THE RED OZIER
A LITERARY FINE PRESS
History and Bibliography 1976-1987
by Michael Peich
A curious phenomenon took place in America during the late 1950s. Throughout the country hundreds of individuals, most of them unknown to each other, established their own small presses. Virtually all of them were started for what appeared to be the same reason, the desire to publish original, serious literature which they felt was being ignored by the major commercial publishers and literary journals.
The causes of this sudden burst of press activity have never been seriously explored, though one economic factor is often cited. The 50s and 60s were a time of changing trade technologies, and commercial printers abandoned letterpress and metal types for offset and photo-composition. The result was a market-place glutted with inexpensive proofing presses, like the Vandercook, which was a perfect machine for small press editions, as well as with type and all the other incidental equipment needed for letterpress printing. People who couldn’t afford a new printing press at $12,000.00 found they could afford a used Vandercook for $200.00 to $500.00. Inexpensive equipment was available, so people with literary aspirations could start their own presses.
Small press activity reached its peak by the end of the 70s, though there is no way of knowing exactly how many small presses actually existed. Still, there must have been many hundreds, all of them actively pursuing some literary dream.
Since there was no network joining them together, and no common ground among them beyond a desire to publish worthwhile literature, the presses were determinedly independent. Each published writers who appealed to the taste of the printer-publisher. While this helped expand the outlet for writers, it also created a large, diverse, and uneven body of work; some of it was superb, some was terrible, and most of it was mediocre. The formats these publishers chose for their books fell into the same categories: a few of them produced beautiful handmade books, some of them issued ugly ones, and the majority, however they were printed, were marginally acceptable. It was typographic skills rather than budgetary constraints that usually determined a book’s look. Still, in those days there seemed to be an audience for everything. Book collectors, readers, and libraries were excited by the flood of new work, and their purchases kept the presses alive for quite some time. Ultimately, though, a more defined set of literary and typographic standards came to apply, and many of the presses, because they couldn’t meet them, ceased to exist.
Red Ozier was started in 1976, during the period of contraction. Though there were still many literary presses in existence, the competition for an audience was contested on a higher plane. The success of this new imprint was a mark of the editorial skill of its founder, Steve Miller, and the typographic skill that he and his future partner, Ken Botnick, were able to develop. Miller was motivated, like other small press owners, to print and publish what he believed was work by worthwhile writers, and his taste, luckily, was good. Yet he also wanted to produce books whose craftsmanship and design were meticulous. For Miller, this latter aim was formed during a period of study with Walter Hamady, whose Perishable Press was in the subset of small presses which Miller wanted to emulate, a group I will call, for lack of a better generic term, literary fine presses. At the time Red Ozier was founded, most of these presses were active either in the Midwest or the Far West.
American fine printing descends from the Arts and Crafts movement in England and William Morris’ achievements at the Kelmscott Press and T.J. Cobden-Sanderson’s work at the Doves Press. The Americans Thomas Bird Mosher (1852-1923) and Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915) were contemporaries of Morris and are generally considered two of the early pioneers of fine printing in this country. Their interests in making books were similar and yet distinct: Hubbard was a disciple of Morris and created books that were ornately and excessively illustrated, while Mosher’s books, like Cobden-Sanderson’s, were characterized by a cleaner, less complicated design. The titles they published were mainly reissues of the texts considered a part of the canon of Western literature. Their books, and the books of their followers, appealed primarily to collectors because they were well-made, expensive, and limited in number; there was no mistaking the sense of exclusivity attached to their volumes.
The interest in finely printed reissues of the classics continued into the early part of the twentieth century and was championed by printers like John Henry Nash, Robert and Edwin Grabhorn, and others. All of them made beautiful books, but they were more interested in manufacturing books for clients than they were in publishing original work. A good example from the period is the Grabhorn Press, which printed a number of Robinson Jeffers’ books for Random House and others. It wasn’t until the Depression that someone thought to publish contemporary writing in finely printed formats.
Carroll Coleman established the Prairie Press (1935) in his hometown of Musacatine, Iowa to publish Midwestern writing. There were other small publishers active at the same time in the Midwest, for example the Torch Press in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, but Coleman had different plans for his press. He wanted to use his knowledge and appreciation of fine printing to publish serious writing. His intentions were similar to those of other small presses, but he wanted to go one step further and make physical books that reflected the good taste of centuries old traditions of bookmaking.
