My new limited-edition poetry book


It was a decade ago when Paul Nash of The Strawberry Press first said he'd like to publish a small collection of my poems in hand-set letterpress. The project was shelved for years but has now finally come to fruition. Time moves like a slow river under overhanging poplars in the world of letterpress. After exchanging copies of our respective letterpress productions in the early 90s, I met Paul when he came to interview me for an article that was published in the Summer 1998 issue of 'The Private Library', entitled 'Joel Biroco and The Herculaneum Press'. I gave up hand-set letterpress printing in 1996, no longer wishing to have a flat full of lead type and inks and paper; besides, I hadn't printed anything on the press since 1993, apart from a few cards and other ephemera. Paul bought some of my type, though refused the Gill Sans 'on moral grounds' (I was never quite sure what he meant by that, whether he was referring to Gill's activities outside the world of typography, or whether this was a comment on the typographic aesthetic of his sans, but I'd certainly love to see the pornographic drawings Eric Gill is said to have made of Queen Victoria).

Publishing a letterpress book by hand is a great commitment of time and effort so I wasn't surprised my proposed book wasn't mentioned again for years. In that time Paul graduated from a small table-top platen to a Vandercook proofing press. Then last year Paul told me that he and Alison Felstead wanted to publish the book at The Strawberry Press in 2005. The process started with Paul running fonts and papers by me. Whether to go with 18 point Centaur or 16 point Poliphilus (the roman of Blado). Now Centaur in lead is an elegant font, and The Strawberry Press has made a fine use of it, so the chance to have something of mine in the letterpress Centaur was too good to pass up for the unusualness of Poliphilus (and the titles of the poems are in 24 point Arrighi, which is Centaur italic). Dean Allen is quite right when he says in his excellent survey 'Twenty Faces', fostering good taste in typography, that Centaur in its digital incarnation is lacklustre. The digital font was produced from Bruce Rogers' drawings of the type rather than from a letterpress-printed source where the type thickens up when pressed into the fibres of the paper, 'design anticipating application' as Allen says. (Shambhala Centaur Editions, which proudly trumpet their use of Centaur, might one day realise that all the otherwise excellent books of Japanese poetry and the like they have published so far in the font are very pale typographically. Perhaps they should sponsor a fresh digital 'cutting' of Centaur based on how it appears in letterpress books.)

Page proofs have trickled by me this year as the pages were gradually set over free weekends, and I dug out my lino-cutting tools and made a two-colour linocut for the frontispiece. Then finally on November the 5th my limited-edition book IT IS DIVINE was launched at the Oxford Fine Press Book Fair 2005, where it was much admired and a hefty chunk of the edition sold.

The book is published in a limited edition of 80 copies. Size 290×200 mm. 76 are printed on a heavy Saunders mouldmade wove cream paper, preserving the deckle edge, six of which are lettered C and are reserved for the 'Beloved Copyright Libraries' and the remainder are numbered 1 to 70. There are four special copies published at £300 each (of which only one copy remains for sale) described by Paul as follows:

Four special copies of IT IS DIVINE were printed on Gampi Vellum, a Japanese hand-made mulberry paper with a smooth surface. They were specially-bound by the Abbey Bindery of Deepcut, Surrey, in full dark brown morocco with the title blocked in gold on the spine, double gold rules on the turn-ins, and the front board blocked with a design based on the linocut frontispiece (but showing the rains of spring rather than the sunlight). Each copy is contained in a black clamshell box, blocked with the same design, and is accompanied by a folder containing a proof of the frontispiece signed by the author/artist.

The 'special' is indeed a handsome book (another photo here, you can also click on the small pictures in this post for larger versions). The 'normal run', though, is far from ordinary, and is bound in a wrapper made from a gorgeous gold Maziarczyck paste paper that gives off a greenish glow angled to the light (called 'Gold Penny', if you have a swatch of such papers) with a printed label. This particular paste paper, which I like the feel of in the hand as much as the colour, was chosen to harmonise with the black/yellow/brown colour-scheme of the book. The drop capitals and main title are printed in an earthy umber brown, which goes well with the yellow and black of the linocut frontispiece. The book is hand sewn and has 20 pages. There are eight poems in the collection, which were written in the late 90s. All of them can be found on this website. But poetry, I feel, is ill-suited to the web, and is best published with attention to the aesthetic.

Having not done any linocuts for years, I had a struggle to get back into it. My tools were still as sharp, however, and the first thing I cut was me. But this I regard as part of the ritualistic talismanic process that is cutting a design into a piece of lino, there always has to be blood in the groove, and better it should come unexpected as the result of an accident (see my notes on 'juxtapositional magick' in KAOS 14). My first idea came to me while sitting in the garden over the summer, looking at the beautiful maroon leaves of my Japanese maple, the pattern you can see under the leaves in the mix of shades of maroon as the sun strikes it I thought so delightful I wanted to make a linocut of it. But it was too delicate a design for my hand and maroon is a hard colour to mix well. It looked good on the maple but sludgy in lino. So I spent a number of evenings with the stink of turps up my nose and black fingernails to remind me why I didn't do lino printing much any more, until I happened on the idea. The linocut I eventually decided suited the book for the frontispiece is entitled 'Spring' and is based on a sudden moment of understanding I had when Da Wu Tang showed me how to brush the early form of the Chinese character for Spring, how he made it really look like a small plant forcing its way out of the hard soil warmed by the sun until it shoots up and opens up its leaves. That's the black, the yellow sun rays were to make a linoprint of it.