Women in Literature: Past, Present, & Future

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Women in Literature: Past, Present, & Future

Last week, I had the great pleasure of being a guest in a Women in Literature class at Northern Virginia Community College (Woodbridge). Professor Indigo Eriksen, a fabulous poet and teacher whom I had met some years ago at a poetry festival, invited me to show her students a simple sewn binding technique that they could use for their end-of-term chapbook projects.

 "Women in Literature" students hand-sewing their first notebooks.

"Women in Literature" students hand-sewing their first notebooks.

That initial intent blossomed into spending an hour and a half with her wonderful class, sharing about the history of women in printing and publishing, sewing a couple of notebooks together, and letterpress printing a keepsake on an old traveling press. Later that afternoon, I gathered with about twenty other students in the campus auditorium to talk about poetry, writing, language, and to read a bit from my own work in The Open Gate: New & Selected Poems

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I was incredibly moved and invigorated by the engagement of these young women in the class, and the women & men at the reading. They were so present, interested and interesting, bright, and energized. They asked thoughtful, insightful questions, and deepened my own curiosity and understanding about language and literature. The students in the class took to sewing like ducks to water, and they are now part of the great lineage of women who have made a book! I am honored to have crossed paths with them all, and look forward to seeing their creative lives unfold. 

Here's a video of a happy printer ~ Janae printing her first letterpress piece on the 1930 Kelsey 3x5 press!

Here are a few photos from our conversation later that afternoon about poetry, writing, and publishing:

Here are a few slides from what I shared with the students about the history of women in printing and publishing. It's a long and vibrant history, one that they are now a part of!

Many, many thanks to Professor Indigo Eriksen, the fantastic students at Northern Virginia Community College Woodbridge, and Deans David Epstein & Michael Turner for inviting me to spend a wonderful afternoon with them!

All best wishes to all, 

Emily Hancock

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 A Letterpress Lexicon, Part 4: Spacing Out

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A Letterpress Lexicon, Part 4: Spacing Out

Hi, Friends of St Brigid Press!

Here is the long-awaited fourth installment in our occasional blog series ~ A Letterpress Lexicon ~ about the words and phrases that identify printing's particular tools and processes. Enjoy!

If you missed the first posts in this series, you can find them here:


A Letterpress Lexicon Part 4 ~ Spacing Out

We space out daily here at the Press ~ all for a good cause. ;-) 

You might already know that every single letter of the alphabet that we set and print here is a physical piece of metal or wood ~ a piece .918-inches tall, with the reverse image of the letter on the top, in relief. 

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Hand-set type:

Moveable type, which makes everything possible here at the Press. Here, the letters of the word "haiku" in metal.

Well, every single SPACE between every word and every line is also a physical piece of metal or wood. These pieces are made a little lower than the top of the letters, so that they do not pick up ink.

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The forme:

In this photo, you can see all of the metal spacing material surrounding the metal letters. The spacing material is a bit lower in height, so it does not get ink on it, and comes in various sizes according to the size of the type (12-point, 24-point, etc.). The spacing between the lines of type is also metal, cut to length.

The spacing material is cast to a point-size matching the size of the type body being set ~ from tiny 6-point to giant (and heavy!) 72-point in our shop. Spacing is also cast in various standard widths, so the typesetter can put larger or smaller spaces between words, as desired. These widths range from multiples of an "em" (the square of the type body; for example, a 12-point-by-12-point square) to "thins" (brass and copper slivers to fill in the smallest gaps in a line).

In addition to letter spacing, strips of metal also need to be correctly sized and set between lines of type ("leading" or "linespacing"). This strip material comes in various widths and can be cut to various lengths (also called "slugs") ~ all tailored to ordering the printed page. 

The whole point of spacing is to surround the letters and lines as snug as possible. A loose letter can print unevenly, and even become damaged. 

The final step before printing is to surround the whole forme (the letters and spaces) with "furniture" ~ blocks of wood (sometimes metal) in various standard sizes that fill out the chase. Two quoins (a kind of lock) are placed in as well, and when turned with a key the quoins tighten everything together. 

When the forme to be printed is locked up tight, I can lift it off the table and into the press without fear of everything collapsing onto the floor.

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The printer:

Emily, holding a tightly locked forme in mid-air. If the spacing material has been set correctly, the whole thing can be transferred easily to the printing press. If it has NOT been set correctly... well.. catastrophe can ensue. 