In 1945 he moved to Iowa City to direct the newly formed Typographic Laboratory at the University of Iowa where he taught design and printing. He was succeeded by Harry Duncan (1956-1971) who was by then an established fine printer. Together the two of them, but especially Duncan, encouraged a number of aspiring publishers to become fine printers. (There were also printers in the Far West who were engaged in similar activities, including Ward Ritchie, William Everson, Adian Wilson, Kermit Sheets and others.)
The growth in literary fine printing seemed to spread more rapidly in the midlands because of Duncan’s position at Iowa. He was in daily contact with student writers and artists, some of whom became interested in publishing. One of his many successful protégés, K.K. Merker, founded the Stone Wall Press while a student of Duncan’s (1956) and now directs the Windhover Press at Iowa. The two of them epitomize the important contributions made by literary fine presses to contemporary writing. Between them they have published the work (many of them first books) of the established poets in the modernist and post-modern eras, and they have earned recognition as bookmakers of distinction.
Duncan encouraged another Midwestern bookmaker, Walter Hamady, even though he was not a student at Iowa. Hamady became interested in making books while teaching art at the University of Wisconsin. Inspired by Duncan, he offered a typography course at Wisconsin and attracted interested students. Steve Miller was living in Madison and got his first taste of bookmaking through Hamady.
Miller saw an exhibition of Hamady’s Perishable Press work in 1974 and in 1975 Hamady agreed to admit him as a guest student in the typography class. At the time Miller was a former landscape architecture student who had no particular plan for his life. He had a lifelong interest in poetry that kept him involved in the poetry scene around Madison, but by 1975 he realized that his interest in writing and his vocation as a landscape architect were at odds with one another. When he saw the exhibit of Hamady’s books, he recognized that bookmaking might offer a way of merging his interest in design with his love of poetry. As he has confessed, he was overwhelmed by the possibility for making books, since it was an activity which “…pulled together everything I was interested in.” He began his study with Hamady and produced a broadside of one of his poems, The Balloon People Poem. The excitement he experienced through creating something beautiful and artistic with his hands encouraged him to make printing the focus of his life.
Steve, his friend Jess Anderson, and a little later Bob Neal, talked of establishing a press together. And though it was Steve who created Red Ozier, work at the press was done collaboratively as friends and other artisans contributed their talents to the production of the early books. The spirit of collaboration reached a high point when Ken Botnick and Miller became friends. They met in Madison after Botnick, who was an undergraduate, saw a Red Ozier book and talked with Steve about the handmade paper used for Wild Night Irises. Ken was interested in making paper by hand, and shortly after their meeting the two of them joined forces and made paper for other Red Ozier projects. In two years’ time their enjoyment of bookmaking deepened, and they decided to move to New York City and work together.
The original plan was to set up a paper-mill and a press in New York City; Ken would work as a landscape architect, the two of them would make paper, and Steve would run the press. Shortly after their move East bookmaking started to take precedence over everything in both their lives. They were at a crossroads in their plans when Ken quit his job and the two of them became full partners in the operation of the press. They decided that bookmaking would become their life’s work.
Their partnership was similar to the rich collaboration between Harry Duncan and Wightman Williams. Duncan formed the Cummington Press in 1939 to publish contemporary writing, and was joined in 1944 by Williams. The two of them shared a mutual passion for bookmaking, Duncan in writing and Williams in art. They became renowned in the 40s and 50s for the quality of the texts they published and the books they made, highlighted by Williams’ unique illustrations.
Critics agree that the achievements of the Cummington Press were remarkable, but the range of collaboration at Red Ozier was more extensive. Most o the illustrations at Cummington were provided by Williams; Red Ozier used a variety of artists to illustrate books and broadsides. Beginning with Jamie Miller’s drawing for The Balloon People Poem and continuing through Richard Mock’s provocative drawing for Octavio Paz’s Homage and Desecrations, Ken and Steve sought a varied and interesting visual element for the productions.
The early titles published by Red Ozier were distinct from other small press productions in part because of their illustrations. Perishable Press books were the only examples of fine printing that Steve encountered in the early years. As a result he was influenced not only by Hamady’s impeccable printing, but also by his artistic sense of book design. Miller decided that he, too, would incorporate illustration with text, and would print Red Ozier books equally well, using the best types of mouldmade or handmade paper.
