By Jody Mason, Associate Professor, Department of English Language and Literature
I wrote this blog following my participation in the Book Arts Lab’s recent virtual event, Learning with Our Hands: Tour the Book Arts Lab. The event was organized by Patti Harper, Head of Research Support Services at MacOdrum Library, and was co-sponsored by the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild (Ottawa Valley Chapter). I was one of two faculty members who participated in Learning with Our Hands, alongside the Book Arts Lab’s Master Printer, Larry Thompson, and two groups of students who completed work in the lab during the winter 2022 term. As part of the tour, the students in my graduate Books Arts Workshop described their experiential learning in the lab. My post is meant to share my experiences with the lab and to provide some inspiration to instructors looking for creative and engaging experiential learning activities for their students.
About the Course
This winter, I had the great fortune of teaching, together with Larry Thompson, the first section of the graduate Book Arts Workshop, created by the Department of English Language and Literature in 2020. This course can have a special topic, and our section took 20th- and early 21st-century small-press publishing in Canada as its focus. It brought together the history and theory of small-press activity with experiential learning activities that were meant to help us to think in material terms about small-press objects and their production processes. The first half of each class was spent around the seminar table (in the “classroom” side of the lab); the second half of each class was devoted to a workshop module in the lab (e.g., qualities of paper, linocutting, how to lay type, etc.).
In this course, the theory/history component unfolded in relation to a series of small-press case studies (from First Statement Press in interwar Montreal to Anishinaabe-owned Kegedonce Press in present-day Ontario). In our discussions, we worked on theorizing small-press activity using five main questions:
- What production practices, literary forms, and genres are distinct to small-press publishing and how do these relate to the practices, forms, and genres of large-scale publishing?
- What are the gender and race politics of Canada’s small-press cultures? Why has the modernist, masculinist (and very white) concept of the small press been so influential on small-press activity in Canada? How have publishers and writers of the later 20th and early 21st centuries contested and revised this concept?
- If small-press publishing in Canada has always been connected to networks not contained by the nation, some of its characteristics have nonetheless been shaped by nation-specific contexts. Thus, what forms of state support enabled small-press book publishing to flourish in Canada and what challenges do these forms of support bring?
- How might we theorize the function of the small press in the context of a contemporary global literary field dominated by a handful of media corporations? (e.g., Does the dominance of the “large” engender a particular kind of position-taking among small presses?)
- And, finally, what is the relation of small-press culture to digital texts?
We began the course hoping to create letterpress chapbooks for the experiential component, but because the pandemic kept us home in January, we didn’t have time to do something so ambitious. Instead, we decided to make broadsides.
Chapbooks and Broadsides
For context, chapbooks are very modest forms of the codex: they are simply (and cheaply) bound gatherings of pages with paper covers; they are pamphlet-like books. Many of the micropresses that we discussed in the course, such as Cameron Anstee’s Apt. 9 Press, publish poetry in chapbook form. Chapbooks have been part of western print culture since the early modern “chapmen’s book” (a print form that was portable and cheap and thus suitable for the traveling chapman or itinerant hawker of print). Many contemporary chapbooks are produced using digital publishing techniques, but there is also a contemporary hand-press movement that seeks to preserve earlier letterpress printing techniques. Some small presses such as Gaspereau Press in Kentville, Nova Scotia, blend these techniques.
In choosing the letterpress chapbook as our experiential component, I was hoping to encourage students to think about how knowledge of production techniques and their histories allows one to ask questions about texts that exceed the words on the page. What printing techniques have 20th- and 21st-century micro- and small-press publishers favoured and why? How are these production choices bound up in their positioning in the field of cultural production? What has been the relation of manual to mental labour in the decades since the early 20th century, and how have the micro- and small-press movements of the 20th and early 21st centuries responded to the ways that capitalism can make culture seem, as Michael Denning says, “to be the property of separate classes, leisured or cultured or intellectual classes, or of a separate time, a leisure time” (Culture in the Age of Three Worlds, 93)? Conversely, how is the “leisure time” of culture instrumentalized in the present, and for whom, and what is the relation of the small press in the present to this instrumentalization?
Our broadside project, though more modest, encouraged similar lines of questioning. We’re all familiar with the broadside form—it’s another word for poster; more specifically, a broadside is an ephemeral print form that has been used since the earliest days of printing. It’s a single sheet of paper, printed on one side only. Many contemporary small presses issue letterpress broadsides of single poems or other printed texts in limited print runs. For instance, in the early 2000s, Montreal-based small press Véhicule Press issued a run of broadsides for its poetry imprint, Signal Editions (we’re lucky enough to have a copy of each of these in MacOdrum’s Archives and Special Collections). Broadsides also have long affinities with public protest and activism and with commerce, marketing, and popular cultures.
Graduate students in the Book Arts Workshop collectively chose to orient their broadsides to the history of protest; many used their letterpress projects as a means of responding to the Freedom Convoy that occupied Ottawa in the winter of 2022. Because of the specific histories of the broadside as a print form—i.e., its explicit relation to the address and creation of particular publics––the reflection component of the assignment invited students to think not only about the relation of production and text but also about how broadsides call forth publics.
As students were designing and then creating their broadsides in the lab—selecting type, laying type, choosing paper and page size, running proofs on the Vandercook offset press––they had access to the reflection assignment, which encouraged them to be thinking in the ways that I’ve described above. The reflection was deliberately brief (only 1,000 words), and, in addition to the kinds of questions I’ve indicated, it obliged students to draw generously on course readings. Larry and I collaborated in the evaluation of the letterpress projects: he provided feedback on participation in the workshop modules, competence with letterpress printing techniques, and level of understanding of period lithographic techniques, particularly woodcut (linocut) technique and mark-marking; I evaluated the reflections according to their engagement with course readings, their establishment of connections between the content of the broadside and its physical form, and their situation of the broadside in relation to the history and theory of small-press production. The letterpress experiential project and the accompanying written reflection were worth 45 per cent of the total grade (20 per cent for the letterpress project and 25 per cent for the written reflection).
Student feedback was uniformly positive. The graduate students in the course were especially thrilled to participate in a broadside exhibition that we hosted as part of the English Graduate Students’ Society annual conference in May 2022. The exhibition gave students a chance to revise their reflections based on feedback; they presented these refined reflections to their peers in the form of mini-conference papers. The projects were intellectually and visually compelling: Daniel Dickson’s project asks how the “post-internet textual city––reframed as a born-digital living literary” might “reclaim agency, accessibility and heterogeneity with its citizens”; Jenna Jarvis’s re-presentation of Charlottesville counter-protestor Heather Heyer’s last Facebook post is an “inconsistent (or, to borrow terms from Gaspereau Press, a hybrid) production that materially restructures and shares a digital statement against political inaction.”
I’ve learned a lot from teaching this course. I would love the opportunity to collaborate with Larry Thompson again; while I think the special topic of the course worked well, next time I would link the letterpress project to a research paper. A longer written assignment would permit students to engage fully with the course readings, but it would also give them the opportunity to develop small-press case studies of their own that would provide more specific historical contexts for the design choices of the letterpress work and the theorization of form/content relations.