Interview: April Sheridan (Center for Book and Paper Arts)

Allison Conner: From introductory internet snooping I could only find information on your work as related to the Center for Book and Paper Arts. Could you speak on your own art practices? How would you describe your journey to letterpress printing and book arts?

April Sheridan: Within the literary arts, I think of myself more as a publisher (or artist/writer enabler) than an independent artist. I work too slowly to be a real artist. I have been working on some personal projects for 9 or more years.

When I was studying poetry as an undergrad, I had classmates who brought broadsides back from west coast readings and bookstores. My object making (which had previously manifested itself as paintings, collages, sculpture, and the odd little book) instantly collided with my writing. I thought, “We need to do that in Chicago!” and almost immediately began taking classes in letterpress printing (although I had taken some other printmaking by that time). From the classes and events I began to understand the context of the book arts / artists’ book field.

Allison: How does printing intersect with your work as a poet? How does one access your poetry?

April: When I write poetry now I often think of it as a visual project too, how will it look on paper? Should it be a broadside? Chapbook? I am very aware of that, probably to the point that it restricts my writing more than I would like to admit.

As a student of Paul Hoover’s in the 90’s, I began with postmodern studies, the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, the avant-garde, all of whom took the design of the page, the line (see Kathleen Fraser’s essays), very seriously. My own writing was raised on those works. My writing has never really gone to an invisible space. I have a bit of hypergraphia countered with some typophobia (fear of seeing one’s name in publication).

Allison: How would you describe your connection to do-it-yourself/do-it-together practices? Do you see your printing as an extension of this ethos?

April: Small press activity is the space where writers and artists can have almost complete material and content control over their work, but a community of readers is needed to make even independent studio practices run.

Allison: Jen mentioned how enthusiastic you were to participate in our class book exchange. Is the gifting/sharing economy important to your concept of bookmaking?

April: Yes, the gifting/sharing economy is of the utmost importance to bookmaking. The book, at its very core, is the object that best represents the desire to share ideas and to make creative gestures last. I recently heard Leszek Brogowski speak and he said, “When the book is not accessible, it’s not really a book.” I mostly agree with this, although it forces me to think about dark political histories associated with the book.

Allison: How long have you been affiliated with the Center for Book and Paper Arts? What are your responsibilities as a Special Projects Coordinator?

April: I am a native Chicagoan, so when I found out about the Center that was basically it for me as far as a center of production. I took papermaking classes as an undergrad. Later on when I transferred schools, I still took community workshops, studied writing and literary criticism elsewhere. Then when I was looking at grad schools I was accepted into a Poetry MFA in NYC, but changed my mind at the last minute. I couldn’t imagine the focus on one thing, I wanted to still be using my hands, so I ended up at the Center for grad school. After graduating, I worked as a book conservator and artist studio assistant (for Audrey Niffenegger), but I longed for the community aspect. I have been working at the Center since 2006.

Over that time, my responsibilities have changed, from just studio work to more management of the spaces and projects. When I started working with the Poetry Foundation for the Printers’ Ball event, the SPC title was added and I began working on lots of different kinds of outreach and community collaboration. Nowadays, my special projects mostly revolve around the Garden (see below).

I also teach the graduate level letterpress classes and I work with Joshua Young in the Creative Writing Dept/Poetry Program to teach his poetry students how to set type and how to think about their writing in a more visual way. This semester his Advanced Poetry Workshop students are making letterpress printed covers for their final manuscripts.

Allison: The CBPA’s Papermaking’s Garden is a lovely initiative. What has your involvement been? Have you been able to use the papermaking fiber/art materials grown from the plants in projects yet?

April: There’s a great tradition of papermaker’s gardens in the book arts world and we’d been dreaming out loud for quite a while. Helen Hiebert may have been the first person to start one at a school in NYC decades ago. A few years ago, a grad student worker named Alex Borgen showed up breathless in my doorway. She was excited about the possibility of having an outdoor space in which we could grow fibers for papermaking. She had talked to a few people on campus who seemed to think it was possible, so we embarked on the process of writing a proposal and having many more conversations.

Even during a time of budget cuts, we were really lucky to have been met with a positive response from the right administrators. We started the garden with 5 raised beds in a lot on top of gravel and the college, as well as the south loop community, were so positive that it has now transformed to a built space with a performance/classroom area, as well as 10 large raised beds.

Students write a project proposal, adopt a bed, and then grow plants that are used as fiber. Every year the ideas get better! We’ve had a Chicago foods bed (it included everything you use to make a Chicago style hotdog), a sorghum bed, native plant dye bed, calming bed (chamomile, lavender, etc.), Seeds in Service (a collaboration with Jane Addams Hull House Seed Library), a “lavender menace” bed, and so on. This year, we’ll have a gourd bed and a bed of red cabbage to make dye for paper.

Allison: Fog Behind the Eye: An Essay in Reading is described as “a collaborative experiment in offset print production” Most of us in the class are unfamiliar with the process. Could you speak about your experiences in offset printing this booklet? How did it compare to other methods you have used? Do you still experiment with offset?

April: Offset printing was the process that superseded letterpress printing as an industrial printing process (primarily because of its superior ability to reproduce photographs and color). It’s a lithographic process—based on the idea that oil and water don’t mix. Whereas letterpress printing involves a dimensional matrix and impression, offset put ink on top of paper using a very flat plate. Offset offers many more design possibilities and compared to flat-bed cylinder presses (which, being hand-cranked can make about 200 prints an hour) offset can run about 5,000 sheets an hour. It makes mistakes very quickly.

Brad and Clif (both of whom did the printing for that project) are primarily offset printers; I am primarily a letterpress printer. Clif and I would talk about design strategies for that piece. I was a little embarrassed by the project, but grateful nonetheless.

