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Out & About: Raw Materials

Jen and Eric Woods—the siblings behind Typecast Publishing—reinvent that overly precious object known as the book of poetry.

Left: <i>Monkey Bars</i> sets the bar higher for poetry. Above: Eric and Jen Woods at Firecracker Press. Right: The Type in “TypeCast.”

Left: Monkey Bars sets the bar higher for poetry. Above: Eric and Jen Woods at Firecracker Press. Right: The Type in “TypeCast.”

Photograph by Kevin A. Roberts

Jen and Eric Woods grew up in rural Piedmont, Mo., where they played together in their grandfather’s lumberyard, hiding inside big rolls of carpet and climbing in the rafters. Eric, 15 months the elder, loved to draw; Jen’s joy was reading. “The only thing I hated,” she says, “was the limit on the number of books I could take out of the library!”

Eric grew up and founded a letterpress shop, The Firecracker Press, in St. Louis. Jen grew up and became an editor at Sarabande Books in Louisville, Ky., working with young poets. The only thing she hated was that “they were writing such great stuff, and it was not getting circulated!”

Poetry presses had locked themselves in stuffy ivory towers. Exasperated, Jen called Eric: “Poetry hasn’t been packaged and presented in any new way since 1970,” she announced. “Maybe if we use what you do to get people to forget their biases…”

It was time to play together again, on a poetry-and-design magazine they named The Lumberyard. “We wanted to sort of reopen the family business,” Jen explains. “If you are in a Home Depot, it is like the land of opportunity. We wanted the magazine to be as comfortable as it could be, yet spark limitless ideas.”

The Lumberyard—by turns witty, taunting, and thoughtful, with poems of equal weight from prisoners and Harvard professors—took hold. Its friendly, ink-splotched pages held poetry that seemed simple on the first read, profound on the second and third. Eric’s drawings were whimsical and apt, with the same layered effect; you smiled several seconds before you got the joke.

“Before we knew it, the [National Education Association] was knocking and saying, ‘If this isn’t the future of poetry, we don’t know what is,’” Jen recalls. Then, last November, Dwight Garner of The New York Times blogged about “the most physically beautiful new journal I’ve seen this year.” Soon after, Lumberyard found itself with enough money to start a publishing imprint. Jen would own the imprint, Typecast Publishing, and Eric’s Firecracker Press would have first right of refusal on the visuals.

For their first project, Jen called a poet she adored: Matthew Lippman, who’d just won the Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry. His work’s readable, startlingly honest, and funny, she says, “and what he writes about is stuff that everybody feels at one time or another.”

His new collection—and Typecast’s first book—is called Monkey Bars, released this month. Entertainment Weekly’s already nibbling.

The physical model for the book was Raggedy Ann and Andy in the Tunnel of Lost Toys, Jen says, and the open sides of its sturdy cardboard cover echo the Lumberyard construction aesthetic. Inside, the book is both playful and elegant, even down to the page numbers, which are on the outside margin. A brown paper band slides over the book, letterpressed at Firecracker, the grooves begging to be felt. “We adhered every single band ourselves, with a glue-gun thing and double-sided tape,” Jen says. “We worked two days solid. Caffeine is all I remember.”

When Monkey Bars was finished, she lined it up next to a group of typical poetry books: thin, cheaply done, with faded tree branches and pretty fonts, from academic presses that had long since given up on expanding poetry’s audience. “I wanted to be able to say, ‘This book does not look like it has anything to do with those books.’ So you just pick it up saying, ‘What in the world is this?’”

“At Firecracker, we have a bent toward pop-culture imagery,” Eric chimes in. “We’re looking for stuff that first and foremost is simple, and therefore accessible, but on deeper investigation has a lot of backbone; other interesting things are happening under the surface. With Monkey Bars, we took visual elements straight from Lippman’s work. I was looking for something a little less rough-and-tumble than The Lumberyard, a little more sophisticated—but not so polished that it was boring.” He pauses. “I think all the arts fit together more than we often give them credit.”

Next up: a novel and a book of response to the Gulf oil spill. “I always hesitate to talk about the future,” Jen demurs. “Talk about what you’ve done, and spare people your dreams.’”

Until they’re in ink.

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