Fritz Swanson's labors of love & language

Fritz Swanson operating the circa 1900 Chandler & Price letterpress with Mary Camille Beckman

Fritz Swanson

Stocked with historic letterpress equipment from around the state of Michigan, the Wolverine Press provides students in the Helen Zell Writers' Program and the university community with a space to encounter publishing history. The mission of the press is to create opportunities for people to encounter the traditional craft practices of printing, and discover that the labor of publishing is physical as well as intellectual.

Wolverine Press produces hand-made letterpress keepsakes that are gifts to attendees of Zell Visiting Writers Series readings at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, as well as other pieces based on program need and student interest.

Each year the press takes on up to six MFA students as shop assistants, called Devils. These Printer's Devils assist in all aspects of shop work, learning how to set metal and wood type, how to prepare jobs for the press, and how to run the press.

Fiction writer, journalist, printer, historian, teacher

Fritz Swanson, a fiction writer, journalist, printer, book maker, historian and teacher, is the director of the press. He also teaches freshman composition, essay writing, and occasional creative writing classes offered by the English Department.

A love of books and words is what drew him to become a printer, he says, adding that even as a little boy his ambition was to own a printing press.

Largely self-taught, as are many are practitioners of the craft of letterpress printing, Fritz came to U-M as an undergraduate in 1995. He obtained undergraduate and graduate degrees in creative writing and became a lecturer in 2000.

He began printing in 2004. In 2013, he became the director of the Wolverine Press when the Zell program purchased a circa 1900 Chandler & Price press and other equipment with the idea of producing small editions of custom-designed projects as gifts for visiting writers and participants at events sponsored by the program.

A great way to re-see language

Printing is a great way to experience language in new and sometimes surprising ways, Fritz says.

When you are setting type, you're inserting it letter by letter and character by character into a frame (called a chase) upside down and backwards.

"You get to engage with the words perceptually and physically," he says.

"All the rules are up for grabs when you look at a word or a line and have to make decisions about how to set it up with solid type. You become much more awake to language."

Tons of type and a handful of e's as light as fieldmouse

Wolverine Press purchased the bulk of its type from the estate of a Michigan printer, John Moran of Muskegon, including several tons of cabinetry and type ranging in size from 72 point (equal to one inch) all the way down to 6 point (1/12 of an inch).

One of the press' first book printing projects was a previously unpublished short story by Nicholas Delbanco, the long-time Director of the MFA Program and Hopwood Awards Program. The small, palm-sized book was printed in an edition of 250 copies as a special tribute to Delbanco on the occasion of his retirement.

After the 2300-word book was printed, Fritz picked out all the e's he'd used in setting the type for the story and held them in his hand. Their combined weight was just "slightly more than a fieldmouse," he says.

A success that could have been a disaster

On June 27, 2017, Fritz and some of his graduate students signed up to print keepsakes for the MSTAFF200 staff bicentennial celebration.

"I've done many special events with the press, says Fritz, "and rarely have I seen interest like I saw at that event."

Bringing a 600-pound press to an outdoor event on the Diag with an attendance estimated at 20,000 people could easily have been a disaster if not for the help of his graduate student helpers who cranked out hand-printed keepsakes-a physically challenging task even when speed is not a priority-at the rate of one page every 35 seconds in order to keep up with the demand.

People lined up, some waiting for over an hour to get one of two different hand-made prints made on site during the afternoon-long event. See samples, left and below.

"I made this for you..."

In addition to training students in the art and craft of letterpress printing, the Wolverine Press has produced hand-printed materials for over 24 university events since becoming part of the Zell Writer's Program. These include hand-printed poems or excerpts of works by visiting writers in the Zell Visiting Writers Series, other events sponsored by the English department, and special events like the MSTAFF200 celebration.

"I like that what we make we give away," Fritz says.

"Service and gift giving are essential parts of building community. It's a special way of giving thanks by saying 'I made this for you' that opens people up."

Interested in knowing more about the Wolverine Press?

See these related stories:

'Print All the Things,' an interview with Fritz Swanson of Wolverine Press

Word Smiths by Fritz Swanson, from the Spring 2015 issue of LSA Magazine