Poetry Without Pixels

Want to publish a book? All you need is a laptop.

But Eric Johnson prefers to do it the old-fashioned way, setting type letter by letter and cranking out pages on a press operated by hand or with a foot pedal. Some writers, poets and graphic artists find it much more expressive and satisfying to print small-edition books, posters and graphic art by hand, and Johnson’s Iota Press in Sebastopol makes it possible.

Eric Johnson prints announcements for an upcoming show on an authentic platen press circa 1930 at Iota Press in Sebastopol.
Eric Johnson prints announcements for an upcoming show on an authentic platen press circa 1930 at Iota Press in Sebastopol.

In an age when computers rule and faster is considered better, advocates of the classic letterpress have become used to being asked why they bother with it.

“I could have 3,000 ‘friends’ on Facebook, Twitter and other online platforms, but it’s the one, two or 10 who take quality time to sit down over tea that matter in the end,” Santa Rosa artist Cheryl Itamura explained. “So why not take the time to handset type, and print 10 copies of a book, or perhaps just one?”

Johnson, a poet who earned his living as a Bay Area construction worker, turned his attention to printing after his retirement 10 years ago, and started Iota five years ago.

“This is not a commercial print shop. We don’t do wedding invitations or business cards,” said Johnson, 71, who has six letterpresses and tray after tray of type in his small shop, some of it dating back to the Civil War.

“I teach workshop classes on the fundamentals of press work almost year-round. After people have taken three courses with me, I’ll let them rent time in the shop. But they have to learn how to use the presses first.

“For a writer, getting your hands into your composition is a real trip. It’s a kind of editing. You think you’ve got something that’s really well-written and then you go to the press and start setting type, and then right in the midst of it, you start rewriting.”

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