25th Trillium Award

Profile on Larry Thompson?s Greyweathers Press

 
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Larry Thompson of Greyweathers Press

By rob mclennan

About an hour?s drive south-west of Ottawa along the Rideau Canal, Larry Thompson runs Greyweathers Press in the village of Merrickville, producing fine editions of books and prints with hand-set metal type and woodprints on his Vandercook S-219AB proofing press. The studio at Greyweathers is an enviable space nestled in a south corner of the village, a spacious room filled with type, paper, presses and wood blocks, as well as various works of visual art by his wife, the artist and designer Holly Dean.

As he writes in the piece ?Romancing the Press: A Brief Account of the First Two Years of Greyweathers Press? (originally written for the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists newsletter in 2007),

As you may have deduced, Holly and I are romantics by nature, and the goals of the press reflect that inclination. As well, we both love beautifully designed type skillfully arranged on a well-proportioned page. Our original purpose was solely to print books, although that ideal has evolved even over the brief time in operation to include an interest in relief block prints. Initially, I conceived of four areas of interest that might be printed as books in rotation or periodically: the classics, particularly the work of 19th- and early 20th-century British and American writers and poets; ?vanity? works of my own devising; collaborations with Holly that push the bounds of the traditional definition of letterpress and the book in general; and the work of young, unpublished writers.

Their first title was an edition of Samuel Taylor Coleridge?s Kubla Khan (2006), followed by a collection of ten poems by sometimes-local Kera Willis, Tenebrismo (2007) and Thompson?s own short story, The Vampire and the Seventh Daughter (2008), as well as Graven Images, a collection of found nineteenth-century wood engravings. Their most recent title is Tintern Abbey, a poem by William Wordsworth, a letterpress edition limited to 80 copies, featuring an introduction by Professor Mark Jones of Queen?s University, Kingston. Produced ?with calligraphy rendered digitally to magnesium plates by designer Holly Dean,? the edition is also ?illustrated with seven engravings? by Thompson. They have produced a regular edition ?half bound in cloth with painted papers created by Holly Dean,? and a deluxe edition of copies ?numbered one through fifteen quarter bound by Christine McNair in leather with painted papers created by Holly Dean, in slip cover. Complete with set of engravings printed on St. Armand Old Master paper.? As Thompson wrote on the Greyweathers Press blog, ?William Wordsworth wrote ?Tintern Abbey? to be the thoughtful and serious end-note for the poems assembled in Lyrical Ballads (1798), which included the work of his friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.?

rob mclennan:

How did you first become involved with letterpress printing, and what drove you to start producing fine editions of poetry? And given your half decade producing fine works, what kind of market have you discovered for letterpress works? What kind of community? I know abstractly, for example, of something called the ?Ottawa Press Gang.?

Larry Thompson:

Wow! Three big questions in one. Simply stated, the Press began as a bibliophilic urge — for the love of books, the words inside them, their feel, their smell, and how they meet the eye. First came the desire to write books, then to study them, later to edit them and finally to print them. I focused on helping Holly?s art career, tagging along as part roadie / part sales help and learned that, while art can offer a difficult life, it is full of other riches. Holly encouraged me to ?follow my bliss,? to search for something creative that would fire me up. I discovered and was inspired by the wood engraving work of George Walker, Gerard Brender a Brandis and Wesley Bates both on exhibit and printed in books, which filled me with the desire to produce illustrated books. I could point to a confluence of events: reading classics during an English lit degree; seeing William Morris? books at an exhibition; purchasing my first fine press book from Barbarian Press (Mission, BC); being scolded, er, encouraged by Hugh Barclay (Thee Hellbox Press, Kingston) at a craft show to use letterpress instead of laser printing, and pulling my first proof during a workshop at Lock?s Press in Kingston.