Although the design of Miller’s books seemed more focused on art and less on typography, not every Red Ozier title was orchestrated around illustrative material. The Ginsberg, Wakoski and a few other early titles were typographic designs. But much of the most interesting work from the press integrated image with text to create books that were stimulating, often provocative, and usually very attractive.
Wild Night Irises, the second Red Ozier production, is a good early example of this integration, combining Miller’s poetry and Paul Dromboski’s drawings. The publication of The Wounded Breakfast added a new dimension to the press; it brought together Russell Edson’s surreal poems with Steven Applequist’s equally surreal drawings. The other-worldly mood of the poems is suggested by the title page drawing of a winged, lion-like beast, and later in the bizarre doughy figure of a dead person accompanying the poem “The Sculptor.” The book is a masterful production that maintains the delicate balance of combining forceful text with powerful graphics.
The art used in Red Ozier books depended on the text. Miller’s Hurricane Lake is accompanied by Marta Anderson’s realistic images; the title page of Robert Bly’s Visiting Emily Dickinson’s Grave is graced by a small garland of flowers that represents the mood of mourning in the title poem. Miller and Botnick’s goal in designing their books was to choose appropriate images that would complement the text at hand.
These early titles used art created by friends of Miller’s in Madison.
When the press was moved to New York, the opportunity to use artists was dramatically increased, and it was Botnick who made most of their contacts. There were affiliations with renowned artists who worked in wood like Antonio Frasconi, Barry Moser, John DePol and Fritz Eichenberg, established artists like Isamu Noguchi, Larry Rivers, John Digby, and Ellen Lanyon, and a host of less well known artists. The art was varied and ranged from Lanyon’s memorable drawings for Bly’s Mirabai Versions, to Moser’s quiet woodland scene in Galway Kinnell’s The Last Hiding Places of Snow, and on to the powerful representational engravings by DePol for William Faulkner’s Father Abraham.
There were also quixotic matchups of text with illustration. Howard Buchwald’s scratchboard drawings seem to have no association with the text in William S. Burroughs The Streets of Chance. John Digby’s collages for A Sound of Feathers demonstrate him at his surreal best, as does his image for Aimé Césaire’s The Woman and The Knife. There were even examples of Botnick’s art in two Red Ozier titles. Perhaps more than anything else it was this artistic variety that made Red Ozier titles among the most striking press brooks of the 80s.
There were times, though, when working with artists created problems, not successes, especially when the finished art did not fit Botnick’s and Miller’s own interpretation of the text: “Sometimes there were real ego problems because of the people involved. We really wanted to work with them, but it was a battle. There were several times we just got tired of trying to work art into the book because of haggling over the design decisions. So we’d go typographical for a while, but always come back.” (Miller) Another problem came from paying the artists, as well as the writers, for their work with copies of books. Authors received ten percent of the edition as their royalty payment, but a variable number of the books also had to be given to the artists involved. This reduced the number of copies for sale and ultimately the added expense of the artist’s copies as well as the occasional argument with them reduced Red Ozier’s use of illustration. Toward the end of their partnership Botnick and Miller relied more on making typographic books.
The collaborations at the press were not limited to artists, but included bookbinders, type-founders, and papermakers. The contributions made by John DePol, Claire Maziarczyk, Bill Anthony, Pat Taylor, and even their Madison friends who helped move the press equipment to New York in an old milk truck, were central to the life of the press. Each project pulled together a number of talented hands, like the collaborative effort between DePol, Norma Rubovits, and bookbinder William Anthony that resulted in William Goyen’s Precious Door. But perhaps the most memorable and complex collaboration involved the production of William Faulkner’s Father Abraham.
Ken and Steve taught introductory courses in bookmaking at the New York Center for the Book, the New School, and other venues, to help supplement their income. In 1982 they gathered together a group of advanced students who wanted to further their studies and produce a substantial literary text. Botnick and Miller approached Francis Mattson of the New York Public Library and discussed doing a book from the unpublished manuscripts in the Berg Collection with the proceeds going to the Rare Book Collection at the Library. The New York Public liked the idea. Agreements were made, and an unpublished Faulkner piece was given to them. With manuscript in hand, Botnick, Miller and the students turned to the task of making the book. They spent hours transcribing Faulkner’s holograph manuscript into a readable typescript. Once they had a legible typescript the group keyboarded the Emerson type at Pat Taylor’s Out of Sorts Letter Foundry, pulled proofs, and made corrections.
