March 2, 2016KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEnthusiamsReadingWriting

Different (Broad)sides

A “broadside” is, quite simply, a sheet of paper printed on a single side. Once also called a “broadsheet,” these could be typed up and posted as notices or advertising. Even early on in their history, broadsides had a relationship with poetry, as sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth century “broadside ballads” were popular songs printed on one side of a sheet of paper to be held or tacked up to follow while singing. The Early Broadside Ballad Archive at The University of California Santa Barbara is a great resource for exploring digitized versions of these early broadsides.

Barbara Allen

These early broadsides were a cheap and common form of printing. Their history overlaps with that of the chapbook, as broadsides could be folded into chapbooks, and both were sold throughout England by itinerant “chapmen,” giving the chapbook its name.

In exploring contemporary broadside and chapbook culture, one notices two streams–printed works that maintain a populist spirit and DIY sensibility, and printed works that exhibit a “fine arts” aesthetic through limited-edition letterpress artistry and heightened attention to design and material elements. This is, of course, a false “high/low” dichotomy; these streams overlap and intertwine.

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In 1965, at the beginning of the Black Arts and Black Power Movements, Dudley Randall established Broadside Press with limited funds out of his own home in Detroit, creating “inexpensive but quality broadsides and books.” The work of Broadside Press was beautiful, lasting, and important, representing the era’s great voices in African-American poetry. If you’re in Michigan or Massachusetts, you can explore the history of Broadside Press in the archives of a number of institutions, including Central Michigan University, The University of MichiganUniversity of Massachusetts Amherst, and University of Detroit Mercy.

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Unfortunately, most of this work is currently unavailable online, but last year, in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Broadside Press, the country’s oldest African-American publishing house, the Knight Foundation awarded a Knight Arts Challenge grant to digitize the Broadside Press archives. Broadside Press, now Broadside Lotus Press, continues to operate. For a 2015 piece for the Knight Foundation, Julie Edgar spoke with Chris Rutherford, chairman of Broadside’s board of directors and program manager at the University of Michigan’s Center for Educational Outreach, who “explained that Randall, on a trip to the former Soviet Union, liked how his creative comrades-in-arms printed literature. It was a cheap way to make quality literature available to the masses.” Edgar quotes Rutherford as saying that Randall “‘made it a point to expose this wealth of literature that existed in the African-American community that was largely ignored by larger publishers in the U.S.'”

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My very first broadside was a gift from Alexis Jones, who was a college senior when I was a college freshman and a friend of my sister’s, who shared my love of poetry and gave me a broadside of Anna Swir’s poem “I Talk to My Body,” which she had obtained during her summer internship with Copper Canyon Press. That broadside hangs in my Writing Seminars office thirteen years later. It is one of my most prized possessions, and an ongoing inspiration: “Splendid possibilities are open to us.”

When I enrolled as an MFA student in poetry at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2003, I quickly became familiar with the tradition of the “commemorative broadside.” The broadside tradition fused my love of visual art and poetry, bridging together my undergraduate education in fine arts (particularly printmaking) and my graduate education in poetry. The University of Iowa’s Center for the Book, Shari DeGraw’s Empyrean Press, Sara Sauers’s Catstep Press, and other local letterpress artists all reimagined poems as visual art, often in celebration of a visiting poet’s Iowa City reading. While the broadsides created by these presses weren’t sold for a penny a broadside as some early broadside ballads were, they still sometimes fell within the budget of a graduate student, and my collection of broadsides grew throughout my MFA years and beyond.

When I taught at Victoria University in New Zealand, I connected with Wai-te-ata Press to make a broadside, happy to have the opportunity to create something physical to remember my time in New Zealand. A few years before moving away from Iowa City, I had the opportunity to create a broadside with Sara Sauers for the Mission Creek Festival. When I returned to Iowa City and the broadside was still up with others in the Times Cafe at Prairie Lights Bookstore, it felt like coming home–which it was.

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Last week, I met Whitney Sherman and Gail Deery, co-directors of Dolphin Press & Print at Maryland Institute College of Art, for the first time in person. Over coffee at On the Hill Cafe in Baltimore’s Bolton Hill neighborhood, we discussed the possibilities for collaboration between my students in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, their students at MICA, and the Baltimore City high school students of Writers in Baltimore Schools. As I have been working with Hopkins undergraduates and Writers in Baltimore School high school students on a Community-Based Learning course that explores poetry and social justice, the work of Broadside Press is an inspiration and touchstone as I think about the intersection of poetry, visual art, printing, and activism. The broadside tradition brings the power and beauty of poetry and art into the public space–and to me, it also always feels like home.

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