a conversation with Wendy Vardaman 5/15/2016
This interview series talks to Wisconsin- and Midwest-based book and letterpress artists about their relation to the handmade, its appeal in our digitally centered culture, the significance in their print work of texture, textiles, and text, and their relation, positive or not, to tech.
I spoke to writer/artist Kristy Bowen, proprietor of dancing girl press & studio about her sources of inspiration and how she balances her pursuit of writing and visual art with publishing a prolific series of more than 300 chapbooks by women authors connected to the Midwest. I first met Bowen five or six years ago at a small press festival event – maybe in Milwaukee – she was sewing up books by hand, putting beautiful covers one at a time onto thin stacks of folded poems. She made an impression, as did the fact that she was creating the books, right there, at the festival.
The dancing girl website describes how she started:
The goal? To produce inexpensive, but still very stylish and beautiful, publications on a shoestring budget even if I had to assemble every single copy with my hands. To publish poets who were emerging in the morass of contemporary poetry, poets who fell through the cracks between the mainstream and avant-garde. Poets who wrote interesting and surprising work that varied from the mundane. Poets who employed hybridity and collage. Poets whose work was like nothing else.
I wanted to especially publish and promote the work of younger poets in my own generation. Also Chicago poets. Midwest poets. To publish projects that created their own worlds. Projects that were implicitly or explicitly feminist and women-centered. Projects that had an impact on readers both visceral and cerebral. To create lovely objects from paper, one of my biggest obsessions. To design interesting and gorgeous covers. To explore all the possibilities of what a “chapbook” can be.
Bowen answered questions about small press publishing, letterpress, and more in our conversation.
Your website points to many different projects—your own writing, your art, dancing girl press, printing and printmaking. Do you have a preference for one thing or the other? How do you balance different media and projects, and do they compete with or feed each other?
I think my preferences sort of change on a daily basis depending on my mood. Some days I feel more fit for visual things than words. Sometimes the opposite. Sometimes I can’t do either, so I work on marketing and business related things. They all do definitely feed each other. One of the great things about running the press is spending so much time immersed in other people’s words. Those words fuel not only my own writing, but the designs I do for their books. And sometimes the designs I do for them spark larger visual projects/series of my own.
How/why did you get interested in letterpress, publishing, and book arts?
The words were always there, but the visual aspects came later. I’d been writing for years when I founded an online lit zine, wicked alice, which a couple years later, bloomed into dancing girl press. I sort of indulged my interest in book and paper arts as a result of the work we were publishing, and the visual stuff arose from that, particularly an interest in exploring different ways of thinking about a “book” and all that entails.
How long have you been doing letterpress/book making, and what sorts of things do you normally make? I’m especially interested in your take on the role of handmade books in poetry publishing—how that works for you and why you choose to do it that way.
I’ve been making handmade books since 2004 with a variety of approaches in terms of covers (mostly digital, but letterpress when we can get access to equipment or artists, also hand stamping, printmaking). There are some beautiful publishers who get fancier in terms of gorgeous paper, hand-sewn binding, beautiful endpapers. There are also super simple low budget photocopied zine-like chaps meant for easy distribution. We try to tread somewhere in the middle, as pretty as we can get but still affordable to produce, and, for readers, to buy.
What do you for work? How common is it for letterpress printers and poetry publishing to sell their work, or to make money doing that?
I have a full-time day job (or for me, a night job) in the library of an arts school that pays my basic living expenses. I know some book artists that can command pretty high prices for original artist’s book pieces, but even they support themselves with other work. I also know some letterpress artists who make a decent income on stationery printing (notecards, wedding invitations, and the like). With the books we issue, I am usually rolling any profits back in to publish the next round of books (we also have a studio space, so they pay the rent on that). Like any small business, particularly in the arts, it’s hard to get a foothold and turn a profit. I’d love to be able to do it one day, but for now, it’s a side hustle. I also occasionally make a little money for new supplies selling my own artwork, paper goods, and zines in the shop, which helps.
Could you talk about the economics of publishing poetry and how that works (or doesn’t) for you?
I think the key for getting something like this off the ground is starting small. I began publishing with about $100 in materials, paper, cardstock, a saddle stapler, and a trimmer. It was pretty low risk and solely my own funds in those first few years. I think the trend now seems to be to launch things with crowd-funding campaigns that don’t always lead to sustainability if you can’t keep the momentum going. I tried to keep it simple, one book funding the next and then growing as much as we could afford year by year. It works in theory, but then you have variations in how many books you sell by title. Some established authors w/ good marketing ability may sell a 100 in a year. Some newer unknown-as-of-yet poets, 10. But those books may sell later as the author publishes more. Sometimes we’re flush, and other times, I have to dip into my own coffers to pay the studio rent. But it usually balances out in the end.
Tell me about some of your recent printing projects. How long do they usually take?
Over the years I’ve streamlined my processes in terms of layout, proofing with authors, cover design, and collaboration. It can take as little as a few weeks to get a book print ready, sometimes longer. Once the book is ready to print, I usually do them in larger batches at first, then smaller as needed. Printing, assembly, and finishing (binding, trimming, etc.) takes about a week depending on how big the batch and how much studio time I’m getting.
