On Thursday, February 7, the Poetry Foundation opened the new exhibit The Lushness of Print in its headquarters in Chicago, IL. The exhibit, a collaboration between Professor of Creative Writing Samiya Bashir and the womxn- and Latinx-owned Letra Chueca Press in Portland, OR, displays five years of broadsides — large visual prints of written work — featuring poems and writings from Reed’s Visiting Writers Series.
The Lushness of Print, which takes its name from “The Lushness of It,” a poem by Lewis & Clark Professor of English Mary Szybist that is printed on one of the earliest broadsides, explores how the poem lives on the page. It blurs the boundaries between the art of printing and the written word in what the Poetry Foundation describes as an “ekphrastic partnership.”
The partnership between Bashir, who runs the Poetry Salon at Reed, and Letra Chueca Press has been a long time in the making. Letra Chueca Press was initially started by co-founders Daniela del Mar and Camila Araya as a creative space in response to “the overbearing presence of the dominant culture” that initially made it difficult for the two “femme latinxs… to get a seat at the table.”
The two met by chance in Em Space, a community arts center that has since closed, and connected over their shared language, heritage, and love of printing. According to del Mar, “I saw my first letterpress [there] and immediately fell in love with printing. Everything about printing took me — the wood type with its grain and scratches and dings bearing the marks of time and nature, the puzzle of troubleshooting — humxn meeting maquina, the smell of ink, the immediacy with which I felt satisfaction and empowerment of putting tinta on paper… This made my heart sing and it did for Camila too.”
According to its website, Letra Chueca’s work is “decolonizing design through collaboration and representation,” and their name is significant to this project. “The name is a nod to this idea of rejecting the monoculture of precious printing — letra chueca is crooked letter — though we are experts at what we do, perfection doesn’t interest us,” Del Mar explains. “We are here to get loud and inky and queer la cultura in order to create a casera space for other hijxs of ni de aquí ni de allá.”
The collaborative broadsides project was born out of similar motivations. When Bashir started a tenure track position, she wanted to use her research funds “to build this” instead of funding her personal work. She said, “Electrifying the life of poetry on campus was important to me. It felt very hidden, and poetry is alive to me.” Bashir searched for a surprisingly long time before finally finding Letra Chueca. Bashir said, “Our visions just met up immediately. The work they do and their thought process around doing it was such a perfect fit.” Del Mar was shocked that no other press had wanted to work with Bashir on the project earlier: “that monoculture, te digo!”
At the outset of their collaboration, Bashir wondered, “How can we imagine [poetry] living outside of this marketplace which is how we think of everything?” Their answer? “The idea [is] that the broadsides exist as part of a gift economy, that we’re creating this thing outside the land of capital, outside of commerce, outside of even trade. This isn’t part of their honorarium. This is a gift. It’s everything,” she said. This is especially important to Bashir “as a teacher,” and del Mar agrees, as she asked, “What else is printing for but to be in the hands of people for free as gifts containing poetry?”
Fundamentally, both Letra Chueca and the Poetry Salon are motivated by increasing accessibility in art. Since its inception, the Poetry Salon has been a space of intimacy between students and writers, where students can speak to the writer without a podium in between. The broadsides have a similar goal. Del Mar reflected, “Poesía has this bad reputation for being inaccessible, impractical and all these other things. The visual language in the broadsides, for Samiya and I, is simply a portal to be able to access it.”
The process goes like this. The writers, both poets and prose writers alike, send their work from which Bashir, del Mar, and Araya choose. Then comes the sometimes unforeseen practical considerations. Del Mar has to consider, “Do I have enough physical e’s to set these 10 lines in the typeface I want to use?”. The poem and the visual design support and add to each other, creating “something different every time,” said Bashir.
They let the process emerge organically. Del Mar remarked, “If you really embody the process of the work, the printing part is this celebration, this harvest of all the preparation you’ve done.” The work is multidisciplinary, and in many ways, multilingual. “I often describe that designing these broadsides is like painting a song. The lenguas are different for sure, but not incompatible,” del Mar said.
When Art Director of Poetry Magazine Fred Sasaki and Poetry Editor Don Share came to Portland for an event at Powell’s with Bashir, the plan for the exhibit began. Bashir quipped, “Fred says these are the most beautiful broadsides being made in the country, and I agree, not very humbly.”
The opening of the exhibit in Chicago included both an artists’ talk from Bashir and del Mar and a reception. According to Bashir, the exhibit “was so well received” and she sees this exhibit as furthering the practice of the gift economy. After five years of production, for her the exhibit was a culmination of “seeing what was a dream of mine come true, year by year by year.”
Beyond the opening artists’ talk or even the duration of the exhibit, this project is ongoing. It is urgent, vital, and political. It is a project of community building, both for poetry at Reed and in the Portland community at large. As del Mar explained, “Letra Chueca’s mission is to deinvisibilize through what we are printing and how we are printing. We are printing for a transborder Latinx community, and when we do community events we bring our table top press for la gente to pull their own prints with type we’ve set up for them. And each time, time and again, you see the joy and the spark and the light of ‘I made this, I don’t normally do this kind of thing and didn’t know I could, but I can.’ This is community building for us. Using our tools and resources to empower folks unx por unx, in a way that we are writing our story juntxs.”
Broadsides are free for all attendees at the Poetry Salon or the readings given by the writers. Bashir and del Mar are currently preparing the next broadside for poet Safiya Sinclair’s visit. Sinclair will be at Reed on Thursday, February 28 for Poetry Salon from 5:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., and she will be reading at 6:30 p.m. in Eliot Chapel.