03 Sep Andrew Rippeon
Andrew Rippeon lives in Davidson, NC, where he teaches in the Davidson College Writing Program and is the founding coordinator of the Davidson College Letterpress Lab. Before arriving at Davidson in June 2018, Rippeon taught literature at Hamilton College and also founded and developed The Alexander Hamilton Press. Rippeon is a mostly self-taught printer; during his graduate training (in literary criticism) he edited the poetics journal P-Queue and founded the chapbook series QUEUE, and began printing and assembling items by hand. Poetics and print production often converge in Rippeon’s practice: as a critic he is interested in print-materiality and literary ephemera from the analog to the digital, and as a printer Rippeon is interested in the ways print-production can both imagine and challenge scenes of its reception. Rippeon is also interested in the pedagogical role of the letterpress lab in the 21st century liberal arts context—especially questions raised by or about analog production in a supposedly digital era. With photographer Rob Knight, Rippeon received a 2018 College Book Art Association award for their collaboration Every Mosque Between JFK and Syracuse, NY. Broadsides and other ephemera include pieces for Anne Carson, Nikki Giovanni, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Claudia Rankine, Christian Bök, Cecelia Vicuña, and CAConrad. Current teaching, restoration, and other lab-related projects can be found here at the Davidson College Letterpress Lab.
Introduce a book project that you’ve recently completed.
I’m planning some work for Whitman’s as well as Melville’s bicentennial (May and June of this year!), but I wanted to share here some book-work completed about a year ago—19th century in theme, coincidentally, but firmly based in the 21st century. On March 1, 2018, Colson Whitehead was invited to Hamilton College to deliver the annual Tolles Lecture. That semester, I was teaching both the nineteenth-century American literature survey, and a workshop in letterpress printing. In anticipation of Whitehead’s visit, I had structured my survey partially around Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (there are fascinating print-historical references woven though the book, including abolitionist presses and archival newspaper advertisements offering rewards for the capture and return of runaway slaves). And, I had gotten approval from Whitehead, through his agent and publisher, to print a limited-edition extract from the book itself.
To deepen the experience of your work, is there anything that you would like to convey to the reader/viewer about the significance and meaning of the work which might not be readily accessible?
While I often work with poetry—which works well in ephemera because an entire work can usually be printed on a single flat surface—selecting an extract from a novel offers challenges. The extract should be relatively autonomous, but it should also have an obvious relation to its source. Poems are also (usually) “ragged-right” texts, while commercial fiction is both justified and wraps with little consideration to the music or prosody of the lines themselves. Those questions pertain to genre, but there were also the more familiar questions that arise in any print project: What are the relationships between the textual and the visual? How does the print-object confront the reader? How does the reading process resonate with the text itself? With specific reference to Whitehead’s work, since The Underground Railroad deals so explicitly with race, I wanted to make sure that the edition both engaged with and was respectful of the historical and contemporary circumstances of Whitehead’s novel. For example, the initial extract was to have been a short passage about an abolitionist printer, but this seemed tangential at best to the protagonist Cora’s journey. Similarly, an early idea, of printing the extract over or alongside archival sources like those used by Whitehead in his novel seemed to excavate that print-history, but ultimately in the wrong vein. Finally, the appropriate passage seemed to be a moment near the end of the novel, where Cora travels alone on a railroad handcar, and ruminates on both the literal and figurative aspects of this hand-powered travel to freedom. It could stand on its own as a literary extract, and was also a deeply resonant moment in the narrative.
With the passage selected, there were questions of form; and of verbal, visual, and textual interactions. I had just had cast two beautiful fonts of Gill Sans (in 12- and 18-point), from Michael and Winnifred Bixler, and knew that I wanted to use that crisp new type for this project, but there remained the questions of the book-form and other visual elements. I wanted to avoid flat work, and use the reading process to augment themes from the text. (Flat work seemed too ‘static’ for this project; rather than reading it at a glance, I wanted readers to have to work, like Cora, to reach the conclusion.) I initially considered both a tunnel-structure and a concertina structure, but then settled on a flutter-style book, for the ways that it both rhymed with and departed from the function of a traditionally-bound codex. A flutter book can be read flat (by paging through the spreads), can be stood on its end if the text-block is sufficiently sturdy, and can even be extended while standing. With the form and the typeface settled, I decided I would divide our 12-sentence extract into two sentences per spread, for a total of six spreads with text, and an additional spread at back for the colophon. I had recently seen some great projects on French Speckletone, and after some deliberation about the subterranean elements of Whitehead’s novel, decided the edition book would be black from cover to cover. A black-on-black ink and paper scheme was one option, but ultimately I opted for metallic silver ink.
The metallic silver worked especially well with the image—a 19th century steam locomotive, rushing to the right. I enlisted the help of a librarian at the college to find an image free from copyright, and used a laser-cutter to engrave the image into a block of cherry. I left the bottom two-thirds of the block type-high along its length—the full spread of the book when open—and then engraved the locomotive in relief in the upper third of the block.
When it came to the flutter page-spreads, I wanted the reader to be able to focus on the text without being able to ignore the material elements of the edition. The Underground Railroad works in episodes that repeat and vary, as Cora moves from location to location, and as people in her life come and go for various reasons. In the edition, the type-high bottom of the locomotive block forms the ground upon which the locomotive travels across the spread of the book; as the locomotive pushes toward the right margin of the spread, the text fills the upper third of the verso. As the edition proceeds, this set of relationships remains the same: the verso is always the focus of textual attention, and the recto is always the focus of visual or image-based attention. Each spread repeats these relationships, while the text unfolds its narrative.
