[Prepared for an all-day E. E. Cummings symposium at the American Literature Association meetings on June 5, 1994, while I was working with Pierre Joris on Poems for the Millennium, but never published except for a posting three years ago on the blogger version of my own Poems and Poetics. The discussion here also goes back to a conversation with Louis Zukofsky (one of many) who I think shared most of these sentiments, as his frequent citations of Cummings would seem to confirm. My gratitude & admiration, like Louie’s, remain strong.]
Every time I prepare a new anthology or go over the writings of the twentieth century from the perspective of the present, I wonder where (and how) it was that we lost E. E. Cummings. In my own coming into poetry at all – but that was long ago – his was a central presence. I knew his poems, could recite a good number of them by (almost) heart, was on to all of his tricks, had Cummings lines and phrases (always) at my fingertips, and found his voice entwined with mine in writing. If my own punctuation or upper cases fell away it was with reference to him; if my margins trembled, turned to rags, it was with his as early model; if my adverbs shifted into verbs or my conjunctions turned to nouns, it was clearly him behind it. At sixteen I had no other guides but him and Stein (and shortly Joyce) into new ways of language. By a decade later, the works of others lingered or came newly into mind, but Cummings (for all intents and purposes) had disappeared.
It baffles me – not only because his poems still resonate for me (and I have always been careful to include him in the assemblages, the gatherings I’ve made) but because one would have expected him to hold for the generations of latterday modernist (later called postmodernist) poets. Think back to the roots of my own generation. In his great initiatory essay, “Projective Verse” (that was in 1950), Charles Olson presented not only a new way to make the poem but found that there existed older (American) poets who had already (“each after his way”) moved in that direction, who had established (he wrote of them) “the already projective nature of verse.” From that identifying statement, to which I was already late in coming, the two poets who come inevitably to mind are Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, and yet, when Olson comes to name them, it is a third one – Cummings – whom he mentions and credits first.
There is no question of an inequality here, no lower ranking or disfavor shown to Cummings, and no hedging about his place beside the others. Olson in fact is strikingly particular in what he attributes to Cummings as a lesson for poets then emerging. The discussion is of notation via typewriter as it relates to breath. “If a contemporary poet,” Olson writes, “suspends a word or syllable at the end of a line” (and here he adds: “this was Cummings’ addition”) “he means that time to pass that it takes the eye – that hair of time suspended – to pick up the next line.”
“[Mostly] Cummings’ addition” he means, not only or uniquely his – for it was shared even then with Williams and would be later with countless others as well, but listen, e.g., how clear it sounds in something like Cummings’ tribute, circa 1925, directed to Picasso:
you give us Things
bulge:grunting lungs pumped full of sharp thick mind
you make us shrill
shut in the sumptuous speech of
(out of the
Something gushes vaguely a squeak of planes
between squeals of
Nothing grabbed with circular shrieking tightness
solid screams whisper)
Lumberman of the Distinct
axe only chops hugest inherent
Trees of Ego, from
whose living and biggest
you hew form truly
Or again, in one that we all know, and that I used to (and still do) carry in my head or heart:
who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
he was a handsome man
and what I want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
It is, looking back at it now, a beautifully paced and articulated short poem – as spoken and as seen – and a key to what became increasingly possible for others after Cummings’ own works.
At the time of Olson’s Projective Verse manifesto (1950), Cummings was the most popularly recognized, most spectacularly experimental of the visible American poets (outside of Gertrude Stein, that is, who was herself very differently situated and rarely – except by Williams, say – acknowledged as, specifically, a poet). The extent of Cummings’ recognition is reflected in Pound’s titling of his own global anthology From Confucius to Cummings, or in Williams’ statement on Cummings, whom he places with Pound as “beyond doubt the two most distinguished American poets of today,” that “to me, of course, E. E. Cummings means my language.” A similar acknowledgement would come from Louis Zukofsky, who ranks with the others mentioned as among the American poets making “epics” as in Pound’s words, “poem[s] including history.” Thus Cummings appears a number of times in Zukofsky’s anthology/overview of English-language poetries, A Test of Poetry, and Zukofsky opens his summarizing essay (1930) on American poetry then entering its fourth twentieth-century decade with a linking of Cummings and Joyce as primary movers for his own “Objectivist” generation.
