FINE LINES FOR FINE PRESS POETRY
By Andrew Moorhouse
I’ve been a bibliophile for as long as I can remember.
My face, and mind, buried in books.
I was a collector too; stamps in my early years then, as a teenager, the autographs of footballers and cricketers, then records and, all the while, books.
If I found an author I really liked then I’d read everything I could find by them. In my mid 30’s I began reading and collecting the work of John Updike and Raymond Carver. When I had the trade editions I started to see the limited edition book and broadside publications and began to collect those too.
Updike and Carver had a couple of small press publishers in common; Herb Yellin’s ‘Lord John Press’ in California and William B Ewert who, for a day job, worked as a librarian in New Hampshire. Ewert’s were, I thought, the more attractive publications. They were letterpress printed with wood engraved illustrations and very nice bindings. Ewert also published work by, amongst others, Seamus Heaney.
I’d been reading, enjoying and collecting Simon Armitage’s work since the early nineties when I first picked up a copy of Zoom and, in the first poem, ‘Snow Joke’, read about the “….two pretty girls in the top grade at Werneth Prep”. My sisters had gone to Werneth Prep so that got me interested. I learned that Simon is about my age, lives not too far away from me and somehow had made an interesting life for himself with his facility with words. I’d also read that, as a probation officer, he’d worked in my home town of Rochdale though, thankfully, I was never one of his clients.
I didn’t feel like I had a particularly interesting life working, as I did, as an Implementer of Payroll Systems and, after turning 50 and having a much needed kidney transplant in 2012, I decided that I needed a hobby that would take me to new places and meet new people.
One of the first things I did was to book a trip to Boston, Massachusetts to attend the John Updike Society conference where academics and ‘ordinary’ readers gathered to hear erudite papers delivered by professors and to visit sites associated with the author. We even visited the house Updike lived in with his first wife Mary. Mary had re-purchased the house when she remarried and she welcomed the society into the house which had featured in many of Updike’s ‘Maples Stories’. We also visited the Houghton Library at Harvard where the Updike archive is held and I had a few too many glasses of wine with Updike’s eldest son David.
Before arriving in the States I’d arranged to visit John Kristensen’s Firefly Press in Cambridge, Massachusetts. William Ewert had employed the services of John to print and bind his publications of Updike, Carver, Heaney and others. John graciously showed me round and when I said that, as a hobby, I was interested in doing what Ewert had done he offered one piece of advice – “Don’t do it”.
I’ve never been very good at taking advice.
I’d seen Simon Armitage’s Stanza Stones project. The Rain Stone stands above my home town and I’d heard Simon read the poems at the launch event at the site of the Mist Stone high above Oxenhope, near the Brontë Parsonage on a bitterly cold May evening in 2012. Walking back down Nab Hill after the event I introduced myself to Simon and we chatted about football as the Champions League final was on the TV that night and my son had been incredulous that I should miss it for a poetry event. I had taken some of my Armitage collection, including some of the very early publications, to get signed by him. I attended a couple more of his events that year and made a point of speaking to him.
Aside from the early poetry pamphlets, ’The Distance Between Stars’, ‘Human Geography’, ‘Around Robinson’ and ‘The Walking Horses’ published by Wide Skirt, Smith/Doorstop and Slow Dancer respectively I knew that Simon had done a couple of limited edition Fine Press publications of individual poems with Clarion Press in the mid nineteen nineties. The Anaethestist with lithographs by Valarii Mishim was an attractive book. Five Eleven Ninety Nine was, in my opinion, a less successful production with the text printed in small, red italic and in three variants with each form having a different amount of colouring on Toni Goffe’s illustrations for the book.
I was also aware that Simon’s Canadian publisher ‘Anansi’ had commissioned a lovely, limited edition letterpress printed chapbook of four of the poems from ‘Tyrannosaurus Rex versus the Corduroy Kid’ from Hans van Eijk’s Bonnefant Press of the Netherlands.
It was evident to me that Simon seemed happy to work with smaller publishers such as Smith/Doorstop, Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Hebden Bridge’s Pomona (run by Mark Hodkinson another Rochdalian who has written extensively about ‘The Dale’ as, like me, he’s a regular at Spotland) alongside his Faber publications.
As part of my post-transplant attempts to get involved in the book world I’d started to volunteer at Manchester Literature Festival and at an event in October 2012 I asked Simon if I could possibly publish a ‘Fine Press’ edition of the Stanza Stones poems. I fully expected him to say ‘no, don’t be silly’ but he agreed to meet me in a pub and asked me to bring along some examples of what I was thinking of.
I guessed that Simon would be aware of the sort of thing I wanted to do as he’d have known about Ted Hughes’ Rainbow Press publications of work by Plath, Heaney, Thom Gunn and, of course, Hughes’ own poems with their illustrations by Leonard Baskin.
In the pub I showed him the Ewert publications and quoted Updike’s statement that – “A book is beautiful in its relation to the human hand, to the human eye, to the human mind and to the human spirit” – and he said ‘Ok, why not?’ I then thought, what the heck do I do now?
What I did do was to find an excellent letterpress printer, John Grice of the Evergreen Press, who guided me through the process and put me in touch with a wood engraver, Hilary Paynter who he’d worked with before. Hilary and I went to view all of the poems in situ on a cold, wet weekend in April 2013. Not too long afterwards seven wonderful engravings were welcomed by my doormat. Hilary had done one for each poem and another as a frontispiece for the book. John chose appropriate paper, Zerkall, and a Centaur typesetting, I was clear that I didn’t want anything too ostentatious for the edition. I visited The Fine Book Bindery in Northamptonshire with John, and chose the colours of the leather and cloth for the binding. In September 2013 ‘In Memory of Water’ was published with the six poems beautifully complemented by Hilary’s engravings and additional text by Simon.
