Near the Boice Bros. Dairy operations in Midtown Kingston, where tractor-trailers idle day and night to keep their cargo from spoiling, somewhere among a tangle of body shops and mechanic’s garages is a mattress shop full of ticking and springs. Around the back of that sturdy brick building, past a parking lot protected by old strings of barbed wire along the top of chain-link fencing, Vlad Nahitchevansky rents a large mattress-less room with a naked concrete floor.
He does not sell milk. Nahitchevansky is a printer, for now, of poets.
“When I was in school, I hooked up with the press that was in Barrytown, right there on River Road next to Bard, called Station Hill Press. They published all this great stuff that bordered deep-image poetry and language poetry and then just everything in between, poet-wise,” he said.
When he left to enter the publishing program at Columbia University, his focus was on the editorial side of things, on the words.
Which was a mistake. Nahitchevansky is dyslexic.
“I had gotten really into poetry. Into the printing of it, and the production of it, and the distribution,” he said. “I started getting interested in editorial work, and I just realized I was not cut out for it. I can see what’s happening structurally with a piece. But I’m just going to constantly be faking it. I’m not going to catch the things that a normal editor is going to catch.”
The experience wasn’t a loss. Dyslexic or not, Nahitchevansky was able to decide that he absolutely did not want to do commercial publishing. The vision of himself working in a cubicle somewhere near 42nd Street plugging through 250 pages a night of manuscripts haunted him.
“There was this one guy who worked for a large printing house, who prints like all the large trade paperback editions, like Harry Potter and all these things,” Nahitchevansky recalled. “And he was showing images of the presses. And I was like, that is what I want to do!”
The machines began to live within his imagination.
Nahitchevansky moved back upstate and took a job with a commercial printer named Thicket in the old IBM facility at Tech City. Thicket did corporate jobs, business cards and the like.
The work is priceless
Nahitchevansky was working with machines.
“An opportunity came up. I met this guy. Tom Tolmay in Delhi, who is a poetry publisher and printer. He had all these presses up in a barn that was just falling apart. He offered to sell me some of his presses. I said yes. And then I just started to accumulate presses.”
The machines began to live in his apartment.
It was inevitable that he would need a commercial space. Another problem. In the context of the poetry he prints, Nahitchevansky expresses contempt for money that could be made by selling them.
“Yeah, the shop costs money,” he said. “These machines cost me money to run. I am in many ways just like drowning under the weight of this thing that I’ve created financially.”
He distributes the books of poetry he prints for his imprint, 1080press, in editions of 300 primarily through the USPS. Fans appreciative of the work can then pay him and the authors directly. He subsidizes the 1080press mostly by taking on service-industry jobs, reasoning that the money he makes waiting tables or bartending gives him complete autonomy in his creative work.
He figures that free distribution is likely to increase his audience and his donation base because everyone knows that poetry doesn’t pay.
“Some of the [poetry] is accessible, some of it’s inaccessible. Some of it, I mean, it’s experimental, it’s a little bit all over the place,” he explained. “And so I think that not putting a price tag on it or not charging people for it allows people to explore it in a way that doesn’t create the impetus of like, I’ve purchased this thing. So now I need to have some kind of gain from this thing.”
Three kinds of printing presses are at work in his shop, Nahitchevansky explained. Intaglio is primarily used for images. Relief is the old style of letter press with slugs of typeface. And offset.
Nahitchevansky walks among his presses and points out the things that set them apart from each other.
“This press is the letterpress. It’s a very classic press,” he said, describing the Heidelberg ten-inch-by-15-inch Windmill model in front of him. At 2850 pounds, it’s the largest press in the room.
“The press closes like a clam onto the type, and it just kisses the type because, this is about 40 tons of pressure. If it actually closed completely, it would squish the lead type. I’ll just turn it on, because it also has the most beautiful sounds.”
He starts the press up. A quiet motor drives the belt around a flywheel. Responsible for its windmill name are two separate blades on a rotor tilt that spin 45 degrees at timed intervals.
One picks up a sheet of paper and places it where the clamshell can press it against the type. The other blade takes it away and places it in a tray. Rollers roll down and refresh the ink.
Suction holds the paper ready for the blades. The rollers, the cogs, the planten, all the moving parts together keep up a clicking, whirring, waltz time. There is no actual clamshell.
