“So what exactly is bookmaking?” I asked today’s interviewee. I could imagine her laughing when I read her reply: “Well, I’m not on the wrong side of the law, I assure you! It’s as literal as can be: I make books with paper, an awl, thread, binders’ board, and decorative paper and cloth. And usually adhesive. It is wildly addictive and fun.”
Meet calligrapher, bookmaker, mother, and entrepreneur Laura Capp. She has a self-professed “unusual love for school,” and—professed by me—an impressive drive and the ability to weave her work, her passions, and her family together. She also happens to be my cousin, but that doesn’t take much upkeep, except when I request interviews.
We talked about how she began calligraphy out of necessity, balancing work and family, her lovely thesis project called Poetry by Post, and what’s in store for her future.
Jane Smith: Let’s pretend we just met. What should I know to get a sense of your personality?
Laura Capp: Hmm. Well, I am a Midwesterner through and through, born and raised in Nebraska and now a ten-year-plus Iowa resident. I adore books and have an unusual love for school. I am 33 and just getting out (and a little sad about it). Initially, I wanted to be a professor, so I secretly hoped to stay in school forever, starting by studying literature in college and grad school. While I was a grad student in English, though, I discovered the University of Iowa’s Center for the Book – a program offering classes in letterpress printing, bookbinding, calligraphy, and papermaking – and became rather enchanted by it. I started moonlighting over there during my English degree, and by the time I finished my doctorate and knew that the academic life was at once too much and not enough for my needs, I opted to stay in school a little longer to complete an MFA in Book Arts, which I just finished up this past December. During that decade-long stint in grad school, my husband and I tried for a baby. We got two! My daughters are now four, so my days are a combination of working and being home with them.
JS: Whew! What’s it like to have a job and be a student all while being married and raising twin toddlers?
LC: It’s certainly logistically complicated. There’s a lot of tag-team parenting involved; I have ten work hours carved out for myself during the typical 40-hour week while the girls are at preschool or with a sitter, so I also work at night or on weekends, which means that we don’t have as much idyllic family togetherness as we’d like (though when we are all together, we try to make it quality time). The schedule also means that my husband and I are each rarely off the clock, between work and solo parenting. What makes it tenable are that a) the grad school schedule is beautifully flexible, if demanding, and deadlines tend to be somewhat fluid b) my work as a student and teacher truly feels vocational – even though it can certainly be stressful and difficult, I feel absolutely gratified by what I’m doing; and c) we know we’ve come to these choices for good reasons. If the laundry is spilling out of the hampers and the dishes are queued up and waiting for their turn in the sink? Well, those are temporary frustrations, and they’ll get taken care of. But they don’t get to be taken care of before the rest of us are, in the various ways we need.
And while little folks certainly generate a lot of juggling and chaos, they also add so much to our life together: endless humor, kindness, creativity, perception. They bring such joy to the days that the chaos doesn’t feel empty or purposeless but instead big and bursting and fun — most of the time, I should say; of course, life gets hard at stretches, as it does for everyone, so during those times, we try to communicate well, give one another the gift of some extra time and space, and focus on what matters in the big picture and what doesn’t.
JS: Do the twins get involved at all in bookmaking, perhaps a simplified version? Or, what do they like to make with their hands?
LC: We don’t do too much bookbinding together yet, but they’re getting to an age where they have the motor skills to start making simple books. Right now they like to paint with watercolors, sculpt with playdough, build Duplo towers, and help in the kitchen. I do catch them trying to steal my calligraphy pens from time to time, so we’ll start working on that soon, too!
JS: I remember when you were just getting into calligraphy. How did that morph from a pastime to a passion to become part of your career?
