Poem by Luisa Igloria Printed Using Letterpress Machine
September 23, 2021
As the press starts with a loud clang, rollers slide evenly over the metal type and words appear in cinnamon ink on the thick paper: "Magnificat ..."
The Vandercook printing press, using the same process as Gutenberg's movable type press that made the printed word widely available in the 1450s, was printing a poem by Luisa A. Igloria, professor of English at Old Dominion University, to commemorate her appointment as Poet Laureate of Virginia. Although Igloria was named Poet Laureate in 2020, the commemorative printing was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Printing on the letterpress is no simple job; each of the 24 lines of type are set by hand, backward, so it appears readable once printed, said Nikki Webb, an adjunct assistant professor of art who has been teaching classes using the press for 10 years. Additionally, there must be leading between the lines and kerning (spacing between the letters) so the print is comfortably read when finished, all set by hand. And even before the typesetting could begin, senior graphic design major Xioshan Hughes counted each letter in the poem to ensure there were enough for printing in the typeface Webb had chosen - Garamond 36-point type.
"When you're using cast type, there are only so many of each letter, so you have to find the number of letters and set them aside in a tray," Webb said.
Depending on the foundry where they were made, the type can also have slight differences that make them look different on the print. While some slight variations are fine, the overall look should be consistent, Webb said, making the process even more exacting. When there was not enough cast type for Igloria's poem in the University's collection, they found a type caster in San Francisco to order more Garamond type.
The ink was also a custom color; the first runs of the poem were printed in blue, but they later settled on cinnamon brown ink for the final document, a decision by Igloria to match the tone of the poem.
"Magnificat" was chosen by Igloria because she felt it was representative of her writing at this time. It focuses on the idea of finding things one can praise and find beauty, hope and inspiration in daily life despite turmoil, she said. Written in early 2020 as part of Igloria's daily practice of writing at least one poem a day for nearly 11 years, it was not focused on the COVID-19 pandemic but looking back, it has themes that can speak to much of the turmoil of the past year.
The poem ends with a bell image "because the bell produces both rich and sonorous sounds and has different kinds of pitches, for a sound that can carry itself," Igloria said. "There is a certain amount of violence needed to produce it, but to me it's the perfect summing up of how moments are made up of many things ... it just felt right for this moment we are living through."
"Magnificat" has not been published elsewhere, but Igloria plans to include it in upcoming publications. Along with her books, a similar broadside printing of one of her poems was made when she and Benjamín Naka-Hasebe Kingsley, assistant professor of English, participated in a panel at the Virginia Festival of the Book. Another was produced in 2016 through Broadsided Press, a project that publishes free visual-literary collaborations between visual artists and poets.
The process took three to four hours per day for about five days, spread over a few weeks, Webb said. After proofs are made and reviewed numerous times, corrections and adjustments are made and test runs are printed again - slow compared to modern digital printers but giving the poem a special feel and look. Unlike a modern laser printer, one can feel the ink on the paper when printed by the letterpress.
"The time is irrelevant because it's a joy to do," Webb said.
This is the second time a poem of a Poet Laureate of Virginia has been printed on the University's letterpress, housed in the Hixon Art Building on Monarch Way. In 2016, when Tim Seibles was named Poet Laureate of Virginia, his poem "Thirty-thirty Blues Villanelle" was also printed by Webb and a student assistant.
To find out more about letterpress and classes offered, which are open to all ODU students, visit the Department of Arts Studio Courses catalog. To find out more about Igloria's work and classes, visit the Department of English website or watch the ODU At Home Series of poetry readings.