Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Four Questions for Deborah Barnett, Someone

Share |
Aaron Benson and Deborah Barnett of Someone

In June, 2011, the afternoon before the spring edition of the Toronto Small Press Book Fair, Christine McNair and I went to visit Aaron Benson and Deborah Barnett at Someone's new storefront at 1691 Dundas Street West, just by Lansdowne. Without any idea of who they were and what kind of work they did, we went over to check in on their production of a small limited-edition letterpress broadside that Nathaniel G. Moore had commissioned.

I'm not entirely sure how Moore managed to secure the publication, with a new poem each by Moore and myself, something he solicited me to write to commemorate the third anniversary of the “THROWDOWN IN O-TOWN” event at Ottawa's Babylon. For those who may have forgotten, this was a literary/wrestling event he planned and produced with The Puritan, meant to be a battle-to-the-end-of-literature between him and myself (I won, by the way). The poems on the broadsheet were meant to celebrate the third anniversary of the evening, and Someone was producing a lovely two-colour letterpress broadsheet, “3 YEARS,” limited to a run of 50 copies.

Originally, when I started talking to Deborah to finalize the details over email, I had no idea that they were a continuation of the 1970s work done by the infamous Dreadnaught Press, producing “early written and visual works by Margaret Atwood, Greg Gatenby, Ludwig Zeller and Susana Wald, Susan Musgrave, John Robert Colombo, A.F.Moritz, George Bowering, Robert Priest and Steve McCaffery.” The information on the website sounds far more modest than I've heard about their work, and some of their early literary publications now sell for the hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. But where did they go, and what brought them back? Apparently, as Deborah says, once they started having children, the literary work was put aside for more commercial projects.

Now that they've returned their attention to literary small press, I asked Deborah Barnett a few questions about their past, present and possible future.

rm: According to your website, you first apprenticed with Dreadnaught in the '70s. How did you first get involved with Dreadnaught, and how did its literary component begin?

DB: It was a long time ago and much has happened in the interim. This is my disclaimer if all the facts are not seen in others minds as they were captured in mine.

At 17 years old, I lived with some friends in the Annex, in Toronto. We were three women and five children, and we needed to rent a room in our house to share costs. We advertised for our new housemate. We found Robert MacDonald a designer who soon started working with Alan Fleming at U of T. Robert led the way to the purchase of press and type, supported by Elizabeth Abraham and the rest of us who agreed to having the pressroom take space in the basement. The type and cabinets were being discarded from hot type manufacturers like MonoLino in Toronto,Mackenzie & Harris in the US and various foundries in Europe.

My sense then, was that typographer and graphic designer MacDonald was most interested in using the equipment and learning how to print, to produce favorite tracts from the public domain, mementoes, thoughtful reminders and possibly his own writing. He was invested in using the process and work involved as an arena for creative thinking, inspirations, discipline — the work of poetry, art and mindfulness — a meaningful creative expression.

Robert’s connections with the arts and publishing scene in Toronto at the time, including Coach House, A Space, U of T Press and This Magazine contributed to getting the word out that Dreadnaught was printing literature in the form of broadsides and chapbooks. We invited poets to meet at our kitchen table and started seeing manuscripts. Elizabeth Abraham typeset most of the demanding works, Robert designed everything at first, and I came onto the team, managing the front of the house, office support and junior for every part of our unusual fine art publishing business.

My contributions were various. I worked as a freelance book designer and paste up artist at the time, just out of art school. I added my energy and enthusiasm in designing some pieces, typesetting and binding. I learned to print and using the cutter at Coach House, designed and produced the complex bindings for 52 PickUp and Whalesound and for numerous letterpress contracts Dreadnaught took on over the years.

We were autodidactic, developing an understanding of limited edition publishing from each other, from experimentation and via the books and printers reference manuals assembled from several book stores’ dusty back shelves. We exchanged experiences — printing challenges and solutions — with Dreadnaught members including Ross MacDonald, Jim Roberts, A.F. Moritz, Teresa Moritz and many others. Our team expanded with publishing and with commercial letterpress projects. We also shared what we were learning with other printers and publishers we were in contact with including Stan Bevington, Nelson Adams, Glen Goluska, Will Rueter, Michael Uytenbogaart and many more.

I was enveloped in the ideas and attitudes with an intent to achieve perfection and presence of mind, seeing focusing on minutiae as a discipline towards self-development. The fact that working with these tools correctly required a presence and dedication to mindfulness appealed to me. The beauty of letterpress printing still surprises me and gives back energy even when the work is challenging. The idea that what we were producing would last longer than us, its historical value, inspired me.

