I was excited to learn that poet and book artist Kate O’Neill has started a press!
She kindly spoke to Miriam’s Well about this new project.
MW: Poetry and letter press printing are a natural pair. How did yo get started?
Poetry and letter press printing do go hand in hand. I have always loved illuminated manuscripts, wood block prints, letter forms, poetry. I studied Art History as an undergrad and worked in Boston as a graphic designer in the 1980’s. I was always looking for ways to combine process and content. So, I worked for a lot of political causes and non-profits. Now, after several decades as an educator, counselor and administrator, I am returning to my first loves of art and writing. Books in all forms synthesize these elements. There’s something so compelling to me about being part of a lineage of creators. Letterpress is a rare art form these days, and I relish being part of keeping the traditions, presses and passions alive.
MW: But starting a press has a lot of heavy lifting! What inspired you? How is the process going?
Since I understand well the time involved and the commitment to starting a press, I am very focused on printing only poetry broadsides and poetry chapbooks. I envision that this will continue to evolve as I gain skill and a body of work. I have a 1909 Chandler and Price platen press which is treadle operated, (so, I don’t need a gym membership LOL!) And, with two other artists, I am just setting up a Vandercook Universal 1 cylinder press. Both of these live in a 400sf garage space that I have converted into a working press studio. The “Emulsifying Fires” chapbook is Dreaming Dog Books’ first publication. Not only did I need to get the press and studio set up, but also the website, ordering capacity, etc. I am still working the kinks out for sure. I have been the binder as well, sewing each chapbook with cotton twill ribbon and waxed linen thread. I love the process and it’s truly gratifying to see them, finally, out in the world.
MW: What was the process of writing the poems–were the photographs direct inspiration, focal points, or?
When I drove into Taos for the first time in 1991 I was struck by seeing the Ranchos Church. I had seen Ansel’s photo of it, I had seen O’Keeffe’s painting of it, but to see it in person was truly amazing. So, I’d say that Ansel’s photos are a jumping off point for the poems. And yet, having lived in NM since 1993, many of these photos are of places that I have been in person. So, in addition to Ansel’s perspectives, I have my own experience of Chimayo, Taos Pueblo, Aspen trees, weather over Cimarron. The landscape of New Mexico is harsh and beautiful, stark and desperate. And yet, there is a softness to the curves, the earth, the flow. I am fascinated by the interplay of light and shadow. The overlays of nature, culture(s), spirit, eros, creative process, space and time, all combine to evoke the vast “suchness’ of New Mexico. The poems were started in 2015, mostly written at the Vermont Studio Center in 2018, after encouragement from Robert Hass at the Community of Writers earlier that summer. This felt like a body of work that needed to be collected, formed and realized as a whole, thus the chapbook.
MW: I notice the use of the couplets throughout (except for Chimayo poems written in 1-line stanzas.) How did you choose this form?
I chose the form because I was enthralled by the dance of light and dark. I also felt like the NM landscape was weaving through both Ansel’s images and my words. I felt like it was beyond an ekphrastic poetic expression to an embodied dance of energies. “. . . the folie a deux between bebop and duende.”
It also reads as if the book is one long poem–like walking through a gallery. Yes, it is as if a scroll through space and time. As David Hockney wrote, “How we depict space determines how we behave in it.”
MW: Future projects? What is next?
I plan to take the next few months to get up to speed on the two presses. Eventually want to create more chapbooks and broadsides. I imagine continuing to weave words and images through book and paper forms in intriguing and inspiring ways.
Saint Francis Church, Ranchos de Taos, 1929
It is not large really, but it appears immense. It seems
as if a soft extrusion, an outcropping of the earth below.
You know precisely the square yard of earth
on which to place your wooden-legged tripod
and Korona view camera—finest mahogany, nickel-plated
adjustments, red-leather bellows, tessar-type lenses.
You challenge the laid-down interpretations as you imprint
the beehive buttresses onto orthochromatic glass plates.
A new outlook, you say, as you float your massive subject in space.
You construct the structure with light, obscure the edges between
sensed and seen. You always use red and yellow filters in the
high-altitude of the Southwest. And yet, on this occasion, some
gentle angel whispers ‘no filter’ and you obey. Some intuitive
thrust makes this picture possible as you open the aperture.
c Kate O’Neill after a photo by Ansel Adams