29 November 2011


Today, as well as working on the paperwork for a grant application due this week, I had jackets for the Gaspereau redesign of George Elliott Clarke’s poetry book Blue. Gaspereau adopted a number of books from Clarke’s backlist (Whylah Falls, Blue and Black which is due out next spring) when his original publisher stopped publishing Canadian books.

Actually, that’s an interesting story. Clarke was originally publishing most of his poetry with Polestar Books, a very fine west coast literary publisher owned by Michelle Benjamin. In 2000, Polestar got swallowed up by the gigantic west coast book distributor and repackager Raincoast Books. Raincoast was awash in cash; they had a very profitable stake in the Harry Potter franchise as the books’ Canadian publisher and distributor. At the time of the takeover, Benjamin told Publisher’s Weekly that the purchase would give Polestar “the kind of financial security that is hard to achieve as a small press.”

How’d that work out? Turns out that Raincoast’s interest in publishing with a bit flighty. In January 2008, Raincoast announced that it was ceasing its Canadian publishing operations. The imprints and authors they had adopted through their various acquisitions were being turfed. Raincoast brass intoned that publishing books in Canada simply wasn’t economically viable. Ouch! Even after selling us all those millions of dollars worth of Harry Potter books to Canadians, Raincoast felt no commitment to reinvest in publishing Canadian writers for Canadian Readers. Too risky. They just took the money and ran. Did I mention that the decision to stop publishing books and refocus on being a distributor and repackager was announced shortly after the release of the final book in the Harry Potter series? It has to be one of the most cynical moves in the history of Canadian publishing (if you ignore the present elephant in the room, that self-loathing farce of pretending that the once proud flagship of Canadian publishing, McClelland & Stewart, is anything other than an mere imprint of Random House).

And so, as i was saying, Clarke’s marooned poetry titles have landed now at Gaspereau and we are gradually bringing them back into print.

Today I was hand printing the jacket for Blue, a stark departure from the photographic cover of the original, but very much in the Gaspereau style. The paper is a dark blue felt stock. I printed the oversized type in black, and the small text in a silver ink tinted with PMS 301 blue. The type is Plantin, but with extenders modified to match those Sir Frances Meynell commissioned from Monotype for his Nonesuch Press.

When I was goofing around taking photos of the silvery blue ink, I caught my reflection in the ink knife.

Here’s a peek at the finished jacket, and some other stuff kicking around my press-side table:

1. A litho stone collected by my friend Jack McMaster.
2. A bone folder.
3. A photo of my father with the poet Peter Sanger; two Petes in a pod.
4. A funny, handwritten note from Will Rueter at the Aliquando Press.
5. The photopolymer plate for the black form of the Clarke jacket.
6. The Clarke jacket (the hero of our tale).
7. Make-ready sheets.
8. A single piece of type cast by the late, great type designer Jim Rimmer.
9. Some film canisters of copper spacing material for fine letterspacing capitals.
10. A bunch of Linotype mats and a space band, frozen together in some sort of casting midhap.
11. A broken rib from Chestnut canoe.


25 November 2011

Don McKay and The Shell of the Tortoise

On the press this week is Don McKay’s The Shell of the Tortoise, the third collection of literary essays we’ve done by Don (Vis à Vis and Deactivated West 100 being the others). The Shell of the Tortoise continues Don’s investigation into the relationship between poetry and wilderness, particularly into the characteristics of metaphor as a tool. “Art occurs whenever a tool attempts to metamorphose into an animal” asserts McKay in the title essay, which is built around the myth of Hermes and his tortoise-shell lyre. Tools that metamorphose into animals? We’ve certainly seen some animal behaviour from some of the antiquated tools we use here in the printshop.

The book is set in a digital revival of Deepdene, arguably the best book type F.W. Goudy ever designed. Goudy drew the roman for Deepdene in 1927 and the italic the following year, and both were released for use on Lanston’s Monotype casters. It is a typeface I associate with the books of my childhood, and with my late friend Jim Rimmer, who admired Goudy and whose own type designs (Amethyst, for example) were greatly influenced by Goudy’s. Like so many faces from the letterpress age, it is like a fine-limbed race horse which requires careful management if it’s to survive on a modern roadway; it can wilt and fail in the digital environment or the flatland of modern offset printing. I know. I’ve failed and failed again to use it well, but I think I’ve finally started to understand its personality and adapt to its quirks.

In one essay, Don takes the reader over a buggy, boggy portage with the canadian poet Duncan Cambell Scott, surveying Canadian poetry’s complex relationship with wilderness. The genesis of this journey is a photograph found in Canada’s national achieves which depicts Scott, an agent of the Crown, standing at one end of the portage over the height of land between Lake Superior and Hudsons Bay, on his way to settle a treaty with the natives in that area.

I don’t care how often you do it, or how well you understand it. I’ve been printing books for nearly 15 years, and I still get a kick out of the way so many small dots, arranged in varying size and intensity, can through a sort of slight of hand, an illusion, replicate the continuous tone of a photographic image. This is a close-up, shot through my microscope, of the fellow on the right in the photograph, with the bug net on his head. This sort of reproduction, this trick of representation, is a sort of metaphoric, poetic act. A tool becoming an animal?

Well, enough fawning over the sheets. Fold’em, sew’em, bind’em and get them out of here!

The jackets were handprinted on the vandercook 219 in my office. Two colours, black and ‘wayzgoose red’ on a nice felt-finish ginger-coloured paper stock. The illustration is by out pal Wesley Bates of West Meadow Press in Clifford, Ontario, who also did illustrations for the other essay collections of Don’s we published.


17 November 2011

A Movember Moment

I’ve never been a fan of facial hair as a means of self-expression, nor of punny plays on the names of months, but the ‘Movember’ movement (a well-intended yet goofy media gimmick aimed at getting men to embrace their inner Tom Selleck and people talking about men’s health issues) called to mind an unusual discovery I recently made while cruising the shelves at my local used book store.

What I stumbled upon was a copy of Edward S. Caswell’s Canadian Singers and Their Songs: A Collection of Portraits, Autograph Poems and Brief Biographies, published in 1925 by McClelland & Stewart. There is nothing particularly noteworthy about the production. But as I was leafing through I decided to look up a local poet, Charles G.D. Roberts. My jaw dropped when I saw his portrait. Holy jumping schmoly!

Perhaps my mind was playing tricks on me. I turned to the clerk and said, “Okay, what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you see this picture?”

I flashed up the book up at her and her response was spontaneous.


“Would you believe it’s a pre-war photo of the Canadian poet Charles G. D. Roberts?”

I suppose Roberts would have looked pretty dapper at the time in his spiffy uniform and twitchy little bit of lip hair, but all I could see in that photo in 2011 was the unwitting foreshadowing of evil. I guess it’s possible for one man to ruin a look – forever. Let’s have one more look at that, close-up.

Oh yeah, that’s creepy.

I turned to the entry for E.J. Pratt hoping against hope that he would be sporting a Groucho Marx look, just then arriving on the silver screen, but was disappointed.

This morning, I shaved.