Is there a typical artistic/design process that you have for a chapbook?
For the visual elements, it’s usually a collaboration with the author. Sometimes the poet has an artist/designer friend who is willing to do the entire cover and deliver a print-ready file or image. Sometimes, the author leaves it entirely to me and I will either design something from scratch or use an existing piece of artwork. More often, it’s somewhere in between: we’ll volley ideas and preferences back and forth and then I will try to make them happen. As for interiors, I favor Garamond, but we occasionally venture into sans serif territory if it seems right. Since I work on any number of computers in a given day (home, the studio, the library), I tend to do most of my layouts and design in Word or Publisher and use a combination of various image editing programs and downloadable fonts that are free.
Are you primarily interested in images and/or words in your projects? What role does art/image play, and how do the words relate to the art? Do you have preferred materials?
With the press, since most of our projects are solely text based, we probably weigh heavier on the word side, but I am always seeking manuscripts with visual elements and/or new ways of interpreting the idea of the “book.” In my own creative work, I tend to work about equally in both realms. I started out more as a collage/paper artist, but lately I’ve been incorporating other things into my work—watercolor, acrylic, printmaking. Sometimes the words come before the images. Sometimes the images manifest and then the words come after. I’ve been working lately on some projects where they are created in tandem and that’s really nice.
What do you like most about letterpress and poetry publishing? Least?
I think in terms of publishing, the best thing about small & micro presses is their ability to de-centralize the poetry community and publish work that really needs to be out there. The difficulties are, as always, funding such ventures, getting books into hands, etc. Even when you can begin to make those things happen, there are other challenges—sufficient time and energy when you’re working other jobs to pay the rent. Time for the things you want to be doing vs. the things you have to be doing.
How do design and poetry come together for you, or do they?
I think it helps to be constantly thinking in both worlds—the images and the words. It’s probably something I do almost intuitively now after all these years of practice, but it’s usually relatively easy for me in a lot of cases to read something and then plot out a visual manifestation to go along with it. Sometimes I get stuck, but it helps to talk it out with the authors and get their ideas, even if their only things like mood, or color, or pointing me in the direction of examples.
Do you ever work collaboratively? If so, how does that work?
As I mentioned, the design for the books is usually somewhat of a collaborative effort between the author and myself. As for creative projects, I’ve done a couple of collaborations, including a project of images/text (with Lauren Levato) around the work of Joseph Cornell, as well as a postcard poem collaborations w/ Julie Strand. In the former, my text came together with her images, and in the latter, we were writing back and forth to each other and creating pieces that echoed off of each other. I definitely like the ways in which collaboration sort of forces me out of my usual boxes and directions.
Have you tried other kinds of book arts or printing that you haven’t yet mentioned?
For special projects, I really like experimenting with bindings or ways of putting things together. We’ve done a few handbound projects, both saddle binding and Japanese stab binding. I also like boxes and envelopes and things that aren’t traditionally thought of as books.
You’re based in Chicago. What kinds of support/ resources are available there and in the region and beyond for doing these kind of projects, and what advice would you have for someone just getting started?
There’s an organization called CHI*PRC that offers up space and equipment for small publishers and zinesters. Also, the Center for Book and Paper Arts offers a lot of resources and workshops (where you get to use their awesome presses & supplies.) As I mentioned above, start simple and start small, then grow. You can always take bigger risks and broaden ambitions as you go.
Do you have any advice for building from one kind of project to another, or learning about new techniques?
Small community workshops help for things you are wary of venturing into on your own. Since my education was more word oriented (I have an MA in Literature and an MFA in Poetry) a lot of my visual exploits have been self-guided. I work in a library and make good use of our how-to collections. I watch a lot of YouTube tutorials. I try to get friends to show me things I don’t know how to do. Along the way, I’ve picked up a number of really cool skills in all sorts of arts/crafts (jewelry making, sewing, soap making).
Who are your favorite letterpress printers or book artists, and what/who inspires you?
Some people are experimenting with what I’d consider a digital equivalent of an artist book… not an “ebook” or something you read, but more of an interactive experience that unfolds digitally, either as an app or a website. Can you imagine your projects translating to a digital format, or would that defeat the purpose, or be beside the point for you?
I love the possibilities this presents. We have an upcoming project of erasure poems/collages by Christina Rothenbeck that is actually just this. (It will actually have a printed component and an electronic one.) I’ve published a few e-chapbook projects of my own work with other presses and love the wider reach possible in web-publishing. There’s also so many more possibilities with multi-media components.
About Kristy Bowen: A writer and visual artist, Kristy Bowen is the author of several book, chapbook and zine projects, including major characters in minor films (Sundress Publications, 2015), the shared properties of water and stars (Noctuary Press, 2013), and girl show (Black Lawrence Press, 2014). Her work has appeared most recently in Split Lip Review, Hound, and Whiskey Island. She lives in Chicago, where she runs dancing girl press & studio and spends much of her time writing, making papery things, and curating a chapbook series devoted to women authors. Her next full-length collection, salvage, is due out from Black Lawrence Press in 2016.