Profile: Kyle Schlesinger of Cuneiform Press by Andrew Miller

By  | July 6, 2015 | 1 Comment | Filed under: Features & Essays, Interviews

Photo courtesy of Devaki Knowles.


Profile: Kyle Schlesinger of Cuneiform Press
By Andrew Miller


With a 15-year retrospective planned this summer, Cuneiform Press will celebrate its continued connection between the origins of written communication and modern technology, as well as natural progression of the art from master to apprentice to artisanal craft.

Marfa Book Company is hosting the retrospective of the press’ work which will include all of the books published as well as having special art prints created specifically for the exhibition. The show is scheduled to run July 1 and through October in Marfa, Texas.

Cuneiform Press operates as a nonprofit out of the University of Houston-Victoria, specializing in “publishing poetry, artists’ books, and books-about-books in the tradition of the independent press.”

Having been founded in part as an experiment in letterpress printing, Cuneiform is known for incorporating historically-informed typographic practices to create books whose beauty goes beyond the content of the words; paying close attention to creating stunning visual impact, regardless of the chosen publishing process.

Press founder Kyle Schlesinger has been working with movable type since 1998 when he was studying at Goddard College in Plainfield, VT.

Schlesinger purchased a 100-year-old George Prouty & Sons platen press while living in an apartment, still mostly disconnected from modern technology at that time, thus beginning the journey that would lead him to founding the press.

“I was in my early twenties living in a railroad apartment by a waterfall. The previous tenants had painted a zodiac chart on the floor and there was an old sign outside that said ‘psychotherapist’ only there wasn’t one. Those were interesting times,” Schlesinger said. “I bought my first computer around then and just started using email at the library, no internet at home, for example. I actually didn’t even have a key for the front door of my flat! It was another world, another time, and everyone was throwing pots and growing vegetables and making post and beam houses, so letterpress made sense.”

The first official Cuneiform Press book was Chapter in a Day Finch Journal by Luisa Giugliano, published in Buffalo, New York in 2001 while Schlesinger was a student in the Poetics Program. Since that time he has moved on to become a professor at the University of Houston in Victoria, Texas.

While it was Schlesinger who dragged the letterpress machinery halfway across the country, he is quick to make it clear that Cuneiform is not him, saying that it “has always been a collaborative effort that includes the support of the board, readers, writers, artists, distributors, backers, binders, printers, and others. I’m the proprietor, but the community that makes the books are Cuneiform’s greatest asset.”

Cuneiform Press continues to publish letterpress books, but also works in offset print as well, taking advantage of all methods of printing based on the project at hand.

Since that time Cuneiform’s annual output has varied based on what opportunities have presented themselves to the press, as well as Schlesinger’s own projects. Besides running Cuneiform and teaching, Schlesinger is also a writer.

“In addition to publishing, we believe that facilitating conversations between local and international writers, artists, scholars, and artisans is part of our mission,” states the Cuneiform website.

“Our output varies depending on what comes in that interests me but also on what else I choose to work on, like if I’m focused on my own writing or more outreach programming. Output for us some years may be six books and then another year we might not put much of anything out. If you were running this as a business you can’t just take a year off from publishing books. So I appreciate the freedom to do what is the right project for us without that pressure,” Schlesinger said.

He also stated that by running the press as a 501c3 it helped to move it away from being considered more of a hobby project into its own domain, without needing it to become a business focused on output and profits.

“Cuneiform became a 501c3 after years as more of a hobby project, so when people ask I can more easily respond that it is a non-profit with the aim to promote literacy and education in the arts. It is also affiliated with the university and each year I teach a course that gives students the ability to work with me on one book for the year and learn graphic design, and layout and editing and all of the other processes that go into publishing,” Schlesinger said.

“This used to be what you learned at a vocational school like learning to be an electrician or a plumber. Only after it became an obsolete profession did art departments take it on. Then, when the internet really took off was when this whole letterpress renaissance took place. So it’s never been a better time or easier to learn to set type; unless you were hoping this to be your vocation, there’s not enough viable work for that.”