Press work beyond the basics, is guided by convention, style and experimentation — discovering what it can do, and the range of effects the equipment and tools can produce is just the beginning of the creative experience.

rm: For those of us paying attention, Dreadnaught’s literary productions are near-legendary, publishing pieces by Margaret Atwood, Artie Gold, George Bowering, John Robert Columbo and Steve McCaffery, among others. And what else was Dreadnaught producing during the same period?

DB: As well as the publishing work we were involved in, Dreadnaught was constantly designing and building commercial letterpress and hand binding products for clients, including Hart House, Royal Ontario Museum and the AGO as well as private book and promotional productions. These collectibles varied widely in list price, cost and specifications, to meet a wide range of goals and fit hugely varying budgets.

In 1975, a decision to design a typographic sampler, 52PickUp76, came out of a desire to show our type and to challenge the designers on the team to work with various texts in unique ways each time. Greg Gatenby was steered by a senior member of the Ontario Arts Council to visit Dreadnaught at the time and manuscripts for consideration had already flooded our shop. He took on the effort of sorting what he’s called "over the transom’ material." The self-imposed Dreadnaught designer’s mandate: Design at the service of the word, was in effect and in practice, focusing our growing skills on furthering access to, and audience participation in our authors’ words.

The crew accepted the challenge of producing a broadside a week, manuscripts were chosen, designs employing a different paper and different typefaces for each piece were produced. Papers for each were chosen, purchased, prepped for press; colours decided, ink mixed; printing began. Trimming, folding, signing and numbering followed. Dreadnaught gave most of the broadsides away each week, to draw interest from other collaborators and promote the collection of the broadsides at the end of the year. Most libraries and collections of rare books in Canada and the US ordered the final collections in advance. The National Library has an archive of the productions from that time.

Binding design was a big part of the work I headed up, developing packages to suit our concepts and visions for collections we built. For 52PickUp76, the broadsides were all designed to be a common size, flat or folded and a playing cards-styled flip top box was conceptualized to complete the metaphor. We worked with Andrew Smith papermaker, then showing his amazing multi-couched papers as part of Av Isaac's Gallery on Yonge Street, to produce a special edition of paper for this particular collection.

"These poems were not published solely to become the hoarded gems of collectors. They are meant to be read, savoured, and shared with other aficionados of the poetic and typographic arts. May you enjoy them for years to come." — Greg Gatenby, editor

Individual broadsides range in size, all fold to fit the card box container, and include works by Robert MacDonald, Edward Strickland, Jan Bartley, MT Kelly, Judith Fitzgerald, Timothy Shay, Ed Jewinski, Cecilie Jones, Susan Musgrave, Greg Gatenby, Pier Giorgio DiCicco, Karsten Kossmann, Judi Hurst, Ludwig Zeller, Fraser Sutherland, Ian Young, Tim Inkster, Gwendolyn MacEwen, George Bowering, David Berry, Tom Wayman, Hans Jewinski, John Oughton, Joe Rosenblatt, Artie Gold, John Robert Colombo, Margaret Atwood, Irving Layton, Dorothy Livesay, Robin Skelton, Pat Lane, J.D.Carpenter, Jan Kemp, Victor Coleman, Alden Nowlan, David Day, Ralph Gustafson, Robert Finch, Andrew Suknaski, George Faludy, Eugene McNamara, C.H. Gervais, Gail Fox, Fred Cogswell, Gwen Hauser, Len Gasparini, David Brooks, Lorraine Vernon, Albert Frank Moritz, James Reaney, Jeni Couzyn and Steve McCaffery.

Whale Sound
Greg Gatenby was around the Press in ‘76 amidst the continuous and ongoing production of 52PickUp76, and commercial productions which often supported Dreadnaught’s publishing program. His idea for Whale Sound involved inviting writers and image makers across the country [along with their galleries and publishers] to contribute original works of writing and visual art to a book to raise awareness for Whales.

"... To remove the largest animals God ever made seems to declare an arrogance and shortsightedness that speak volumes more about the intelligence of homo sapiens than any great mathematical equation or work of art." — Greg Gatenby, editor

Dreadnaught agreed to partner in the project creating a limited edition and a trade edition. The trade edition sold out within a couple of months from launch.

The limited edition was printed on 100 percent cotton rag paper from the mill of Richard de Bas in France. The pages were torn and deckles retained. The design was produced. Manuscripts and images in packages of all sizes arrived. These were combined with images researched from the public domain, and the compilation was produced. Printed by Ross MacDonald, with hard cover paper wrapped boards and binding within a custom candy box constructed from sailcloth in combination with Dreadnaught’s own cotton and seaweed papers, the production sold in 1977 for $500.

