Interview with Poinciana Paper Press Director, Sonia Farmer

By Dr. Leanne Haynes Thursday, January 17th, 2013 Categories: Features, Interview, Updates

Sonia Farmer is a poet, a bookbinder, letterpress printer, and hand papermaker, and aims to publish books as beautiful as the words they hold. She is the founder of Poinciana Paper Press, a small fine press that produces hand-bound limited-edition chapbooks of Caribbean writing, based out of The Bahamas. Her poetry has won the 2011 Small Axe Literary Competition in Poetry and has appeared in various publications. She holds a BFA in Writing from Pratt institute.

Sonia with letterpress message - photo credit Nadia Huggins

Leanne Haynes: You are a Letterpress expert. Tell me about how you came to learn the technique and what attracted you to it.

Sonia Farmer: I’m not sure I’m exactly an expert! I’m still learning…

I went to Pratt Institute to study writing. I wanted to be a journalist but I soon found a passion in poetry and bookbinding. I took an “art of the book” class in Sophomore year and everything changed—from there, I took as many art classes as my credits would allow, exploring silkscreening, relief printing, etching, letterpress, and even a pop-up books class. I also took internships with master book-binders and papermakers (Robbin Silverberg, Dieu Donne) and letterpress printers (Peter Kruty Editions, where I eventually worked full time) and volunteered with small presses like Ugly Duckling Presse, Small Anchor, and The Corresponding Society.

I had taken up an internship with a literary agency at one point early on in college, and though it gave me great work experience it showed me the ugly inside of the publishing industry. I didn’t like how books were commodified and marketed and how the system worked to benefit only a few genres. There was so place for poetry, for books with great ideas, with substance. When I volunteered with small presses, I responded to the spirit of it. They really and truly believed in everything they published, and it showed in the hands-on way they made their books. Whether they had ISBN numbers or not, were carefully bound or crudely stapled, were photocopied on whatever paper was available or handset and letterpress printed on carefully chosen archival paper, books published by small presses challenge the system, carve out a new space for important voices, and define new genres. 

I like that, and I want to be a part of it, and I thought that small press culture could do well in the Caribbean, especially in The Bahamas where we haven’t had so much of a publishing landscape per se—more like a culture of self-publishing. I wanted to create a new space at home for beautiful books to be made. I consider myself a writer, book-binder, letter-press printer, papermaker and printmaker who aims to make books as beautiful as the words inside of them. For me, books are an extension of the reading experience—books are very present in the stories they hold. So I use a little bit of everything I’ve learned along the way to make my projects at Poinciana Paper Press.

Letterpress printed old map of Nassau The Bahamas

LH: Do you have your own equipment? If so, how did you come to have this?

SF: I am in the process of restoring some letterpress equipment here for the purposes of Poinciana Paper Press. When I moved home at the end of 2010 with the sole purpose of creating my press, I had a feeling, a hope I guess, that somewhere on the island there would be an old machine that someone just never threw away and that I could restore it and started to build a modest press from there. So I started asking around.

Ironically I did end up in the field of journalism after all—I started as a proof reader at the local paper The Nassau Guardian almost right away and a few months later became the editor for the Arts & Culture section. I asked them if they had any old funny-looking equipment they just never threw away, and the Operations Manager Gilbert Francis said they didn’t. However, he passed on the name of Dr Danny Johnson—now our new Minister of Youth, Sports and Culture—as his father, Oscar Johnson Sr. used to have a commercial printing operation in Nassau.

A typecase from Craftsman's Press

Did he ever. He had a dozen presses, two hundred typecases, and everything to go along with that. I was floored when I first saw the old print shop. After negotiating with the family—who to their credit saved everything in their father’s memory instead of scrapping it—I’m now in the process of restoring an old Chandler&Price, a Heidelberg Windmill, a proofing press, and tons of fonts. I also went up to New York City to purchase and move a little Kelsey press and Adana press (tabletop presses) with a couple of drawers of fonts. They’re in great condition, so I’ve been using them for projects while I restore the larger presses that need more work. I also just got a board shears! It’s my favourite piece of equipment.