There were activities that went beyond the physical preparations for making the book that were designed to give everyone a more objective sense of the project. One evening Joseph Blumenthal spoke to the group about the creation of his Emerson type and its eventual casting. John DePol attended another session to talk about the illustrations he was doing for the text. When his engravings were completed the group discussed placement of the images within the text, the texture and tone necessary for clean reproductions, etc. They also talked about the binding structure, as well as the papers used to cover the boards: DePol’s patterned paper was rejected by the group in favor of a paste-paper designed by Claire Maziarczyk. They discussed Anita Karl’s calligraphy for the title page, and the colors used to reproduce it. When the production issues were settled, the book was printed in equal share by members of the group guided at each step by Botnick and Miller.
Father Abraham took over a year to complete, but it was an effort that produced a volume of lasting importance, and also was, as Ken Botnick has noted, “…a very moving experience.” The book is an affirmation of uniting a significant text with a high level of production and taste, and is one of the finest press books produced in the 80s.
Some of the collaborations at the press had nothing to do with production or the press itself, but instead reunited old artist and writer friends. The composer Ned Rorem and Larry Rivers worked together again in Paul’s Blues, as did Charles Henri Ford and Isamu Noguchi for Om Krishna III: Secret Haiku. Whatever form the connections took, the collaborations provided a spark of energy that made Red Ozier books unique.
Collaborative work generates creative energy that can result in remarkable physical productions. But the ultimate measure of a literary press is the writers it publishes, and over the years Red Ozier amassed an impressive list. When Miller founded his press, which he originally called Orion Press, he published his own work and the work of his friends. The appearance of Diane Wakoski’s George Washington’s Camp Cups marked a departure from publishing local writing to issuing titles by writers who were known nationally. While he was still in Wisconsin Steve solicited work from established poets he admired, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Robert Bly and Wakoski. He also chose writers less well known, like the surrealist Russell Edson, and the weirdly imaginative William S. Burroughs, Jr., the son of novelist William S. Burroughs.
Early in the work of the press Miller realized the need to get his books before a wider audience. With Wild Night Irises in hand, he flew to Washington and New York and sold copies of his books to the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, the Gotham Book Mart, and the Phoenix Book Shop. These experiences convinced him that if he could make and sell books in Madison, he could succeed in Manhattan where there were greater possibilities for meeting authors and artists.
The first few titles issued in New York, by Wakoski, Bly and Galway Kinnell, had been solicited by Miller in Madison. Clayton Eshleman’s Our Lady of the Three Pronged Devil was the first Red Ozier manuscript acquired in Manhattan. Manuscript acquisition is one of the most intriguing functions performed by a small press. Sometimes a literary small press offers an established writer the opportunity to publish non-commercial/experimental work that a commercial publisher might feel is unprofitable. However, most small presses do not publish established writers and concentrate instead on issuing the work of emerging or unknown authors. As a small press compiles an interesting list of authors like this, other writers, regardless of their reputation, will want to be associated with a press which has an established editorial reputation. A good example of this was George Hitchcock’s success with kayak press. If a press demonstrates sound editorial judgment and also issues beautiful books, that press can acquire manuscripts from nearly anyone. Most writers are delighted to see their work reproduced in finely printed editions because they appreciate the care a fine printer takes to produce a book. Miller learned this lesson in Madison and he and Botnick put it to good use in New York City.
Ken and Steve were not shy about approaching people in New York for manuscripts. They attended a reading by Jayne Ann Phillips in 1980 at the Y. That night they were more impressed by William Goyen’s reading of the short story Precious Door, and eventually asked him for permission to produce it. This kind of experience was repeated often and enabled them to secure work from William Burroughs, Paul Bowles, Octavio Paz, Charles Wright, Ned Rorem, Guy Davenport and Richard Howard: “In New York you could go up to a reader at a gathering that had an audience of 50 people and have easy access to the writer.” (Botnick) However, none of the texts they acquired, particularly the Faulkner, would have materialized if they had not developed a reputation for the quality and variety of their books: “It’s why we didn’t repeatedly publish a particular author or artist. We might go back if we were passionate about their work, but we were on a path of following a developing theme in literature.” (Miller)
Acquiring manuscripts also involved a certain amount of networking, and they were generously aided by the Parisian Surrealist poet and essayist Edouard Roditi: “Edouard became a great friend of the press. Whenever he came to town, he would always stop and spend time with us and give us the latest news on different authors. Je’d suggest authors and talk a lot about art and artists.” (Miller) Roditi knew everyone in the United States and abroad who was connected with Surrealism. Since Ken and Steve were interested in Surrealist writing, Edouard was a valuable conduit through which a number of writers later became Red Ozier authors.
