Reading up on the Midwest Small Press Festival
Apparently unbeknownst to those who have declared poetry dead and bookmaking a lost art, a tiny underground universe of chapbooks, coptic binding, and letterpress has been quietly expanding in the Midwest over the last decade, creating a small but vibrant community that can be justly summed up as the small press movement. Independently owned and operated, small presses rejoice in the crafty and personal side of publishing—an intimate, grassroots alternative to the big, bad publishing industry at large. This weekend, many of the people and presses that make up that community will converge on Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood for the first annual Midwest Small Press Festival, an opportunity for small presses to share, perform, and talk shop with other like-minded bookmakers.
Core organizers Chelsea Tadeyeske, Edwin Perry, and Cynthia Spencer—friends, roommates, and publishers of a local press called Plumberries—tapped into the burgeoning world of small presses while traveling around the Midwest for poetry performances. “There’s just been a handful of talented and creative people doing things through small presses or poetry performance throughout the Midwest,” says Tadeyeske. “We kind of owe it to them to showcase their efforts, and we thought [the festival] would be the best way to do so.”
They began holding organizational meetings at the Riverwest Public House in February, then started getting in touch with poets they knew and scouring blog rolls for other presses to invite. “It was sort of difficult at first to get people on board, because it’s this new idea and it’s these kids that are trying to put this together,” says Tadeyeske. “But once we got momentum going, people were actually approaching us.”
That momentum has carried into a festival that will span three days and feature nearly 30 presses, countless poets, and a variety of events that include a book fair, spelling bee, and bookbinding workshop. A week before the festival, Tadeyeske was still hearing from presses wondering if there were any last-minute spaces. Instead of turning them away, “we’re actually just encouraging people to stand outside and read their poetry when people are walking from place to place,” Tadeyeske says.
Midwest-centric by design, the festival aims to celebrate and foster a sense of community and collective creativity unique to this little corner of the U.S.A. Small presses from at least 10 states, including Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois, and Iowa, will be in attendance. “It’s almost a brotherhood if you’re from the Midwest,” says Tadeyeske, who is hesitant to put a particular stylistic tag on work coming out of the region, emphasizing instead the intimate aesthetic of the handmade. “I think what’s most important is the handmade and the person behind what you’re reading. It’s not necessarily meant to exclude things outside the Midwest.”
That being said, the organizers created the festival with the hopes that it would bounce around the Heartland for years to come, settling in a different city each year and in turn creating a tight-knit regional network. Tadeyeske feels that Milwaukee—and Riverwest in particular—is the perfect place for the festival to make its debut. “The environment and collective community that’s here is beautiful, and I think that there really couldn’t be another spot to have the first festival,” she says. The presence of the Woodland Pattern Book Center, an already active ’zine scene, and a handful of art galleries helps, too.
A familiar cast of Riverwest hotspots will get in on the action during the three-day festival, which includes an opening reception at Woodland Pattern on Friday, a book fair at Polish Falcon and workshops at Cream City Collectives on Saturday, and a good old-fashioned spelling bee at Riverwest Public House on Sunday. Jackpot and Foxglove galleries will host small-press performances and showcases throughout Saturday as well. For a festivalgoer attempting to create the ultimate MSPF schedule, Tadeyeske recommends stopping by the Switchback Hour at Foxglove and Burdock Press event at Jackpot, as well as any workshop with M.C. Hyland. “Everything is pretty awesome,” she says. “Everybody involved with this honestly knows what they’re doing, and that’s half the reason why we have them here.”
The festival takes place June 1-3, and most of the events are free. See a complete schedule here.