The Alternative Press
“Surprise teaching to see fine-printed basement press postcards of haiku-brief poems and fine-grained heavy paper mirror-sized placards of odd genius big poems occasionally issuing from Mikolowski’s hands year after year in Detroit. . . .The attention given to each poem made it possible, were it a good poem, to see it as an isolated mental event—having a small perfectly defined place in a world gone mad with monster breakable petrochemical machines. Detroit’s Alternative Press products will outlast the auto industry.”
–Allen Ginsberg (D.I.Y. Detroit Poetry Foundation.org)
Ken and Ann Mikolowski, both natives of Detroit, married in 1961. Ken received a BA in English from Wayne State University in 1964, and Ann studied art at both the Center for Creative Studies and Wayne State. By the late 1960’s they had become part of the artistic community that was centered in the Cass Corridor in Detroit. The purchased the letterpress of the Detroit Artists Workshop and began to experiment in the basement of their house at 4339 Avery Street.
At first they printed 8 ½ by 11 broadsides of poetry as the Artists Workshop had before them. The featured work was the poetry and art of friends and colleagues who were also a part of the radical community of artists in the area at that time. Ken Mikolowski selected the poetry and typeset, while Ann Mikolowski typeset, designed and often illustrated. The printed product they distributed for free on the street, as a way to get poetry out into the hands of the people. Later they were to add bookmarks, bumper stickers and postcards to their repertoire of print media. Soon the work expanded to include original drawings, paintings, and collages that often served to illustrate the accompanying poem. Each item printed bore the signature, “a free poem by The Alternative Press.”
When a scarcity of funds threatened a continuance of their activities, the couple came up with the idea of selling subscriptions for numbered periodic packets of an assortment of Alternative Press items. So in 1971 they began sending out the celebrated “mailings,” a new form of literary and artistic journal, which artists and subscribers alike appreciated. The unique nature of the works produced by The Alternative Press were completely unique; both the poetry and visual works were created specifically for The Alternative Press and were not published or duplicated elsewhere.
In 1974, the Mikolowskis moved the Press to a former general store in Grindstone City, a small town at the tip of the thumb of the state. The activities of the press continued to grow from this new location as the word spread among an ever-growing circle of artists and poets across the country.
In addition to the poetry postcards, the artist postcards prove to be an integral element included in the packets. Artists were asked to make a set of 500 original postcards on which they were free to use whatever medium they fancied. The postcards were usually thematic and were often used by artists to work through a specific idea. The postcard size and shape, unfamiliar as a working tool for most artists, challenged artists to branch off into directions and styles.
The Alternative Press helped to define and hold together the Detroit art community by publishing and fostering collaborations between Detroit artists and writers. The Press’ scope and influence extended beyond the regional level, however. The pages of Alternative Press materials were filled with original artwork from some of the great artistic luminaries of the time. Artists and poets included in Alternative Press mailings range from some of the leading poets of the Beat and Black Mountain schools to the gritty voices of Detroit’s Cass Corridor artistic community. The Press also served as a showcase for the work of Ken and Ann themselves. A number of times each year the packets would feature a postcard or bookmark featuring Ann’s artwork or Ken’s poetry.
In addition to the Press’ exceptional artistic content, the Alternative Press was distinguished by the look and design of its printed products, which was defined by the Mikolowskis’ creative decisions in typesetting and letterpress printing.
“Art Poetry Melodrama: 20 Years of the Alternative Press,” exhibit catalog. The Detroit Institute of the Arts, Ongoing Michigan Artists Program, March 4 – May 6, 1990.
“Your Artwork Here 30 years of The Alternative Press,” exhibit and symposium guide, and “History of the Alternative Press,” exhibit materials. Special Collections Library, Hatcher Graduate Library, The University of Michigan, September 14 — December 4, 1999.
Source: Special Collections Library, University of Michigan