Goodbye Backwords Press: A Personal Note from Jenny


Jenny screen printing. Black and white photo

Photo Credit: Molly Choma

When Phillip first suggested that we each write our “goodbyes,” I agreed. But as Phillip and Matty both submitted their drafts, I had yet to write mine. Not because it was too sad, necessarily, but because I had already moved through my feelings about it. The end has been long and slow.

It’s a testament to our process. In the same generous way that Backwords Press carried those poems we have carried each other as business partners and most importantly as friends. The space we provided to each other and to the project – you can see it in the ways we each approached this farewell, how very different we all are. And that’s the real success of this story, that despite the ending of the press, despite our differences, we remain permanent fixtures in each other’s lives

I have no regrets. I know we loved, believed, and worked hard – harder than most.

Jenny and Phillip screen printing. Color photo.

Photo Credit: Molly Choma

I have memories of working tenaciously and obsessively; the late evenings in the studio; working through the weekends tired and unappreciative of each other; the frustrated, sleepless nights problem-solving; the neurosis I displayed in the particular way I safety pinned the tags onto the shirts (the boys never quite did it the way I liked, but I stopped fighting them on it); the aha-moments when we finally did something right; that wash of relief and accomplishment we’d feel seeing for the first-time a poem wet and freshly inked on a shirt.

In three years, I leave Backwords Press with exactly what matters: my friendships and these memories, and my overwhelming gratitude I have for all the people that supported our crazy little idea that screen-printing poems on t-shirts and totebags would somehow change the literary economy. But, in the end, people still don’t buy poems. Our quarterly statements proved that enough.

Phillip holding a tote bag up to the window. Color photo.

Photo Credit: Molly Choma

But I don’t believe in endings. I believe in change. I believe in going on. I believe in things running their course and becoming something else – and I believe in the sad and beautiful inevitability of it all. What we tried to cultivate with Backwords Press were a lot of things, but for me it has always been about giving someone I don’t know that love and quiet shock of coming upon a poem unknowingly, stumbling, suddenly exposed to it. In an interview with poet Stephanie Adams-Santos, she shared: “I love that Backwords Press puts poems onto shirts, so they can walk about the world and be worn down and handed off, found years later in a vintage shop…” That sense of discovery. That I found it, or it found me feeling, and that confusion that it might very well be one in the same – the press, in this simple expression has always been that for me. Because what are poems, if not a feeling? What are shirts if not a second skin so we can bear the world?

Even though we’ve stopped the press, I have a premonition that this won’t be the last iteration of its kind. It’s still too good of an idea. And some ideas are so enduring, that the muses obsess of them. I’m certain we’ll see it blossom somewhere else in the world amongst another trio of friends who had a stroke of inspiration, and the madness and largeness of spirit to bring it about, again.

Jenny and Matty screenprinting. Black and white photo.

Photo Credit: Molly Choma

This idea, supported by those of you who helped us pluck it from a dream, and gave us the tools, skills, and the money to plant that idea in the ground, is not ours. It never has been. Though we cared for and loved it like it was, for three years. The moment of discovery and that kind of coming upon will continually find itself in life. The unpredictability and wildness of a poem demands it.

And even though, as expressed by another one of our published poets, Lourdes Figueroa: “…putting the word, putting song on bodies, the act of being, an invocation on a body, poetry is movement, Backwords Press is movement, it is a medium that embodies that of the word...” will no longer be in this exact manifestation, it does not die. It just, as maybe Stephanie imagines, lingers in a vintage shop, crumpled waiting to be smoothed out, picked up, read, worn, and loved by another like the rarest of discoveries: a poem hung in some far future closet as someone’s favorite t-shirt.

Stay Backwords...until the end of this month...

Always and forever in words,

Jenny M. Chu

Phillip, Jenny, and Matty all working on the four-color screen printing press. Color photo.

Photo Credit: Molly Choma

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