Roditi was invaluable to the press, but there were other intriguing connections that resulted in Red Ozier books: Charles Henri Ford was introduced by William S. Burroughs; Octavio Paz came to the press through the translator Eliot Weinberger, who himself was suggested by Clayton Eshleman; Guy Davenport was recommended by Bradford Morrow; there were a number of similar affiliations that the checklist details. It was exciting to live in New York and constantly meet new people from a broad creative spectrum. One experience in particular symbolized the limitless creative possibilities available to them. Ken and Steve attended the opening of a Noguchi retrospective at the Whitney Museum and took an elevator the to reception: “…the door opened and standing directly in front of us, with their arms around each other, are Noguchi, Buckminster Fuller and Martha Graham…. These three people had a history that was incredible…. That’s what living in New York can be about.” (Miller)
Much of the literary success of the press was due to Botnick and Miller’s enjoyment of a wide range of writing. The variety of their author list, especially after the move to New York, speaks for their eclectic tastes. The core of Red Ozier’s productions involved the work of writers who appealed to Ken and Steve, and they published many authors whose work had a surrealistic slant. Steve Miller was fascinated with Surrealism at a young age, particularly the work of Roditi, which helped shape his literary interests. Furthermore, Surrealist texts suggested exciting possibilities for illustrations and design; a good example is Antonin Artaud’s Chanson. It would be inaccurate, though, to conclude that Red Ozier issued only surrealistic texts. It’s more appropriate to conclude that the press was willing to take risks with work Botnick and Miller felt deserved a public audience. The gambles they took were appreciated by their readers and helped to attract other writers to the press.
Red Ozier published quality writing and this made them a successful literary press. But they were also a fine press and the superior execution of their books appealed to readers and devotees of fine printing. They succeeded as designers because the typography and production of their books reflected the substance of the work. Every text was different and no two books looked alike. Their books avoided the look of a house design and remained as fresh as the texts they published.
Red Ozier published dozens of titles that are distinguished examples of the physical book. One book, Paul’s Blues, deserves mention for its combination of solid typography and interesting art. The text reproduces songs that the composer Ned Rorem wrote based on lyrics composed by Paul Goodman. In the introduction Rorem discusses his association with Goodman and how the songs were written in 1947. Following the introduction is a reproduction of Rorem’s fair-hand manuscripts for each of the three songs, the printed lyrics of the songs, the composer’s journal entries from around the date of Goodman’s death on 3 August 1972, and an afterword by Rorem. The manuscript is a complex mixture that is both solemn (Rorem’s tribute to his friend) and entertaining (the songs themselves). Ken and Steve solved the textual complexity by choosing a straightforward, elegant typographic presentation. The only adornment in the book is Rivers’ energetic title page which addresses the creative collaboration between poet and composer; in an almost excited way it prepares the reader for the text that follows. The finished product is a masterful job of keeping all the elements of the text in perfect balance and harmony. It is a high point of production from the press because it combines, with almost disarming ease, classical typography with a new technology (the title page was reproduced by color Xerox and transferred to the sheets).
Some readers were attracted to Red Ozier books at a time when artist books were becoming popular. But if it is unfair to say that they only published surrealist texts, it is equally short-sighted to conclude that Ken and Steve made livre d’artiste. The focus of artist books is on the art; text is often of secondary importance. At Red Ozier the text was the important component in a book and artwork merely highlighted the author’s words. Furthermore, as artist books were gaining in popularity, Botnick and Miller made fewer illustrated books and more typographic ones. Several of their later titles, those by William Bronk, Guy Davenport, Charles Wright, and Richard Howard, are memorable for their use of typographic elements to create effects formerly achieved by images: “I wanted to take control of all those elements, type and rule and space…. I was starting to become skeptical about putting pictures in books…. We had a desire to do more explosive things with different, non-pictorial elements.” (Botnick)
The books they designed in the last few years of their partnership were notable for the manipulation of type, white space, and color. The result was a more confident and competent imposition of type of the page in relation to white space, the elusive mis en page typographers struggle to keep in balance. Their changed attitude toward design is also evident in the presentation of title pages: rules, space and color are used in the place of images. The title of Guy Davenport’s The Bicycle Rider is enclosed in a dramatic series of black rules, squares, and rectangles colored blue, red and yellow. It is evocative of Mondrian and suggests the colors that recur in the text. Several books, Father Abraham, Hellenistics by Richard Howard, and William Bronk’s Careless Live and Its Apostrophes, used calligraphic title pages. Equally as interesting is the title page for Charles Wright’s Five Journals, which is highlighted by a rectangle printed in varying shades of black, blue and grey on grey Amora paper. Two shades of blue are used alternately for the titles of each of the five journals. This subtle typographic effect prepares the reader for the contrasts between light and dark in Wright’s text.
