Poets of Franklin County: Lines set by hand

For The Recorder
Last modified: Thursday, February 11, 2016
*Archive Article*

The poetry books arranged in the sun on Gary Metras’ Easthampton coffee table vary in size. Some are back pocket sized, others are variations of the standard 6-by-9 inches of many poetry books. A variety of lettering, decoration and graphics adorn their covers.

But pick up any one and you begin to sense what unites them — unlike the slick surfaces of many mass-produced books, these have covers of heavier, often textured, papers that feel great in your hand. And they’ve been printed on antique letterpress equipment that embosses the text beautifully into the paper. A little more exploration divulges carefully chosen endpapers and hand-sewn bindings.

These chapbooks — small collections of poems — are the lovingly created products of Adastra Press, a letterpress printing operation Metras founded in 1979. The name comes from the Latin phrase: ad astra, meaning “to the stars.”

Metras is Adastra’s heart and soul, and the one-man band behind its operation. He used to publish between two and six books a year, often receiving 400 to 600 manuscripts from which to choose, Metras says, but has recently pared back to one or two.

Depending on factors such as a book’s overall size and the length of a poem’s lines, it can take Metras up to an hour to set one page of type, using metal letters that have to be lined up one by one, upside down and backwards.

Metras chuckles as he admits that after more than three decades of setting type, he can easily spy on what someone across the table is reading.

A poet himself, Metras has four full-length books and 15 chapbooks of poetry, four of which he published through Adastra. Recently retired from a position as English professor at Springfield College, he spent most of his career as a high school English teacher.

“It’s a head job,” Metras says of teaching. “You’re working in your head all the time.”

The son of a bricklayer who took pride in his work, Metras found it a nice contrast to come home from a day at school and go to his letterpress print shop where he could make things with his hands. And he likes the historical aspect of the work.

“I use the same basic technology that Gutenberg used in the 15th century,” Metras says. The Recorder, founded in 1792, would have originally been set by hand with metal type, Metras says.

“There’s something magical, I think, about words themselves and how we form them in our imaginations as writers,” Metras says. “And then to be a printer and take the individual letters for those words and put them together and make a line, and another line until the page is done is just a magical process.”

But there’s as much sweat equity and aesthetic savvy as magic to letterpress printing.

“I think Gary’s a real artist. He’s the real deal,” says Richard Jones, whose chapbook, “The King of Hearts,” is Adastra’s newest publication — so new, in fact, that some copies are still stacked in Metras’ print shop waiting to be hand-sewn.

Speaking by phone from Chicago, where he teaches English at DePaul University and edits the journal “Poetry East,” Jones said he first learned of Metras in the early 1980s, when he was writing book reviews for Virginia Quarterly Review. He picked up a few Adastra books in the review’s office and was so impressed that he contacted Metras to ask if he’d consider his manuscript, “Windows and Walls.”

Since publishing that chapbook in 1982, Metras has published four other chapbooks of Jones’ work, including “The King of Hearts,” a collection of poems that explore Jones’ relationship with his father.

The book is slightly larger than the playing card that its title refers to.

“And the cover is the color of my father’s eyes,” Jones said.

“I’m really moved by it,” Jones said of the finished chapbook. “I love that it’s small — the intimacy and the feel of it.”

Jones said that his relationship with his dad wasn’t always easy. But the poems make clear how much love there was between them and how much Jones felt he learned from his dad, a World War II pilot.

“He was one kind of man and he didn’t necessarily understand the one that was growing up in his house – the future poet,” Jones said.

Asked about the poem, “Certain People,” Jones says that when you leave your house as a young adult, you realize that your parents are letting you go but in ways you don’t tend to think about, you’re letting them go as well.

Over time, your parents become “these mysterious figures,” Jones says. “Every time I went home it was almost like meeting them again for the first time.”

“Even the people we feel should be the most knowable — our parents — become in some ways the most mysterious and ambiguous. But other people seem to know them just fine,” Jones marveled.

Jones says that the distance between he and his father “has been bridged somehow by Gary making this book.”

“I’m in his debt,” Jones said. “And I’m not alone. I was recently with another Adastra poet who feels the same way.”

Jones describes Metras’ dedication to his art as, “Not a worldly but a soulful ambition.”

“He’s so humble, too,” Jones said of Metras. “He’s touched a lot of people with those little books of his.”

Submitting to Adastra Press

During February, Metras accepts queries along with 3 to 5 sample poems or pages from a completed chapbook manuscript. Adastra Press doesn’t have a website but you can find out more about it, including submission details, in the small press listings on the Poets & Writers website. Go to www.pw.org and then search for “Adastra Press.”

Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She can be reached at tcrapo@me.com.