the little magazine spectrum, but their passion for the handmade object and their dedication to art link the two. They are like the ying and yang of handset printing. Berman would definitely appreciate a mystical take on the magazines. Opposites are not in conflict as Berman and the Webbs both sought to give voice to an alternative culture in the face of a conservative mainstream through the power of the press.

The dedication to the handmade continues in today’s fine press tradition. Bookmakers from around the world immerse themselves in the pleasures of handmade paper, innovative layouts, and fine bindings all produced on the letterpress. Several Burroughs publications have been produced in this manner recently. For Burroughs books, the letterpress tradition reaches back to Dave Haselwood’s Auerhahn Press. That press published Burroughs and Gysin’s The Exterminator in 1960 in an attractive, yet simple edition. A more current and elaborate example includes Mummies of 1982 printed and published by Kaldewey Press in Helvetica type on Scheufelen paper. Care and passion are not cheap. A copy of Mummies sells for over $1000. The Cat Inside is another example of fine bookmaking on a letterpress. Printed by the renowned Grenfell Press in 1986, the folio is bound in full limp vellum with a drawing by Gysin stamped in gold to the front cover. The drawings by Gysin are printed in two colors using the duotone process on a hand letterpress. The deluxe edition signed by Gysin and Burroughs sells for over $4000 and is among the rarest items in Burroughs’ catalog.

Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 3 May 2006.

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