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Lecturer revisits English language through traditional printing

By Jo Chang

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When Fritz Swanson was in first grade, he had his first taste of bookmaking. He has been hooked on it ever since.

He and his classmates were instructed to write a children’s book for a contest. Swanson wrote and illustrated his own story, which his father helped him bind with a hardcover case binding.

“I think it was my first really happy literary and creative experience,” the lecturer II in English language and literature said.

“And so I was really into this idea of making books, because, obviously, when you’re in first grade you don’t have a sophisticated idea of the separation of labor and so I thought, that’s what it means to be a writer.”

In the following years, Swanson used personal printing software to print and bind his own mini books and zines. After high school, he attended the University of Michigan and graduated with English honors with a sub-concentration in creative writing, later completing his Master of Fine Arts in fiction writing at U-M in 2001.

Currently, he teaches courses in the Department of English Language and Literature, including an introductory letterpress printing course. Swanson also is the founder and director of Wolverine Press, a publishing exploratory in LSA’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program, where MFA students use historic letterpress equipment in traditional craft practices of printing.

For Swanson, the line between his love for literature and his passion for letterpress printing is blurred. He explains that typesetting, or the act of arranging individual letters to set into print, is an additional way to conceptualize language.

“People who are English majors have a knowledge about language relatively greater than the average American,” he said. “They’re to the point where the normal features of language no longer surprise them. And so (printing), working with (individual letters), gives them the opportunity to re-see language, to re-encounter it, and to reconsider it.”

He cited Annie Dillard, an American author, from her work “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.”

“One of the lines, ‘to unpeach the peach,’” Swanson said. “To see the peach, for example, but without the word, without the lineage of a concept to get outside of language. This kind of work can do that for you, you can see words in a new way.”

For Swanson, the printing process is a way to remain grounded in the changing literary landscape.

“There’s a demand for stories, narratives are still needed, but they have to be mediated and processed through other forms of media, like television,” he said.

“It’s hard to imagine the Wizarding World (of Harry Potter) in the time of the internet, it’s hard to wrap your brain around it. It’s weird to think about a world where the primary form of media is still radio. It’s weird to think about how technology has completely reshaped our culture to a point where I’m not even sure that magic would make sense anymore.”

Swanson hopes to not only teach his students the technical tasks of letterpress printing, but to reconnect them with the writing process before the age of the computer.

“Having English students learn typesetting gives them opportunities to re-encounter language as a physical, visual process,” he said. “The personalization of computer technology has made it so that writing has become more of a private, sort of ephemeral, intellectual process.”

He hopes his students maintain this paradigm shift after they leave his classroom.

“My hope in a class like that is to teach them a little bit of history and a little bit of the art of a beautiful page,” Swanson said. “But then a lot of ways, my hope for that class is the impact it will have on other classes that they are taking and things I won’t ever be able to see.”


What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?

The slogan of Wolverine Press is, “We Made This For You.” And so, once we did a small edition of Martin Espada’s “Advice to Young Poets” and when he went up to the podium to read, he had our little edition in hand, and he chuckled at it, and that was the first thing he read, from our pink little card. Anytime someone smiles at a piece we’ve made is the point of the project.

What can’t you live without?

My wife and my children. Life is what we’re living, not any work. Work is a necessity, and maybe a happy distraction.

Name your favorite spot on campus.

I love the north stacks of the Graduate Library, with the worn foot paths cut into the floor by a century of scholars. It’s rare to see an absent mind so forcefully cut into stone like that.

What inspires you?

Young artists really taking command of their medium. The premise of Wolverine Press is that the technical space we work in shapes the art we can conceive of and make. Watching Kevin Perjurer develop his craft on YouTube, for example, has been very inspiring. His multi-part biography of Jim Henson is remarkable.

What are you currently reading?

“The Meritocracy Trap” by Daniel Markovits. I am also constantly rereading “In Praise of Useless Studies,” an essay by U-M professor William H. Worrell. It’s, to me, the definitive defense of the humanities. I think I will print an edition of it.

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