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The Making of an AWP Letterpress Broadside

April 12, 2013
The first in a new letterpress broadside series from Literary House Press features Beth Bachmann’s poem, “(why your room has a door).”

Exactly a year ago, in April 2012, we contacted Ladette Randolph, the Editor-in-Chief of Ploughshares.  We had an idea:  to create a commemorative, limited-edition broadside series in honor of the annual AWP Conference.  The broadside would feature a poem first published in a literary journal connected to the Conference’s host city.  In 2013, the AWP Conference was scheduled to be held in Boston; Ploughshares—with its more than forty-year Bostonian connection—seemed like the ideal literary journal to feature in this inaugural broadside. 

Ploughshares, Spring 2012 issuePloughshares, Spring 2012 issueWhile the Literary House Press had published handmade letterpress broadsides for more than 20 years, celebrating work by visiting authors such as Ted Kooser, Natasha Trethewey, and Daniel Handler, among others, the new AWP broadside series would allow the Rose O’Neill Literary House to collaborate with the best literary journals and magazines around the country.

Happily, Ladette really liked the idea, and the project was soon under way.  The Literary House Press selected Beth Bachmann’s “(why your room has a door),” which first appeared in Ploughshares Volume 38/1 (spring 2012), an issue that was guest-edited by Nick Flynn.

Then, the design work began.  The unusual layout of Beth Bachmann’s poem shaped our thinking about how text should interact with image.  The poem is only seven-lines-long but double-spaced with frequent caesuras punctuating the sentences.  The poem’s lines have an elastic quality on the page that mimics the speaker’s unsettled emotional state.  The speaker addresses an invisible “you,” using language that feels both elusive and allusive, hesitant as if she cannot address trauma directly.

In thinking about a decorative element that might accompany the poem, we looked to those places in the text where the language evoked the most powerful images.  After spending many hours with Bachmann’s words, it became clear that this was the line which seemed to sum up the poem’s narrative most fully:  “Soldier, you make my body a map” (3).  The poem’s references to “shore,” “ocean,” and “water” helped to clarify the kind of image we might use.  After several brainstorming sessions, we eventually settled on the idea of incorporating the outlines of a topographic map to define the poem’s right-hand margin (or its shoreline). 

We used Adobe InDesign to lay out the text and then construct an imaginary topographical ocean system that hugged the edge of the poem.  The poem was set in Palatino Linotype, a typeface that gestures toward the lettering of older nautical maps while remaining modern enough to reflect the contemporary voice of Bachmann’s work.

The image and text were then converted to a PDF and sent to Boxcar Press, a small business that produces photopolymer plates from digital files.  Polymer plates are a modernized form of the older technology—metal plates, metal typefaces—employed in letterpress printing. 

We used a heavier stock mouldmade paper of 100% cotton, in a cream that was evocative of antique maps.  The paper is described as being “lightly textured” with a nice density that allows for a deep impression when run through the press. 

At the Literary House, we generally use our Vandercook 4 Proof Press for bigger projects.  The Vandercook’s ink drum and rollers are motorized, but the platen is hand-cranked allowing the printer to control the rhythm of the process.  We are lucky to have a genuine Master Printer on staff, Mike Kaylor, who has a national reputation for his impeccable and precise work. 


Mike printed the broadside in a run of 100.  He worked with two shades of blue, a near-black for the poem’s text and colophon and a slightly lighter blue for the image.  When a broadside contains more than one color, the printer must ink, print, and clean the press before applying the second hue.  A printer must work carefully to align the text and image, which often requires minute calculations and a series of trials and errors. 

While the conception and design of the broadside took many weeks, the printing was done in two days.  Now, the broadsides have been wrapped and wrapped in plastic and bubbles. They will accompany us to the AWP Conference in Boston, from car to train and car again, where they will be signed by Beth.  We debuted these limited-edition broadsides at the Rose O’Neill Literary House table in one of the AWP book halls.  The broadsides are now for sale on our website.

It has been a tremendous honor and pleasure to work with Ploughshares and with Beth Bachmann on this project.  We hope this will be the first of many literary collaborations between the Literary House Press and some of the country’s finest journals and magazines. 


– Jehanne Dubrow & Lindsay Lusby 


We are already planning our 2014 AWP Commemorative Broadside, the second in our new letterpress broadside series. This next broadside will be a collaboration with Washington’s Willow Springs and will debut at 2014 AWP Conference in Seattle.

Last modified on Apr. 12th, 2013 at 8:35pm by Lindsay Lusby.