Wordsmithing during OFA Wintersession workshop

Turns out, printing poetry is as metallurgical as it is lyrical.

By Anita Lo '16

“I’m going to a 'found poetry' class later,” I told my friend. “I don’t know how we’ll find it, or what that means, but we’ll see.”

Bow and Arrow PressTo get there, I entered Bow and Arrow Press through a green door on the corner of Bow Street and Arrow Street in Cambridge. Housed in a former dressing room for the Adams Pool Theater, the Press was founded in 1977 by two young men who discovered a printing press nestled in an Adams House basement room and rehabilitated the machine. Thus the name. It was also one of the Office for the Arts Wintersession offerings in visual arts. 

Once inside, I saw prints reading “Nix on the / Snax in the / Biblioteca” and “Crank / Click / Yank / Back” line the walls. Blue gloves with ink-stiff fingers, small paint rollers, hand mirrors and a printed t-shirt also hung from various hooks.

Conceptual artist and “press master” Ted Ollier, who led the Wintersession workshop, brought a case of letters to a table and introduced us to moveable type by way of history. He called Johannes Gutenberg the “Bill Gates or Steve Jobs of his time” but  rather than inventing revolutionary technology himself, Gutenberg was successful in cobbling together various existing mechanisms to create the printing press. A metal worker by trade, he was more instrumental in coming up with the lead, tin and antimony alloy in which the metal letter-blocks were cast. When pointing out the quirky characters in the California Job Case, Ted explained the etymology of “ampersand” (“and per se &”). He also pointed out the “ligatures,” metal blocks with “ffi” or “fl,” existed because the lowercase f’s pesky overhang would otherwise interfere with the dot on top of the lowercase ‘i’ or the top of the lowercase ‘I.’

The printing machine itself looked threatening, with levers protruding from odd angles and thick rollers that hissed when we flicked a switch. We watched Ollier demonstrate how to switch the press from “trip” to “print,” and how to follow the “Crank / Click / Yank / Back” mantra that was so prominently displayed on the walls: To operate the press, I cranked the rollers down the length of the press bed until I heard a click; I then yanked the fresh print from the paper clamp, and cranked the rollers back. Bow and Arrow PressAnd suddenly, we were free to experiment.

I hadn’t prepared verse in advance, and in the scramble for letters, I was able to snag only one “e” and a few “a’s.” But no one had yet used the ligature blocks (ffi, fl) of the Meridien 60 font, and there were certainly less-popular letters left over in that case. Sorting through and learning to read the letters backwards – lowercase p’s looked like q’s, d’s like b’s, and vice versa – I felt as if I were playing a very heavy and confusing game of Bananagrams or Scrabble, scrounging for vowels and making do with leftover consonants. As Gutenberg might have found, printing poetry turned out to be as metallurgical as it was lyrical. The term “wordsmithing” never felt so apt, and if this was “found poetry” it was making me very much a “foundry poet.”

After a few minutes, I had the words “stone,” “ink,” “wool,” “flux,” “flow,” “buffing” and “affidavit.”

Two “fl” ligatures, two “ffi” ligatures, a “k,” “v” and “x.” I rearranged the words on the press, inked the Bow and Arrow Pressletters, and then crank-click-yank-backed the rollers over the paper. By the end, I had multiple copies of:

“stone flux / affidavit flow / ink buffing wool.”

Poetry? Maybe not, but I found every letter.

 The Bow and Arrow Press holds Open Press Nights from 7-10 p.m. Wednesdays in the Adams B-entry basement. Additional bookbinding and letterpress workshops take place throughout the year.