My studio is a repurposed apartment in a larger house in a really lovely residential neighbourhood in Nassau. The house was converted into offices for my parent’s company, Custom Computers Ltd., last year. They weren’t sure what to do with this strange little apartment attached to the house and when I suddenly came upon this equipment I realized I’d need more than our shed out back, so they’re generously letting me use it for free until I can get everything or order. They’ve been really supportive and encouraging, I wouldn’t be anywhere near this stage with this much confidence without them.

Sonia Famer with typeface for the exhibition Kingdom Come

LH: How does letter press feature in your life– do you have a business that incorporates this? Is it a hobby?

SF: Right now I’m in the restoring and setting-up stage, taking on only a few projects, so that when I officially launch the press with an open studio hopefully at the end of the summer, I can have everything organized and restored for a smooth operation. It’s both a business and a hobby. I’d like to take on commercial projects—wedding invitations and the like—but I’d also like to make fun ephemera for sales—cards, coasters, etc. I’d like these to fund art projects like handmade chapbooks, poetry broadsides, collaborations with artists.

I’d also like to apply for grants to take on projects like republishing out-of-print books by great Bahamian writers so a new generation can read and know their work. I’d like to hold events like writing workshops and broadside poetry readings.

I’m excited for how much potential the press has. I want it to be a place of collaboration—I want people to come in to make things, make things together, I’d like to have artists and writers visit from abroad to make work. I’d like to offer classes in letterpress and bookbinding to keep the craft alive and to invite more people into that collaborative creative space.

In the future, after the letterpress shop is set up, I’d like to explore papermaking with local fibres, like pineapple and banana and set up a papermaking side too—but that’s a few years away!

Binding in the french cross-stitch

Sonia piece for NAGB NE6 Nassau What Happened a collective visual narrative about the city of Nassau

LH: Do you feel there is a need to go back to early forms of printing such as this particular method? It’s much more intimate right? Something ever book-lover should learn?

I’m definitely a self-professed luddite—I’d prefer lugging 50 pounds of books in my suitcase than own an eReader. But we have to be smart about books in a digitized age—there can’t be this one-or-the-other mentality because it will be to our detriment. There’s room for both certainly, but it’s important in a digitized world to keep love of books and book objects alive. The way to do this is to make books a tactile and visually arresting experience, and that’s what I like to do in my work.

Another way to do this is to teach bookmaking and letterpress printing and papermaking. There is also something really humbling and meditative about pulling and couching sheet after sheet from fibre and water, from setting type letter by letter, considering space and font and composition, and then taking that story or poem on your handmade paper and binding it into a book by hand. It’s sort of like making your own bread. It gives the maker a deeper appreciation and connection to the object, and helps them see books as the sacred vessels they are—something that deserves respect. I think the publishing world is a sad celebrity game right now, and taking people back to the basics will help them realize the value of making every sheet of paper, every word, count.

Sonia collaborating with Holly Parotti on her project Passing Ports on display in London this summer

Passing Ports on display in London this summer - credit Holly Parotti

LH: So you’ve taught classes on letterpress?

I have held classes in the past as well as informal binding parties. The classes are often introductions to bookmaking where we cover basic chapbook forms like the pamphlet stitch and the accordion fold, but when I get the press up and running I hope to offer regular classes that cover a range of fun book-making activities. I’ve also visited schools and taught some poetry and book-binding workshops for children which is always really fun.

My favorite thing to do in terms of teaching however is to hold book-binding parties. In Brooklyn I would attend book-binding parties by small presses where like-minded creative people would come together to assemble books for the press they support. Traditionally, small presses are part of a local community, and in these book-binding parties you really feel a sense of that community, and a sense that you are helping bring into being some really important cultural work. Even though I would make all of the components of my books under Poinciana Paper Press in New York, I would ship them home uncompleted in order to hold binding parties in Nassau. It’s a chance to bring people together in the same of creating art and culture, and it allows me to teach a certain stitch to anyone who attends, thereby passing on the love and skills of bookbinding. I always made it free and for their help they get to take home a book they bound.

Sonia leading bookbinding workshop at Popopstudios ICVA - credit Lisa Wells

LH: And you write poetry as well. When did you start writing poetry?