While this set of relationships defines the page-spreads and text-block—the locomotive approaches the right margin in each spread, while the text trails behind it—there were a few additional aspects to consider: the covers, and the back of the flutter-book text-block. I wanted there to be something of the covert, the subterranean, or the surreptitious in this project, and really liked the ways that the flutter-book presents its spreads while hinting at something behind those leaves. To emphasize this, I engraved the inverse of the interior locomotive—the engine as negative space surrounded by type-high print-surface—but in the same orientation.
This I printed in the same orientation as the relief image in the interior, but on the first and last pages of the text-block, so that when the covers (also Speckletone black) were wrapped around the book, this would be obscured. The covers themselves were not printed at all, but were instead laser-cut: on the front, the title and author information were stencil-cut into the cover; on the back, the constellation-pattern of the Big and Little Dipper (or Drinking Gourds) were finely cut in razor-thin lines and small pinpricks for the stars, emphasizing with a sunburst the North Star in that constellation.
When the covers were scored and wrapped around the assembled text block, the negative-space locomotive in the silver field appeared through the author’s name and title of the book on the cover, and on the reverse the silver emphasized the thin lines and the North Star as a nocturnal guide to the escaped slave. When fully opened, the locomotive itself became visible, while the title and rear design became nearly indistinguishable as cut-outs in black paper. As the reader leaves through the book, that negative-space locomotive from the insider cover gives way to the silver locomotive in the interior.
The book was printed from type and blocks. But the laser-cutter opened new ways of thinking about printing. In testing the cutter settings on various colors and thicknesses of stock, I discovered that it was possible to ‘engrave’ the surface of the paper so that characters were legible but the paper remained intact. Whether this was a form of printing, engraving, or “writing with light” (as poet Kamau Brathwaite might put it), I’m not sure. But I remain interested in the possibilities of this technique.
Also on that more technological end, I initially struggled with the laser-cut cherry blocks. I was glad to be able to produce these in-house, and avoid either making magnesium dies or working with polymer, but my block warped a bit during production, and the left end of the block began to print the grain of the wood on the surface of the spreads. I did remove some of the offending grain with a sanding block and some small chisels, but didn’t want to risk damaging the image itself. In the process, though, I also came to appreciate the effect when one of my student-assistants remarked that given where the grain was printing (usually, just behind the top of locomotive, but sometimes in front of it as well), that it both looked like the walls of a tunnel and—even better—that it looked “like it was zooming.” This effect varied from spread to spread within books, as well as across the entire edition. The black paper, silver ink, and clean Gill Sans seemed well-complemented by this variable visual noise.
Speak about potentials and possibilities—what would you do differently if you were to reproduce the project from the beginning?
Students in my workshop assisted with the final assembly. We had a goal of producing 100 books for the event. That meant 100+ laser-cut covers (I found I could do 3 at a time, but any more than this in the cutter produced unacceptable variations in paper-singe or fidelity of the cut); 100+ prints of each internal spread (there were 7 spreads), with everything hand-scored on a table-top scoring machine.
Quality-control was an issue in this ambitious project, and we ended up producing 80 books, with a few “seconds” we used for display purposes but not for distribution. The cover was also quite delicate; the counters in characters like the lowercase “e” were easily damaged. I’m not sure I would change that, but it was something I became aware of only after the book was fully assembled. I also loved—and painstakingly collected!—all the cut-out letters.
I have no idea what my plans were for these, and I’ve since lost the envelop I had them in, but it was a visceral pleasure to play with those hundreds of paper letters. I can imagine pressure-printing with them, adding them to other projects, or (as I did for a while) keeping them in a jar just to look at and shake every once and a while…!
Was building this book generative for you in terms of conceptualizing future projects?
Absolutely. I learn something from every project, no matter how big or small, and always try to take that insight into the next project. In this case, I was really interested in the “reveal and conceal” of the covers and inside pages, and also the “repetition with a difference” of the text-and-image in the book itself. And, the noise I tried to eliminate but ultimately decided to live with was also instructive. I remember Paul Moxon saying once, “fix it or feature it.” This was a project with a high threshold for quality control (as evidenced by the loss-numbers between the planned and actual edition), but that one element of variable noise really tempered my approach to perfection, at least when it came to this project.
Speak about mystery—what about your book do you still not understand, which you hope will some day be revealed?
Hmmm. I like the flutter-structure, but I’m starting to think of the flutter as being cyclical rather than linear (since the tail is also attached to the cover). Since a major part of Whitehead’s novel deals with the ways that slavery perpetuates itself, that seems apt, but it wasn’t a part of my initial considerations. Also, I ask with every book and print, “Why was this necessary?” Sometimes it’s commemorative; sometimes I want to work with the author; sometimes both; sometimes it’s something else entirely. But I think The Underground Railroad hasn’t finished its moment yet. It’s a really interesting work that got a lot of attention, but as the celebration sort of recedes and as Whitehead continues to work, I wonder how that book will continue to be received. In that regard, as someone who studies literature, I look for those multiplied and irreducible moments where a text circulates in a variety of ways or in a variety of formats.