Making an Impact

Dwight Metzger uses the power of the (small) press in a big way

There's a long history of printing words on paper, hand-set by fingers smudged with oil and ink, and distributing them to a disgruntled cadre of rebels ready to boycott something. Tom Paine did it in the early months of 1776 with his pamphlet Common Sense. A wee conflagration ensued after his words hit the streets.

Dwight Metzger is a sort of pamphleteer of more contemporary revolutions. For the last 14 years, he's been painstakingly putting words and images on paper--his own and others--through his independent media project called Feral Press.

"It's amazing how much impact the written word has," explains Metzger, a soft-spoken man who chooses his words with exquisite poise and punch.

"A properly placed pamphlet causes much uproar. I think the power of the press is under-utilized."

Metzger cranks out all kinds of printed matter at Feral Press--dubbed as such in an attempt to "re-wild" himself. His background is in photography, but he shies away from the art world unless it's to engage in political or civic themes. Last year, he slipped into the Joseph Gross Gallery with his "Palestine Hotel"--a grid of images of U.S. flags, oil drums and protest posters against UA's telescopes at Mount Graham.

In the week that I met up with him, he'd printed a newsletter about pesticide use for the Treaty Council News, as well as T-shirts for this summer's Mount Graham sacred run. There's no shortage in bumper sticker demands, either.

"I make a lot of stickers for Earth Liberation First for my own poetic needs," concedes Metzger. "They're not going to make me rich--they're just flirtations with capitalism at the micro level."

Metzger insists I take a few home. I nab the green and white one that reads, "My S.U.V. was torched by E.L.F," plus a couple of popular ones for friends who may have a little space on their bumpers for "Re-Defeat Bush in '04" or "Somewhere in Texas a village is missing its idiot." Metzger distributes these--as well as a thick zine called There's Something About a Train, put out by Hobos From Hell--through

His cavernous downtown Toole Avenue warehouse is hidden behind a garden of unlikely but lovely bamboo and kenaf plants--he uses the latter to make some of his papers. It's home to a few small machines and the ubiquitous WD-40 can.

"These presses are all mechanical, 30 or 40 years old," Metzger explains. "They print millions of copies ... . I got (one) at a TUSD auction for $6. If you were to buy it new, it'd cost more than $1,000 and not work nearly as well."

He's old-school about much of his printing process. His 1909 paper cutter still slices all of his projects. His letterpress prints return addresses on envelopes in a crisp, blue hue. His screen printer looks like one of those octopus-shaped amusement park rides.

"I see a lot of online groups spewing their stuff. But isn't it kind of an oxymoron to try to communicate this way?" Metzger wonders about the impact of the Internet.

"I think computers are great for certain tasks. But they can be quite alienating and ephemeral. A piece of paper is visceral. It's also got a direct connection to the trees it was made from."

But Metzger doesn't shy away from contradictions related to his own work.

"The irony is that I'm printing for environmental groups who don't even use soy ink or recycled paper. The industry has been bought out by bigger businesses. So the major recycled papers are created as a boutique flavor for big organizations that are still clear cutting. And the government supports it through subsidies to these larger companies."

Metzger recognizes this burden of individuals trying to make a dent disseminating words and images.

"Maybe it's why indie media is so daunting a project. When you're constantly up against Clear Channel organizing boycotts of Fahrenheit 9/11 or, closer to home, how they zipped up the decision to paint A Mountain red, white and blue."

So is there any hope?

"Oh, I don't know. I've been wondering lately if maybe we all need to just walk away from the upcoming election, not participate in it. Voting for the lesser of two evils just perpetuates things. I'm shocked that Americans can be driven by so many big lies--the biggest of all is that a materialist life is OK when there's such great suffering around the world.

"But I am heartened to see things at the ground level having an impact. Like KXCI or Pan Left or Access Tucson, though those organizations are always vulnerable to disappearing or selling out and looking more like the mainstream."

Just before leaving, I ask Metzger a nagging question: If he could print anything in advance of the November elections--a little poetic terrorism to upend some of the big lies--what would it be?

"I'd like to print stories of an old Apache friend who's going to New York City to try to get Geronimo's skull back from the Skull and Bones Society. Printing it could shed light on our two presidential candidates--both of whom are members of this collective thievery.

"But," he adds, "it could also be appropriate in four or eight years, given who tends to run."