Printing books is very much a business. The very first book printing venture (circa 1450) finished with a bankruptcy and an unfriendly take-over. Printing books with a technological process that dates from the late middle ages means that, from the outset — from the setting of the very first metal character —you are working at a loss when compared to modern commercial book publishers. So immediately, it is advisable to consider the project an artwork — riskier, more exclusive (limited availability) and, naturally, more expensive relative to commercially made books. The traditional market for these books are collectors and institutions, meaning libraries, special collections etc. It can take a long time to woo these markets. Art and craft shows have proven to be successful, where there is some sympathy for the beauty of the book as object as well as subject matter. Getting limited-edition private press books into peoples? hands is the best way to sell them. It may explain why my customer list retains a strong foundation in Ontario, although that is changing, with more orders now from booksellers internationally. Like all businesses, private press printers must keep a database of collectors and potential buyers. They print a prospectus for each book to send to special collections, book sellers and collectors around the world. They track sales, market their work as best they can, send books off in the mail, wait for cheques and send five percent (in Canada) of sales to the government. In that respect, we function exactly like a publisher.

Like any publishing venture, content and subject matter is critical. There are three classes: work in the public domain (pre-1920 is almost always free for use); anything later, (requires a contract of some form with the estate of an author); and the work of living writers. The latter may have an interest in a limited edition of their work if it has already been mass published, otherwise they may question its relevance to such a small readership.

Which brings us to relevance. With the very existence of the traditional book structure being challenged in our digital age, what is the relevance of a finely printed book? And more to the point, what is the relevance of a printed book that exists in only 75 or 100 copies? Everyone comes to books with different agendas. Some may see it solely as a means of communicating information through the most able and efficient means possible to the greatest number of readers. In the most dispassionate and cruelest assessment, private press printers produce a novelty collectible; I prefer to look at it as a hybrid artistic enterprise, using low-tech and high-tech, combining high end printing, fine binding, beautiful papers (the so-called ?lesser arts), and illustration. So, in light of all this, I?m not a publisher playing at art, but an artist playing at publishing.

Finally, community. Eight or nine years ago, before I took Margaret Lock?s typesetting workshop, I thought I?d be working in a vacuum. During the course, Sue Globenski (The Cranky Press) told me about Grant Wilkins (The Grunge Press) and Richard Coxford (Bytowne Book Shop) in Ottawa and suggested we gather. Since then, the Ottawa Press Gang has grown to a dozen or so ?members? with presses, and another dozen or so printing enthusiasts with dreams of metal, wood and paper. Members is in quotes because the Gang eschews any formal structure: no elections, no executive, no responsibilities. Our one concession to organization is an email list of members managed by Grant. We meet every two months at the Arrow & Loon pub at the corner of Bank and Fifth for brunch, and other times as well. I am inordinately fond of the Press Gang. It is the antidote to my own reclusive inclinations. Beyond Ottawa, there is a thriving community in Ontario as a whole, who connect at the annual Grimsby Book Arts Fair, the OCADU Book Arts Fair (in Toronto) and the CBBAG Ottawa Book Arts Show. There are similar groups across the country, with a particularly strong concentration of private presses in British Columbia. Canada has had, for 29 years now, the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild (CBBAG) which covers it all. I really am jazzed by the growth in popularity of the book arts, which seems to only get stronger as the digital age progresses.

rm:

Given that you?ve produced less than half a dozen titles since 2006, it seems as though you are still feeling your way into what you would like to accomplish. What goals have you set for yourself, and how successful do you feel you?ve been so far? Where do you see yourself heading?

LT:

When envisioning Greyweathers Press in 2003/2004, I imagined four editions per year: one classical book, one vanity project, one collaboration with Holly, and one with a hitherto unpublished writer. I fancied that to be ambitious, but really it was naive. Hand printing and hand binding books takes a long time. Even working full time in the studio, four books of substance would be a challenge. With a busy life in writing, graphic design and running a small craft-based business with Holly from the studio, the ?wild-cat? adventure of the Press had to be a part-time endeavor.