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The printed page:

Now, when you see a printed page, you'll think of the actual mass and work of all that "white space"! Shown here, a leaf from Jeff Schwaner's Wind Intervals.

So, that's the story of SPACE at St Brigid Press! 

Thanks for spacing out with us for a few minutes ;-)

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Dwelling in Possibility: Adrienne Rich, Poetry, & Printing

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Dwelling in Possibility: Adrienne Rich, Poetry, & Printing

Dwelling in Possibility:

Adrienne Rich, Poetry, & Printing

An introduction by Emily Hancock

 Adrienne Rich. Photo copyright by Robert Giard.

Adrienne Rich. Photo copyright by Robert Giard.

There are some touchstone texts that seem to be always current, always resonant with wisdom, always “present” with us, whatever the year and however much the political and/or personal landscapes may have changed. 

Many of the essays of Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) are such touchstones. I first encountered the transformative work of this American poet and essayist in graduate school, in her prose collection Blood, Bread, and Poetry, in which she declares (with Audre Lorde) that poetry is not (and poets are not) superfluous, but as necessary and nourishing as food and air to the person—the people—we might be and become. Poetry is communion and it is frontier—the meeting of the other and the self.

Jacket for St Brigid Press' edition of Adrienne Rich's essay, printed letterpress on Thai mulberry "water drops" paper.

One of Rich’s essays, “Permeable Membrane,” is this sort of text—invigorating, relentless, and charged with readiness to affect (infect?) the reader with its power and possibility. Again and again. First published in 2006, “Permeable Membrane” is a short piece capable of waking us up, of challenging our complacency, our silence, and our siloed existences.

Convinced of the inseparability of art and society, poetry and politics, Rich argues for and invokes a relational understanding of language: "Art is a way of melting out through one's own skin. 'What, who is this about?' is not the essential question. A poem is not about; it is out of and to.” As individuals and communities and a nation, we exist in a dynamic ocean of thought, culture, politics. We’re in the conversation—“root-tangled in the grit of human arrangements and relationships,” as Rich writes—whether we know it, like it, or actively participate in it or not.

Rich navigates both mystery (the “ghostly” presence and process of writing poetry) and politics (solidarity movements, dictatorship, and the American political machine) with equal subtlety, drawing from sources historical and literary to illuminate the world we find ourselves in as well as some of the choices and consequences that are laid before us. With the precision and prescience of an artist who has her finger on our pulse, Rich’s essay that was first published 12 years ago reads like it hit the newsstand this morning.

St Brigid Press' letterpress printed edition releases on March 8th—International Women's Day.

St Brigid Press' edition of "Permeable Membrane" was hand-set in Goudy Old Style type (cast by Patrick Reagh in California), printed on a hand-cranked press, and sewn by hand. 

Why print something that is still available in numerous books and anthologies? One answer is that part of the job of craft is to make new what is not; to re-new and re-connect us, from the craftperson’s hand to the receiver’s. From me to you. An energetic and artistic renewal, and a conversation, happens in this process. The poet and essayist Jane Hirshfield says, “A work of art is not a piece of fruit lifted from the tree branch: it is a ripening collaboration of artist, receiver, and world.”

Another answer is personal to me: as much as I believe in and engage with the fantastic literature that is emerging daily, I believe in and desire to offer anew the already written—works like Rich’s and Thoreau’s and King’s that for years have been leaping off pages, enlarging perspectives, and spurring creative engagement. Each time we return to these touchstones, their wisdom becomes present again, positive change for our communities becomes possible again, and we become empowered again.

My hope for offering this edition of Adrienne Rich’s “Permeable Membrane” is that you may lean with her into the conversation and perhaps join more consciously in the great current of art that is making and re-making us, the poetry that is “language intensified, intensifying our sense of possible reality.”


If you would like to order the St Brigid Press edition of "Permeable Membrane," please click HERE. Scroll down below for additional details and photos of the booklet and the process of creating it.


The booklet's technical specs:

  • Hand-set in Goudy Old Style metal types, with Phenix titling.
  • 16 pages, letterpress printed on Mohawk Superfine text paper, with Thai mulberry paper jacket.
  • Frontispiece print is a digital reproduction of an original watercolor by Nancy Maxson, commissioned specially for this publication.
  • Hand-sewn with Irish linen thread.
  • Limited edition of 190 numbered copies.
  • $28 each.

