by Steve Miller
In 1974 I saw an exhibition of the handmade books and broadsides of Walter Hamady and his Perishable Press Ltd. at the University of Wisconsin Memorial Union. The show had a powerful impact on me; I had never seen books made by hand. I imagined my own poems beautifully printed by letterpress and wrapped in interesting bindings; I returned to the show every day it was open.
At that time I was attending graduate school in landscape architecture at the University of Wisconsin and living in Mineral Point, an early Wisconsin mining town. There I met the late Bob Neal, historic restoration artist and restauranteur, who talked with me about setting up a printing press to publish a French missionary’s tale of the early exploration of Wisconsin. Though nothing ever came of it, I seriously thought about printing presses and making books for the first time.
On one long late-night walk, Jess Anderson enthusiastically suggested the idea of starting a publishing enterprise. It was under the hugely glowing constellation of Orion that we plotted and a plan began to emerge. Although Jess himself never printed, he has been a strong supporter of my work in these years, and has copy number One of every book of the press, except one.
At the time Jess and I discussed our plans, I became friends with the poet Diane Wakoski while she taught at the university for a year. She was a friend of Walter Hamady’s and would come back from Walter’s farm with stunning books and ephemera just off his press, which additionally inspired me to make my own first book. Just before she left Wisconsin, I gave her a pewter replica of one of George Washington’s camp cups and a few months later she returned with a poem. Eventually I made George Washington’s Camp Cups into a chapbook which sold out at publication and paid for my first printing press.
1975 was a year of writing poems furiously, organizing poetry readings, hosting “The Poetry Connection,” a program on the state radio network of poets reading from their own work, and waiting on tables to pay the bills. I quit school and was doing what I really wanted to do. In order to publish a book of poems I needed to learn how to print.
Walter Hamady took me on as a guest student in his typography class at the university because I wanted (needed) to make a book of my own poems. The first assignment was to print a broadside, and I made The Balloon People Poem. When I pulled a proof at the press from metal type I had set of a poem I had written, well, it was like being struck by lightning. The act of printing/publishing encompassed everything I found exciting—literature, design, color, artwork, and working with the hand as well as the mind.
When I finished binding my book of poems, Wild Night Irises, I flew to Washington, D.C. and New York City to see if anyone else was interested. The Library of Congress purchased a copy, and the Phoenix Book Store and legendary Gotham Book Mart each bought copies. Returning to Madison there was nothing I wanted to do more than to make books, so I approached other authors and started lining up manuscripts.
That winter I bought a Vandercook Number 4 proof press in Chicago and rented a room for it on the second floor of the Hotel Washington, then a flop house near the railroad tracks. It was a magical place where the first books were printed and many friends visited. I would finish printing a book, and by candlelight and a glass of wine sew its signatures together.
Before setting up shop in the Hotel Washington I met Ken Botnick. He saw a copy of my first book, introduced himself and wanted to know all about the handmade paper wrappers. He was entranced with the process, very enthusiastic, and helped make most of the handmade paper for the first few books while he was still a student in business at the university. He bought the first small papercutter for Red Ozier, or I would have continued trimming paper by hand with a knife. He went with me to Chicago to pick up the Vandercook press, and drove back to Wisconsin in the dark after we discovered the headlights didn’t work! After we had become close friends Ken left Madison to go to landscape architecture school in Massachusetts, and I missed him.
When I visited him that winter in Conway we had long talks and decided to work together, probably as partners in a papermill on the East coast. We eventually decided to move to New York City and share a loft space. In the meantime I would work on several titles for release prior to the move. Ken would finish school and move to the city to search for a place where we could live and set up shop. New York City seemed to be the next logical step: from publishing authors and artists through the postal service, to going to where art and literature was happening, and seeing what would happen.
The move finally did happen. A group of friends helped load a large white milk truck with all my earthly possessions, including the thousand and one items of the press, and we set off. Two days later we arrived in front of the loft on Warren Street, exhausted and exhilarated. Ken was there to meet us and we moved everything up the five flights of stairs. After unpacking I assumed that I would need to find some kind of bartending or waiter job to keep things going financially as I had in Wisconsin. What happened was that we worked hard setting up the press, supported minimally by money coming in from books made in Wisconsin, and started on a book by Galway Kinnell which sold out at publication. And then we began another book….
Ken had an interesting job working with a sculptor who designed parks, but things were starting to move quickly in the shop. The excitement level was building and Ken was getting more involved in all aspects of the press. He learned about letterpress printing as we were making the Kinnell book, and we bound it together. We had no nipping press, so when we finished casing-in a book we put it on the floor between boards and stamped on it. Again we sat down and had another long talk about the future, because it was clear to both of us that he wanted to make books full time. We decided to become partners at Red Ozier, equally sharing in all the work, the glory and the poverty.
