Inaugural award, 2020

Gray Zeitz works at his Larkspur Press near Monterey. Story and photos by Tom Eblen

Gray Zeitz turns beautiful Kentucky writing into beautiful books

Gray Zeitz thinks the best way to experience a poem is to hear it read aloud. But he has focused his career on the second-best way.

“The second-best is to see it printed well, and I would prefer letterpress,” the printer and poet said in a recent interview. “I think you’ll get more out of it reading a well-printed piece than you do on a screen.”

Zeitz, the inaugural winner of the Kentucky Literary Impact Award, has been the proprietor of Larkspur Press in Owen County for 45 years. He creates elegant, handmade books and broadsides featuring the work of some of Kentucky’s most acclaimed contemporary fiction writers and poets, including Wendell Berry, Bobbie Ann Mason, Nikky Finney and Silas House.

Larkspur Press has published more than 130 books and 120 broadsides, including the first books of Richard Taylor, Fred Smock and James Baker Hall. They have been illustrated with engravings by such artists as Wesley Bates, Carolyn Whitesel and John Lackey. Some were expensive pieces for collectors, but most have been reasonably priced for readers.

Zeitz hand-prints each page on a 1915 Chandler & Price clamshell press. “They’ve never made a better press,” he said. “They’ve just made them faster.” Books are individually stitched and bound by hand. Zeitz has had the help of many apprentices over the years, plus longtime colleagues Whitesel and Leslie Shane and his wife of 39 years, Jean Zeitz, who died in 2013.

“From the beginning his purpose has been to provide an outlet for both emerging and established writers, giving evidence that Kentucky is no literary backwater,” Taylor said of Zeitz. “More than any single person I know, he has contributed to creating a vibrant literary community in Kentucky.”

Zeitz was born in Mobile, Alabama, and grew up in Elizabethtown, where he earned an associate degree at Elizabethtown Community College in 1969. He studied English and history at the University of Kentucky. Berry and Guy Davenport were among his professors, and learned printing from Carolyn Hammer at the King Library Press.

While a UK student, Zeitz published seven issues of a literary journal, handsel, that included work by then-young writers such as Berry, Taylor, George Ella Lyon and Jonathan Green.

“No one buys literary magazines, but it made me want to start doing books,” Zeitz said. He bought an antique letterpress and some metal type, moved to Monterey and launched Larkspur Press.

Zeitz has focused on publishing Kentucky writers “because they’re so good,” he said. “They keep coming back. They don’t get paid from me. There’s no cash exchanged here. I’m lucky to break even on a book.”

Larkspur Press is more a labor of love than a business. “It took a long time to where I could actually do this fulltime,” said Zeitz, who also did job printing and farmed for many years.

A couple of books and broadsides is a busy year’s production. In 2019, Larkspur published Moving Gardens, a book of poetry by Whitesel; “The Great Interruption,” a short story by Berry; and a special edition of “A Work of Genius,” a short story by Ed McClanahan.

Zeitz’s next project is a book of poems by Nana Lampton of Louisville, which will have engravings by Joanne Price of Bagdad and be bound with marbled paper by artist Debbie Shannon of Louisville. The poet and artists will work out creative details among themselves. “I want to see what’s happening,” Zeitz said, “but I don’t like to work as a middleman.”

Just don’t ask when the book will be finished. Zeitz focuses on quality, not deadlines. The best known of Zeitz’s own poems, “Printer’s Note” ends with these lines, a metaphor drawn from his love of Kentucky’s native plants:

It should be said
there will be absolutely no deadline.
Who knows when the phlox will flower?

CBS Sunday Morning visits Larkspur Press in 2019

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