- Abigail Rorer
Location: Rose O’Neill Literary House
The purpose of the Literary House Press is to connect the Washington College community with the larger literary world. With its newest letterpress book project, the Literary House Press celebrates the poetry of Mary Jo Salter. This chapbook, Lost Originals, is a series of elegies, beginning in the present day and going back through history to Ancient Egypt.
A poet, editor, essayist, playwright, and lyricist, Mary Jo Salter was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan and grew up both in Michigan and in Maryland. She earned degrees from Harvard and Cambridge Universities and is a former editor at Atlantic Monthly, poetry editor at the New Republic, and co-editor of the fourth and fifth editions of the Norton Anthology of Poetry. She is currently teaching at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where she is Chair of the Writing Seminars program in the School of Arts and Sciences.
“Salter’s thorough understanding of poetic tradition is clearly evident in her work … Often marrying domestic concerns to exotic locales, Salter’s most acclaimed poems are at once formally inventive and speak to her experiences in foreign cultures, including Iceland, Italy, Japan, France, and England.” ~ The Poetry Foundation
Part of the project was also bringing to the pages the beautiful work of artist Abigail Rorer. Known for her imaginative and meticulous engravings, Rorer somehow carves the most delicate images in one of the toughest of mediums, Corian. That’s right, the same hard-as-stone material used for kitchen countertops. You know it’s tough when the artist herself says in a letter, “With Corian, you can bash the hell out of it if you want - it won’t hurt it.” We did take nice care of her work, but it’s good to know when working with something that is so beautiful and appears so fragile.
Abigail Rorer, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, is the proprietor of the Lone Oak Press in Petersham, Massachusetts, which has been in operation since 1989. She was contacted by Literary House Assistant Director, Lindsay Lusby, who saw her work at the nearby Oak Knoll Fest XVII in October 2012 and fell in love with her long-sold-out book of Lewis Carroll-like, imaginary (and sometimes carnivorous) plants, Mimpish Squinnies.
After reading the chapbook manuscript, Rorer began to generate some ideas for possible illustrations, the problem was finding the right one. But in a few short weeks, over the holidays no less, both parties agreed on the image of an unfolding purple iris for the frontispiece, an image that evokes the subtle sense of mingled loss and beauty present in Salter’s poems. For the decorative motif, we decided on an Ancient Egyptian harpist, mentioned in the last poem of the book.
The images were made with a technique called relief engraving, which can best be described as removing material from a flat plane so that the image appears to rise out of the surface. This type of engraving is perfect for incorporation in letterpress printing, our specialty here at the Literary House Press. The tricky part, aside from engraving in such a tough material, is getting the height just right. Too low, the image won’t print, too high and it will press too hard into the paper.
“My lines are extremely fine and some printers find it a little difficult to print them because of that. The key is to get the ink to just kiss the block and not fill in the lines.”
Thanks to the skills and sleight of hand of Jim Dissette, the image came out beautifully. Although we know his name in connection to his literary achievements while a student at Washington College, Dissette is also a journeyman letterpress printer and professional book designer. His recent work on a lush reprinting of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a joint effort of Chester River Press and Deep Wood Press, earned the book and its publishers the 2010 Carl Hertzog Award for Excellence in Book Design. With Dissette’s award-winning talent for book design, this whole project is brought elegantly together.
Next, the finished and folded pages will be sent out to be hand-bound at a bookbindery in Minnesota. But be sure to stay tuned! When the finished books return, we will have an official Lost Originals Book Launch hosted at the Rose O’Neill Literary House with a reading by our poet of honor, Mary Jo Salter. You won’t want to miss this Literary House Press celebration!