The Warren Street loft had a huge half-round window at the street end which went from wall to wall and floor to ceiling. That is where we set up the Vandercook 4-T proof press. I rigged a tent nearby and slept there. Ken won the toss and got the one bedroom in the back. We worked hard, and when the weather was good we went to the roof to eat sandwiches in the shadow of the World Trade Center towers, watching ships plow up and down the Hudson River.
A couple of years later the press and I moved to a less expensive living/working loft in Chelsea and Ken moved to the East Village. Later the separation of home and work was complete when we moved the shop into a warehouse building next door on West 25th.
Wherever the shop was located, we hosted poetry readings, lunched with authors and artists, worked hard and played. The years in New York were action-packed much of the time, with new book projects, new and old friends stopping by, or an occasional class to teach at the South Street Seaport, the New School, Center for Book Arts or City College. Ken and I always team-taught such classes, which helped pay the rent for we were nearly always broke. Most of the money that came in went into purchasing materials for upcoming books, and the materials used in any particular book were as good as we could afford at the time.
Red Ozier was always an eclectic publishing venture. We were attracted to many of the same authors, and had differences about others. Most of the time we were in agreement about who and what to publish. Though we both made suggestions about prospective authors or artists, Ken really had a terrific eye for artwork and knew many artists, while my main interest and awareness was with authors and manuscripts. One or the other of us would be responsible for a particular book, working with the author/artist and generally printing it, but at times we worked together on a project form beginning to end. We both did the bookbinding, which meant clearing all possible surfaces in the shop and binding for a couple of weeks. We bound most of our own books to save money and, because we had a larger stake in the results, we did a more thorough job.
A couple of extraordinary bookbinders with whom we did work come to mind. Early on I knew about William Anthony and his edition bindings for the Perishable Press. His work was the best I have ever seen, particularly the finishing details over the course of an entire edition. I sent him twenty-eight copies of my second book poems, Hurricane Lake, which he quarter-bound half with green leather and half with red leather spines. It was the first time any books of the press had been hardbound and it was tremendously exhilarating to pick them up from his studio in Chicago. His perfection in detailing influenced how Ken and I thought about craftsmanship in our work.
The other bookbinder who had a major impact in our shop was Claire Maziarczyk. She is better known for her decorated papers, but is a fine binder as well. In therms of collaboration she was one of the most sensitive artists with whom we worked. Claire would get a copy of a manuscript before we even started setting type, and would begin a dialogue with us about color and design for the decorated papers and the binding. She would make the pastepapers, and when we were ready to start the actual bookbinding would spend a couple of days with us in the shop getting the binding process moving. They were fun-filled and productive days.
We worked with many artists and our choice of what kind of artwork for a particular book was always based on a close reading of the text. We would choose artwork either to complement or oppose a text. John DePol was one of the first artists we met in the city. He had retired from the commercial book and typography world and only cut wood engravings for the books he wanted ti illustrate. He gravitated to us as much as we loved working with him. He was and still is great fun and a tireless worker. One of the memorable events at the press was the year-long work with our advanced printing students on the William Faulkner book, Father Abraham. And one of the most interesting elements of that book was working with John to choose places in the text for illustrations; we watched him work through successive stages of preliminary drawings and then cuttings of the blocks, after which we printed the powerful engravings.
The time at Red Ozier was special for most everyone connected with the press. Particularly wonderful for me were the many friendships that sprang up as a result of our collaborative approach to the work. We engaged our authors, got right down in the trenches with the artists, papermakers, bookbinders, paper decoration artists, type founders, collectors and students. An example of one such friendship that allowed Red Ozier to flourish was Pat Taylor, insurance executive by day and type founder at his Out of Sorts Letter Foundry nights and on weekends. Earlier on Terry Belanger, another friend of the press, introduced me to Pat. In exchange for helping him at the foundry on weekends Pat cast type for our books. without him we could never have afforded new type during the first years in the city. He was a true friend of the press and even lost a fingertip casting cases of Optima on the Thompson for our William S. Burroughs book.
I think one of the best things that could be said about the Red Ozier Press is that it was a collaborative adventure. Ken and I didn’t know for certain where we were going or where we would end up, but we worked with many very talented folks along the way. we liked putting together the team of author, artist, calligrapher, papermaker and bookbinder, or some variation on that theme, and guiding everyone through the planning and production of a book. We enjoyed the challenge of making something different every time, and of approaching each text with fresh eyes. It was a wonderful time.