Written by Mark Kane
[dropcap]H[/dropcap]ave you heard of The Wapsipinicon Almanac? As a fan of this annual publication, I can’t be objective about it. Every time a new issue appears, I buy several copies to send to friends and family outside Iowa. That way, I hope, they’ll get some notions of the things I value about my adopted state.
For starters, The Wapsipinicon (roughly pronounced WOP-se-pin-eh-con) Almanac, which publishes essays, fiction, reviews and features, is as much a pleasure to hold and look through as it is to read. It’s printed on paper that has heft and tooth. “I’m not a fan of glossy paper, and I like genuine letterpress printing,” says editor and publisher Timothy Fay. The Almanac’s cover usually showcases a drawing, printed in two colors, sometimes three—and it’s topped with a grand, flourishing title resembling those on hundred-year-old magazines.
The typeface Fay uses for the Almanac’s inside content also conjures up another era. An old Linotype typesetting machine makes individual letters cast in metal. “I grew up around writing and printing,” Fay, 58, says. “My uncle worked as a printer in Anamosa. I went off to the University of Montana, worked on the student newspaper there, and got my degree in journalism. I always wanted to publish my own magazine.”
After college, Fay returned to Iowa and did custom printing for clients in Dubuque, Decorah, Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. “I began collecting old printing equipment in the mid-’70s,” he says. His Linotype dates from 1936. He produces Almanac covers on a Miehle vertical press. One more press, made in Pennsylvania, is big enough to handle 20-by-26-inch sheets of paper. Fay’s collection of now-rare printing machines resides in a shed attached to his house. “I’ve seen prices for once-obsolete equipment skyrocket,” he notes. “There’s more interest in the revival of letterpress printing every year, from young people coming out of graphics design programs.”
To create the Almanac’s 160-page issues, Fay depends on a staff of precisely two. Marge Hummel, who proofreads all copy, once worked at The Des Moines Register. Eighty-six-year-old Eldon Meek runs the Linotype; he was trained to do so in his youth at the Iowa School for the Deaf. Fay lavishes praise on this loyal duo, calling them “deep” and “brilliant.”
Since it debuted in 1988, the Almanac’s content has evolved. Originally, Fay says, he wanted to “take a hard look at small-town Iowa—to assert that we did indeed possess beautiful landscapes, populated with fascinating characters. But I wanted to stress, honestly, that those landscapes were rapidly disappearing and those small towns, whether through the arrival of big-box stores or through simple neglect, were nearly down for the count.”
Early on, Fay limited the contributors he published to residents of the region, writers and artists at home in rural Iowa. Now he welcomes submissions from everywhere. “I get a little bit of everything,” he says. “Half of it I ask people to write. More and more comes from people I’ve never encountered. I don’t have guidelines. My aim these days is to offer good writing to Iowans. I’ll provide a showcase for fiction and also for essays, representing any viewpoint.
Not everything is political. But I still want to feature pieces that wrestle with the issues breathing down on us Midwesterners.”
In 2006, the staff of the widely venerated Utne Reader saluted Fay’s efforts, nominating The Wapsipinicon Almanac as one of the best publications in America dealing with local and regional issues.
Work on the Almanac never stops. Fay writes “Ramble,” an introductory section of short pieces. “I jot down subjects over the year, and collect newspaper clippings on the subjects I want to discuss.” Plus, he says, “I’m always reading submissions, binding copies, handling distribution—I could stay on the road all the time.”
He produces 1,500 copies of each issue, and most go to bookstores. To promote his publication to new audiences, Fay publicly reads from its pages around the state, generally at bookstores and colleges. (There’s a schedule for his appearances on the Almanac’s website, wapsialmanac.com.) Fay says the sales of the Almanac typically cover the costs of producing it.
Fay and his life’s work are rooted in home soil—rolling, verdant farmland that’s been in his family since the Civil War. His house sits between a gravel lane and crop fields. Fay delights in the clear night sky, its darkness unbleached by light from neighbors or cities. “That’s one of my pet peeves,” he says. “People don’t pay attention to saving the night sky.” As a man who respectfully communes with the Milky Way, he deserves his evocative address: Shooting Star Road, Anamosa, Iowa.
In Fay’s basically nonexistent free time, he nurtures the vista he inherited. With the support of the Conservation Research Program, he’s created 100 acres of cropland and has a new prairie in progress that consists of 12.5 acres sown with seeds from all over Iowa. He came across this “eco mix” at Ion Exchange Inc., a native-seed nursery in Harper’s Ferry, Iowa.
After talking to Fay, and sensing his melancholy love for Iowa’s early, unspoiled countryside and rich promise, I understood why he’d given his Almanac its distinctive and tongue-twisting name. “Wapsipinicon” is a Native American version of the Romeo and Juliet story: Wapsie (Romeo) and Pincon (Juliet) are the pure-hearted young lovers from feuding tribes. They flee her father’s wrath, and ultimately, despairingly, drown themselves. Once again, passion and idealism are destroyed by the men who hold power.
Among the many Almanac covers I’ve admired (the fox and grapes from Aesop’s fable, or Grant Wood standing with one of his paintings of hills and corn rows), my favorite is a night scene. There’s a tent in the background, and a cooking fire illuminates several campers’ faces. Not one of them spots a nearby raccoon, who’s skillfully stealing a mobile phone from their canoe.
To order the latest issue, send $8 plus $2.50 postage to Wapsipinicon Almanac,19948 Shooting Star Road, Anamosa, IA 52205. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 319.462.4623; wapsialmanac.com.
Live readings are presented once a year at Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City. You can hear past readings online at Iowa Digital Library.
In what he terms his “distant youth,” freelance writer Mark Kane ran presses for a book printer (hence his affinity for Timothy Fay). During the 1990s, he led the garden department at Better Homes and Gardens, winning a daytime Emmy for BH&G’s garden-focused television show. Now, Kane helps start gardens to feed the hungry and contributes to YourGardenShow.com. At that site, his nom de terre is “Groundskeeper.”
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