The book came in three versions all signed by Simon and the artist; The standard, numbered version; a slipcased, lettered version and a fully leather bound version that is housed in a solander box which also contained a portfolio of broadsides of each poem with its accompanying image.
Not long afterwards Simon offered me the seven poems that were to be broadcast on a BBC Culture Show Special called ‘The Great War: An Elegy’. Of course I accepted the offer but due to the fact that I still, at that stage, had many unsold copies of ‘In Memory of Water’ on my bookshelves I cut the edition size for ‘Considering The Poppy’ to just over one hundred copies as opposed to the one hundred and eighty I had produced for the Stanza Stones poems. When the programme was subsequently broadcast, though, viewers found my website and the full edition sold out very quickly. The engravings for this edition were done by Chris Daunt.
I thought that, if I were to continue publishing that I couldn’t publish only Simon’s work so I started to ask other poets including Carol Ann Duffy, Andrew Motion, Paul Muldoon, Michael Longley and Sinéad Morrissey. Some of my publications have been successful both financially and ‘artistically’. All have been interesting for me to do and they’ve taken me to some places that I never thought that I would visit including the Academicians Room at the Royal Academy, Antony Gormley’s studio, Belfast Hebrew Congregation Synagogue on Holocaust Memorial Day earlier this year and to Lille in France where I gave a presentation at the inaugural Armitage conference attended by professors and students from across the continent. Some have been beautiful books that I’ve, so far, failed to find buyers for. I tend to think that only one of the books is an aesthetic disappointment.
After ‘Considering the Poppy’ I did another couple of books with Simon. ‘Waymarkings’ features the eight poems Simon published in his two ‘walking books’. ‘Exit the Known World’ was the first publication of the six poems written for a commission by Northumbria National Park. The commission was to write site specific poems for locations throughout the park. Simon recorded the poems and they were initially only accessible if you followed the directions on an App on your mobile device. When you arrived within two metres or so at your destination the App played Simon’s recordings of the poems. When you left the particular destination the recording could no longer be heard. Both ‘Waymarkings’ and ‘Exit the Known World’ featured additional text by Simon and wood engravings by Hilary Paynter.
Simon likes to be involved in the detail of the publication but, thankfully in my case, isn’t quite as fastidious as Updike whose desire to be involved in many aspects of his fine press publications caused a number of difficulties for the printers and publishers. When he offered me ‘Considering The Poppy’ he did say to me “but make sure you involve me more than you did with the first book”. In my naivety I had in essence done the fully involved myself in the design of the book with my printer and binder without seeking even a nod of approval from Simon.
Simon has on occasion rejected some of the images the artists have completed but generally he has been happy with suggestions of the artists.
Enitharmon, a specialist publishing house in London had published three of Simon’s books ‘Out of the Blue’, ‘Stanza Stones’ and ‘Still’ and they have produced attractive, limited edition hardbacks to supplement the trade editions of these books. A number of people have compared my publications with Enitharmon’s and, whilst they were an undoubted influence for me, my spare bedroom set-up doesn’t really compare with the very nice shop they, until recently, had in Bloomsbury. As Enitharmon’s editions are not letterpress printed then I, personally, do not view them as Fine Press editions.
In mid 2016 Simon asked me if I would like to work on a book with him and Antony Gormley. I didn’t have to consider the offer very long before I accepted. This began a rather tortuous process to bring the book to publication. After some time Antony provided about 70 drawings or ‘scratchings’ as he called them for Simon’s poems that had been published in ‘The Unaccompanied’. For a number of reasons the Armitage / Gormley book took three years to develop before ‘Gymnasium’ was published in 2019.
My next publication with Simon, which should launch in late summer this year, is to be called ‘Tract’.
‘Tract’ is based on Simon’s text of Virgil’s Georgics previously published by Enitharmon under the title ‘Still’. In that publication which was commissioned as part of the ’14-18Now’ Cultural Programme to mark the centenary of the First World War, Simon’s text was accompanied by aerial and reconnaissance pictures of the conflict’s landscapes.
‘Tract’ will feature twelve images by Royal Academician Hughie O’Donoghue who has portrayed derelict, abandoned dwellings in County Mayo, Ireland to complement the text. I’d met Hughie at an art show in London a few years ago. I knew that he’d worked on an Enitharmon publication with Seamus Heaney and when I showed him one of my publications he expressed interest in working with me. When he discovered Simon’s publication of ‘Still’ he said that he’d like to work with that text. Simon, Hughie and I met in London to discuss ideas and we saw the finished paintings in autumn last year.
In 2018 I bought a copy of Michael Longley’s selected prose and one night read the following in the book;
“… I didn’t retire: I quit my job which I’d done seriously for two decades. I now think that, apart from the privilege of working with artists, ninety per cent of the time I spent in the office was a waste of time, a waste of my life.”
Michael ‘quit’ when he was 51. I was 57 when I quit my ‘day job’ to concentrate on my publishing efforts.
I’m currently working on publications with poets Michael Symmons Roberts, Alice Oswald and Michael Longley.
When I started my hobby I had no experience in either the production of a physical book nor the business of trying to find buyers for that book but, and despite that, Simon gave me a chance and I’m very grateful to him for giving me that opportunity to create a more interesting life for myself.