Writers celebrate 40 years of Kentucky’s unique Larkspur Press

June 4, 2013


The University of Kentucky honored Gray Zeitz, center, last Friday on the 40th anniversary of his Larkspur Press in Monterey, which publishes hand-crafted books by  Kentucky writers. Before the ceremony at Margaret I. King Library, Zeitz, center, talked with Gay Reading, left, whose aunt, Carolyn Reading Hammer, taught Zeitz the art of printing at the King Library Press at UK. At right is Zeitz’s wife, Jean.  Photos by Tom Eblen 


Richard Taylor recalled that when Gray Zeitz was establishing his Larkspur Press in the mid-1970s, he received a printing commission from the Kentucky Arts Council. Anxious state officials asked for a deadline, but Zeitz would not be rushed.

He replied to them with a metaphor drawn from his love for Kentucky’s native plants: “Who knows when the phlox will flower?”

Taylor, a former Kentucky poet laureate, told that story last Friday evening as more than 130 writers, artists, friends and fans gathered at the University of Kentucky’s Margaret I. King Library to honor Zeitz for four decades of continuous flowering.

Zeitz was lauded by Taylor and eight other writers and artists whose work the small press in rural Owen County has published over the years: Wesley Bates, Gabrielle Fox, Nana Lampton, Ed McClanahan, Maurice Manning, Maureen Morehead, Mary Ann Taylor-Hall and Jeff Worley.

The ceremony opened an exhibit of pieces produced by Larkspur Press, which has published more than 100 handmade books and countless broadsides since 1974. The free exhibit will be up through August. The library at 179 Funkhouser Dr. is open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday.

Larkspur Press, on Sawdridge Creek Road near Monterey, has a public open house each November, on the Saturday and Sunday after Thanksgiving.

Last Saturday, Zeitz led a letterpress printing workshop at the King Library Press on UK’s campus. That was where he learned his art and trade, first as a student and then as an apprentice to director Carolyn Reading Hammer.

In the 1950s, Hammer and her husband, Austrian artist Victor Hammer, began a Kentucky tradition of fine letterpress printing using hand-operated presses, hand-set type and woodblock engravings.

130531GrayZeitz-TE0043Zeitz, 63, is one of their most successful protégés. Using century-old presses and thick, creamy paper, he prints elegant books that are hand-stitched and bound, in both fancy collector’s editions and affordable paperbacks.

“Gray is stubbornly and endearingly independent,” Taylor explained in his remarks. “He has steadfastly refused to become ensnared by the Internet. One of his friends designed a web page (larkspurpress.com) that Gray has no means or desire to see.”

But, as the writers and artists explained, Zeitz is much more than a printer. A poet himself, he carefully selects the writers, artists and works he wants to publish. Most are from Kentucky.

In addition to those who spoke Friday, they have included Wendell Berry, Bobbie Ann Mason, Silas House, Erik Reece, Gurney Norman, Frederick Smock and the late Guy Davenport and James Baker Hall.

Bates, a Canadian wood engraver, said he first encountered Larkspur Press nearly two decades ago and was impressed by the quality of the printing, the large volume of books produced and Zeitz’s curatorial skill in choosing work to publish.

“It was above and beyond the idea of book as art,” Bates said. “It was book as communication, as preservation of culture.”

As for Zeitz, a burly man with a long beard who always wears blue jeans and suspenders, Bates said, “I thought he looked like he was part of the band ZZ Top.”

Taylor-Hall talked about how Zeitz consults with writers about how their books should look, down to such things as the color of ink. Worley joked that even if readers hate his poetry, they won’t throw away his Larkspur Press editions because the books themselves are too beautiful.

Several others remarked on Zeitz’s craftsmanship, exacting standards and placid demeanor. “Every time I see him, he seems filled with joy,” Manning said.

When it finally came time for Zeitz to speak Friday, he was, as always, a man of few words. He introduced two longtime collaborators, Carolyn Whitesel and Leslie Shane, and thanked audience members for writing and illustrating his books, buying and reading his books and even helping him on occasion move heavy, iron presses.

Then, Zeitz read a poem he had written, which the King Library Press printed as a broadside to give those in attendance:

Printer’s Note

Sweet rain yesterday.

We have put your book on the press.

My hands do not tremble

because I’m unsure,

but shake in the finalizing of page

as a foal, newborn,

begins to stand.

It should be said

there will be absolutely no deadline.

Who knows when the phlox will flower? 

Larkspur Press makes artful books for artful words

November 22, 2010

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.

The process for deciding which books to publish is simple: “It’s mainly what I like,” Zeitz said. Poetry dominates, perhaps because Zeitz and Shane are occasional poets.

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.

Larkspur Press books are sold at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, The Morris Book Shop and Black Swan Books in Lexington and several other shops around the state, and at Larkspurpress.com.

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.”

If you go

Larkspur Press open house

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 27, noon to 5 p.m. Nov. 28

Where: U.S. 127, 15 miles north of Frankfort and 1 mile south of Monterey. Turn off U.S. 127 onto Sawdridge Creek Road, beside the Monterey Fire Department. After crossing Cedar Creek bridge, take the first driveway on the left.

Learn more: Larkspurpress.com or (502) 484-5390

Click on each thumbnail to view complete photo: