On Finally Visiting the Letterform Archive

Last weekend we went to a reception held at the Letterform Archive in San Francisco following the Typo15 conference. Rob Saunders, the creator/collector of the archive, gave an entertaining talk on W. A. Dwiggins last year at the San Francisco Public Library and we'd browsed the rich online collection, but despite reports that we really needed to go to the place, we hadn't made it until last Saturday. Go online and see the archive absolutely, but if you happen to be a local or just blowing through*, then hie thee...uh... there.

*for, as Oscar Wilde (or was it Gandhi?) is said to have said "It's an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco.")

Type specimen books at the Letterform Archive.

Type specimen books at the Letterform Archive.

Kate Robinson, the Curatorial Assistant said they like to schedule visitors in groupings of at least a few because not simply as a matter of convenience, but for the sheer serendipity. This person asks about this, that about that and you end up in places you hadn't considered. 

Kate Robinson, Curatorial Assistant at the Letterforms Archive sporting her pressmark on her left arm. 

Kate Robinson, Curatorial Assistant at the Letterforms Archive sporting her pressmark on her left arm. 

Kate took us upstairs when we arrived and started pulling from the long shelf of Dwiggins matter, and as we were looking at that, another guy came up looking for Adrian Frutiger materials. Rob Saunders had told him to see the work of Walter Käch, who had been Frutiger's teacher.



Also Käch!

Also Käch!

aaaaand Käch, too.

aaaaand Käch, too.

So then Saunders pulls out this great book of Käch's catacomb rubbings...

Bildzeichen der Katakomben , Walter Käch

Bildzeichen der Katakomben, Walter Käch

And another guy, a teacher from Iran, gone through the Bay Area and now teaching at Oklahoma State, was interested in El Lissitzky and Rob pulled a bunch of goodies including...



And this...

And this...

and it lead somehow or other to a Fry & Co. type specimen sheet with teen-incy (that is southern for itty-bitty) Diamond body sized type...Here is the guy Rob was showing the Käch to, trying to make it out. They call it the size "diamond" because you need a jeweler's loupe to read it. 

Reading the Diamond type of 

Reading the Diamond type of 

I made this in black and white because my fingernail (included in the picture for relative size) is appallingly filthy. Black and white takes a bit of the gross out. You are welcome.

I made this in black and white because my fingernail (included in the picture for relative size) is appallingly filthy. Black and white takes a bit of the gross out. You are welcome.

Below are even more pictures from our visit:

This is Rob pointing out Ladislav Sutnar's book on modern design. There is a    Kickstarter campaign  for a gorgeous facsimile edition in the works (attention to ink and paper stocks, etc). We got in on it.

This is Rob pointing out Ladislav Sutnar's book on modern design. There is a Kickstarter campaign for a gorgeous facsimile edition in the works (attention to ink and paper stocks, etc). We got in on it.

Rider was in it for the food and the little shop dog - what a spread!

Rider was in it for the food and the little shop dog - what a spread!

A Broadside for Nora May French

Today, Thyrsus Press celebrates the brief life and melancholy verse of the nearly forgotten California poet, Nora May French, whose final work, The Mourner, serves as the subject of our new broadside.

Although born in Aurora, New York, in 1881, she soon moved with her family to a ranch outside of Los Angeles. French’s uncle was a stern Presbyterian minister by the name of Henry Wells, whose thriftiness and business acumen led him to great success as one of the founder of Wells, Fargo, & Co. Sadly, his good fortune did not rub off on French’s side of the family, which suffered a series of devastating set backs in their new home including a house fire and a failed fruit crop.

While studying at the Otis Art Institute, she became engaged to a wealthy Santa Cruz timber merchant, and notorious womanizer, named Captain Alan Hiley. Hiley ultimately refused to leave his wife for her, leaving her heartbroken, but the experience inspired her to take up the pen and led to the creation of her most ambitious work, a 22-poem cycle called The Spanish Girl

Source: California Faces: Selections from The Bancroft Library Portrait Collection

The success of The Spanish Girl drew her into the circle of California writer and preservationist, Charles Lummis, who published her work his the regional magazine, Out West, which was designed to seduce frigid north easterners with tales from “the right hand of the continent”.