The gradual shift to making typographic books was an interesting development for Botnick and Miller as designers. In the early years of the press they had only the examples of Walter Hamady to guide their thinking about design; consequently, they created books which favored an artistic presentation. Living in New York exposed them to a wider range of books, and they began to embrace typographic approaches. It’s almost as if they worked in reverse, moving from the nominal contemporary influence of art integrated with text (Hamady). back to the more classically based typographic designs of literary fine printers like Coleman and Duncan. The change in their design was partially due to the frustration of working with artists, but it was more the result of their increased awareness of the history of the book.
Although the design of their books became more typographic, art did not completely disappear from Red Ozier editions. Homage and Desecrations by Octavio Paz is a pleasing example of integrating typography with art. The title page, which incorporates printer’s rule and ornament, and the text are combined comfortably with Richard Mock’s bold illustrations. The Paz was the last book from the press and it is ironic that just when Botnick and Miller had mastered a broader dimension of possibilities, and had more options available to them for designing books, they decided to suspend production and close the press.
One other distinctive aspect of Red Ozier books were the papers Botnick and Miller used for their books. They intended to use handmade paper in all the editions they produced, but the move to New York deprived them of the papermaking facilities they had used in Wisconsin. The Void was filled by Susan Gosin, a friend from Wisconsin who had established the Dieu Donné Papermill on the lower East side. They rented space at Dieu Donné and made handmade papers for many of their editions, often collaborating on projects with paper artists like Paul Wong. Although Ken and Steve worked together making much of their own paper, and dreamed of establishing their own mill, they eventually stopped using handmade sheets because of the cost. Like so many other components in the construction of their books, making paper became a prohibitive expense which they had to minimize if they wanted to continue publishing.
A fine printer is faced with many decisions when designing a book. But once these questions are settled and production begins, the finished books in an edition all look the same. However, variant copies do occur and their appearance often causes distress for bibliophiles and book sellers. For example, the wrapper of Salvatore Quasimodo’s The Tall Schooner appears in three colors, a maroon Canson paper which wraps the majority of the copies, and blue or green handmade Tidepool paper; the text of Diane Wakoski’s Overnight Projects With Wood is printed on either Frankfurt White or Frankfurt Cream paper. Variants often befuddle collectors and bibliographers, but there was usually an economical reason for them at Red Ozier: Miller and Botnick often did not have the money to purchase enough sheets of a particular paper to complete an edition, so they used what was on hand. Ken and Steve were sometimes more concerned about getting books in print with the materials available to them than they were with making certain that all the copies looked alike.
Any book’s presentation might vary because it is handmade, and fugitive elements like color, or the patterns of a pastepaper, will change from copy to copy. This is an unintentional variation and can’t always be controlled. But a variant can be the result of a willful act, and there are several of these in the Red Ozier oeuvre. One example is the flower that appears on the title page of Visiting Emily Dickinson’s Grave. When he lived in Madison, Miller walked beside a railroad track on his daily trip to the press at the Washington Hotel. There were flowers growing alongside the track that varied in color from yellow to a bluish-purple. When he started to print the Bly title page he decided to make the flower yellow; but as he printed to rest of the edition he was reminded of the flowers next to the tracks and added touches of blue to the original ink to create a gradation through the edition from yellow to blue. One can only see the evolution of the flower’s coloration by looking at several copies of the book. And the effect is lost since most readers own only one copy. However, the motivation for coloration was an artistic decision intended to provide a subtle touch to the book’s production.
