Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Gutenberg Hide and Seek

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Gutenberg Hide and Seek

One of my most treasured memories revolves around a printing press. In the basement of my family’s funeral home was an old clamshell (or Platen) press that my great grandfather purchased for the exclusive purpose of printing the prayer cards. As a child I was rather fixated on the idea of penning a book one day, and so my father would periodically let me don the giant apron the funeral directors used and let me select with long metal tongs the type needed in prayer cards for the week, or for my own tiny (prayer-card sized) short stories. He would patiently hover over me and help my awkward little child fingers select the a’s and f’s and set them into place on the printing block.

From there he would set up my work on the press and let the treadle spin the wheel of the press ever so slowly, so that I could manage to get the card into the guide and my hands out in time for the ink to hit the paper. What magic. It has always been my regret that I never kept one of those little artifacts. I usually would pick the prayer card with Mary and the Serenity Prayer on it. That was my favorite. Would have been a nice little keepsake....

In the years I was at school out west, my family sold the four-generation-old family business, and I discovered on a trip home that a local artist Robert Coyle had been given the press. Now, I had known Robert for a while and had caught wind of his huge success with a scale model of DaVinci’s flying machine. By then it had traveled all over the world to different museums and science centers. The now defunct Museum Company had even picked up a kit model of it. A mutual friend had told me that he was on his way to making a model kit of the Gutenberg. While a little wistful at the dismantling of my own history, I was grateful that a fellow artist and good acquaintance had inherited the press. Now, that was almost two decades ago, and if you can imagine, every once in a while I wonder what has become of the old press. So, on a recent trip to Windsor I met up with Coyle to find out.

"He took me down in the basement and went to make sure there was no stiffs or whatever rolls down that corridor and asks me if I want it."

The ensuing saga begins at the funeral of a relative, wherein Coyle discovers the clam press exists in the basement of the funeral home. He is led down by one of the funeral directors and given an offer he cannot refuse. He can have it. So long as he can move it.

"I believe I moved it in Pinto's stations wagon. We hauled it into the second floor of Pitt Street."

Photo by Melanie Janisse

So, I discover that my ex-boyfriend and Coyle dismantled the press (much to Pinto’s chagrin as he became an instant grease monkey) and transported it to the old Pitt Street building inhabited my many artists before its demise. There, Coyle dismantled it even further. Oddly, the further it came apart, the closer his company Incunabula came to its demise. By the time the old press came to rest in the now totally abandoned Peabody building across from the Hiram Walker granary on a collection of skids, the Museum Company had reached bankruptcy mode leaving Coyle’s main gig completely up in the air.

"I got really good at taking it apart."

Over coffee at his partner’s café, Tallulah, Coyle reflects how conceptually he carried that press throughout his stint with Incunabula. It became his bounds, his snail shell. He ruminates on how truly odd it is that near to the end of that chapter in his life, someone stole the crank wheel off the press, rendering it useless. Everything unraveled all at the same time — nothing like an overly beautiful metaphor to end an afternoon coffee. Tallulah is right across the street from the old Peabody building, and so I decided to wander over. I remember visiting an old glass blower’s studio housed in this old, lovely warehouse when I was in grade school. I remember when Windsor had a couple of places open that were waiting for artists in their dreams. I walk around the parameter of the building feeling a little sad. How many eras end? If I find another crank for the clamshell, will the once thriving studios in this building come alive once more? Will the artists get a fresh wind? Will the city make the building a center for the arts? Could they rebuild the Norwich block again? I pine for this place, my sweet hometown, to make better choices and I wish it were as simple as a metaphor.

Photo by Melanie Janisse

Back in Toronto, I concluded my strange riff on the printing press with a first time visit to Coach House Books. As I made my way through the rambling building, past the Heidelberg’s that are used there and the other presses that line the lower rooms, I felt that old nostalgia for my dad, white sleeves rolled up, suit jacket hanging off of an old chair, laboring over the press, elegantly moving his body in line with the machine to make the prayer cards. Stan Bevington graciously offered me a seat at the old harvest table in their common area and poured me a coffee. Alana Wilcox joined us — an unexpected treat to be sure. Our conversation wandered, it wove through old lead type, copies of Magenta Soul Whip rearing themselves, pages uncut and spilling over the parameters of the cover, photographic typesetting, Ojibwa typefaces, conversations in the '70s that precluded Kindle. The way Stan would lovingly show me a book that he painstakingly designed and produced, noting the font, or some of the design challenges that were overcome, or Coach House’s custom paper.

Stan Bevington. Photo courtesy of Coach House Books.

I found Bevington’s attitude regarding new media refreshing. He is a man that has experienced several paradigm shifts in the way in which printing is technically accomplished, and instead of an overarching nostalgia for the past, there was also an enthusiasm and an active participation with what is current in printing, and what might be in the future. There is in Bevington a real pioneering spirit and with that a real curiosity for making the process of printmaking more streamlined, while holding onto the care for detail that can often be lost in simplification. I would say this balance of honing process with an avid appreciation for detail is what makes a Coach House book a true work of art. While my stint as a printer was short and accomplished while standing on a giant stool supported by my father, and while I am no expert, there is something of an aura about a Coach House book that makes it unique.

Lately I have been making moccasins. Spending hours over something that will become a functional part of someone’s life makes you think about the simple details of functionality that make an object truly graceful. When talking to Stan, I most enjoyed learning of some of these small details of printing that we don’t even notice as the reader, but that make for a simpler read. I did not know that there were letters that had to be scaled down in size from the rest or they would print too thick to the eye. Further, there are small tricks of kerning and adjusting spacing in order to simplify the act of reading and even the psychology of reading. To think there are people’s hands and minds even within the spaces of our texts simply blows my mind. It really does.

In terms of my family’s old Platen press, I am glad that I know where it is resting. Much like Coyle, I feel the need to keep track of it. Within its constitution are hours of my forefathers days. There are endless images of the men (and women) in my family, in thick apron and rolled up sleeves writing encomia for litanies of passed souls. It is a strange snail shell that I hardly know what to do with, but carry anyhow. Alas, they are my ghosts in the machine.

* * *

Melanie Janisse is a native of Windsor, Ontario where she retains memories of old docks jutting out into the Detroit River and the smell of hops. Melanie began her education by leaving home early and wandering around the abandoned houses of inner city Detroit, and then the intense forests of the Canadian West Coast. Formally she holds degrees form Concordia University in Communications and Literature and from Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Photography. Melanie has resided in Toronto for the past nine years, keeping active as a visual artist, poet, designer and shop owner. Her work has appeared in Luft Gallery, Common Ground Gallery, Artcite Gallery, Dojo Magazine, Pontiac Quarterly, The Scream Literary Festival, The Southernmost Review, The Northernmost Review and The Windsor Review. Her first poetry book, Orioles in the Oranges (Guernica Editions), tells the tale of on old Metis legend, allowing it to dovetail with Detroit's gritty modernity in an unforgettable series of prose poems. Melanie is happy to be a part of Open Book: Toronto ruminating about books and book-like things around Toronto.
1 comment

Thank you Melanie for sharing this bit of your family history with me, and for writing such a richly textured article.

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