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The Well-Dressed Book

Everything Old is New Again

Tim Inkster, publisher of The Porcupine’s Quill in Erin, Ontario, recently took time to reflect on the literary press’ origins and future prospects.

Why does The Porcupine’s Quill exist?

I studied English at the University of Toronto with the legendary Dave Godfrey, who had founded the House of Anansi in Toronto in 1967 along with poet Dennis Lee and some peripheral involvement from Allen Ginsberg. After graduation I started work as the sole employee of Godfrey’s Press Porcépic. The Porcupine’s Quill was established in 1974, originally as the production arm of Porcépic. On Canada Day in 2008, my wife, Elke, and I were both appointed to the Order of Canada “for their distinctive contributions to publishing in Canada and for their promotion of new authors, as co-founders of The Porcupine’s Quill, a small press known for the award-winning beauty and quality of its books.”

What criteria do you use when selecting books to publish?

Is serendipity an acquisitions strategy? In 2005 I received a query from an unpublished author who had a manuscript about commercial shipping on the Great Lakes. I was more than casually interested. My father had sailed briefly as a deckhand on the Lakers in the late 1930s, and my father’s father, Captain Walter Inkster, was something of a legend on the lakes. At the time, however, The Porcupine’s Quill was facing returns and cash-flow problems. I responded to Sheree-Lee Olson’s, whose name I did not recognize, and told her of my personal interest in her book, but also that we were not in a financial position to consider new commitments.

Rebecca Caldwell at The Globe & Mail called a few days later and reminded me that her boss, Sheree-Lee Olson, was editor of the Style section of Canada’s national newspaper. Would I be willing to repeat for publication what I had said privately to Sheree-Lee? “Literary Gem to Cut Staff, Book List” appeared in The Globe on March 31, 2005. That was a low point. Two years later I found myself, much to my surprise, still in business, so I asked if Sheree-Lee had found a home for Sailor Girl, which she had not.

Sailor Girl appeared in June of 2008. I was particularly pleased with the full-color maps of the Great Lakes on the inside covers, the engravings of portholes we used as section breaks, and the propellers we employed as tailpieces. The Globe & Mail complimented the author on her “deft poetic style.”

Tell us about the role of design in your offerings.

Since 1974 The Porcupine’s Quill has built an enviable reputation for expertise in the use of twentieth-century offset printing technology to replicate the high-quality look and feel of a nineteenth-century letterpress product. Most of the production work is completed at the shop on Main Street in Erin Village, Ontario, where books are printed on a twenty-five-inch Heidelberg KORD, folded, and then sewn into signatures on a 1905 Model Smyth National Book sewing machine. We use acid-free Zephyr Antique Laid, milled to our specifications by Cascades Fine Papers in St. Jerome, Quebec. Many of our publications involve collaboration with contemporary wood engravers such as Gerard Brender à Brandis, Wesley Bates, George A. Walker, and Jim Westergard.

What constitutes good design, from your perspective?

Good design happens at the intersection of function and form. Complete Physical, for example, is a collection of poems about the practice of family medicine in a small town in rural Ontario. The book is illustrated with nineteenth-century engravings taken from physiology texts we found abandoned in a barn in Wellington County in the early 1970s. But the specific placement of the images was informed by the poet’s two major section heads. In Part One, “White Coat,” we used images suggestive of diagnostics: ears, eyes, nose, and throat. Part Two, “Black Bag,” features organs such as kidneys, spleen, and the diseased liver of an alcoholic. The subtle visual humor starts with the cover, on which a skull is seen to be smelling the feet of a skeleton, mimicking the popular misconception that disease emits an odor. The humor extends to the hospital-green endpapers, the bit of red blood on the cover, and the gratuitous inclusion of a bookmark/tongue depressor on which an open mouth leads down the digestive tract to the bowels.

Share some artists and books that you love.

We recently published a new edition of James Reaney’s classic pastoral eclogue, A Suit of Nettles, with wood engravings of geese dressed in Victorian costume that we commissioned from Jim Westergard of Red Deer, Alberta. The original edition was published by Macmillan in 1958 and designed by the great Allan Fleming. The poem is a pastiche of Spenser’s Shepherd’s Calendar, but the characters in the narrative are geese that Reaney remembered from his mother’s barnyard in Easthope, outside of Stratford, Ontario. I think our edition is superior to the Macmillan original. I’m proud of that, of being a player in that league.

What’s in the future for The Porcupine’s Quill?

I am told that Minister James Moore, of the Department of Canadian Heritage, believes the future of literary publishing is digital. We have perhaps three dozen recent frontlist titles available as eBooks on Google but sales thus far are minuscule.

On the other hand, we are working closely with wood engraver George A. Walker, who embraces nineteenth-century printmaking techniques, to produce wordless novels such as his Book of Hours or the upcoming Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson, which we then digitize and release as popularly priced offset productions that look better on the iPad than they do in e-Pub format.

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