A Few Notes on the Book Art of Walter Hamady

by Karl Young

At first glance, Walter Hamady's edition of Joel Oppenheimer's New Hampshire Journal may seem a painfully plain book: standard size, off-white cover and text pages, poems neatly printed with small graphic ornaments. Let's see what that means. The cover stock is a sturdy handmade paper that's probably durable enough to place kick around the block without much permanent damage, and its surface finish is so exquisite it looks almost good enough to eat. Its buff color shades slightly into endpapers that seem not only to refine the color of the cover but to modulate its finish, a process which continues in the transition into the text pages. You can get lost simply in watching this progression of surfaces. Three thongs emerge from the front and back cover and extend around the spine. It's easy to see how the book's signatures were gathered and stitched onto the thongs, needing no adhesives. This makes an interesting comment on 20th century conceptions of art. Many artistic ideologies, perhaps those issuing from the Bauhaus being foremost among them, preached the necessity of revealing the nature and function of all constructions, from buildings to books. For the most part they failed. This book does not: form truly follows funtion, and you can easily see and understand its mechanics. Whether you pay any attention to this or not, the book functions perfectly: the pages open easily and smoothly, with no constriction toward the spine; you can lay the book flat on a reading table or hold it open without effort; if you're a purist bibliophile, you don't have to touch more than a small area of the pages to turn the leaves.

The text printing, like the design of the book, not only forms a beautiful complement to Oppenheimer's poems, it also reinforces the poetry. Much of Oppenheimer's opus is "occasional," that is, written for specific occasions, ranging from weddings to baseball games. The poems in this book follow suit in a low-key manner, responding to events as they happened. Formally, the poems find their base in variations on syllabics, poems written in lines that establish a consistent audible measure through quantity rather than stress. The intersection of line breaks and syntax variably maintains or cuts across the basic measure, creating what musicians might call polyrhythms. The manner of address avoids elaborate metaphor, conceit, or pyrotechnics based on content or formal properties. These are poems in which the poet is speaking directly to his audience, rather than performing tricks for its members to gawk at. Oppenheimer's presence and delivery as a mature reader embodies this admirably. An unpretentious man speaking in a plain, clear voice, not bragging, haranguing, insinuating, or whining, but delivering his lines with complete assurance and a sense of consideration for his audience. Walter Hamady produced this edition after Oppenheimer's death, when the poet's voice might still be heard on tape, but his presence had become a memory. Hamady thus had to recreate as much of it as he could in printed form. The characteristics of the edition already mentioned create a ground for this, and the printing furthers it. Hamady had used the type, designed by Herman Zapf, on previous books by Oppenheimer. Not only is this face exemplary in its clarity and legibility, it brings in a parallel between a master poet and a master typographer, both oriented toward basic human needs instead of flashiness, and at the same time recalls books produced during Oppenheimer's lifetime. Like many oriental papers, the text stock, though sturdy, maintains a relatively high degree of transparency, allowing type on one side of the page to cast a decisive shadow on the other. In making Hamady's precise registration apparent, the shadows echo the neat simplicity of the book. Since most verse lines are set flush left, the shadows create a sort of box, a block never extending too far beyond the lines on the page you're looking at, that reinforce the measure basic to Oppenheimer's poetic methods. The book includes wood engravings by Margaret Sunday. These small figures usually appear at the margins of the book and more often than not bleed off the page. They never draw attention away from the text, but, again, iterate the sense of boundaries, while simultaneously, in their curves and angles, keeping the straight lines of text from creating a monotonous page image.

Books can get more elaborate than this, but they don't get any better.

