MONTEREY — Gray Zeitz thinks the best way to experience poetry is to hear it read aloud.
The second-best way is the way Zeitz has presented it for 36 years: in hand-set type with woodcut illustrations, printed by letterpress on thick, creamy paper, hand-stitched and beautifully bound.
“Everything else,” he said, “is downhill from there.”
In an age when books themselves seem threatened with extinction by virtual type on digital screens, Zeitz’s Larkspur Press uses antique methods to publish elegant volumes of poetry and short fiction by Kentucky authors.
Larkspur Press will have its annual open house Nov. 27 and 28, unless too much rain falls on this corner of Owen County. The business is in a timber-frame shop on Gray and Jean Zeitz’s 60-acre farm. A downpour can send Cedar Creek out of its banks and across their precarious gravel driveway.
If the creek doesn’t rise, visitors will see trays of metal type and the table where Zeitz, 61, can hand-set three pages of prose a day when he is on a roll. The table stands near a 1915 Chandler & Price press, into which Zeitz feeds single sheets of paper, adding a dab of ink every 33 sheets.
“They’ve never made a better press,” he said. “They’ve just made them faster.”
Upstairs in the small shop, Carolyn Whitesel designs books, incorporating her illustrations and those of other artists. Leslie Shane sits at a nearby bench, stitching pages together with needle and thread and gluing handmade covers.
Zeitz is as particular about what he publishes as how. He has produced books by some of Kentucky’s best-known authors, including Wendell Berry, Bobbie Ann Mason and Guy Davenport. He published the first books of several Kentucky poets, including Richard Taylor, James Baker Hall and Frederick Smock.
Larkspur Press produced three books this year: Andy Catlett: Early Education, the latest story in Berry’s series about fictional Port William; and two books of poetry, Maureen Morehead’s The Melancholy Teacher and Smock’s The Blue Hour.
“Last year, we did five books, and it about killed us,” Zeitz said. As time allows, the shop also produces wedding invitations and other job printing to help with cash flow.
Zeitz wanted to become a poet when he studied under Berry at the University of Kentucky. Then he discovered the University of Kentucky’s King Library Press, where he spent two years as an apprentice to Carolyn Hammer. She and her husband, Victor, became mentors to dozens of fine-art printers.
“I was addicted,” Zeitz said. “When I decided to move up here, she gave me a press and a drawer of type and sent me on my way.”
Larkspur Press opened in Monterey in 1974, but a flood four years later left the shop chest-deep in water. The Zeitzes dried their equipment and moved it to their farm, building their present shop in 1991.
Over time, Zeitz has added equipment, most of which is hard to find because it hasn’t been made in nearly a century. “Buying a new type is like buying a good used car,” he said.
Larkspur Press has been a good life — if not always a good living — for the Zeitzes, whose bright purple house stands up the hill from their shop. In the early years, they raised tobacco and calves to supplement their income.
Zeitz has expensive tastes in materials. Still, he tries to keep prices low because he is more interested in selling books to readers than to collectors.
“Gray’s goal is to make a book that’s beautiful to hold in your hand, but one that a person who loves poetry but isn’t rich can afford,” said Jean Zeitz, a retired teacher.
Many Larkspur Press books are published in three editions. For example, Berry’s poetry book Sabbaths 2006 has a $120 collector’s edition, a $28 hardcover and an $18 paperback.
The Web site was built and is maintained by a friend, because the Zeitzes don’t own a computer.
“Every now and then, Gray will send me to the library to look at it to see if a new book got on,” his wife said.
John Lackey, a Lexington artist whose woodcut illustrates A Short History of the Present, a poetry book by Erik Reece that Larkspur published last year, thinks Zeitz’s craftsmanship pays unique tribute to Kentucky’s writers — and readers.
“Writing like Wendell Berry’s deserves to be treated like a work of art,” Lackey said. “I have a huge amount of respect for Gray. Those little books he makes are wonderful pieces of magic.”
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