Publishing faculty member Anna Lena Phillips Bell’s chapbook Smaller Songs will appear from St Brigid Press on September 22, 2020.
St Brigid Press, based in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia, is run by publisher and printer Emily Hancock, who describes letterpress printing as communion. Phillips Bell, who is the editor and art director of Ecotone and an editor of UNCW’s Lookout Books, says working with Hancock has been a “sheer delight,” as they talk about each step of the process—from cover and text paper to trim size, type, and binding:
It's a real luxury to get to think about those things in such detail with a publisher. She commissioned Molly Stouten, a dear friend of mine who's a fine fiddler and knows some things about ballads, to make woodcut illustrations for the frontispiece and each section of the book. And when I said, “If my partner set one of the little poems to music, could we print it in the back of the book?” [Hancock] said “Sure!” To see the book come to life has been a bright spot in this strange year.
Hand set in Goudy Old Style metal type (cast by Patrick Reagh), Smaller Songs is printed on a 1909 Golding Pearl foot-treadled press. The chapbook is hand-sewn, with a handmade paper jacket by St Armand.
Phillips Bell shares and cultivates Hancock’s love for these traditional handcrafts. Since taking her first letterpress workshop in 2012, she has worked steadily on print projects, mostly at Asheville Bookworks. Such projects include her own A Pocket Book of Forms and Charms for Hemlock, both of which are available via exhibitions at Abecedarian Gallery.
At UNCW, Phillips Bell teaches a book-arts course, The Handmade Book. “I love sharing book structures and tiny-press culture through that class,” she says. She also gives praise to Power to the Zine! “a fantastic exhibit organized by Shannon Bourne in the art department in which several creative writing students had work.”
St Brigid Press speaks to Anna Lena Phillips Bell’s Smaller Songs as a collection brimming with “strange and delightful tidings.” The poems in this collection challenge the traditional models of gender and power embedded in the footnotes of English and Scottish Ballads, edited by the poet Robert Graves. Using word and phrase banks from the footnotes of Graves’s 1957 edition of English and Scottish Ballads, Phillips Bell masterfully builds her poems in Smaller Songs with Graves’s phrases at her disposal, recycling them into something beyond their original forms.
Of the process of writing the poems in the collection, Bell says, “…I like a ballad, and it was a hard winter, and the process was a balm. It became clear as I went that I would make small poems by rearranging words and phrases from the footnotes. I hope the poems rework some of the slants of thought held in those old ballads—magical and lasting but also, sometimes, misogynist and classist and cruel—into something from and for now.”
“Songs of the Garden,” a sequence from Smaller Songs, first appeared in Quarterly West and was reprinted on the Academy of American Poets website.
In addition to Smaller Songs, which can be purchased at St Brigid Press’s online shop, Anna Lena Phillips Bell is the author of Ornament, winner of the Vassar Miller Poetry Prize. Her poems have recently appeared in Subtropics, Five Points, and the Florida Review, and in the anthologies A Literary Field Guide to Southern Appalachia and Gracious: Poems from the 21st Century South. She will read from the new collection at her virtual book launch on Thursday, September 24 at 7:00 p.m.
St Brigid Press speaks to Anna Lena Phillips Bell’s Smaller Songs as a collection brimming with “strange and delightful tidings.”