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Barbarian Press
Press Update:
March 2022

Wood engraving by John DePol
(from Utile Dulci: The First Decade at Barbarian Press, 1992)

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Press News Spring 2022

It is hard to believe that it has been over a year since our last installment of press news. Much has not changed: the plague lingers on; Bordering on the Sublime is still in the press; we continue to work in happy seclusion. However, much has been accomplished too. With the increasingly expert assistance of our daughter Apollonia Felicity, we have completed two books in the past year – Sudden Immobility: Selected Poems of Molly Holden with wood engravings by Andy English, and Ten Poems with One Title by Robert Bringhurst with wood engravings by Richard Wagener – and made considerable progress on our mammoth Curwen project. Crispin’s pacemaker continues to keep him humming along, and after nearly a year of recuperation, my broken foot has healed as far as it seems inclined to do – perhaps not quite what it was, but what is in a 71 year old body? On September 6, 2022, Crispin and I will celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary, and in typical Barbarian fashion, we will mark this milestone with a new book. We are blessed and have so many things to be thankful for. For further details, please read on.

Sudden Immobility: the Saga

It is one of the greatest privileges and pleasures of making books that we spend time in close communion with writers and artists we admire. Crispin organizes and edits the text, and often writes commentary; he spends hours considering the words and the typography they suggest, and he lays out and designs the book; either he or Apollonia, or both, will give those words a physical presence, letter by letter in the composing stick. They are then given visual form on the page as Apollonia or I run the paper through the press. Each impression must be examined for colour consistency, page after page, through the book. There is no closer or more intimate way to come to understand the words and images in a text, and the spirit of their creators, than to go through this process of bringing a manuscript to life on the page with as much care and consideration as possible.

In the case of Molly Holden’s poetry, and Andy English’s sensitive response to her words, Crispin and I have felt a particular sense of sympathetic collaboration amongst the four of us. We first encountered Molly’s poetry in university and have come back to her work from time to time throughout our lives. She describes the English landscape and its people which we love so deeply with acute perception and understanding, but without sentimentality. She sees the inner life of this world and expresses it in the form of vivid, specific, and evocative images. She has been a welcome companion throughout all the stages of our lives, but now, as we begin to see the end of our days – as she was forced to do in her late thirties when debilitating illness struck her - we find her wisdom, humanity, and courage necessary accompaniments to our lives. To have been given the opportunity to work in so intimate a connection with her has been a gift. We are immensely grateful to her daughter, Nickie, and her son, Gerard, for entrusting her work to us and allowing us to present it to a new audience of readers.
We know, too, that Andy English found that Molly Holden’s poetry struck a chord within him. Much of his own work is similarly rooted in the English countryside, and he recognized from the inside what Molly’s words describe. He responded to the words with nine complex half-title engravings that resonated with the content of each corresponding selection of poems, and a range of spots, or small vignettes, that capture a moment, an image, or a feeling suggested by the poems they accompany. Molly’s poetry could certainly work alone, without visual commentary, but they gain even greater richness in concert with Andy’s equally particular and authentically felt images.

This is a book, like Pericles, that will always stand out as something of a collaborative miracle – an achievement of sympathetic vibration that cannot be orchestrated or anticipated: it can only evolve, naturally, out of all the elements and the people involved.

Ironically, after so much that had gone smoothly, the birth of this book ran into delays and problems at the binding stage. First our dedicated binder, Alanna Simenson of the Mad Hatter Bookbinding Company (a one woman wonder), had to finish up other work through August and September before she could focus on Sudden Immobility. The first sample copies came to us in October and after a few adjustments to the structure of the leather spine and the dimensions of the slipcases, Alanna went ahead with the first batch of books. However, when we received these and began to take them in and out of their slipcases, we noticed that in some copies, the soft printed paper of the covers became slightly scuffed as they travelled. This phenomenon was unpredictable, and very difficult to diagnose. Alanna tried larger slipcases, and altered the turn-over of the cloth inside the slipcase, but the pattern persisted: some copies were fine; others not. Finally, we came to the mutual decision that the only definitive solution would be for Alanna to make a cloth chemise that would wrap around the book to protect it from rubbing against the slipcase. (The only other of our books to have a chemise, at least so far, is the regular version of Pericles, intended as a way of keeping the notoriously fugitive purple leather from fading.) The solution here has resulted in an elegant and more sumptuous whole, as well as a more protected book.

Of course all of this has taken time, and continues to do so. The addition of a chemise to every book, deluxe and regular, has added to Alanna’s already substantial load with this binding. Our faithful subscribers, expecting to see their copies before Christmas, have been left wondering what happened – although they have learned that our optimism often outstrips our ability to deliver. Well, we are now counting on a spring birth, and the enduring patience of our friends and subscribers.

Ten Poems with One Title: Poems by Robert Bringhurst and Engravings by Richard Wagener

This book came out of the blue this summer when long-time friend Robert Bringhurst contacted us about a book proposal. He asked if we would be interested in publishing a new suite of poems with accompanying wood engravings by Richard Wagener. He knew we were fully consumed with our Curwen book, but wondered if Apollonia would be able to print the text; Richard had agreed in principle to print his five engravings in his own studio. Apollonia was game and took on the challenge of hand-setting all the poems herself and printing them on the Universal I Vandercook. With some trepidation she sent the proofs of all the poems to Robert (who had been ‘Uncle Robert’ to her since she was a small child) and awaited his exacting scrutiny and verdict. He found only one slight typo and a mistake of his own making in the manuscript. A triumph! We have been the recipients of Robert’s meticulous oversight in the past and did not fare nearly so well.

