Fiona Leggett, (pictured here) owner, operator, and director of the Santa Paula, California based, letterpress studio, Lettre Sauvage, has recently announced that the press is sponsoring another chapbook contest for 2013. This is great news! As the 2010 winner with my collection, The Surly Bonds of Earth, I can attest to the superb quality of the books produced by this small press. I feel honored to have a Lettre Sauvage letterpress chapbook with my name on it; any poet would. Each year they produce only a limited number of editions and broadsides. According to Fiona, contest submission information will soon be available on their website.
Before winning the chapbook prize, I didn’t know much about letterpress so I did some research. The concept is simple: raised type or an artistic element such as a woodblock carving is laid out in the mirror image of the desired final page. It is covered with a thin coating of ink, then pressed onto paper. That’s it. However, this doesn’t begin to convey the distinctive fragrance of ink and press oil, in combination with stacks of cotton-based paper found inside an actual letterpress operation. It doesn’t paint a picture of the rich patina that characterizes presses manufactured by companies with names like Chandler, Price, Vandercook, and Pilot. It doesn’t describe the trove of type “jewels” within wooden cubby-holed drawers, or the dark columns of metal leading strips of different widths and lengths used for spacing. It doesn’t convey the artistic vision that drives someone like Fiona Leggett to make laboring as an artist—she is also a poet—within the letterpress world, her passion.
In mid-April, I visited Lettre Sauvage while in California to do a reading from The Surly Bonds of Earth at the 2012 Santa Barbara Poetry Series. The family atmosphere made the visit more memorable than I could have imagined. The studio is at Fiona’s home in Santa Paula. Husband, Cameron Leggett, and co-director, Genevieve Yue, work with Fiona to host and instruct in letterpress, as well as, provide creative input and project support. Poets, writers, and artists are welcome to work on projects in the studio. The website suggests that, “Your creativity will be enhanced by great music (often live), conversation, and the sweet, art-first atmosphere of the Lettre Sauvage studio under the oaks.” (Learn more at Lettre Sauvage.) My experience at Lettre Sauvage was delightful and something I will never forget.Following are pictures from my visit during which Fiona worked with me on a calling card project allowing me to explore letterpress firsthand.
One of Lettre Sauvage’s large platen type presses.
The work table is the heart of the studio—the place of layouts, design, binding, and packaging.
A type drawer with letters laid out such that can be easily picked up by practiced typesetters like Fiona.
Individual rows of type are initially laid out on a composing stick. This is Fiona minding her p’s and q’s as she lays out my calling card.
Rows of type and leading are fit tightly into a frame that will be attached to the press. The type is laid out as a mirror image of the final imprint. Polymer film is often used for larger projects. It provides a vastly expanded opportunity to use different typefaces and artistic elements. At the top of this photo, you can see some of the yellow polymer plates that were used by Lettre Sauvage on a book cover.
Dabs of ink are applied to a rotary platen on the small proof press used in my calling card project. On a platen type press, a roller rolls across the platen which evenly distributes the ink onto the roller. The roller then rolls over the type, coating it. Between each imprint, the platen rotates a quarter turn to ensure good distribution of the ink during the process.
The high quality, cotton based paper required in letterpress is cut to size prior to printing.
Fiona showed me how to feed each card into the press, and then how to apply just the right amount of pressure as I pulled the lever to cause the roller to roll over the platen, then across the letters, coating them, and bringing the paper to the inked type in one movement. On bigger presses some of this process is automated.
My calling cards in the making.
You can tell even from this photo just how lush the result is. It is wonderful to have such elegant calling cards, and even more rewarding to have a letterpress chapbook of my poetry.
© 2010-2012 Grace Curtis