Story of the Press

Body Swayed to Music

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance
–  W.B. Yeats, “Among School Children”

An important meeting occurred in St. John’s in the year 2000. Think Lone Ranger meets Tonto, fish meets chips, gin vermouth, Rogers Hammerstein, etc. That was the year Marnie Parsons – a scholar, teacher, editor and recently landed citizen of Newfoundland – met Running the Goat – a vigorous traditional set dance from Great Harbour Deep, the remote outport on the Great Northern Peninsula.  The fact that Running the Goat in the old days was only danced in that isolated community may have lent a special edge to this meeting – the bite of authentic, endangered tradition.  Or it may have been the sheer physical exchange, that wonderful positive feedback loop whereby dancers pour their energies into the dance that energizes them, so that dancer and dance are at last, as Yeats perceived, impossible to separate.

Whatever the root cause or causes, Marnie saw in a flash (or it may have been in a promenade or a women-step-out or a through-the-woods) that Running the Goat was a microcosm of the culture she had already come to love – a vigorous embrace of the social fabric itself, celebrating community by setting its variations and permutations to music, the dance whirling and shuffling its couples according to its own burly, symmetrical weather. Later on, as Running the Goat was developing from wish to idea to tangible possibility, she saw that she wanted it to inhabit that culture the way she had inhabited the dance, in an exchange of creative energies.

The rest, you might say – simplifying grossly – is history. Running the Goat, the micro-press, has since then been performing its steps with gusto, publishing hand-made broadsides and books by such noted Newfoundland writers as Mary Dalton, Michael Crummey, Agnes Walsh, Andy Jones, Mark Callanan, Carmelita McGrath and Tom Dawe. Each of its productions receives the lavish care and attention owed to a unique creation; all (except for three trade editions) are now set and printed by hand at her press on Mullock Street.  The crucial thing, Marnie says, is that all the elements of the physical book – its design, paper, format, shape, typography, even the materials its cover is made from – should be an exact fit for the author’s work. Among Running the Goat’s productions there’s the folktale Peg Bearskin with (in the deluxe edition) an amazing fur cover, and the beautiful cork covers on Agnes Walsh’s Portuguese poems and Stan Dragland’s existential pub crawl 12 Bars.  There’s her own exquisitely designed alphabet book, A is for Accordion, which is in the form of an accordion fold-out, and includes a mini-narrative about trying to learn to play one while under the influence of not only musical ambition but wine.  Such playfulness, wit and pure aesthetic pizzazz are essential ingredients in Running the Goat’s style. It’s this kind of freedom, she says, that makes small presses cutting edge, free to be idiosyncratic and experimental without worrying about the conventions and assumptions that inhibit mainstream presses.

Of course the ‘rest’ that is history is far more complex, and arduous, than that glib phrase implies. Making hand-crafted books and broadsides is a true labour of love – love for the work being published, and also love for the book or broadside as an aesthetic object. Each aspect of the ancient craft involves intimate hands-on engagement, including setting the type letter by letter, printing it page by page, and binding – often (as with this catalogue) hand-sewing – those pages together.  This is a dance with many steps indeed. It has also entailed a long, on-going apprenticeship with the renowned bookmaker and printer Tara Bryan – an apprenticeship which includes, along with knowledge and craft, at least one accidental stabbing with an exacto knife. It has also involved workshops with fine printers in British Columbia, the U.K., and Italy, and the acquisition of several printing presses – an early 20th century tabletop platen press, a 1960s Vandercook, and – most recently, and arduously – an antique iron hand press from 1830 purchased in England. When the long history of Running the Goat is written, it will have to include the story of the Iron Hand’s arrival, and how the problem of getting it up the lane and into Marnie’s basement, which thwarted the official movers entirely, was solved by three outharbour men from Flat Rock using scaffolding, ingenuity, and a block-and-tackle.

As you can see from this catalogue, Running the Goat has indeed directed its energies toward Newfoundland culture, with such notable publications as Mary Dalton’s riddle poems in Between You and the Weather, and the remarkable collaboration between poet Tom Dawe and artist Gerald Squires in Caligula’s Horse and Other Poems.  Of special ongoing significance is the series of  ‘Jack’ folktales adapted by Andy Jones and illustrated by Darka Erdelji, the first of which (The Queen of Paradise’s Garden) is a version of their highly successful puppet show. It would be hard to imagine a better transmitter of these spicy trickster tales than Newfoundland’s comic genius Andy Jones, whose storytelling extends into research and acknowledgement of the tale’s history, as well as that of the tellers who passed it on.  Darka Erdelji’s fine, minimalist illustrations spark the imagination without directing it. It’s another of those important meetings, and obviously perfect for Running the Goat. The Queen of Paradise’s Garden was published in a much-acclaimed trade edition (short-listed for the Newfoundland and Labrador Book Award for Children’s Literature and named to the International Youth Library of Munich, Germany’s prestigious White Ravens List) in 2009.  Jack and the Manger appeared in 2010 in time for Christmas, and a third tale is in the works.

Well, I hear an accordion warming up, and a few anticipatory scuffles from the dancers. Sounds like we’re in for something traditional and unique, something seriously funny, something energetic, exhausting, drastic and imaginative. Sounds like it’s time to Run the Goat. Again.

Don McKay

(originally published as a foreword to RTG’s 10-year retrospective catalogue, 2011)