How do I measure success in such an enterprise? The Press has been profitable, in a modest way. A spreadsheet jockey might approve of the margins, but snort at the balances. So it goes. It may sound cliché, but a big part of the profit comes from the joy and satisfaction in the work. If each new production builds upon the experience and success of the previous, then I remain content.

Quantity does not usually connote quality. These days I am thinking less about the number of editions produced and more about spending greater effort on the two per year I intend to print, ultimately. There are three goals: to build on my skills as a letterpress printer; to better grasp the precepts of book (and type) design integrated with illustration; and to raise the bar on my drawing and wood-cutting skills. That?s a lot to take on, but there is world enough and time.

Forthcoming from the Press is a specimen catalogue of metal types from the Press? cabinets, due out in September. There?s a long-standing collaboration with Holly for which we have the title: LibrAries. Then, a follow up to The Vampire & the Seventh Daughter (zombies perhaps?) in what may become an annual gothic confection. These projects should keep us busy into next year, when I will begin work on another substantial book, possibly Shakespeare, Tennyson or T.S. Eliot.

As for the future, I am becoming less dogmatic. Three of the five books printed by the Press to date have been serendipitous, choosing me rather than vise versa. So you?re right, I?m still finding my way, and likely always will be, thank goodness.

rm:

You seem to blog more than any letterpress printer/publisher I?m aware of, allowing an audience into a process that very few are aware of. What originally started your interest in recording and reporting upon your progress, and what response, if any, has your blogging received?

LT:

Both Holly and I like the new technology. The computer is a marvelous, almost miraculous tool, particularly now with the interconnectivity in the internet, via blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and other social media. I?m not going to wax poetic about these later phenomena because, personally, I?m having a hard time adapting, being inclined to introversion and introspection to begin with. I sympathize with those who rail against new media, but it is a vitally important medium to master for marketing purposes if no other.

I?ve had a good and positive response to my blog and social media. The blog began as a kind of press log, to record the myriad tiny lessons learned (and too easily forgotten) from one book to the next. It has a modest following according to the statistics. The criticism that comes is usually that I do not post enough, and I?m working on that. One caveat: There is a popular value placed on ?number of hits,? that somehow everything would be better one had 10,000 followers, or 10,000,000! That?s fine for mass production and internet ad sales, perhaps. For the scale at which I work ? again, it?s not the quantity of followers, but their quality that matters most, by which I mean, in this case, a keen interest in the book arts.

rm:

Your current title, Tintern Abbey, was produced to celebrate your first half decade, and you have brought in Ottawa writer and book doctor Christine McNair to bind your deluxe edition. Why did you decide to bring in someone to do the work? What originally directed you to McNair?s binding work, and what attracted you to it?

LT:

For a deluxe edition, the book is housed in finer digs, so to speak. Leather binding instead of cloth, slip cover, a suite of individual prints of illustrations from the book, and other touches. I don?t possess the skill to do this kind of labour, particularly working, paring and decorating leather. Until just recently I didn?t have the binding chops to hard bind an edition, but thanks to a few hours of instruction from Natasha Herman (now located in Amsterdam) I?m now up to speed on one technique, at least, and getting lots of practice binding Tintern Abbey. I first saw Christine?s work while taking a workshop from her on tacketed bindings, and have been duly impressed with everything else I?ve seen. Christine has a particular interest and knowledge in historical bindings, which I admire, and she worked for Gaspereau Press (Kentville, NS), which is about as fine a pedigree as one can ask for. There are several exceptional binders in Canada, some of whom I may work with in the future, but I?m keen to establish connections and encourage development here in Eastern Ontario.


Born in Ottawa, Canada?s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2011, and his most recent titles are the poetry collections Songs for little sleep, (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012), grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2012), A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011) and kate street (Moira, 2011), and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com.

Photo of rob mclennan by Stephen Brockwell

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