We have never published a book with substantial out-of-house printing except when offset facsimiles had been necessary, but I was familiar both with the high quality of Richard’s printing – not to mention his wondrous blocks – and the demands of printing his large two-colour abstracts myself. I simply could not afford the time and knew that Richard would print his images with consummate skill. Our only anxiety at all came with the prospect of sending pages of printed engravings across the US/Canada border. What would customs, and or the postal system, make of them? In the event, ignorance was bliss, and the sheets sailed through and arrived beautifully intact – in large part due to Richard’s scrupulous packing. We then sent off the extra leaf printed with one of the engravings to be included in the A and B states of the book to Robert. He had generously offered to do a holograph version of a poem, or a section of a poem, on the facing page of 40 of Richard’s prints, 30 leaves were printed by Apollonia with the last poem in the text facing Richard’s print. Both the A and B leaves are signed by both Robert and Richard. We expect Robert will have completed his Herculean task of handwriting 40 pieces of text due course.

The signatures of the book itself are already collated and boxed up, and awaiting Alanna’s binding attention when Sudden Immobility is out of her studio. This is certainly a first in the history of Barbarian Press – to have one book ready for binding while another is being bound. This is the wonder of having a youthful and highly accomplished contributor on site. We thank our lucky stars and the universe in general that Apollonia Felicity discovered her own passion for printing and has thrown herself wholeheartedly into keeping the Barbarian boat chugging along.

Bordering on the Sublime — in Progress

We are nearing a significant achievement in the on-going journey: we are a few pages away from completing the first major portion of text – David Jury’s essay on the history of the Curwen Press. Crispin has continued to design and set multi-faceted pages, some with a coloured drop cap to signal the beginning of a new subject or two or three-colour ornamented openings to mark each of the three large sections of the essay; others with inserts surrounded by an ornamented border of his own devising; and some with full pages of lovely Bembo type printed in black on the white page; and so it goes. Every spread in the press is an event, and a challenge for Apollonia and I to address. I have concentrated mostly on printing the text and the coloured border inserts, while she has printed the drop caps, the polymers of Curwen specimens or borders, and even a two- colour ornamented opening border.
Once David’s essay is done – likely within the month – Crispin will turn to writing the final draft of his essay while Apollonia and I work on the gallery of two-colour borders to be included later in the book. Before we can do this, Crispin and I will lay out the pages of the gallery and he will decide which will be reserved for inclusion in his essay section. There is still a great deal to be done, but we feel have climbed a large way up the mountain.

The Marriage of True Minds

In January 2027, we hope to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Barbarian Press, but first we have an even more momentous occasion to rejoice in: on September 6 of this year, our 50 years of marriage. If someone were to say to me that their long marriage was without moments of struggle or sorrow, I would not believe them: marriage is subject to the same laws of nature as the rest of life. Crispin and I have known exhilarating joy and deep sadness, profound communion and fracturing dissonance, but through all these years, we have been the best of friends and companions, and for most of them, working partners in an endeavour that has brought meaning, purpose, and deep satisfaction. We have made a life together, created a world for ourselves that has included children, friendships, a home in a natural setting of beauty and peace, and uncommon achievements. We have come together in a kind of harmony not given to many to enjoy, and we cherish this gift humbly and with all our hearts. It seems only fitting that we should share our good fortune by offering a Barbarian book which celebrates love in its various forms.

One of the many things we share in common is a love of literature, and especially of Shakespeare. We decided that his work had to be at the heart of any such book, so we have chosen nine of his sonnets to provide the framework of a journey from youthful to mature love that would include a total of 50 poems ranging from Sappho to Chaucer to Spenser to Burns to Tennyson to Yeats to the present day and Jan Zwicky. The title we have chosen – The Marriage of True Minds – is taken of course from sonnet 116, and characterizes so exactly what we feel about our own marriage.

Our life together has been illuminated by the collaborations with other artists in the making of our books. It seemed only natural that we turn to these friends to help us celebrate. Abigail Rorer, Andy English, Walter Bachinski, Peter Lazarov, and Richard Wagner have all agreed to contribute an engraving to accompany the poems. We hope that Simon Brett will be able to participate as well. One wonderful part of this book is that one of the engravers who will contribute is Graham Williams.

Graham is the proprietor of Florin Press in Kent, and a master printer in his own right. More to the point here, it was Graham who taught us to print through the process of producing our first piece of printing, Crispin’s poem Five Decades for Harry and Frances Adaskin, with our enthusiastic but utterly inexperienced help. We had fallen out of touch with Graham for many years, but have recently reconnected to our mutual delight, and Graham will contribute two engravings to the book. One will accompany Donne’s ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’, a poem which he printed in 1978 with Crispin as a willing apprentice, and for which he produced a lovely abstract block which he is lending to us to reprint here; and a second new engraving will accompany another poem, bringing full circle a relationship which all three of us treasure.

Crispin and I have selected and organized the sequence of poems, and he has of course designed the whole. The printing of the text will fall to Apollonia, and I will reserve the printing of the blocks from old friends for myself. Collaboration and love are at the centre of this project, of the books we have made over 45 years, and our lives together these 50 years.

And on it goes . . .

Steelhead, March, 2022