Being on an English Literature course, it can be difficult to find outlets for practical creativity. I mean, sure, the whole course is relatively creative, but with online submissions there’s little room for presenting your work as a piece of physical art.
Enrolling in a Contemporary Poetry module for my final semester of my final year, the fantastic module leader Ben Smith organised some letterpress workshops for students to get stuck into. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was hugely engrossed by the whole process!
Lead by Paul Collier, or Inky Paul as his apron said, myself, Ben and two of my peers had a lesson in the history of printing. ‘Don’t waste your time coming here if you just want words on paper - you can get your Mac to do that a LOT faster.’ With a quirky sense of humour that had us all laughing, it was clear to see Paul's passion and expertise in the craft of the letterpress. It made the 3 hours whiz by, I have to say.
After some mandatory health and safety demonstrations, we got to see how a letterpress works. He took us step-by-step through the traditional process. Each line must be the same length – you decide which length you want, and you stick to it. Each letter, space and number have a corresponding lead piece, which you then have to slot into place in that line. You also have to do this backwards, it takes a LOT of time and if you're working with small pieces it's incredibly pernickety.
Paul's studio is filled with trays upon trays of different fonts of varying sizes. It is your responsibility to pick one that is packed full of enough letters to see your project through. If you start something with one font, only to find that it doesn’t have the right amount of the letter ‘e’ that you need, that’s your problem!
I managed to mess mine up, naturally. Initially, I put all of my letters upside down, but once we'd all pressed our pieces I discovered that someone had put a ‘u’ key in an ‘n’ pot. I hadn't noticed this, because things are confusing upside down – but it taught me to be even more careful next time!
When we had all finished our three sentences (seriously, it takes a while), Paul showed us how to send it through the industrial roller. After sliding on some purple paint, we all cranked the press to receive a bookmark sized print of our work. It looked intricate, and very beautiful. Despite the long process, I can’t wait to go back and submit my poetry assignment in the exact same format. It may take me a while, but at least my lecturer was there to see how much effort is required...