Tactile Verse: Aotearoa Letterpress Poetry Books

The three-dimensional bite of metal type into paper gives text a sculptural depth that brings new life to poetry. Who can resist the urge to run their finger along rows of impressed text - engaging with the words both physically, and as a reader? This union of 15th century printing technology and contemporary Aotearoa poetry and visual art has resulted in a range of beautiful hand crafted books, key examples of which can be viewed in the Angela Morton Room | Te Pātaka Toi Art Library.

the fruits of (2009)

Typographer Tara McLeod has said the printer’s challenge is to find the letterforms that are right for a given message. He and poet Riemke Ensing have collaborated on many collections, and Ensing has noted that “Not only is there an absolute commitment to retain the integrity of the work [by McLeod] and convey the feeling inherent in the poem, there is that sensitivity to the use of colour, light, space and form to capture the essence of the poems in these new and startling environments.”

O lucky man (2009)

The tactile letterpress experience is enriched by the choice of sumptuous handmade papers, as in Ensing’s “O Lucky Man” (2009), a set of poems commemorating Charles Brasch’s centennial. “The end papers alone were a treasure,” she said. “Made from a plant in Nepal, the texture and the lush vermillion colour [replicated at times in the fabulous images made by artist and printmaker Inge Doesburg] give the whole book a sense of luxury and something exquisite.”

Watermarks (2019)

In 2019 a fold-out book of Ensing’s poetry Watermarks was published. This included vitreographs by Claire van Vliet depicting dramatic rock formations at Muriwai, where the poems are set. Watermarks is dedicated to print artist Beth Serjeant who initiated the project. When Ensing and Serjeant received their copies of the book they felt van Vliet’s images captured the essence of Muriwai, the reef and the pool where Serjeant swam in her youth. They also loved the greenish tinge and sandy texture of the paper, and the ‘watery’ feeling of the font. At first, Ensing thought the Neue Hamme Unziale font chosen by van Vliet might be difficult to read, but she gradually saw van Vliet’s intent to bring something like a shimmer of light in water onto the page. “It is almost as though the font replicated the waves, the lift and fall of water – the shape of the text,” she said.

The Silences Between: (Moeraki conversations) (2016)

Van Vliet’s images also feature in Keri Hulme’s poetry collection The Silences Between: (Moeraki conversations) (2016). This substantial 114 page publication incorporates alternative book structures: some pages are split horizontally, like a flip book, with text below and images above; some have a die-cut moon; and others can be popped forward for a three-dimensional wagon-wheel display. Van Vliet has said that she wants “the physicality of the book to create a physical message through the hands and the eyes that makes the reader more susceptible to the text.” The Silences Between: (Moeraki conversations) is housed in an elegant maple and tamarack tray case which has a map of Kiwa’s Sea inset, and there is an accompanying Māori glossary prepared by Hulme.

Swell (1987)

In 1987 Alan Loney published Swell. This was the 27th book he had printed but only the third presenting his own writing, and he also created the book’s letterpress prints. Loney has said that the collaboration between poet, artist and printer is often too fluid for separate acknowledgement; with Swell he fulfills all three roles. Gregory O’Brien wrote that in this book “Every layer of production investigates the possibilities of the book as a vehicle for image and language – the language is an ‘opening out’ of the image, the image ‘opening out’ the language.”

the fruits of (2009)

A wonderful example of typography opening out language is on display in the fruits of (2009), where the lines of a poem describing Psyche rising into the air on the updraft of a storm are set in a way that suggests paraglider flight. This rare publication is poet Murray Edmond’s retelling of Apuleius’ Eros and Psyche story, illustrated and designed by Joanna Forsberg, and hand printed by Tara McLeod. This beautiful book consists of 16 unbound folded leaves housed in a luxe cloth box, in a limited edition of 35 copies.

page.stone.leaf (2013)

Dinah Hawken’s collection “page.stone.leaf” (2013) was designed and printed by McLeod and includes images from stone rubbings of runes by sculptor John Edgar. Nicholas Wright wrote “one is struck by [the book’s] materiality: for a volume of such spare poems, it is a heavy book… This sense of the material is evident also in the impressions made by the letterpress-printed words in the pulp of the cut pages. Nostalgia materialises, one might say, in the page’s imperfect absorption of the ink, suggestive of a saturated past all but lost except for its tracings in these spectral letter-figures.”