At other times variation occurred in an attempt to improve the book’s final appearance. An example of this was noted in a recent bookseller’s catalogue that listed a variant copy of George Washington’s Camp Cups. The cataloguer noted that the cover lacked the usual blindstamping of the poet’s name and the initials of the title, and contained endsheets that were different from the rest of the edition. The bookseller carefully pointed out that since all copies in the edition were press-numbered and this copy fell within the edition size, it was safe to assume that it did not exceed the stated number of copies for the edition. (God forbid!) Yet, why was it different from the rest of the edition? Steve Miller had a simple explanation: he was bored with the design of the cover and wanted to try something different to make the book more satisfying. It was a conscious experiment in the middle of the press run, not a mistake the printer tried to pass off to the public.
The checklist also lists artist proof copies, which were not variants in design, but were occasionally issued in addition to the stated edition size: “In many cases, especially when we did press numbering, we’d do the number of copies we intended then we’d do five or ten AP’s…. They were used to pay the author, or artist, or ourselves so that we could reserve the numbered copies for sale.” (Miller) In some cases proof copies might also be used for experimental bindings, as in the case of Galway Kinnell’s The Last Hiding Place of Snow. But, for the most part artist proofs were issued out of series and did not represent earlier or later versions of a text.
Manhattan was an exciting and stimulating place to live for two people interested in making books. In addition to the authors and artists they met, Ken and Steve had access to rich repositories of books like the New York Public Library and the Morgan Library. They met people who collected books and who shared with them examples from their own libraries. All of this helped change the shape and design of the books they produced. Their lives were enriched through the experiences they had and the friendships they formed during the years in New York.
The most satisfying product of the Manhattan years was the body of work published at Red Ozier. Steve’s suspicion that their books might appeal to readers had been confirmed. By 1986 Red Ozier had attracted a faithful clientele (they had many standing order patrons), had received a number of grants, and had been the subject of favorable reviews and feature articles. The fellows from Madison had made their mark in the book world and seemed to have a bright future ahead of them. Why, then, did they decide in 1987 to dissolve their partnership, and close the press?
The cost of living in Manhattan played a major role: “We had gone for so long with so little money coming back that it started to drain my excitement about making books.” (Miller) Botnick and Miller were not extravagant and most of their energy was focused on producing books and keeping their lives simple. But, New York is an expensive place and they faced that reality daily. To offset their living expenses they kept production costs of the books low by binding their editions. In addition, Ken and Steve were extremely energetic people and often had two presses working simultaneously on separate projects. At the height of their work they issued as many as ten titles a year. Yet despite their output and their willingness to forego material pleasures, there were other factors working against their financial stability.
The prices they charged for their books did not provide enough income to meet their living costs, and that was frustrating. Even though handmade books are expensive to make, and are limited in number, if a book is too expensive there is the potential for losing buyers. Sales had always been brisk at Red Ozier and most editions sold out, but that did not guarantee enough income to cover their costs. Added to this was the fact that by the mid-80s the audience for buying finely printed books had dwindled: “Our production was winding down because the small collectorship that was there in the beginning had been cut in half. It was difficult surviving in the early years and we had, but there was really no way that we could make ends meet now. We were concerned with health care, supporting a family, and being more independent.” (Botnick) Ken and Steve have mentioned how frustrating it was to present the New York Public Library with checks totaling $24,000.00 from sales of the Faulkner book when they didn’t know how they were going to pay their next month’s rent.
Another limiting factor was the lack of consistent time they could spend at the press, which ultimately reduced the potential for income. For example, they weren’t protected by health insurance and simple illnesses meant lost time. Or, in order to meet their expenses they worked part-time teaching classes in bookmaking, and paid for type by keyboarding at Pat Taylor’s type foundry. These arrangements provided needed supplementary funds, but they took time away from completing projects at the press.
In addition to their financial burdens, working in New York caused other frustrations in their lives. When they first moved to Manhattan Botnick and Miller were willing to forego creature comforts so that they could make books. But over the course of time their lives changed; Ken got married and began working part-time to support his family. He and his wife Karen moved into the loft on 22nd Street where the press was located, and Steve moved to an apartment on the upper West side. It took more money to support these moves and rearrangements; Steve took a job as proof-reader for a law firm, and Ken began to work part-time for Yale University Press. Both Ken and Steve began to realize that there were too many obstacles to living in Manhattan, and unfortunately the press did not provide the means to overcome them.