Walter Hamady has produced his share of elaborate books, from magisterial volumes bound in boards with marbled paper overlays to funky books with wire-mounted party favors that pop out between leaves. Let's take a look at one that achieves its fluorescence from paper and print alone, extending techniques used in New Hampshire Journal. Of Boulders and Bolides embodies Hamady's sense of humor as well as his abilities as a book artist. The texts are Hamady's own, some probably written with the book and its design in mind. In this volume the sequencing of papers forms one of the basic dynamics of the book. The cover and the bulk of text pages move through variations of color and finish, each interesting in itself, and each interacting with its neighbors in a dance both comic and stately. In addition to the main text, Hamady includes a bit of handwriting and armies of arrows, dingbats, symbols, and ornaments. The text and the figures run through a wide variety of inks and impressions. In some places ink density is so great that it resembles serigraphy; in others, Hamady blind stamps the type into the page. In some passages, impression and inking create a heavy shadow on the opposite sides of relatively heavy pages, forming mirror variations to the source texts or images. My favorite graphic passage consists of a vermiform portrait graphic blind stamped over the watermark in the paper. The tour de force of the book comes in the center, where Hamady reprints all the text in the book, including the colophon, on a fold-out sheet of nearly transparent oriental paper. Here the texts all appear as justified blocks, at once summarizing the book and playing variations on it. Aside from the playfulness of the text, this interior leaf not only continues the game of contrasting papers but also plays off the book's theme -- a light, nearly transparent paper commenting on boulders. In a game still played by many children, scissors may cut paper, but paper covers rock. The different tactile qualities of the paper and the play of ink density and depth of impression highlight the nature of this book as a piece of sculpture instead of a succession of planes.

In the colophon for Of Boulders and Bolides, Hamady lists some of the people who worked with him on the book, including his wife, his son, and one of his students, all of whom worked simultaneously on other projects at the time. Most of Hamady's books involve colaborative efforts, and, as well as being a master printer, Hamady is also a master organizer. The work he has done with other people has both extended and pulled together a constellation of skills and abilities. Hamady has cultivated personal relations with those whose work he publishes. At the most basic level, this gives him a better understanding of the text. This not only fosters the kind of respect and care shown in the books, it also remains a source for ideas in book design. For many years, Hamady set up readings for the people he published. Unlike many publishers, these events were not oriented toward selling his own books. One of the purposes of the readings held in various parts of the University of Wisconsin campus was to expand the audience for the writers, which may have helped promote their books produced by small presses and trade publishers. The truly magic readings were held for tiny audiences at Ed Gulisarian's rug shop, where magnificent oriental rugs helped create both a sense of intimacy and opulence for those fortunate enough to attend them. In addition to the readings, visits to Madison gave the writers a chance to talk to Hamady and his circle, and in the process brought the authors, to a greater or lesser degree, into the production process. This not only created the opportunity for interchange on the books in production, it also gave Hamady and the writers a chance to better understand each other's intent and methods. Some knew nothing about letterpress printing. Some knew a bit from other contexts. Joel Oppenheimer learned to set type at Black Mountain College, and claimed that in so doing he was the only student who learned a useful skill at that school. Perhaps in the most literal and immediate sense he was, but he and other Black Mountain alumni learned a great deal about art and poetry there, some of which found its way into print in Hamady editions.

Despite the Perishable Press's name, one of Hamady's enduring legacies will remain in the books he has produced. But an equally important legacy continues and expands through his students, a set of circles that includes some of the best printers, paper makers, and book binders in the country. It has been interesting for me to watch the course of Hamady's proteges over three decades. They may go in different directions, but most share common bonds that in some instances may be the most enduring in their lives. They tell stories about the demanding regimen of Hamady's courses, which they sometimes call "boot camp" or "the salt mines." They carry on their mentor's adamant faith in craftsmanship, and generally work slowly, methodically, with a perfectionist mind-set that seems gravely lacking among many other practitioners of the book arts. Like Hamady they often work closely with writers, at times taking design ideas from their literary source. They draw heavily on each others' comments and skills, and quite often stay at each other's homes during crucial stages of a book's production, where they work together much as they did during their student days in Madison. In turn, they forge strong bonds with other book workers, helping to extend the ring centered on Hamady's studios farther, linking it to other bands of radiant energy, strengthening both. I mentioned Joel Oppenheimer's quip about Black Mountain College earlier in this essay. Perhaps there's a similarity between that college and Hamady's studios. The nuclei of both were odd and eccentric and a puzzle to those who looked at them from the outside. Yet for those who took part in both, the experimentation, comraderie, and discipline at the center were profound, life-shaping communions with fellow artists and with books. The centers were finite. The radiance from those centers is not.

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