I have written previously about taking part as a volunteer in Northern Print’s ‘Letterpress – a lasting impression’ project. One of the elements of the project was creating a letterpress artwork for exhibition. We heard in June that we would be asked to work with poems by poets-in-residence who had been working in libraries in Northumberland, and that our work would go into an exhibition in October at Woodhorn Museum. This was after we’d visited Robert Smail’s Printing Works in Scotland and before we’d had our first letterpress workshop.
I finally received copies of the poems on the 18th or 19th July. I read the poems through several times, went out for a coffee and to read them in a different place. The poems we were sent were:
- To a Coal-fired Power Station by John Challis
- The Learner by John Challis
- Bottle by Linda France
- Villanelle for the Library by Lisa Matthews
- The House of Rest by Carolyn Jess-Cooke
- Cold Grey Sea by Jo Colley
- Hold Fast to Dreams by Degna Stone.
Two of them instantly connected with me more strongly than the others: Bottle and To a Coal-fired Power Station. Bottle instantly evoked memories of family teatimes on a red Formica table in the kitchen when I was a child in the early 1970s. I was an avid reader and when I was forced to stop reading books in order to eat, I would read the labels on the sauce bottle (or other condiments, or cereal packets at breakfast). One of the best thing about being an adult is being able to read while I eat when having meals alone.
The other poem – To a Coal-fired Power Station – connected with various stages of my life. I remembered thinking the cooling towers of Fiddlers Ferry Power Station were like convex mushroom stalks on family outings when I was very young.
Years later, I became familiar with the sight of the Yorkshire power stations as I travelled to and from Newcastle when I was an undergraduate. They were the monuments that indicated we were nearly out of the North on the southwards journey and not so far from the change of trains at Peterborough (I disliked travelling through the Fens); and the moment I started to feel excited about returning to the North going up the East Coast line. It was also the time of the Miners’ Strike.
A few years after that, I was discussing with colleagues at English Heritage the effects of burning coal on the ancient monuments of South and West Yorkshire as acid rain eroded the stonework of the ancient symbols of medieval power, the ruined monasteries. I passed the cooling towers as I went back and forth between London and the North. One of the first grant cases I visited was the 14th century bridge at Ferrybridge, the village after which three nearby 20th century power stations were named. One of the best photographs I was unable to take was of the stubble being burned in a field between the railway line and the power station against the backdrop of a glorious sunset and pillars of condensation clouds coming out of the cooling towers.
Having decided that To a Coal-fired Power Station was the right poem for me, I started my research. I read about coal-fired power stations in England, thought about the mining industry, thought about power, and the non-carbon-based alternative power generators. I made notes.
I re-read the poem at least once a day as I tried to decide which verse of the poem to use.
We had our first letterpress workshop on 3rd August. On 11th August, we heard that we would need to have our poetry letterpress works done by 8th September because they would go on display earlier than first expected and time was required for framing. This was already looking like rather tight timing as there were quite a few of us to fit into the studio and not enough space for us all to set our type at the same time. I started to feel a bit anxious.
After lots more coffee in various cafés (I often think certain sorts of thoughts better in cafés), I narrowed down which verses of John Challis’s poem might work better in this context. We had a set size of paper (28 x 38 cms) and knew the frames would be white. I made scribbles and sketches and notes.
I realised that the electricity to light bulb image would be quite tricky and possibly would have worked better with black paper and on a larger scale. The water-filled coal mines under the power station needed a lot more time to make it work than was available. I decided on the last verse and the image of the lines of the verse coming out of the cooling towers and spreading over a map of the landscape, turning into a net.
I created a monochrome image of the relevant area of Yorkshire from a 1940s map, suggesting erosion by reducing the map to the lines edging the forms, and gently erasing and partly erasing areas. Since Northern Print had a new laser printer and cutter, I decided to try the map as etched by laser onto the paper (Somerset Velvet Newsprint Grey). When Helen did the test strips, I got excited at the first glimpse of how it would look. The disadvantage was that the method took a long time. With the textual cooling towers added, it took about 2 hours to print so there was only time to print two pieces of paper.
The idea of creating the cooling towers with the names of the past and present coal-fired power stations in the North of England seemed a good one. It was more difficult to do than I expected. I considered doing it in type but realised I wouldn’t have time and we lacked sufficient type for me to do it in the same typeface. Creating them on the computer also proved trickier than I expected. None of my programmes on my computer could do it, and it took longer than I expected to do it on the Northern Print computer. The kerning (spacing between letters) had to be adjusted for each line, and the right quantity of words needed to be on each line to get the lettering spread evenly enough to create the cooling tower shapes.
At this stage, I was very anxious as the deadline loomed and I was still unsure how of the details of how to create the image in my head, and doubted my ability to create curved text. I had to decide at a late stage to abandon the net element. I had been undecided whether it should be in lino or drypoint but we concluded that soaking the laser-etched paper to print it with a drypoint plate might spoil the map image and would change the subtle textures of the paper and laser etching. And there wasn’t time.
I was also thinking about how to set the type since I knew I needed curving lines, and concluded that corrugated card as packing would help keep the type in curved lines and from wobbling sideways when printed.
We had discovered quite early on that the cases of type had whole sets of letters and punctuation missing. I was one of the last to set my type so had fewer letters available in the cleaned or cleaner type. This led to using different typefaces, but this made me think how to use the type much more expressively than I might have with a wealth of type of one font. As I was setting the type, it began to feel like music in visual form, just as the poetry felt like a verbal form of music. It’s all rhythm and pattern. I calmed down, whilst muttering at frequent intervals (as the double-sided sticky tape made my fingertips very sore) that I should have chosen to do something with straight lines that could be set in a traditional way.
I did a rough proof, just using a baren (disk-like device with a flat bottom covered in bamboo and a knotted handle, used to rub paper onto an inked surface), to check that I hadn’t missed any words out or made any glaring typographical errors.
Several of the other volunteers working on the project were also in the studio working on their pieces. We helped each other find fonts, find specific letters, and provided each other with encouragement. It certainly made it more enjoyable to share the studio and work with each other.
I cut lots of strips of corrugated cardboard (recycling a box that had contained paper towels) to create the packing. Some of it I then covered in double-sided sticky tape.
Helen’s help was invaluable when it came to setting up the press so we got even pressure on the type. I wasn’t very familiar with the mid-19th century Albion press and was very relieved to have the benefit of Helen’s understanding of the finer points of how it works. It wasn’t easy, especially as the strain on my hands of packing the type had caused a flare up of arthritis.
To check the pressure, making adjustments where necessary, and to get the inking right, I printed a few plain versions of just the lettering before trying it on the laser-etched paper. I knew I only had two chances to get the final version right. I was very relieved and excited when I saw the first complete print. It worked – and even looked quite similar to how I’d envisaged it.
It’s not absolutely perfect – and I feel I should apologise for not doing a traditional packing – but even I thought it didn’t look too bad for a first proper try at a letterpress work. It took a few days for my hands to work again but it gave me time to think about how much I’d like to do more. I will try a more traditional packing next time.
I enjoyed seeing the exhibition and thought my fellow volunteers had produced great work. We had all taken such different approaches, and they all worked from a visual point of view. We hoped the poets would like what we had produced in response to their work. It would be good if we were to have an opportunity to work together again and with the poets again, more directly perhaps.
Thank you very much to Northern Print, the Northern Poetry Library, Woodhorn Museum, my fellow artists on the Letterpress project at Northern Print, and especially to John Challis for writing ‘To a Coal-fired Power Station’ and allowing me the opportunity to respond to it.