French eventually found her way to post-quake San Francisco, where she dated Henry Anderson Lafler, literary editor of The Argonaut, and befriended humorist Gellet Burgess. She lived with her sister, Helen, in a apartment at 415 Lombard Street and worked as a "Hello Girl" at the switchboard of the nascent Pacific States Telephone Company - an experience that she documented in an article in the Saturday Evening Post entitled "The Diary of a Telephone Girl".  

The Saturday Evening Post, Volume 180, Issue 2, October 1907

Distraught over her failed relationships and her inability to support herself as a poet, French retreated to the bohemian resort of Carmel-by-the-Sea, where she boarded with poet George Sterling and his wife, Carrie. Despite the company of her new friends, French's spirits did not improve. Following an aborted attempted on the life of a former lover, French took a fatal dose of potassium cyanide, purchased from a local chemist under the pretext of needing it to clean the silverware, and died in bed on the night of November 13, 1907. She was 26 years old.

James Hopper, Herman Scheffauer, Harry Lafler, and George Sterling at the Bohemian Grove, 1907. (Source: UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library)

Although displaying an occasional tendency towards sentimentality (her poem about a late cousin’s devoted dog springs to mind), French’s poetry contained far less of the archaic pomposity and obsessive self-mythologizing that characterizes the work of other Western poets of the period.  Her poems were spare, fragile, personal and intimate. Many evoke Sappho in their directness and in their celebration of the sublime experience of nature and the pangs of unrequited love. 

French felt ill at ease in the company of other people – particularly women  – and struggled to find a place for herself, even in the company of California’s self-styled Bohemians.  She considered herself “queer” and had “an idea that all sensible people will ultimately be damned”. 

The Los Angles Times summed up her death with the following extended headline:

By Her Own Hand.
Young Woman Ends Her Life
Rises at Midnight Hour and Takes Poison
Young and Beautiful Woman Who
Has Written Verse for Magazines
Carries out Suicidal Impulse Long
Entertained—Father and Sister
Residents of Los Angeles.
— The Los Angeles Times, Nov 15th, 1907
San Francisco Call, Volume 102, Number 169, 16 November 1907

San Francisco Call, Volume 102, Number 169, 16 November 1907

Several years after her death, a group of her friends, including Lafler, Sterling, and Porter Garnett, published a collection of her poems, but interest in her work rapidly waned and she has been largely forgotten. We hope that this small broadside might reignite at least a bit of renewed passion for this undeservedly neglected poet.


Spectric Poetry

When we established Thyrsus Press and decided to become publishers as well as printers, we had three goals in mind: 1) to publish the work of contemporary writers that we admire, 2) to revive the  work of neglected historic writers (particularly those with bohemian or, at least, anti-social tendencies), and 3) to never take ourselves too seriously.

We were also seeking to push ourselves out of our zone of comfortable complacency and to utilize all of the tools and techniques at our disposal - including both relief and intaglio printing, traditional metal type, collographs, monoprinting, and more. And with these principles as our guide, we have been driven to embrace our forebears and inaugurate a new series of broadsides based on the work of one of modern poetry's least heralded movements: the Spectric Poets. We've kicked off this series with a small, but unruly little handbill depicting the poem, Opus 6, by the distinguished poet and father of the Spectric movement, Mr. Emanuel Morgan (broadside depicted below).

"Opus 6": No. 1 in the Spectric Poetry Series

The illustration is a photo-etching based on a image that Jinny captured at San Francisco's Musée Mécanique - one of the world's largest collection of early 20th century penny arcade games and instruments. The type is a grab bag of incomplete - and sometimes damaged - fonts that we have rescued from destruction over the last year or two. We ran it once through our etching press and thrice through the platen press.

