Friday, February 1, 2008

The Coffee Room, by Stanley Elkin

Here's the other book by Stanley Elkin that I printed. This was, to say the least, much more elaborate - the most elaborate book that I had ever printed up to that time.
After I moved to Louisville, I wrote to Elkin back in St. Louis and asked if he might have another text of some sort that he'd be willing to have me print, with the only payment to him being copies of the book. He responded by saying that the only thing that he could let me have under those terms would be a radio play that he had written several years earlier. The play was written for a series of radio plays on National Public Radio; he was not very happy with the edits that the producers of the NPR broadcast had made, so he specified that I should print his original text, which had been printed in a little magazine, Epoch.
The name of the play was The Coffee Room, and it was set in the faculty lounge of the English Department at Washington University, where Elkin taught. The play was a roman a clef, with the characters being based on actual faculty members of the Department.
I printed 95 copies of the book on Frankfurt Cream paper in a 9 by 6-1/4 inch size. The book, published in 1987, ran to 45 pages. I got Steve Skaggs, a calligrapher here in Louisville, to do the lettering for the title page and the titles for the opening pages of the Introduction and the text of the play itself.
I decided to go whole hog and commission some wood engravings to illustrate the book, so I contacted Michael McCurdy, who did three full-page illustrations and one tailpiece - I show all of them above. Now, I had never printed wood engravings before, so I was probably foolhardy to tackle doing so without any training or instruction. I made numerous mistakes, and it's pretty miraculous that the engravings turned out as well as they did. First off, I bought some ink from the Dan Smith Ink Co. on the west coast that was specifically made for printing wood engravings. I picked what I thought would be the easiest engraving for my first attempt. I had already printed the text pages on the sheet that the engraving would be printed upon. With not too much makeready, I got the engraving to print pretty well. Just one problem: the ink wouldn't dry. I didn't realize that the ink did not have any drier, which I was supposed to have added myself. So I had a hundred or so copies of this illustration that would never dry. I couldn't face re-setting the text for the two pages on the sheet and then printing the engraving a second time. So I went to an art store and bought a couple of cans of artists' spray fixative, which I sprayed over the engravings to basically encapsulate them and keep the ink from rubbing off. Twenty years later, the pictures still look OK, so I guess the fixative was a good solution.
Then I came to the first engraving in the book, the one with the large black door. I was doing makeready by cutting tissue and putting it under the block, rather than in the packing of the press (I printed this book on a Vandercook Universal I, which I owned when I first moved to Louisville). So I started cutting the tissues and pasting them to the key sheet. And I cut, and I cut, and I cut...twenty-six layers of tissue later, I finally got the furschluginer engraving to print right. When I mentioned to McCurdy what a terrible time I'd had getting the block to print, he said, "Oh, yeah, I think that block was low on one side." I'll say.
I asked Carol Blinn to do a paste-paper for the binding - I think that this was the first book of mine that she did binding paper for. She has subsequently done a number of covers for me. I had the book bound at the Campbell-Logan Bindery.
I sent sheets to Elkin to sign, and then sent them to McCurdy to sign, so both signatures are on the colophon page. I press-numbered 20 copies to give to the people contributing to the book - Elkin, McCurdy, Blinn, Greg Campbell, Steve Skaggs, and five copies for myself.
If you look at the picture of the colophon page, you will see a pressmark that I also had Michael McCurdy design for me. It's pretty nice, but I haven't used it in recent years for some reason.
I've been told that I was insane to print the wood engravings on the text paper - that the paper was far too rough and toothy for wood engravings. I should have used a smoother paper. Also, I've been told that I should have put the makeready in the packing rather than putting it under the blocks. I guess it's sort a miracle that the illustrations turned out as well as they did, given my lack of experience and the mistakes that I made.
Another strange thing that I did was to set the character names throughout the text separately from the speeches. This meant that I had to struggle to get the names to align with the text, dealing with differences in squeeze and all. Stupid, I guess. There must have been some reason for me to do it this way - I just don't remember what it was.
I'm just about ready to tackle wood engravings again - hopefully in the book that I will be printing this year; stay tuned.

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