LC: I took my first calligraphy class my second semester of my program in English simply because I needed to do something with my hands. Reading on the couch, at the table, and in bed for ten hours a day was wonderful in its way, but my brain and body were utterly desperate for something else. At first, calligraphy was a fun challenge as well as a helpful outlet, but as I continued with it, I realized that it was offering me a vital way to connect to the literature I was reading that was absent from my actual classes. Calligraphy allowed for close reading to the extreme and also just for time: time to sit with and meditate on a circumscribed set of words when I was bingeing on tens of thousands of words a day.
After I had a few of these classes – calligraphy and bookbinding both – it became clear that creative expression was not a luxury for me but a necessity. Grad school was a much happier place for me during the semesters when I was making something with my hands – and to be using my hands AND working with literature simultaneously? That, to me, is bliss. So calligraphy has been a godsend for me, as has letterpress printing. I now understand that I am a person who exists in a hybrid space between traditional disciplines, and while that generated a lot of confusion for me as I went from one program to the next feeling like I never wholly belonged, I have come out on the other side of that with a hard-won understanding of what I want to do with my life.
JS: I love the way you describe existing in the hybrid space between traditional disciplines. What do you want to do with this understanding, moving forward?
LC: Well, at first I thought it would be great to find a job at a university where I could teach courses in both literature and book arts, but it would probably entail moving the whole family to somewhere where we have no roots or connections. We looked seriously at our priorities and felt that family took precedence over an academic job, which meant that my option is pretty much to invent a job for myself. So I am making preparations to venture into entrepreneurship: I envision having a part-retail/part-workshop space where I can offer paper goods (stationery, book arts supplies, and a selection of books and gifts) and host workshops in bookbinding, calligraphy, and printing. I’d also like it to be an event space where I can host poetry readings, book clubs, and children’s storytimes. My hope, too, is that I can construct the business in such a way that I still reserve ample studio time for my own calligraphy and printing.
While universities are wonderful places that have given me so much, it took me a while to realize the obvious: a commitment to lifelong learning and literacy needn’t be confined to those institutions. I can infuse my business with an educational component that will simply have a different audience than I would have at a university. The pieces are slowly falling into place, and I couldn’t be more excited.
JS: Tell me about the inception of Pentameter Press. Where did the idea for it come from? How did you come up with the name?
LC: In my first letterpress printing class, we were asked to come up with an imprint for our work; just like large publishers have a particular title and logo, small printers often follow the same practice even though they are frequently one-man or one-woman operations. I felt the imprint should be somewhat reflective of the content I gravitate toward, and since I studied Victorian poetry in graduate school and love scansion, form, and meter, “pentameter” jumped out to me as a good word for my purpose – not so obscure that the average person wouldn’t know it and fun to say, to boot. Also, the initials of the whole moniker – Pentameter Press Studio – appeal to my love of the handwritten letter and postscripts. There’s something so beautiful about that gesture of adding another thought and yet another to the end of the letter – it signals a charming and sweet reluctance to say good-bye. So the name has stuck around, and I have added a tagline: “Poetry in penmanship and printing” – a line of pentameter! Feels just right.
JS: What are your hopes and dreams for Pentameter Press Studio?
LC: I think that a brick and mortar business will be called something else, and Pentameter Press Studio will remain my imprint for my own printing and calligraphic artwork. I dream of continuing what I undertook for my thesis project, a poetry subscription service called Poetry by Post. The project entailed printing broadsides featuring the work of Midwestern poets and companion analyses that I wrote, all packaged in oversized mailers addressed with calligraphy and posted with vintage stamps. And I’d love to keep printing small poetry chapbooks. I hope, too, for the businesses to feed off of each other; for instance, I’d host periodic poetry readings at the brick and mortar space and then print an accompanying broadside for the event. Or bring in children’s book illustrators for weekend workshops and collaborate on printing an illustrated edition of a poem for children. Things like that. While entrepreneurship is certainly scary, there is no shortage (at least in the fantasy) of possible directions a business can take, and I love being able to imagine a space and platform through which I can coordinate fun and engaging events and projects for as far as the eye can see.