But now a bit of background on the poem itself. The Spectra poets, whose eponymously named debut was privately published in 1916, were a collection of experimentalists dedicated to the proposition that "the theme of a poem is to be regarded as a prism, upon which the colorless white light of infinite existence falls and is broken up into glowing, beautiful, and intelligible hues." Or, in the words of the movement's co-founder, the deliciously named Anne Knish:

Just as the colors of the rainbow recombine into a white light - just as the reflex of the eye’s picture vividly haunts sleep - just as the ghosts which surround reality are the vital part of that existence, so may the Spectric vision, if successful, synthesize, prolong, and, at the same time, multiply the emotional images of the reader.
— Spectra: A Book of Poetical Experiments

The book that started it all: SPECTRA! (Source: Wikipedia)

The Spectrics were quickly embraced in the welcoming bosom of the burgeoning American avant-garde. No lesser a luminary than Edgar Lee Masters, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of the Spoon River Anthology, endorsed the movement. In his letter to Emanuel Morgan, Masters proclaimed that “You have an idea in the sense that places do have an essence, everything has a noumena back of its appearance and it is this that poetry should discover."

Even the non-literati took note of the movement. Thomas Raymond, the conservative Republican nominee for mayor of Newark, New Jersey, was quoted as saying that he had “decided to avoid political issues and to limit his campaigning to readings of Spectra and Walter Pater”.

As Spectra fever swept the country, Morgan and Knish were joined by another supplicant at the altar of prismatic poetry, Elijah Hay. Together the three found great success, with their work appearing in many of the the leading avant-garde journals of the day, including Others, Poetry, and The Little Review. William Carlos Williams, one of the leading experimentalists of the era, corresponded with Hay, stating that he preferred his and Morgan's work to that of Ms Knish because (like most women) "A.K.’s things suffer from too much theory".

Inevitably, the movement spawned a backlash. It's critics included a group of students at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who in 1917 created a parody of  Spectra called "Ultra-violet poetry" and published a series of pastiches under names such as “Manual Organ” and “Nanne Pish".

Despite the excitement that surrounded their poetry , the Spectra movement proved to be  short lived. By 1918, its leading lights had ceased publishing and the movement faded back into the obscurity from which it had emerged.

All of this is both completely true and utter bullshit.

The Spectra poets were, in fact, a poetically inclined Harvard aesthete (and friend of the mystic  Khalil Gibran) named Witter Bynner [Emanuel Morgan] and his friend and fellow Harvard grad, Arthur Davison Ficke [Anne Knish].  They were later joined by Marjorie Allen Seiffert, a wealthy woman from Moline, Illinois who wrote under the name Elijah Hay.

Their aim was to mock the pretensions of such pre-WWI modernist movements  as the Imagists and Vorticists, as well as their continental compatriots, the Futurists and Dada poets. However, once the hoax was finally revealed and the poets began to publish and promote their "own" poetry in honest sincerity, most critics were not shy in advancing the belief that their parodic verses were superior to their official efforts. Bynner himself could not entirely disagree, remarking: “Once in a while we think so ourselves.”

By 1918, the Spectra hoax had run its course and Bynner moved to Berkeley where he was hired as Professor of Oral English for the Student's Army Training Corp., a kind of precursor to the ROTC. When this military training program was discontinued in 1919, he was asked by the English Department to stay for another year and teach a class in poetry writing. He taught most of his classes outdoors, on the side of a hill below the Greek Theater, and often invited favorite students to his room at the  Carleton Hotel on Telegraph where he hosted a kind of literary salon. He was beloved by his students who published an extremely earnest collection of verse in his honor titled, WB in California. The book contained such unforgettable gems as this:

Those happy hours in Bynner’s room
For you and you and me
Will ever strum a tender note
In days that are to be.
— Ernest Walsh
Witter Bynner in Japan, 1917 (Source: Jacket Magazine)

Witter Bynner in Japan, 1917 (Source: Jacket Magazine)

Other local scribes were far less reverent, however. Bynner's notoriety attracted the attention of Harry Noyes Pratt, a local poet of some renown who would later go on to become editor of The Overland Monthly and art critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. Noyes considered himself a kind of guardian of the regions native son's and daughters apparently took umbrage at this young arriviste who wrote in free verse and had the audacity to criticize California poetry. Bynner dismissed the work of Ina Coolbrith, the doyen of the nascent Bay Area poetry scene and the first California Poet Laurete, as "commonplace but gentle".

