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Printing poetry, the old-fashioned way

Printing poetry, the old-fashioned way

November 27th, 2016 by Helen Wilbers in Local News

Tucked away in a quiet neighborhood off State Road UU, in a home he and his wife built together, Clarence Wolfshohl carefully prints poetry books, one page at a time.

Photo by Helen Wilbers /Fulton Sun.

Tucked away in a quiet Fulton neighborhood off State Road UU, in a home he and his wife built together, Clarence Wolfshohl carefully prints poetry books, one page at a time.

His hobby began in the late 1960s when Wolfshohl was in graduate school at the University of New Mexico. His friends started a literary journal, with his wife making silk-screened covers. Wolfshohl took up the craft and soon became interested in printing.

"The only printing apparatus we had was a mimeograph machine," he said.

Eventually, he ordered a kit and built his own letterpress machine.

"Anything like that — a hobby — it grows," he said with a grin.

Wolfshohl's workshop is crowded with drawers upon drawers of meticulously sorted type, three presses and a shelf to hold the 80 or so books he's printed over the years. He spent more than 25 years as an English professor at William Woods University, and is also an experienced carpenter though now retired. On the walls are posters and poem broadsides and an etching parodying Drer's Rhinoceros.

"The first two books I published were my own writing," Wolfshohl said. "Eventually I got good enough that a friend of mine approached me."

While he worked as a high school English teacher in the hill country of Texas, he and his wife ran their small publishing operation, the Timberline Press. Since coming to Fulton, he's renamed it El Grito Del Lobo Press: "The Cry of the Wolf."

"We named it Timberline Press because in New Mexico, where we'd previously lived, there actually is a timberline," he said.

His reputation spread by word of mouth.

"I started getting submissions from poets in the East, poets in California," he said. "It's like a network."

Wolfshohl primarily publishes poetry chapbooks, which are short collections of poetry about a focused subject. His typical print run is 200 copies, which may take years to sell out.

"Poetry is a small world," he said. "The readership is small. There are probably as many writers as readers."

Once, he and four other poets held a reading that drew a crowd of three.

"In that case, the writers outnumbered the readers," Wolfshohl said, laughing.

Many of the authors Wolfshohl publishes return to work with him again. He's printed six or seven chapbooks by Larry Thomas, who was poet laureate of Texas in 2008. Walter Bargain, who was Missouri's first poet laureate, printed his first book with Timberline Press and has since printed about eight more.

Wolfshohl said he works closely with the poets he publishes — some more closely than others. One poet in Rolla wanted to print a 90-page book with Timberline, which is considerably longer than most chapbooks Wolfshohl publishes. And the author wanted to see proofs of every single page.

"He traveled a lot: Brazil, England," Wolfshohl said. "And that was back when we were doing it by mail."

Wolfshohl faxed pages to England, but when the author was in Brazil, he could only be reached by the nation's notoriously irregular mail system. Sometimes it would be a month between Wolfshohl sending a page and getting a reply.

"He says it took a decade for the book to be published, but it actually took about five years," Wolfshohl said.

Modern conveniences like email make the proofing process a lot easier, but it still takes about six months for Wolfshohl to produce the average chapbook.

"We discuss what the book's going to look like, do we need to make changes to the manuscript," he said.

Then Wolfshohl begins laying out pages, laboriously, by hand. Each character must be set individually, lined up in a "composing stick" about 10 lines at a time. After assembling a page, he sets it in a "chase," carefully locks the type into place so it won't fall out, and moves it to the press.

Wolfshohl prints a single copy, carefully reads over it — printing presses don't have spell check — and prints the other 200 copies for the print run. Then it's on to the next page. He often creates engravings to accompany the books.

It takes a bit of a perfectionist bent.

"Some would call it that," he said. "Others would call it something a little ruder."

Wolfshohl occasionally teaches classes at the Art House in Fulton's Brick District. He can be reached at elgritodellobo@yahoo.com.