Pine (2005)

Printer Brendan O’Brien said the Pine project resembled a dialogue or conversation. “Bill Manhire’s poems have their own life in his books, but they also gain other lives as they meander in and out of Ralph Hotere’s artworks. ‘Pine’ collects and records the spirit of these encounters.” O’Brien was printer-in-residence at Otago University’s Bibliography Room in 2005, the year it was renamed the Otakou Press. Together with Manhire and Hotere he produced Pine, an ideal project to mark this renaming because Hotere had created his PINE series there in 1973-1974, combining printing with wooden type, with hand-painted texts. He had used text from postcards Manhire sent him from London in the early 1970s. Hotere had also planned a book but it didn’t eventuate. When the publication subsequently came together in 2005, Manhire found two further poems which he hadn’t sent. O’Brien said that “while discussions with Ralph about the curious effects he achieved ‘inking’ the type unearthed some unorthodox techniques (numerous cleaning brushes, clothes and sponges all featured in the mix). The 'Pine' project served to recover the missing Manhire poems, the ‘lost’ Hotere printing techniques and to produce a book that somehow escaped publication 30 years earlier.”

Pine trees in the key of F and a rose in the key of G (2005)

James K. Baxter’s poem Pine trees in the key of F and a rose in the key of G was also unpublished until 2005 when the Bibliography Room brought out a limited edition of 85 copies with Inge Doesburg as the illustrator/printmaker, printed by John Holmes. The binding by Catherine Gubbins comprises three rose paper boards, hinged with red linen. Folded shut, these panels enclose the poem and illustrations – opened out, they form a self-standing triptych.

Freda du Faur (2016)

In 2016, poet Rhian Gallagher collaborated with artist Lynn Taylor and printer Sarah Smith to publish poems on the life and activities of Freda Du Faur (1882-1935), the first woman to climb Aoraki/Mt Cook. “Working with Lynn and Sarah was, like the book itself, an unfolding experience,” said Gallagher. “Sarah developed the concept for the book and Lynn brought a unique visual element to the work. Both Sarah and Lynn worked incredibly hard during the printing itself – they literally brought the book to life.” Together, they produced an edition of 120 concertina style books alluding to the mountain range and Freda Du Faur’s journey.

Journey to Portugal (2006)

Michele Leggott wrote the poems in “Journey to Portugal” (2006) which was designed by Gretchen Albrecht and letterpress printed by Tara McLeod. Albrecht wrote: “I chose to place combinations of coloured blocks of paper to contrast with the complexity of Michele's text, and within the limitations of colours available, letting the heat of Portugal and its earthy dusty landscape with occasional glimpses of sea dictate my choices." She used a form of collage to create the images - Chine Colle – where thin Japanese handmade art papers are torn into shapes and then glued and pressed in a ‘nipping’ press to the page. Every image was hand-done, in collaboration with book-maker Elizabeth Steiner. As a result each of the images, and thus each book, is unique.

For more examples of these stunning poet, artist and printer collaborations, please see the catalogue of Aotearoa letterpress poetry collections held in the Angela Morton Room.

Author: Leanne

Instagram @angelamorton.room


“Dawn/Water” colophon
Text by Bill Manhire, images by Andrew Drummond
Hawk Press, 1979

“The Head, The Heart & The Hand: Private press printing in the digital age”
By Tara McLeod
Pear Tree Press, 2007.

“Tara McLeod: A Typographic Journey”
Katsura, 2020.

“The Holloway Press 1994-2013 A checklist of publications”
Edited by Francis McWhannell

“components of a special collection: a collaboration with The University of Auckland Fine Arts Library”
By Taarati Taiaroa and Tracey Williams
The University of Auckland, 2010.


“Notes on reading Riemke Ensing’s Watermarks or Gesturing Towards the Metamodern Self”
By Alexandra Dumitrescu
Forthcoming issue of MAI Journal: A New Zealand Journal of Indigenous Scholarship

“On and Around Creation: The Hand-made Books of Alan Loney”
By Gregory O’Brien
Art New Zealand, Number 57, Summer 1990-1991

“Paradoxes of knowledge and knowing,” by Nicholas Wright.
NZ Books, 29 August 2014

“University of Otago Printer in Residence”
Otago Bulletin, 28 October 2016