Noyes called Bynner a "near poet" and publicly rebuked him (and other modern poets) for sweeping away "the normal stadards of beauty in nature" and replacing them with "grotesque fantasies".  So, in just a few short years, Bynner had gone from mocking the moderns to being mocked as one himself.

In the end, it seem appropriate that Noyes (and perhaps Bynner himself) is now best remembered for this bit of doggerel:

Fame chewed his pencil, scratched his head,
Fame—worried-frowned, and puzzled said:
I’ve known ‘em all, both saints and sinner;
but—who the hell is Witter Bynner?
— Harry Noyes Pratt


Berkeley Bohemia: Artist and Visionaries of the Early 20th Century, by Ed Herny, Katie Wadell, Shelley Rideout, published by Gibbs Smith, March 19th 2008

"Marjorie Allen Seiffert and the Spectra Hoax", Jacket Magazine, No. 17, June 2002

Article on Spectra, http://sniggle.net/spectra.php

"The Spectra Hoax", Davenport Library Blog, December 8, 2010

Spectra (book), Wikipedia article

Spectra - Complete Text on ecclesiastes911.net

Celebrating Denise Levertov at the Watershed Poetry Festival

Jin and I were honored to be asked to produce the official broadside for the 19th Annual Watershed Environmental Poetry Festival, held in downtown Berkeley, California on September 27, 2014. The 2014 festival, which is organized by the amazing folks at Poetry Flash magazine, was dedicated to the memory of the late, great Denise Levertov. The poem selected for the broadside this year was Levertov's "The Breathing" - originally published in "Poems: 1960-1967", © New Directions Publishing, 1983. It's such a delicate, luminous poem and it was a great honor for our young press to have been given permission to print it. Big thanks to Alastair Johnston at Poltroon Press for recommending us for the job!

Thyrsus Press broadside of "The Breathing" by Denise Levertov for the 2014 Watershed Environmental Poetry Festival.

As usual, the festival kicked off with a walk from Strawberry Creek on the UC Berkeley campus to the Watershed festival, led by poet Chris Olander (who recently gave us permission to print one of his terrific poems). The day included readings from a slew of other fantastic poets and environmental authors including Pulitzer Prize-winner Kay Ryan, the great Anne Waldman, California Poet Laureate Al Young, and many more.

One of the highlights of the day was a reading of Denise Levertov's work by all of the major poets in attendance. It was a beautiful experience to hear her work read by so many wonderful voices.   Levertov, a British-American poet whose career spanned the period from WWII  to the late '90s, was a prolific and sensitive writer and teacher. He work ranged widely in both style and subject matter, touching on relationships, the environment, and anti-war activism. Joyce Jenkins of Poetry Flash told us stories of Denise's earlier participation at Watershed and made us wish that we had been there to hear her ourselves. In lieu of that, however, check out this great sound recording of the poet on the Poetry Foundation website

Typewriter poetry at Watershed 2014

Happy Belated Bartlemas!

Did you know that yesterday was a very important holiday for those of us involved in printing and bookbinding? Yes, indeed. It was St. Bartholomew’s Day! Otherwise known as Bartlemas. 

Bartlemas was an important feast day in the Christian calendar and a celebration day for tradespeople of all kind, but particuarly printers.

Feast days were often used as community reminders for important activities. For example, Bartlemas was regarded as a signal for agricultural workers to sharpen their tools for the harvest. Appropriate, since St. Bart was flayed alive and is often shown holding his knife. Although few artists took this iconography as literally as the obsessive northern Italian sculptor, Marco d'Agrante, who depicted his St. Bart in full fleshless glory in the transept of the Cathedral of Milan.

Gruesome sculpture of St. Bartholomew the Apostle by Marco d'Agrate, 1562 - found in the Duomo of Milan.  [Source: santossanctorum.blogspot.com/]

This also made him the the patron saint of all the "knife-wielding" professions, including butchers, cobblers, leather workers, tanners - and bookbinders. 