The expectation and glamour that inspired their move to New York was eventually displaced by the grind of daily life in the City. One incident near the end of their partnership exemplified the frustrating distractions they encountered. After Ken was married they moved the press to a loft in a converted warehouse on 25th Street. There was a sound studio beneath them and the noise levels were often disturbing; it was not unusual to hear (and see) David Bowie, Sting or Tina Turner practicing. For a period of several days in 1986 someone played music loud enough to shake toe floor in the press-room. The distraction became intolerable: “At first I thought it was this second or third-rate Jagger imitation group, but they kept getting better. Then Ken saw a limousine arrive one day with Mick Jagger in it.” (Miller) The presence of famous entertainers might have added to the glamour of living in Manhattan, but it became irritating and distracted them from their work: “It was not very fun and was too noisy. There were days when the type would be bouncing on the galleys because the noise was so bad. It was really not fun at all.” (Botnick)
Shortly after the appearance of Octavio Paz’s Homage and Desecrations Steve and Ken began long discussions about the future of the press. They had to renew their lease for the press, and they were faced with a number of mounting debts. Both of them were working more regularly (Ken was commuting to his job in New Haven), and the New York Public Library had recently bough the archive of Red Ozier Press. The two of them felt a sense of loss and lack of direction: “I remember being really depressed about having all that stuff go because… [the archive] was like an old friend leaving the shop…. It was a big part of our lives that we sold.” (Botnick) About this time Ken and his family moved to Middletown and a shorter commute to his work at Yale. They even discussed the possibility of Steve’s moving to Connecticut and expanding the mission of the press to include doing design work for others. But everything was decided when Steve was invited to run the book arts program at the University of Alabama. After eleven years of work that produced over seventy titles, they decided to close the press.
Although Red Ozier ceased as an entity, Ken and Steve remained affiliated with publishing. Ken produced two titles at his private press in Connecticut. He remained with Yale University Press and taught courses in typography at the University until he became director of the Penland School of Arts and Crafts (North Carolina) in June, 1993. Steve went to Alabama in 1987 and he and his students have produced a number of titles under the university’s Parallel Editions imprint. He has issued occasional work through his own Red Hydra Press.
While it is difficult to estimate the overall contribution Red Ozier made to the history of publishing and fine printing, they did realize a number of accomplishments. They were certainly one of the best known literary fine presses of the 70s and 80s, and this was due to their sound editorial judgment and the design of their books. It was always exciting to receive the latest Red Ozier offering. There was a freshness to their books that was evident in the texts they chose, and the designs of the physical books. In this sense their productions were constantly evolving, which enabled them to avoid the sameness that made many other press books seem stale and unimaginative. Joining art with text was an important part of that evolution and made them precursors to the current fascination for Artist’s Books.
They also managed to survive as an independent literary fine press for a considerable time, though Steve founded the press at a time when the audience for press books was at its peak. Sadly, though, the story of Red Ozier also demonstrates that it is very difficult to succeed as a fine literary publisher unless there is external support. Most fine presses are now affiliated with universities and depend on institutional assistance. This is appropriate since the audience for fine printing is in a period of contraction and the craft needs external support in order to survive. The success of Red Ozier serves as a role model for bookmaking that an academic connection can encourage, and which Steve has furthered through his affiliation with the University of Alabama, and Ken with Penland.
Ken and Steve also distinguished the press by the body of work they produced. Their designs were lively and diverse because the texts they published suggested variety and they were visually open to change. They fulfilled their mission and brought new and important writing to their audience.
Finally, Ken and Steve achieved a level of craft that few people ever reach. For many years every phase of a book’s construction was completed by them and reflected the meticulous attention skilled craftsmen bring to their work. They cast type at Pat Taylor’s made paper at Dieu Donné, printed the sheets at the loft, and bound each volume by hand. The finished books were fitting testimonies to the care and attention given to their construction. There were economic reasons which encourage Miller and Botnick’s hand production, but in an arena where an artist’s ideas are turned into a physical object, the hand method seemed to most appropriate vehicle for production. In this realm they were enormously successful.
The body of work produced at Red Ozier came at a time when it was exciting to publish new writing in finely designed editions. Although the audience has decreased over the years, there are still readers who enjoy well made books of contemporary writing. And despite a diminished readership, literary fine presses continue to spring up, which suggests that there will always be people who want to transform their dreams of publishing into the reality of making finely crafted books. For them, and for the generations of readers to come, the achievements of the Red Ozier Press will serve as an inspiration and a valuable contribution to the history of bookmaking and small press publishing.
WEST CHESTER UNIVERSITY