Poetry is the art of making every word, every space, every line count: It requires its practitioners to be sure that every word is exactly the correct word and that it's in precisely the right place.
It's exactly the same kind of discipline required when setting type by hand and running it off a letterpress: Every letter, every word, every line needs to be exactly right — or else you need to break all that type apart and start over.
Maybe that connection between the two disciplines explains why Oregon State University students have been flocking to learn how to use an old-style letterpress that Karen Holmberg, an associate professor in OSU's School of Writing, Literature and Film, bought last year and has had installed in the basement of Moreland Hall on campus. (Of course, it had to be in the basement; the brute, an 1890s Chandler & Price platen press, is too heavy to be located anywhere else in the building.)
For Holmberg, it's the latest step in a long fascination with the labor-intensive letterpress process — and, in some ways, a throwback to the days when poetry was routinely printed on letterpress broadsheets.
"Those books are gorgeous," Holmberg said. "You can feel the bite of the type in the page."
"I was intrigued by it," she said of letterpress printing, "but I wasn't actively involved until I came to OSU."
In fact, in 2006, the second year she arrived at OSU, she won an L.L. Stewart grant to develop a course on 20th century American poetry and the letterpress tradition — and continued to learn more about printing, in part so she can explain to students "how much work goes into every single page."
So when she got wind last year that a press was up for sale — and just two miles from campus — her reaction was immediate: "I said, 'I want it.' I committed to buying it."
It turned out that the press in question had once been owned by Ed Rettig, a third-generation printer and one of the founders of the Corvallis Merry Inksters. Holmberg said Rettig has been instrumental in moving the press to Moreland Hall and has donated other essentials — such as collections of type. (A drawer of type can set you back as much as $1,000, Holmberg said.)
"Letterpress practitioners are passionate about it," she said. "They don't want to see it die out."
Holmberg scrounged up $1,800 from university professional development money to buy the press.
And, in some ways, that was the easy part. The next question was where in the basement of Moreland Hall to place it.
As it turned out, the School of Writing, Literature and Film shared space in the building with OSU's psychology department. Negotiations ensued. A narrow space in the basement was identified and cleared out to create a working print shop. Holmberg moved her office from the third floor of Moreland to the basement, just around the corner from the print shop.
A large window in the hallway allows students and curious onlookers to watch the press and related equipment in action. "We didn't want it to be something that was hidden away," she said.
The window has another useful function: Because the print shop itself is in such a narrow room, it doesn't accommodate a crowd. So other class members who aren't actively involved in setting type by hand or running the press can observe from the other side.
And, Holmberg said, it turns out that a lot of people are interested in the letterpress. She's teaching classes of 20 people each and an occasional independent study student. Her writing students can set the type for and print copies of their own poems, but they can prepare other short print jobs as well — a favorite quotation, perhaps, or a snappy line.
In an era when personal computers have allowed users access to hundreds of different fonts, what's the appeal of going into a print shop, laboriously digging out a font and then setting it, letter by letter? (The process of setting type by hand also involves taking it apart and placing it back into the drawer, "which is not as fun as making it," Holmberg drily noted.)
"It's satisfying," Holmberg said. "It's absorbing. ... It also makes you feel like you're part of a tradition."