Writers and non-writers alike have it easy today when choosing font colors and types, editing, and printing. Just a few clicks and you’re basically done. What was it like ‘back in the day’ when each character was set by hand? I spent a day in Brian Allen’s letterpress studio in Durham, North Carolina this past weekend. After fellow Living Poetry member Pamela Taylor said how great Brian’s class was I wanted to try setting one of my poems on a press too!
Brian has several different presses, some European and some American. You can see in the photo above how many drawers of fonts he maintains. Some of the machines and work tables weigh a few thousand pounds. One 6’X4′ table top is a solid piece of steel. Brian acquired it when the Golden Belt Campus was unloading items of a press that had once been used to stamp tobacco products. Brian had a table welded for it and now students use the piece for their projects. Not long before our class Brian moved into this space–pause for a moment to appreciate moving all this equipment! How did he do it? Brian says, “Anything is possible with a forklift.”
Every student was asked to bring short verse. I picked a small poem of mine that was published in Fjords Review a few years ago. I have a tendency to do a few things backwards: I like reading magazines backwards–even articles backwards paragraph by paragraph. Setting each character backwards and in reverse felt pretty natural! Finding the fonts takes a while as there is no straight A-to-Z pattern or QWERTY format. Instead, there’s a map!
I don’t know anyone else with Brian’s expertise in fonts. His industry experience goes back a few decades and he’s worked all over the country. Letterpress requires patience and a meticulous eye–Brian has buckets of both plus a great sense of humor!
After setting our verse, Brian applied ‘the furniture’ (pieces of wood and some plastic composites) in a frame and tightened the pieces so that the characters would stay in place when put in the press.
Brian also expertly mixed an ink color for us. When weighing the various colors before mixing them, he was able to apply the proper weight by eye to the exact decimal point!
While waiting our turn to load our verse with ‘furniture’ into the press, Ryan and I played with another press. I used the initials for myself and my love, and Ryan had practiced with ‘LOVE’ – so then after many attempts of getting the ink application and character placement right we combined both.
Brian spoke about possibly opening up his studio on a member basis soon. If you’re in or visiting the Triangle area – take one of his classes or check about renting studio time!