By Greg Bem
Where do books come from? How are they made, distributed, edited, written, censored, unrealized, destroyed, recovered, and in some cases, reprinted, anthologizes, and canonized? I wanted to take books apart with my hands and put them back together again in order to understand how they were made, a way of knowing by doing, to unravel biblio-histories, and mysteries. (Kyle Schlesinger, page ix)
The book under consideration is a book about books, but more so it is a book about people who care about books, who have committed themselves to books, and are restlessly taking the movement of books of small presses to new heights. In Kyle Schlesinger’s A Poetics of the Press: Interviews with Poets, Printers, & Publishers, Schlesinger introduces the world to leaders of small poetry presses in sixteen distinct interviews. These conversations, often one on one but with the occasional small group conversation, form a remarkable collection of voices from, stories about, and descriptions of the world of small press poetry projects in the west in the mid and late 20th century, up to the present.
As a result of Schlesinger’s personal studies and his own work in small press publication, the editor has collected across the last 17 years (2005-2018) these interviews, despite their range across the years they feel fantastic in one volume. I found myself wildly pensive as I move from interview to interview, each similar in theme and content yet incredibly unique for its range of voices and contexts. The interviews are not chronologically organized, and it is unclear why these publishers were selected (beyond their shared quality of publishing small press poetry), but still, they flow together across theme and topic. Ultimately, Schlesinger provides the reader with an encompassing snapshot and the miscellaneous collection is indeed a marvelously cohesive whole, one that could easily be repeated in additional volumes.
A Poetics of the Press opens with the 2012 interview with Keith and Rosemary Waldrop, whose Burning Deck Press in Providence continues to be revered for its breadth in publications as well as its endurance over the decades. The press operated from 1961 to 2017. Each interview is preceded by a page or two of introduction, setting context and providing some of the more substantial historical details. While Schlesinger’s interviews often touch upon the many strange and captivating details of small press life, having these notes provides significant structure and balance to an otherwise book of surprises, twists, and turns.
Alongside the introductions and throughout each interview, Schlesinger has embedded images, scans of the covers and pages of notable (and infamous) titles that are the stuff of legend. The Waldrops’ interview includes scans of Jackson Mac Low’s 4 Trains, Clark Coolidge’s Bomb, and James Camp’s Camp Printing. Observing the collage and explosions of text across the page in the latter is fantastic. As the interviews explore, much of bookmaking is creative decision making, and in the case of the Waldrops, printing was its own visual art.
While it is helpful to have context for the presses represented in A Poetics of the Press, the real joy is within the interviews themselves. Schlesinger’s interviews make up the majority of the text, and each interview holds its own. These conversations came into existence individually over the years, following Schlesinger’s own relationships with those he interviewed. Most were previously published and are generally strong pieces of writing. They stand as literary feats in themselves, with Schlesinger’s cunning and insightful questions consistently met with a strong sense of humor and a knack for many nuances of historical knowledge. The interviews as experiences are positive and productive, rarely without compassion and an intensity toward exploring the world of the press both rigorously and honestly.
The book has a huge range, and there is a sense of a sort of comfortable chaos as one interview leads to the next. The interviews themselves also feel spontaneous, with structure given through distinct, poignant questioning. Schlesinger’s questions may be brief (you might feel like you’ve overheard them from a conversation at a park bench) or longer (as overheard at an academic conference). Part of this might be the result of the interview format (some were done in person; some were done over email). Regardless, the questions are navigational and matter of fact but exquisite, intellectual and provocative yet practical: “I’m interested in the intersection of ontology and the book—particularly the question of how, where and in what sense it exists” Schlesinger opens in a 2008 interview with Steven Clay of Minneapolis’s Granary Books (page 208).
“Unfortunately, ‘fake antiquity’ extends beyond typefaces: walk into Urban Outfitters and you’re ambushed by pre-faded T-shirts, or go to Crate & Barrel and you discover one fake patina after another. Same goes for typography. My hunch is that consumers are attracted to this because they’re looking for authenticity—meaning, history.” Schlesinger adds to a 2015 conversation with Jonathan Greene of Gnomon Press.
His contributions may feel normal in the context of the interview, but for the reader, Schlesinger’s presence and the presence of his own ideas adds an additional arc to the book, a foundation and consistency that not only supports the engagement with the interviewees but shines light onto Schlesinger’s own relationship with printing. Still, Schlesinger expertly takes up little room and the spotlight is mostly off the editor, thanks to open questions and pointed navigation.
In his 2005 interview with renowned poet Tom Raworth, whose magazine Outburst was a significant publication in the 60s (carrying the work of writers like Levertov, Dawson, Dorn, Olson, and Creeley), and who also published via Matrix Press, the two discuss how poets and publishers communicate, how the publications are funded, and so much more.
In the sense that I’m always working on something, you know, there’s never anything I’m working on but what goes through my mind. (Tom Raworth, page 38)
This interview resonates as a conversation, clearly recorded in an intimate space and filled with positive energy. The details of setting up a press, the movement from one publication to the next, details like these form the meat of the interviews.
Poet Lyn Hejinian, whose Tuumba Press was a pivotal structure in the 70s and 80s for many American poets (including Coolidge, Fraser, Armantrout, Robinson, Silliman, and more), was interviewed in 2005. At a pivotal moment in the middle of the discussion, Schlesinger asks about the publisher’s role with the press. Hejinian explains how she came to printing and publishing, and the act of discovering that the decision to run a press is looted in learning:
So I liked that sort of breaking-news quality of the chapbook; I liked the size, and I thought it was something I could do because it wasn’t technically overwhelming. I understood how to staple things, but I didn’t understand how to perfect-bind, etc. So I decided to start Tuumba. (Lyn Hejinian, pages 46-47).
