Letterpress List No. 52: Idol Hands

Some day when you’re just hanging around a local letterpress shop, watch a top-drawer printer’s hands work: the way they feed a press, lock up a chase, brayer ink onto a form, pull a proof, tie lines of lead type together with baker’s string to form a stanza …

Yeah, it is kind of like poetry, isn’t it?

I mean, what other reason would Shop Boy’s paws be there, under the hot lights, doing these things and other printshop tasks as, ahem, stars of an upcoming film on the life and work of a Wisconsin poet, Lorine Niedecker? The film’s a labor of love being put together by Cathy Cook, a Wisconsin native herself and an award-winning filmmaker and teacher at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.

New Goose, Niedecker’s first book of poems (in 1946 — she died in 1970), was a letterpress job. So, Cathy scouts all around Baltimore for a spot to re-create that part of the story and decides that the best place is Typecast Press and that the best hands for playing the part of a brilliant, seasoned craftsman belong to — ta-da! — Shop Boy. (Cue the applause.)

OK, she lives around the corner from our shop. But it would be kind of rude of you to point that out, don’t you think?

And you could also chime in that it was Mary who made the whole thing seem like just one more amazing day at our funky little printshop.

It was she, after all, who scoured the East Coast collecting the key objects that would make our shop look “of the period.” She found guys to set linotype in typefaces as close as possible to the title page of New Goose to make sure it looked legit as we reprinted it. She spent hours trying to find a reasonable facsimile of the main title’s typeface, finally finding a place that would “rent” those eight letters of lead type to her. Mary set up the filming appointment to suit Shop Boy’s schedule, not hers. Because Mary sweated every detail, the actual shoot was sure to be a breeze. Nice.

All Shop Boy had to do was not drop anything.

Like these lines of poetry, in linotype:

For sun and moon and radio
farmers pay dearly ;
their natural resource: turn
the world off early

Now wait, you might ask, if Mary did all the prep work, why won’t her hands be in the movie?

Turns out New Goose‘s printer, James A. Decker of the James A. Decker Press, was obsessed with getting poetry books into circulation, never a very profitable venture, and one that doomed his involvement in the printing business. Mr. Decker’s hands looked nothing like Mary’s, something Shop Boy is thankful for.

Besides — and nothing against Mr. Decker — in those days, Mary’s hands would not necessarily have been all that welcome in a printshop. You know, unless they were gripping a firearm in a photo on the girlie calendar or something. So my unmanicured, unwaxed and, um, pale male hands got the part.

There’s a cartoon by Matt Groening on our fridge that pokes fun at, oh … conservative thinking. The kicker? “Don’t white males deserve a fair shake for once?” Kills me every time.

The funny thing is that Decker’s sister stayed with the business after he up and left Prairie City, Ill. Seems she was madly in love not with poetry but with the fellow who bought the press from her brother. He had no love for her, alas, and so she grabbed a gun and ended things right there for both of them.

But we digress.

The shoot went great, and now the results sit safely inside Cathy Cook’s beautiful hand-cranked camera (oh, boy, another fan of “old stuff”). She’s planning to premiere the film in Wisconsin — Shop Boy’s hands’ll be huge there — before showing it in other venues closer to Baltimore.

Mary? Look for her … oh, I don’t know … somewhere in the credits or something.


Anyway, if this movie is successful enough, Shop Boy can just see it:

These famous hands in wet cement outside a theater. I’m sure Mary will let me know when it’s time to pull them out.

Mary? … Mary?

Must be inside watching the film.

Hope it’s, um, over soon.


Letterpress List No. 52

How about an hour … or maybe just a movie soundtrack’s worth … of music to reproduce old poetry by? Most of these tunes should be available in the usual places. Goofy and great video links are to YouTube.

Willie and the Hand JiveJohnny Otis (Oh, man.)
It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s WorldJames Brown (Ditto.)
Poor Misguided FoolStarsailor (Ahem.)
She Blinded Me With ScienceThomas Dolby (Poetry in motion.)
Story of My LifeSocial Distortion (Like the day Shop Boy met Mary, a hip-hop nut. My brain’s never been the same.)
Hollywood Swingin’ Kool & the Gang (And she likes anything with a horn section.)
Hey Little GirlProfessor Longhair (From the Dead Poets Society soundtrack. ;-) )
Express Yourself N.W.A. (“Don’t be another sequel.”)
Rhymin & StealinBeastie Boys (What rhymes with “most ill”?)
SupaStarFloetry (Couldn’t resist.)
The Real ThingINXS (Down to the letter.)
Tough LoveHamell on Trial (Trigger pulled, issue solved.)
Every Day I Write the BookElvis Costello (A Shop Boy favorite.)
Celebrity SkinHole (Courtney Love, hands gripping a guitar, posing for the calendar.)
Clap HandsTom Waits (You’re too kind.)

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One Response to “Letterpress List No. 52: Idol Hands”

  1. Cathy Cook Says:

    Shop Boy !!!!

    I did not know about your writing talents!!!
    What a fun blogeroo!
    A poet friend of mine in NYC told me to check it out and I laughed and laughed-
    You will see the film soon-
    FEB. 8th will be the B-More premiere! @ Creative Alliance.
    Keep those hands busy…………..

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