Wednesday, July 10, 2013

National Book Award Winner Denis Johnson visits the Tampa Book Arts Studio

Denis Johnson hand-cranking the Vandercook 4

I. Denis Johnson becomes a limited-edition letterpress printer
National Book Award winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist Denis Johnson visited the Tampa Book Arts Studio on June 19 as part of the fifth residency of the MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Tampa. Fitting the visit in between a workshop earlier in the day and a reading in the evening, Johnson and the MFA students were invited by the TBAS for a tour of the studio and some hands-on letterpress printing. This included each student being given the opportunity to print a keepsake: a broadside with the closing lines from Johnson's 1992 book Jesus’ Son, designed and hand-set by the printers of the TBAS. After each deckle-edged sheet received its final turn through the press by each student, Johnson signed the broadside while the ink was still wet.

TBAS Letterpress Coordinator Carl Mario Nudi instructing Tampa Review Online
Blog Editor Coe Douglas on the Ludlow Typograph typecaster.
(Photo courtesy of Steven Lansky)

Denis Johnson signing broadsides on the imposing stone.

II. Printing the Denis Johnson Broadside
The design and printing of the broadside is a story in itself—with unexpected plot twists along the way. Denis Johnson was originally announced as a guest writer for the MFA winter residency last January, and the TBAS began work on a keepsake, choosing to set his final lines from Jesus’ Son:

All these weirdos, and me getting a little better every day
 right in the midst of them. I had never known,
never even imagined for a heartbeat,
that there might be a place for people like us.

We had begun printing the letterpress broadside on imported Arches paper and had finished the first three colors—two shades of grey and one of black, including a photoengraved block of silhouetted heads, printed in pale grey. When Johnson unexpectedly had to be rescheduled at the last minute and a keepsake suddenly needed to be made instead for prize-winning novelist Karen Russell’s visit to the TBAS in January of this year, the silhouette block was pressed into service to become “swamp people,” printed in green, for a limited-edition broadside on Milkweed paper in tribute to her book, Swamplandia.

Given a chance to re-evaluate our plans for the Denis Johnson broadside, we used the additional time to create a more dynamic design. This included a decision to overprint the silhouettes, hiding them beneath brown cactus and red-orange rock formations and using the hints of grey that showed through as shadow for the rocky plateaus and mountains. Also, because the pre-printed colophon now had incorrect dates and information, we creatively “edited” it to include the right details. The broadside had passed through our presses five times before Johnson and the students added their sixth and final letterpress impression to complete it.

The broadsides drying after the brown printing run.
Note grey silhouette heads in the background.

The broadsides drying after the first orange printing run.

The final Denis Johnson Broadside
Note the strikethroughs and corrections for the
words 'third' and 'January' in the colophon.

Thanks to Denis Johnson!

The Tampa Book Arts Studio also thanks Jeff Parker and the MFA Program at the University of Tampa for facilitating Denis’s visit.