Often books of poetry and interviews with poets position the poet as a monolith, whose accomplishments speak for themselves, whose processes are vague and whose growth is assumed. In A Poetics of the Press, the opportunity to learn more about the “before, during, and after” within the poet’s journey is refreshing and invigorating.
Learning, process, and growth are no better observed than in the 2008 conversation with Anna Moschovakis and Matvei Yankelevich’s Ugly Duckling Presse (UDP). Many of the previous interviews dive deep into defining artist books and fine arts, and the rare book. UDP’s identity is exquisitely antithetical, and the casual and practical discussion with Moschovakis and Yankelevich illuminates the rapid engagement of a collective that looks to centralizing teaching and learning over perfection:
Between ourselves, we may disagree. We want to make mistakes, even deliberate mistakes, in a useful way. If experience was all that really mattered, we would make everything look identical. (Anna Moschovakis, page 290)
Intentional mistakes are one thing, the differences between intention and result another. Alan Loney, in a 2007 interview, discusses the act of creation, anticipating results, and discovery after a book is made:
[…] I always find, after the piecemeal acts of making in the book, that the finished book is somehow other than I had imagined. As if the whole is never, for me at any rate, simply the sum of the parts I have put together (and sometimes wrestled with). […] That the entire making process is now over seems to mean that another order of perception is then in place. (page 79)
To see, even briefly, the act of decision-making and self-awareness through growth, moments of struggles (and of ease) through which the poets found themselves, makes this collection not only crucial to a better understanding of the presses and press culture, but also to find humility across that more voidish moments of the poetry world.
This humility finds its way in across the genius of all those interviewed. In the editor’s 2008 conversation with Charles Alexander (of Tucson’s Chax Press), the challenges of publishing are foiled by Alexander’s acute awareness of community:
Part of the reason for being involved in poetry, part of the reason for starting journals, part of the reason for starting presses, part of the reason for talking to you sitting on this bench right now, is all about building something together. We’re not necessarily always conscious of just what we are building, but the language we work with is social material. (Charles Alexander, page 240)
Amidst the gossip, the drama, the bullshitting, and the genuine reflections on the logistics of setting up and learning letterpress and running a press, are moments like these. A consistency of respect for the community (and larger sense of Community) run through the book from cover to cover. It’s marvelous to learn about the relationships, and also more acutely understand the goodness and support between the poets, from the many corners of the country.
Over several hundred pages of interviews is exhausting, but I found each interview varied so differently from its peers that the book spurned the reading process, never sinking into dullness, never flatlining through repetition.
The final interview of the book, with Austin’s Scott Pierce (Effing Press) from 2010, is especially profound, closing the collection with remarks on community, the lack of a “scene,” and the life a city without a lot of poetry going on. Following 15 interviews that manage to cover the culture of the small press in renowned hubs (like the Bay, like New York), the interview sheds light on what is a very distinct spread of brilliant poet publishers and their niches in the world.
Needless to say, I didn’t go to New York. I never made it to graduate school. I got my education from the back room of painters and poets, staying up all night ,reading, writing, being introduce to very simple machines like a binder or a very small press—you know, a very small proofing press, or how to cut a woodblock, show to design a stamp, how to circumvent sending manuscripts and typescripts to large printing houses, how to do it yourself: a. to save money; and b. why do you need them? What else are you gonna do with your time? (Scott Pierce, page 328)
The positioning of the Pierce interview at the end of the book positions a critical conclusion to what is beating at the heart of the book from its beginning: that every poet featured here has followed a unique path, often intentional, but also often fluid and amorphous. It’s impressive to find this fluidity across the smallest of details that may also have the largest resonance. Whether it’s seen in a 2007 conversation, where Poltroon Press’s Alastair Johnston comments on working with Frances Butler following a deadly car crash and the artist’s coma, or a 2012 conversation with Philip Gallo of the Hermetic Press, where he discusses being inspired by flawed sign language in Minneapolis, these details are sprawling, and they are everywhere in A Poetics of the Press.
Schlesinger’s book represents a prolific contribution to the genre of the interview. The collection of interviews is brilliant closed with a significant glossary (“Notes on printing terms, printers, publishers, producers, and printshops,” page 345). In it, you’ll find brief biographical notes of important poet/printer/publisher figures, descriptions of historic presses, and the terminology you would expect to find in a book about presses and their output.
Look no further to learn the meaning of “rounce” and “hellbox” and “widow.” Learn about “dwell time” and the “Centaur” typeface. Inclusive of the terminology used in the interviews themselves, the glossary could easily stand on its own, a micro-publication that sheds light on an exquisite subculture.
In the context of our current shifting technological landscape, one that promotes innovation and experimentation in new digital technologies, and one that embraces the historic, the tactile, the heavy, A Poetics of the Press is dutiful and obliging to the efforts of those who have lived at the historic crossroads of this spectrum of media and form. Some of the interviewees have maintained a commitment to small batch printed works, while others have moved toward more massive production. Some have dabbled in the digital with design, but in these interviews, we do not see anyone moving away from print entirely; the interviewees share a common language of the printed book. As such, while A Poetics of the Press is apt and relevant in the context of changing technology, its scope also alludes to a need for more interviews with other publishers. The voices of those who have more fully moved away from print await a collection of their own.
You can find the book here: https://www.cuneiformpress.com/blogs/news/a-poetics-of-the-press
Greg Bem is a poet and librarian living on unceded Duwamish territory, specifically Seattle, Washington. He writes book reviews for Rain Taxi, Yellow Rabbits, and more. His current literary efforts mostly concern water and often include elements of video. Learn more at gregbem.com.