Idaho Arts Quarterly » Character Sketch

The Road to Limberlost

The Dream and Reality of a Small Poetry Press


The map that shows the road to Limberlost Press indicates Idaho City far beyond the house of Rick Ardinger and Rosemary Powers Ardinger, who have distinguished themselves among small press poetry publishers for more than 30 years. A drive on a torrid summer's day takes you outside Boise, past Lucky Peak Lake Reservoir towards the turn-off for Mores Creek. Sequestered among trees, a dirt road brings you to a halt where welcoming dogs leap and bark. Rick calls them to heel, a quiet-spoken seraphic man with trifocal spectacles and long beard. Rosemary, who was born in Brighton, Mass., and Rick, from Homestead (near Pittsburgh), Penn., become more talkative after the initial moments, then cut to the chase and put you at your ease. Food and drink abound as guests are entertained: Chuck Guildford, the poet, along with Johnny Thompson, a wood carver, musician and firewatcher. Thompson's wife Linda, a teacher, is talking with Rosemary and others. Rick sips a beer slowly, considers before replying to initial questions, then launches forth with a winning smile. "Oh yeah: Limberlost," he says, as if half-forgetful. "Well, you've come to the right place!" He occasionally checks a fact or a date with Rosemary, whom he calls Rosie.

Rick founded Limberlost in 1976, when he was 23. A year earlier, he had set out from Lawrence, Mass., to a small press publishers convention at Harvard University. This initial glimpse into the process of printing proved to be a day of destiny. Coincidentally, what had also arrived through small press publishing 20 years prior was the High Noon of the Beat poets. Donald Allen's anthology, The new American poetry, 1945-1960, captured this era, heralding the post-modernists Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Ed Dorn, Denise Levertov and Louis Zukofsky, as well as the New York poets John Ashberry, Kenneth Koch and Frank O'Hara with the West Coast Renaissance including Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder. Looming mystically in the wings was Kerouac.

Rick would meet and publish many of these literary luminaries, finding the realization of his dreams through Limberlost Review, a photocopied, hand-folded, stapled magazine with issues in the low hundreds. In one issue, he published an interview with the wife of Neal Cassady, Carolyn Cassady, who wrote Off the Road. Limberlost Review demanded unceasing ardor as well as a distribution network and soldiered on through 16 issues over 10 years until 1986, notably and latterly producing Gone in October: Last Reflections on Jack Kerouac written by John Clellon Holmes, a great friend of the Ardingers. One of Limberlost's finest books is Holmes's Death Drag: Selected Poems. The Kerouac issue is non-mainstream and gives an account of the Ginsberg Boulder Conference of 1982 with classic photographs, especially the frieze of Peter Orlovsky, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, John Holmes, Allen Ginsberg, Carl Soloman and Robert Frank.

Dining with Rick and Rosemary gives a sense of their privileged contact with the fire and brimstone of these poets. Rick's conviction—like that of the Beats through the ghostly figure of Whitman—emanates the glory of many poets as he talks of "Limberlost Phase Two: the road to Pocatello." There are echoes of Kerouac and Ken Kesey when in 1986 Rick and Rosemary drove west in a 1966 VW Bus. Rick was a published poet by then; One Place For Another had appeared from the Confluence Press in 1983. Their destination was Idaho State University. Rosemary graduated and became a teacher while Rick worked on a master's thesis, making him an adept of Ezra Pound's Cantos: the essential "education through provocation." The final Limberlost Review celebrated the Pound Centennial, coinciding with a conference that Rick organized in Hailey, centered at the Liberty Theater. Distinguished guests were Olga Rudge, whom Rick describes as "the love of the poet's life and very defensive of any criticism of him," and Pound's daughter, Mary de Rachewiltz. Hailey retains an occult redolence for Poundians such as Rick, who is proud of the Pound-Hemingway connections, or what he calls "those odd and startling coincidences that fuel Idaho's literary mythology."

Limberlost Review recounted the debacle over a special Pound postage stamp that was cancelled and the die destroyed by the U.S. Postal Service. The happier outcome was the glittering contributors to the volume: Pound's publisher, James Laughlin, as well as Idaho poets Robert Wrigley and Norman Weinstein, alongside seasoned Poundians Hayden Carruth, Peter Dale Scott, William Stafford, William Studebaker, John Tytell and notably, an essay by Charles Bukowski. The Centennial Pound Limberlost Review is as rare silver in Idaho City.

We linger around the library as sunset causes us to squint. Rick leads off towards the poetarium— his word. This is a sanctuary, off limits to the dogs, fondly shooed away while I am invited in, and the conversation turns to time-honored publishing trailblazers City Lights, Copper Canyon Press, Black Sparrow Press and Three Mountains Press, which Rick admits are key influences. There is a distinct levity in his introduction to the Chandler and Price letterpress, the contraption redolent of the early eras of printing: a type cabinet, racks of lead letters and strange looking tools. The printing machine has a large fan belt and moving parts that could easily injure muscle and limb. Rick tightens a screw with a wrench and declares, "This weighs well over a ton, and we had to winch it into the garage with help from friends." He says "garage" without any frills: At one level, this is the poetarium and at another, the garage. "There was a Baptist minister in New Plymouth, Idaho, who was selling up and moving to New York City," begins Rick, "and, of course, we haggled and I bought the whole lot off him: press, tools, type, and all for 500 dollars borrowed from my brother in Ohio. The minister didn't say much, just that he used it for his church and community printing needs. I badly wanted the whole caboose but had no clue about how to print on it. Rosie and I had, by then, stopped the Limberlost Review. So at last we had a printing device and needed to get know-how."