Since Schlesinger came to this profession almost by accident, he supplemented his self-taught process by engaging with the few professional letterpress printers still doing jobs in the late 1990s.

“One thing I did early on, and I made a lot of mistakes at first, was I found the addresses of printers who I aspired to do work like. I’d send my books out to them for feedback. I was self-taught so this was a way for me to learn, and these old guys would critique my choice of type and why the paper I chose caused the ink to run and all aspects of what I was doing, and each time I sent a new print to them it got better; so it was kind of like the old apprenticeship programs,” Schlesinger said. “I feel like it’s come full circle except that now I’m the old man. It doesn’t happen as much anymore with so much online publishing, but I used to get several magazines coming to me from old students and admirers of Cuneiform each month asking for feedback.”

The shift from writing poetry to becoming a letterpress publisher began Schlesinger’s struggle over identity, which grew as his roles grew, including educator, writer, editor, designer, and publisher.

“I struggled with the identity thing for a long time, and then I eventually said ‘fuck it, who cares?’” Schlesinger said. “From my perspective, all of these activities bring me closer to understanding the book in the most holistic sense possible. Working full-time as a graphic designer or editor would bore me to tears because you’re not seeing the whole picture. It’s just like being in a band: the lead guitar player need not aspire to become a professional drummer, but she will benefit as a musician by taking some time to explore rhythm on another instrument. All of these perspectives lead back to the same source.”

In how Schlesinger approaches the press’ work, as well as his own, he relies upon a philosophy of a favorite British poet, Tom Raworth.

“I don’t think the cliché is true at all that you have to write every day to be a writer. This isn’t my own original thought, Tom Raworth, who I think is probably one of England’s greatest poets, said that he would go for months without writing a word. I might say that being creative every day is important but not writing every day, instead I think you should take an afternoon to read a book or listen to music or make some art, whatever inspires you, that is a good use of time.

“Having a parallel interest in typography and graphic design, along with poetry and publishing, I believe makes these books a little different than what you might find in a mainstream bookstore,” Schlesinger said.

The actual process that Cuneiform goes through for publishing new books depends not only on the tools and materials at hand, but also depends greatly on the work and intended audience.

“An artist’s book can be produced by any means. Traditionally, the private press or fine press means that the book was printed letterpress, and there’s nothing about that that is inherently interesting to me. Good metal type is hard to find, so these days I’m using the computer to typeset the book, making plates out of photopolymer, and printing on my flatbed cylinder proof press. I do love setting type by hand and I know I’m not the only one who is hopeful that this tremendous interest in letterpress will prompt the next generation to learn how to cast,” Schlesinger said.

“How a book is produced is kind of a decision made on necessity and a one-by-one basis. Take a book of essays, which will be widely distributed with lots of text and pages. Chances are it would be cost prohibitive, like maybe would have to be sold at $500 due to all the time invested, and it could take years to set all the metal type, so that would shut out a huge audience which is why you’d do a book like that using offset press. Then, for example, last week we did a 60 run small poetry book in letterpress and we knew it was a limited audience already, and that we wanted to use a particular paper that would require we use the letterpress, so this is definitely a book by book decision.”

Cuneiform prints a variety of books, including the nearly annual Mimeo Mimeo literary magazine, with much of the work focused on poetry.

And from Schlesinger’s vantage point, “poetry is alive and well, like it always has been.”

“Why poetry? I’m a poet, so most people who read and publish poetry are also poets. It’s such a small and obscure niche that I would say, ‘who dreams of only being a publisher of poetry and not a poet too?’ Or name one poet who has not also at one point or another laid out their own chapbook or other piece of work, or worked on a publication of some type,” Schlesinger said.

For a full catalog of Cuneiform publications, as well as updates about the 15-year retrospective in Marfa and other events, visit




Andrew Miller works as a freelance journalist and writer in Columbus Ohio. He’s had creative work published in Two Dollar Radio’s “Frequencies Vol. 3”, The Seldom Review, and Quiz&Quill; as well as having written reviews for Electric Literature. His first full-length book of essays, If Only the Names Were Changed, is scheduled for release by Civil Coping Mechanisms (2016).




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