The bookbinders connection linked Bartlemas with a medieval holiday for printers. August 24th  marked the shortening of the days and the need to light candles to work by. To aid them in their work during the waning days, the journeyman printers received a special payment for candles that was traditionally spent (in part?) on roast goose. By the late Victorian era this had somehow morphed into a day off to visit the seaside (after a raucous party in the print shop) - but even today it is still called a wayzgoose by nerdy printers everywhere. Although the origin of this term is uncertain and it is possible that it originally had nothing to do with geese. It was more typically the custom to roast a pig on Bartlemas - but perhaps the journeymen's candle fee was too small to afford that luxury.

It was also the day that paper makers cleaned out their vats and printers replaced the paper "windows" of their "chapels". Did you know that up until the 20th century printing shops were sometimes called “chapels”? I didn't know that. Supposedly this was because they evolved from medieval scriptoria where monks painstakingly wrote and illuminated their manuscripts -and because they had tall ceilings and big windows. 

"Printing Shop," from Alexander Anderson Scrapbooks, vol. 1; 19th century; Alexander Anderson (American, 1775-1870); wood engraving; New York Public Library, [Source: http://www.bgc.bard.edu/]

August 24th was also the traditional day of the "Blessing of the Mead" in Cornwall. Coincidence? I think not.

It has been said that on August 24, 1456 the printing of the Gutenberg Bible was completed [1] - thus triggering the first wayzgoose party at a print shop. (Or so people like to imagine).

The connection between St. Bart and printers may also have been strengthened by the fact that in the late 18th century, the Lady Chapel of the Priory Church of St. Bartholomew the Great (AKA Great Saint Bart's) had been temporarily turned into a printshop - it was here that Ben Franklin served his journeyman apprenticeship. [2]

By the way, Bartholomew was supposedly an obscure disciple of Jesus that preached in India and Armenia. His name means "bar-Tholomeus", or "son of Ptolemy" - which suggests an aristocratic lineage. 

Regardless, it seems that Bartlemas has always been a popular day for fairs, including the famous medieval Smithfield fair in London that was immortalized in Jonson's play, Bartholomew Fair - a location peopled with "balladeers, stall holders, prostitutes and cut-purses". 

Bartholomew Fair by Benjamin Robert Haydon. [Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/]

But like virtually all Christian festivals, this one had Roman roots. August 24th was the first day of the Roman Feast Day of Mania - named for the manes or ancestral spirits - as well as Manea who was an Etruscan/early Roman goddess of the dead. It was a feast day for these spirits as well as the goddess Ceres. The first day of the feast was celebrated by the opening the Mundus Cereris, or the "Pit of Ceres", which was an underground vault in the shape of an inverted sky. In 1914 Giacomo Boni discovered a subterranean structure on the Palatine Hill that he believed was the Mundus. 

Mundus cum patet, deorum tristium atque inferum quasi ianua patet. [Source: Wikipedia]

The cover was opened and the first fruits of the harvest were offered to Ceres. But because the Mundus was also an "Ostium Orci" - or Gate of Hades - you had to be very careful on this day since the spirits of the dead were free to roam (the pit was also opened on November 8th - which contributed greatly to the trappings of our modern day Halloween). 

Anyway - Happy Bartlemas!

[1] One of four copies of the Gutenberg Bible kept at the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris contains a note by the rubricator and binder, Henricus Cremer, seeming to indicate that the volume was completed on St. Bartholomew's Day.

[2] From Franklin's autobiography: "I immediately got engaged at Palmer's, at that time a noted printer in Bartholomew Close, with whom I continued nearly a year. . . . I was employed at Palmer's on the second edition of Woolaston's Religion of Nature". 

Field Trip to Ted Salkin's Place

We bid and were surprised to have won our itty Vandercook, so a day of panic, excitement, studio shifting and truck rental logistics later we went over a tiny bridge in a very large rented pickup to carry home our new pretty pony, the Vandercook 01.  Before www loaded 'er up, we got to tour the wonders at Ted Salkin's wondremporium of cast iron outside Healdsburg...