Undaunted, he set about becoming an apprentice letterpress printer through an Idaho Commission of the Arts grant of $3,500 and a month's training in Story, Wyo., under the tutelage of Tom and Barb Rea of Dooryard Press, who were publishing Richard Hugo's Sea Lanes Out—his final chapbook. They also published a chapbook of Rick's, Report From Mores Creek, and one by Sam Hazo. "Two former Pittsburghers are printing a book by Pittsburgh's poet laureate," recalls Rick.

"We kept our name Limberlost, not based on Gene Stratton Porter's novel Girl of the Limberlost," says Rick. "There was a cabin by that name where Rosie and I stayed during our time in Slippery Rock State College."

The letterpress, with menacing jaws, crashes out a dummy print run with some lines from a poem on a test sheet of paper for demonstration purposes. The explanation of how the Chandler and Price platen press prints a chapbook is easy to understand as you watch the monster doing its thing. As a sample, he hands over a copy of a recent chapbook: Edward Sanders' This Morning's Joy. A 32-page chapbook contains eight sheets of paper, printed back and front. To have the titles of poems in color, the printing process is repeated. Each page has to be handset with the type backwards: proof-reading requires elements in one's make-up of Leonardo Da Vinci, noted for his ability to read "mirrored words." Imagine Mark Twain as "niawT kraM" and you roughly have the task before Rick. Try this in a sentence backwards and then in a whole poem? Hence, each book is a labor of love and much labor, besides.

"Is small-press publishing counter-cultural, a counter-flow to publisher conglomerates like Time Warner, Random House?" I ask, opening the clean white cover of This Morning's Joy. "I guess in the digital age the printed book is again revolutionary," answers Rick, looking like some medieval magician or alchemist who turns empty sheets of vellum, ink and colored ink into a fully stitched readable book. Their first titles were Death Drag by John Clellon Holmes, and No Wild Dog Howled by another close friend, poet Bruce Embree. Later in the 1990s, Embree's Beneath the Chickenshit Mormon Sun became a conflicted print run, due to the poet's suicide.

Limberlost made literary history when Ardinger brought Allen Ginsberg to Idaho for readings in 1994, and the poet "did" a Limberlost book, Mind Writing Slogans, soon followed by Ferlinghetti's The Canticle of Jack Kerouac and The Street's Kiss. Limberlost is not only distinctive in its stable of poets who are chosen and magically choose the press; it also has memorable titles as well as memorable covers. For instance, Pale Blue Wings by Nancy Takacs, The Rat Lady at the Company Dump by William Studebaker, Not Cancelled Yet by John Updike, Winter Horses by Chris Dempsey, or one of their proudest and, by their standards, most successful titles, Three on Community by Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry and Carole Koda. This title had a printing run of 800. Most of the books reach less than half that number. In keeping with small presses, there are no contracts between publisher and poet, royalties are in copies, and there is the happy requirement of a proportion of signed copies. Limberlost titles total over 60 volumes, so far, as well as poetry postcards and broadsides that become framed wall hangings by their owners. Rick's position as executive director of the Idaho Humanities Council means that Limberlost is pushed back to the nighshift: he lives in a merry conflict betwixt being Arts Supremo and obeying the lure of Centaur, Benedictine Book and Lydian (his favorite typefaces).

Rick concludes his tour of the poetarium. We return to the house as Limberlost seems to remain outside and their guests sit around talking in clusters. Rosemary corrects the impression that their publishing is confined outside the home, explaining cloth binding, board-editions, wrappers, and sewing: Work for the domestic hearth. The poem "The Question of Self Publishing" in Sanders' book is very appropriate:

For 25 years William Blake

kept the copper plates for

the Songs of Innocence

to print a copy or two on a need

& then he hand-painted the colors

with Catherine's help

Walt Whitman helped set & print

his own Leaves of Grass

in the Brooklyn vastness

Woody Guthrie

a mimeographed edition of his songs in '39

& Ginsberg mimeo'd some "Howl"s

in '55

& so it goes

& goes so well

Rick quotes Pound: "It doesn't matter who writes the great poems as long as they get written." He bites his lip and begins to chuckle "That old guy Pound was really what he claimed to be, the Ezuversity," he says. Gildner chimes in, "There's a huge difference between the English faculty and the English faculty of the spirit," and tries to recall who used the phrase, eventually remembering it was Jack Spicer. Rosemary mentioned the Limberlost Weekend in Salt Lake City in 2003: a tribute to all their poets including Rosalie Sorrels and Greg Keeler, among others.

It was time to thank the Ardingers for their hospitality, looking forward to the next occasion, realizing that here was another department of the Ezuversity with its alternative curriculum. Rick bade me wait when I mentioned Robert Creeley. "There is an image of a poem written by Creeley in the Sanders' book," he says. This was our closing recitation for the night. Sure enough, the lines scrawled on a napkin were photo-reproduced in the book. "Things/come and go, /Then/let them." Yes, it doesn't matter who writes the great poems as long as they get written. It very much matters that the small presses assert their own hegemony, independence and valor. Throughout my visit, neither Rick nor Rosemary Ardinger claimed any special position in small press publishing, but that, as they say, is integrity.