Friday, November 07, 2008
GARY METRAS: FOUNDER OF THE ADASTRA PRESS
( a very young Gary Metras)
GARY METRAS: FOUNDER OF THE ADASTRA PRESS
BY DOUG HOLDER
Gary Metras is the editor, publisher, and printer of the Adastra Press which specializes in handcrafted chapbooks of poetry. The American Book Review said of Adastra: “As long as fine literary presses continue to handcraft handsome books like these from Adastra, serious readers can rest assured that the book is alive and well.” Metras has worked with such renowned poets as: Thomas Lux and Ed Ochester, but has published many debut collections as well.
Metras is a well-regarded poet in his own right. Recently the Pudding House Press released his collection “Greatest Hits: 1980-2006.” He has been widely published in the small press, and is a featured poet in current issue of the literary magazine: “Ibbetson Street.” Metras has read at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and he teaches writing at Springfield College in Springfield, Mass. I talked with him on my Somerville Community Access TV show: “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer”
Doug Holder: You specialize in chapbooks. Why chaps as opposed to perfect bound books?
Gary Metras: I guess because my first two books were chapbooks done by small presses during the Mimeograph Revolution. One of the books was published by the Samizdat Press and the other was self published. The production quality was so shoddy; I thought there had to be a better way to do it. I thought poetry deserves to look better on the page. But still, I was very happy to have them out there in print. When the opportunity came about I took a night course at a local vocational school in printing and graphic arts. I wanted to learn letterpress printing.
DH: Define letterpress printing.
GM: It is relief type. The actual type is pressed against the paper to be printed—it leaves the image, as opposed to offset—the printing plate never touches the paper. The printed plate transfers the image to a rubber roller and the roller touches the paper. Letterpress goes back to Gutenberg.
DH: And what is a chapbook? Where does the name derive from?
GM: The chapbook comes from the pushcart salesman in old London. That is where the name of the small press literary award the Pushcart Prize comes from. So the pushcart street vendors used to carry these little tracts. They were cheaply done on paper with a soft cover. They were all paperback formats. They were all sewn back then because stapling wasn’t around and neither was glue binding. They were cheap books, or chapbooks—they mean the same thing.
The length of a chapbook can vary according to the publisher. The standard length is 24 pages. Most chapbooks don’t have a spine, they are stapled or sewn. I do mine with a spine, it looks more elegant. And it is a better marketing tool in bookstores. The spine makes a huge difference. My chapbooks look like real books, just slimmer. I know the American Poetry Society is publishing four poetry chapbooks a year now.
DH: Did you apprentice with any printers?
GM: No. I am self-taught. But I use a couple of other publishers as my models. I have taken books apart to see how they are put together. I read the old texts like Blumenthal’s “The Art of Printing.”
DH: You have a number of poetry collections to your credit. Do you hold your poetry to the same standards as your publishing?
GM: This is something that I began to realize. I was subconsciously writing my own poems, based on the poems I accepted to publish. I found similar techniques: line breaks, use of metaphor, etc… And I was finding, and I don’t mean to be immodest, that I was better than most of the poets I was publishing, at least during the early years. I have been well published, so I use my own poetry as the standard.
DH: You said in an interview that a manuscript has to present a “graphic challenge”
GM: As a book publisher, as a person who uses metal type, when I am reading a manuscript of poems, I have to find something that challenges me to extend my own skills. This is in terms of designing and laying out the pages in a book.
For instance: I want to know if the title interacts with the body of the poem, or the stanza formats. It took me years to realize that to be challenged graphically was part of my selection process. Two years ago I did a book from the poet Leonard Cirino from Oregon. He had submitted to me for 10 years in a row. He came close and finally I picked a long poem of his. The reason I chose it was that individual lines of his poem presented visual images of what they looked like on the page. Since I can only publish one or two titles a year, I want the books to make a graphic statement as well.
GM: Name some of your favorite small press poets?
DH: Alan Catlin, Michael Casey (from Lowell, Mass.), D.W. Earhart, and others. They all have a tremendous working class sensibility.
GM: You are a son of a bricklayer. What did your father think of your poetry publishing?
DH: He thought it was wonderful. I worked with him on weekends when I was growing up. He admired the sensibilities of working with your hands. We used to drive around Western, Mass. and he would point out buildings and projects he worked on. That impressed me as a young boy. Partly it was my desire to do it with books. The writer who wrote my profile in Poets and Writers magazine was amazed at my bookshelf—three feet of Adastra Press books, representing over 29 years.
DH: How big are your press runs?
GM: We average 250 books per press run.
DH: It is a badge of honor to be published by Adastra.
GM: A young woman, a graduate student at Emerson College in Boston, asked her professor Bill Knott, about having a book done by Adastra. Knott said: “If you want to publish a book do it with Adastra.” She did. It is very satisfying to help young poets. You know yourself, as writers, we work really hard in our loneliness to get our poems down.
DH: You were an English teacher for many years. Why the need for a press?
GM: Teaching is a mental job. I just felt a lack in my life because I wasn’t working with my hands. It was my heritage.
DH: You published Tom Sexton’s “Clock with No Hands,” It deals with the city of Lowell, Mass. Lowell has a rich literary heritage. It is the birthplace of Kerouac; Anne Sexton attended school there, etc… Why did this down-at-the heels- old mill city inspire the literary imagination?
GM: I think the idea of physical sweat when you work for someone else to make a product, accumulates, and steals from the soul. And because it can be so draining of the human spirit, those who have the sensibility to write about it—write about it.
--Doug Holder/Ibbetson Update/ Nov. 2008/Somerville, Mass.