Very special thanks and appreciation goes to our friend and collaborator Nancy Maxson, who created a marvelous watercolor painting, entitled Mirror, to accompany this edition of "Permeable Membrane." The painting was digitally reproduced on fine vellum paper at Bailey Printing in Charlottesville, and serves as the frontispiece to the edition.

Thanks also to W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., for permission to reprint "Permeable Membrane."

If you'd like to read more of Adrienne Rich's prose writing, here are a few titles to get you started:

  • A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society, 1997-2008 (the collection in which "Permeable Membrane" appears)
  • Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations (which collects Rich's earlier essay, "Blood, Bread, and Poetry")
  • What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics

Some photos of "the making of" our edition of "Permeable Membrane": click the images to see a larger photo and accompanying text.

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Walking into Winter

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Walking into Winter

One of the greatest gifts my parents and grandparents gave to me as a girl was the gift of walking. Of taking strolls along sandy roads at dusk, watching bats and stars appear. And hours-long rambles through rolling fields and woodlands—ears tuned to the drum of woodpeckers, eyes following threads of light among stands of hardwoods or pine. These walks wove the senses, and patterned the language that would eventually make poems from such experience. 

One of these poems is “Walking into Winter.” Included in my forthcoming book, The Open Gate: New & Selected Poems, it seemed a fitting piece to also offer to you all now, as the late November days begin to darken early and the last wild seeds are being cast to the wind. It’s a time of letting go, and of gathering in. 

Below, you can read “Walking into Winter,” listen to an audio clip as I read the poem aloud, and watch a brief movie of butterfly-weed pods opening in our field. As we journey into this winter season, may we each carry light and warmth within, tending the seeds that will sprout again come spring.




Listen as the author reads her poem:


Watch butterfly weed seeds in the breezy field at St Brigid Press. This native species of milkweed is slowly expanding on our land, providing food for insects.

If  you are in the area, please join us for the official book launch this coming Sunday, December 3rd, at 2pm, at Black Swan Books (Staunton, Va.). We'll have light refreshments, read some poems, and celebrate together.

If you can't attend, you may pre-order the book on our website here: 

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Printing, Circa 1776

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Printing, Circa 1776

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a demonstration of the University of Virginia’s replica wooden common press:

The common press at the University of Virginia.

The earliest printing presses in Europe, from the time of Johannes Gutenberg and his associates Peter Schöffer and Johann Fust, were constructed primarily out of wood. Using similar technologies as contemporary agricultural presses (for winemaking, papermaking, olive oil extraction, and linen pressing), these 15th century printing presses used a wooden screw to lower a heavy wooden plate onto a bed holding cast metal type. The screw was turned by pulling a lever, or "bar" (also called the Devil's Tail ;-). Wooden common presses remained in use until the early 1800s, when iron handpresses and new types of cylinder and platen presses were developed.

Josef Beery demonstrating UVA's wooden common press.

UVA’s common press was constructed in the 1970s, as a result of research at the Smithsonian Institution on the "Franklin" common press. It is on display in the Harrison Small Building’s South Gallery. Though the bar is kept locked for safety most of the time, you can still walk right up to the press and examine much of its design and function. Occasionally, folks associated with UVA’s Rare Book School offer working demonstrations.

The session I attended last week was lead by Josef Beery ~ book designer, letterpress printer, woodcut artist, papermaker, educator, and cofounder of the Virginia Arts of the Book Center in Charlottesville. A practitioner of the printing arts for many decades, Beery is a perfect guide to the history and use of this fascinating press.

When you finish marveling at the wooden common press, head downstairs to the Albert & Shirley Small Special Collections Library. A highlight of the Library’s wonderful collection of rare books and manuscripts (including significant holdings in the history of books and printing) is a rare first-printing of the Declaration of Independence, printed the night of July 4th by John Dunlap. It’s on permanent display along with many other early printings of the document (the world’s most comprehensive collection of these) near the Library’s entrance.

If you're ever in the vicinity of Charlottesville, Virginia, don't miss this chance to see the common press, the Declaration of Independence, and many other artifacts of printing-circa-1776!

* For more information on early American printing history, visit the American Printing History Association (APHA) website.

* To follow the fascinating process of reconstructing a wooden common press, visit Seth Gottlieb's blog post series at APHA.

* Watch Josef Beery demonstrating the traditional method of using ink balls to apply ink to the type on a common press:

Josef Beery using traditional ink balls to apply ink to the type on the University of Virginia's replica wooden common press.

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