“The first thing I learned when I started working on this is never chase anything into a press,” said Nahitchevansky. “Just let it go. Just let it die.”
Oil and water don’t mix
The main workhorse press of Nahitchevansky’s shop is the AB Dick 360. It can print 6000 to 7000 pages an hour.
“It’s a single-color, sheet-fed offset press, chain delivery, which basically means that it’s planographic printing. It works on the concept that oil and water do not mix.”
The image to be printed is rendered on a flat surface, as on a sheet of zinc or aluminum, and treated to retain ink. The non-image areas are treated to repel ink.
“To make the nicest kind of printing on offset, you would use light-sensitive aluminum plates. And you would image them with film negatives and expose them. And then you’d be printing from metal. And if you’re printing from metal as with metal type, that is as nice as printing gets, in my mind, at least with type.”
Nahitchevansky started his shop with the idea that he would be doing letterpress. “I bought a little Kelsey four-by-five postcard hand-crank press that I found at Stan’z. I pulled it out from like under a pile of tires.”
Recognizing what he had, “I refurbished it and taught myself how to use it and started teaching himself letterpress.”
Letterpress involves pre-cast foundry type. The type is cast so as to print in reverse. Printing this way remains difficult. “I have a little handheld mirror I use a lot of the time to identify what’s going on,” he said. Johannes Gutenberg invented letterpress at the beginning of the 15th century when he ushered in the first information revolution, the mass printing of books.
“He had a hand press basically,” said Nahitchevansky, “and they would put in a kind of plate and then ink it up with these mitts that almost look like boxing gloves.”
Five hundred years later, Ottmar Mergenthaler invented the linotype. “Which is this massive machine, where basically you would key in a phrase, and then it would spit hot lead into these brass kind of matrices,” he explained. When it cools, a typed sentence waits to be inked. Newspapers and magazines proliferated.
Nahitchevansky regards the mimeograph revolution in the 1950s as an important inflection point on the path to wrestling control of production and distribution from conventional commercial operations. “That encompasses tools like offset and Xerox, just anything that was duplication, that people who weren’t necessarily printers or publishers could take on themselves,” he said.
To Nahitchevansky, this is when experimental publishing or small-press publishing began.
“In my mind, experimental publishing means is that you are seizing the means of production or you’re controlling the means of production and then you are taking also the means of distribution into your own hands. So you’re not relying on distributors.”
At each point how he chooses to run his press, what and how he chooses to print communicates a fervently held anti-commercialism. This Nahitchevansky acknowledges.
“I think that there’s a sense now, especially with, social media, where we’re at just in terms of marketability is that people have this tendency to try to define what they do and how they do it, and in terms of their art in many ways it defines itself, but at the same time, I’m trying actively to disengage that definition.”
Yet the history of printing presses, especially in terms spoken of as the control of the means of production, makes the choice to print poetry over overtly political product a fraught one. There is the problem that poetry has often been viewed as an inaccessible art.
“There’s a concept of what experimental poetry is, or that it is x or y, but most people don’t have an actual idea of it because they never have encountered it. It’s not accessible in terms of where you can actually get it. You can’t walk into most bookstores and, and pick up good books of experimental poetry and so that was something that was an impetus for this press was, you know, wide egalitarian distribution of the work in an attempt so that people can if they want to look at it, they can look at it, it’s also there, it’s accessible and hopefully, they can form an opinion about whether or not they like it.”
Nahitchevansky thinks that poetry need not be the rich bourgeoisie cousin of serious political struggle as much for the way it is produced as for the fact that experimental poetry by definition doesn’t conform to the expectations of the market. It is by its existence a destabilizing force. He believes.
“If you look at samizdat, literature that was used in Russia, that was produced on presses, hidden in other books, and distributed … methods of small press come from that. too. So I think what this press is trying to do is not is not set itself apart from anything, but actually, in fact, kind of put itself in the lineage of small-press, printing and publishing.”
Nahitchevansky himself and his presses are just the latest iterations in a long tradition of duplication and dissemination, spreading ideas encoded in surprising arrangements of letters to infect the mind of anyone who can read them.
“There are ideas that I have about printing or publishing or poetry. And maybe I play some of those out in these different projects,” he said. “I think that that goes back into this thing of, like, not wanting to define what one is doing, or how one does it. But at the end of the day, I like to print and I like to make books.”