SF: I have always loved reading and writing poetry and even making books of my illustrated poems from a very young age. My parents encouraged creativity and always nurtured my interests and talents. I’m pretty sure they have some of my poetry books I made at all of seven years old! I kept writing poetry and won competitions in high school, but I felt creative writing—and art!—wasn’t ‘practical’ to continue studying to college, so I opted for journalism. Yet I came back to poetry eventually. I had great teachers at Pratt Institute who helped me find my voice, and I get great encouragement from the local writing community which keeps me writing. In fact it was Christian Campbell who urged me to enter my poetry into the Small Axe competition in 2011, which I won. The poems that won are from my still unpublished manuscript “Infidelities” which examines the myths surrounding the female pirate Anne Bonny.

LH: Who are your influences, if any?

SF: It’s hard to say exactly—I think I’ve been lucky enough to study under amazing writers and artists, and blessed enough to hold friendships with many of them in local and international communities. They’ve all influenced me either through their own work or the work they introduced me to. I adore the work from such a huge range of poets and writers and artists it would be too much to list.

NAGB NE6 catalogue final - credit Denise See

LH: In 2012, you took part in Youth-IN Visions. What do you hope are the outcomes of the Youth-IN Visions project?

SF: What’s funny is despite the digitized world, The Caribbean remains such a fragmented space—not only in our own communities, but between them as well. We’re used to operating within our own vacuums, but it’s to our detriment—we have so much to exchange, to learn from one another, to inspire with, and yet we have few ways of connecting in order to do this. What Holly (Bynoe) and Nadia (Huggins) are doing with ARC magazine is one major step towards that—and Youth-IN Visions is another. I really hope as a collection of mini documentaries it can help us make the connections we need to operate outside of our vacuums, to collaborate and think bigger—and I hope it can be the beginnings of a major platform that young leaders in the region can add to with their own projects and ideas.

LH: What’s next for you?

SF: Right now I’m working on publishing three books that I had promised to make a long while ago. I want my books to have the certain look and feel that letterpress and other printmaking methods provide, so I didn’t want to make any books until I had access to the proper equipment. Now with my studio set up, I feel I can make books again. Of course it’s not ideal and I am encountering lots of problems, but I’m working through them!

The first book, to be released in early February, is “Saltwater Healing” by poet, academic and cultural activist Angelique V. Nixon. It’s a visual narrative—poetry and collage—as well as additional poems that use the Bahamian landscape and cultural lore to explore difficult personal stories.

The second book, to be released late February, is “Vintage Roberts”, an examination of early portraiture by the master Bahamian artist Antonius Roberts.

The third book is “Pictures at an Exhibition”, a limited-edition artist book of poetry by Obediah Michael Smith inspired by the paintings of master Bahamian artist Stan Burnside. It covers almost a decade of Stan’s exhibitions, so it’s an exciting project. We are going to launch it during the annual island-wide tour of Nassau’s art galleries, Transforming Spaces, on March 16th and 17th. Poinciana Paper Press will have a space at Popopstudios International Center for the Visual Arts.

What’s different about these books as opposed to the books that have come before is the presence of visual art. I love that I’m making so many books where writing and visual art come together.

Books and letterpress-printed ephemera by PPP on display at the NYC Chapbook Fair

After that I am going to be taking some time to do some traveling to New York City in March to attend the annual Chapbook Festival and to make some paper; to Alice Yard in Trinidad in April for a residency and to read my poetry and speak about my press at the Bocas Literary Festival; and then hopefully to Europe over the summer to take a course and sharpen my skills in book arts. 2013 is an exciting year! Once I get back I’ll prepare for the Christmas festivals and continue to set up the studio.

Dr. Leanne Haynes
Dr. Leanne Haynes

Leanne Haynes has recently finished a PhD at the University of Essex, which was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Her thesis focused on St. Lucian literature and mapped out the island’s rich literary landscape. She also completed her MA (Postcolonial Studies) and BA (Literature) at the University of Essex. Haynes has presented material at conferences in the UK and Europe. She is a keen creative writer and amateur photographer, with publications in the UK and US.