Contributors include:
POETS: Milton Acorn, Bert Almon, George Amabile, Margaret Atwood, bill bisset, George Bowering, Marilyn Bowering, C.M. Buckaway, Mick Burrs, Ken Cathers, Wayne Clifford, John Robert Colombo, David Day, Pier Giorgio Di Cicco, Lois Ellis, Robert Finch, Judith Fitzgerald, Pnina Gagnon, Eldon Garnet, Greg Gatenby, Gary Geddes, C.H. Gervais, Artie Gold, Elizabeth Gourlay, Tom Howe, Peter Huston, Marvyne Jenoff, Hans Jewinski, Terry Kelly, Jan Kemp, Travis Lane, Scott Lawrance, Irving Layton, Dorothy Livesay, Gwen MacEwen, Jay MacPherson, Robin Mathews, Seymour Mayne, Steve McCaffery, Kenneth McRobbie, Rona Murray, Susan Musgrave, Richard Outram, P.K. Page, Craig Powell, E.J. Pratt, Janis Rapoport, Joe Rosenblatt, Allan Safarik, Joseph Sherman, Peter Such, Andrew Suknaski, Fraser Sutherland, Robert Sward, Tom Wayman, Phyllis Webb

VISUAL ARTISTS: Erica Abt, Michaele Berman, David Campbell, Robert Daigneault, Ken Danby, Barbara Howard, Robert Jordan, William Kurelek, Les Levine, Naoko Matsubara, Tom McNeeley, Betty Mochizuki, Suzanne Mogensen, Frieda Nelson, Toni Onley, Chalres Pachter, Walter Redinger, Bill Reid, Joe Rosenthal, Bob Snider, Michael Snow, Ken Stampnick, Shizuye Takashima, Art Thompson, Harold Town, Tony Urquhart, Florence Vale, Martin Vaughn-James, Susana Wald, Ludwig Zeller

rm: How were those early productions solicited, and how were they distributed?

DB: There always seemed to be manuscripts, authors, illustrators, photographers, printers and binding experts around. Purveyors of the art of the book gathered around casually, and a community of like mind was close by…. We developed relationships around shared interests and worked collaboratively from the start.

For example, Dreadnaught published a chapbook by Ludwig Zeller back in the '70s. With an interest in surrealism and a chance encounter with their Mosaic Press publications at Coach House, Dreadnaught formed a creative alliance with Zeller and partner Susana Wald and continued working on publishing projects with them and their translators and contributors through many years. For a period, we added Albert and Teresa Moritz to our team at Dreadnaught, to contribute to a number of commercial projects. We also published Moritz’ book Black Orchid with illustrations by Susana and Ludwig and many other pieces through the years.

rm: What prompted the shift from Dreadnaught to Someone, and the decade-long gap in producing poetry broadsides and small books?

DB: Someone inherited the press with the closing of Dreadnaught Press in 2001, though publishing had fallen off and ceased between 1985 and 1990.

Between those dates, fine printing and publishing took a back seat to the excitement surrounding the internet. As Dreadnaught Design [separate from Dreadnaught Press] began producing digital solutions of all types for clients, we were early adopters of web technology as it grew through the first clumsy stages that is, before software made web programming even a little accessible.

We learned how to work online and off, using digitally-enhanced technologies to produce the perfect printed and digital products achievable for the first time, in those years. Our clients included productions, installations and campaigns for Ministry of Government Services, various ad agencies, the National Arts Centre, numerous dance and theatre producers, Pepsi, AIDS Committee of Toronto, Ontario Women’s Directorate and more. Later, we added in projects for the largest of financial corporations. The earnings manifested for our commercial work allowed us to spend our free time and self promo budgets on printing ephemera for distribution by bike and on foot to a very small list of friends, family and supporters.

Authors and illustrators no longer sent manuscripts as we were not publishing. We had no editor and so hung back from our desire to continue publishing and producing fine print. We had small children and families to share energies with and only occasional productions emerged.

It was in 2010 when we decided to secure a storefront in order to put the press on display, above ground, that Someone [previously Dreadnaught] connected with the editor of our Water Series, Beatriz Hausner, and we returned to our publishing and fine print roots and inclinations.

Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than 20 trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles are the poetry collections 52 flowers (or, a perth edge) (Japan: Obvious Epiphanies, 2010), kate street (Chicago: Moira, 2010), Glengarry (Vancouver: Talon, 2011) and wild horses (Edmonton: University of Alberta, 2010) and a second novel, missing persons (2009), An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics ( and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater ( He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at


the video in which rob stakes his claim as best poet in canada.


Regarding the now infamous Throwdown ...

Nathaniel G. Moore had no involvement in the planning or producing of the evening; the Throwdown was meant to be a legitimate battle of wills and had no overt resemblance to a wrestling event; the outcome was entirely unscripted.

By the way, where are the links to the promotional videos? Oh, here they are:

Thank you.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Related item from our archives