Allison: Our class really enjoyed Slow Advance. We spent some time discussing the ways it thwarts convention modes of reading, presentation, and expectation. We all had different interpretations as to how it could be read/experienced. Do you consider Slow Advance a book? Poetic ephemera? Can you talk about your intentions for this project? Why did you choose to leave the middle panel blank?

April: Thanks, it’s such a little thing. I wrote the text for Slow Advance as a response to and in conversation with my partner’s appreciation for folded structures—he was trained as a mathematician who studied abstract ways of transforming objects. I wanted to try making a whole poem from fragments and I wanted to have some dialogue with the structure—adding that to the idea of landscape (a theme that recurs throughout my work), which shapes our reception. The last line indicates the flexibility of those ideas.

Poetic ephemera is a nice phrase, I could probably use that to describe many little projects I’ve done.

Allison: How have digital technologies impacted your work as a printer?

April: Letterpress printing, I like to say, is an anchor, not a sail. When we are more realistic about the processes we use, that is when we move things forward. I am happy about the accessibility to printing that exists today. There are so many things to say and so many different ways to say it.

The biggest impact on how I thought about technologies as a continuum happened when Clifton Meador and Brad Freeman joined the Center (around 2006). In Clif’s teaching there was the ever-present question of “Why are you using that mode of production?Having the power and technical skill of letterpress printing (the technology which invented typography after all), I moved from what could be considered a fine press mode of thinking to something much more expansive and realistic. I was able to choose the most method for each project.

Brad believes in the practice of skills as a way to develop ideas. I appreciate how all of the skills we gather in the book arts field can inform our work without hindering it through resistance of technology.

Allison: How would you describe your creative process? Do you begin with a concept, an image, words? Or is inspiration too connected to think of as stages?

April: All of the above.

Someone once described Jennifer Martenson’s poetry as “a narrative of thinking” and that’s all I can hope to achieve. Both in my writing and my visual/publishing work, I want the result to be an imprint or record of the thought through all of those things. Perhaps all of that isn’t evident, but it serves as a kind of record of thought for me, and I think a lot of artists.

Allison: Are there any books that you use as a reference/inspiration for your own concerns as an artist?

April: My admiration for books ranges from the literary small press to conceptual artists’ books. Roni Horn’s book Still Water was one of the first books that got me excited about scale and investigation. I saw it in the Flasch Collection, it’s one of the favorites of Doro Boehme who is the Head of Archives and Special Collections at the SAIC Flaxman Library and Flasch Collection. Rather than list other specific books, some of the book artists/writers I admire are Rosmarie Waldrop and the text collage books that she made on press while playing around with other literary projects; Clifton Meador’s body of work and it’s beautiful investigation of cultures all over the world; Brad Freeman’s poetic photography; Johanna Drucker’s letterpress printed work which explores the material’s boundaries; Erica Van Horn and Simon Cutt’s work—they always have elegant solutions to complicated/intellectual ideas.

Allison: Are there any current small presses and/or tiny printing projects that excite you?

April: I suppose these are small, but perhaps, not tiny.

Always and forever Burning Deck and Coracle Press
New Lights Press
MC Hyland’s Double Cross Press, Poetics of the Handmade series
Ugly Duckling Presse
Meekling and Spork are intriguing, but I have concerns.
Anomalous Press
Flying Object Press
Angry Dog Press (now defunct, I believe)
Some recent student work that I hope to see continue: Claire Sammons, Heather Buechler, Jenna Rodriguez
And then I generally love my letterpress printer friends who are mostly working on posters and one sheet projects: Jennifer Farrell (Starshaped Press), Brad Vetter, Jessica Spring (Springtide Press), Amos P. Kennedy Jr.

Places that facilitate book arts related education: organizations like Salt & Cedar in Detroit, and The Perch (who recently moved from Chicago to LA) that make the book arts real community builders by incorporating new kinds of cooperative labor practices and which incorporate many other art forms.

Allison: Would you ever be interested in starting your own press, or a printing project in that vein?

April: I have had various incarnations of Brass Door Press since 2000 and I recently started a new endeavor called Amparan Press and related projects with one of the great lights of the world: Krista Franklin. However, I suppose I see most of my activities as embodying press-like actions, even when I don’t put an official name to it.

Allison: You will be speaking at the &Now 2015: Blast Radius festival! Is this your first year? Which panels are you looking forward to?

April: This is indeed my first year attending the &Now conference! I hope that the panel I am on will serve as a reminder of the possibilities that exist when writers work more closely with how their work is represented on pages and in books and book-like objects.

The amount of good panels with such a variety of voices was overwhelming—I was looking forward to seeing Douglas Kearney, Jen Hofer, Maggie Nelson, Claudia Rankine (who didn’t end up making it), Amaranth Borsuk, Kate Durbin, Ian Hatcher, Aisha Sabatini Sloan, etc.

Allison: Do you have any creative rituals? Things you must do in order to create peacefully?

April: I usually jump start my writing by taking a walk. Or rather, while I am walking, often inspiration strikes. The physical change forces me to discover a new kind of headspace. For a long time, I thought this was only true in the city, but when I travel the same thing happens—landscape, surroundings, all influence me. I try to memorize as much of the in-transit language and the things that snag and remain usually stay in the poems. The rest is left in an invisible pile somewhere out there. I take the language to my desk and usually start with a handwriting, then the drafts go onto the computer for editing, then hopefully, eventually into the studio where I print them. Or they don’t make it that far and that’s okay too.

I edit at my desk at night. I need quiet, it’s the only time I don’t like music. I do better work with tea, some books about art nearby—things to help me focus during high energy and things to distract me when I need inspiration.