Lasting impressions

Nov 15, 2006 at 12:00 am

Ken Mikolowski remembers that it wasn't easy getting his Alternative Press off the ground. Literally. When he and his wife Ann started the enterprise 37 years ago, they had to move a printing press from the Detroit Artists Workshop on West Forest over into the basement of their home on Avery Street. The press — from 1904 — weighed more than half a ton. After the initial heavy lifting, Ken and Ann spent the next several decades setting cold type by hand, methodically cranking out hand-printed materials.

"It's a labor of love," Ken says, "with the accent on the 'labor' part."

The press was a natural outgrowth of the Mikolowskis' talents. A writer and poet, Ken now teaches creative writing and the University of Michigan's Residential College. Ann was painter who did book covers and had works in the Detroit Institute of Arts' permanent collection. As Ken puts it, "We combined our talents into this publishing company called The Alternative Press."

Part of the burgeoning mail art scene of the '60s and '70s, the Mikolowskis exchanged mailpieces with influential mail art figure Ray Johnson, and they used the Alternative Press to publish unusual works from notable writers, from Charles Bukowski to Allen Ginsberg to Jim Gustafson, using hand-set type to create hand-printed broadsides, bookmarks, stickers and postcards, sometimes resulting in loose collections of paper that defied being called "publications."

The two began in 1969 with quarterly mailings but couldn't keep up, finally moving to an annual schedule. And since Ann's death in 1999, the project has sat fallow.

"Because of emotional barriers, I just couldn't-didn't-wouldn't get out there and finish the issue. There were too many things going on. Finally, this summer, I went back and finished the printing," he says, before adding with a laugh, "There are probably some irate subscribers out there."

Getting the final "issue" from the press can be bewildering for those unfamiliar with mail art, as it's essentially a stack of small printed matter. This last collection features with the writings of Ginsberg (including a poem written nine days before his death), Lee Ann Brown, Sadiq Bey and Al Young. In addition to these pieces, one will find one-of-a-kind "original postcards" dashed off by such poets as Ed Sanders and Keith Taylor, and created by artists like Anne Waldman, Janet Hamrick and David Snow. These creations range from the sober to the silly, photos, cartoons, hot dog packages.

Of forcing writers and artists to sit down and create 500 original artworks, Mikolowski says, "It's either totally liberating or totally constipating. It's either going to free them, de-preciousize their art, or — for some people — when they do a dozen cards and realize they have 488 more to go, they give up. But for many people it just loosens them up."


Ken Mikolowski, Keith Taylor and Lolita Hernandez read at 7 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 16, at Shaman Drum Bookshop, 311-315 S. State St., Ann Arbor, 734-662-7407. See for Lynn Crawford's commemorative poem, entitled "Push."

Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]