Now, there is no question that for many in my own generation and some part of what comes after, Williams, Pound, Olson, and Zukofsky can be viewed as the founders of a major line – not our only postmodern avant-garde but certainly one that any of us devoted to innovative or transformative writing would need seriously to consider. Here – apart from Olson and Zukofsky early on – I have found Cummings absent as a force or as a cited influence, beyond the admission (as in my case, above) of an enthusiasm dating back to adolescence. In other areas the recognition is possibly more direct or forthright – for those engaged, say, in concrete poetry and other forms of visually and typographically based writing. Here the locus is largely European, and in virtually any history or historical gathering of textart, word and image, poésure & paintrie, etc., Cummings is sure to appear as an acknowledged early American example. (So, by the way, is Pound, whose coined word noigandres became the name of the principal concrete poetry movement in Brazil.)
In the context of concrete and visual poetry, there is another interesting and useful thing that happens in our positioning of Cummings. Viewed alongside or within the early twentieth-century avant-garde he becomes no longer the unique instance but (as he truly was) the great American interpreter of the new visuality (and more) that was being developed on an international scale for two or three decades (1895 to 1920 roughly) before his own entry into poetry. If this makes him seem less original than heretofore (but the nature of such originality would itself be open to much question) it shows him as part of a larger work of transformation that was opening up new possibilities of language and of thought.
As a member of a lineage (rather than the sport of nature he sometimes preferred to be or to be seen as being) his predecessors go from Mallarmé through Apollinaire (that much is obvious) and reach a first and widely known cresting in the Futurisms (Italian and Russian both) around the first world war. (Marinetti’s “liberated words” and dicta regarding the “destruction of syntax” and the suspended use of punctuation and of captials would surely have been known to Cummings; Kruchenykh’s and Khlebnikov’s “word as such”/”letter as such” less likely.) The push comes closer to his own time with the works of Dada and De Stijl, of Kurt Schwitters’ Merz, of Paul van Ostaijen’s holographic/typographic writings in Bezette Stad in Belgium, of Anatol Stern and Alexander Wat in Poland; and beyond the visual and concrete, we see connections to works that are at once asyntactic and neologistic: the zaum experiments of the great Russian pioneers; the fractured grammar and proto-lettrism of Schwitters, Raoul Hausmann, and Theo van Doesburg; even the radical relanguagings of Joyce that clearly formed an instance known and admittedly absorbed by Cummings.
To say all of that is in no sense to diminish Cummings, much less to obscure him. For it is precisely in this light (I would suggest) that Cummings’ moves and differences can still be felt: as a developer of compositional strategies with sources and outcomes that are important for the real (not fabricated) mainstream of twentieth-century poetry and language art. At its most radical heart (not its extremities, its fringes, but its heart) the vocabulary is surely there – as it was with Olson a half century ago – to speak of and to precisely name his contributions. So, for example, the Noigandres poets of Brazil (Haroldo and Augusto de Campos, Decio Pignatari), in their “master plan for a new concrete poetry” in 1960, list their array of predecessors, among whom Cummings is cited for his pioneer work in “the atomization of words,” in “physiognomical typography,” and in his “expressionistic emphasis on space.” The assessment is all the more important as a set of working hypotheses by highly creative and intelligent poets in the act of shaping their own destinies.
To look at Cummings’ work, then, through Noigandres or other engaged movements and artists is to see it from a perspective that begins to approach the present. I would suggest (since we’re here at a meeting of those, I take it, who are well disposed to Cummings) that one could now assess, could reassess Cummings in light of those and still later practitioners, even some of those (I’m only guessing here) who would likely back away from the acknowledgement of too close a connection. What could be done in this instance might be to follow through on the 1950 Olson proposition (the voice’s suspension in the movement of the line, the hovering of voice or breath) and compare the work of Cummings to that of Black Mountain poets like Creeley or Paul Blackburn, where I had thought of it always as most notable, or to that of Olson himself. And again, with a look toward the verbovisual postmodern, I would consider such borderline poets as Jackson Mac Low and John Cage, often included in such listings, or even such later (so-called) Language Poets as Bruce Andrews, say, or Hannah Weiner, in relation to whom Cummings would no longer seem so marginalized and willful, but as a pioneer in those works of “lexical and orthographic atomization/fragmentation, physiognomical typography, and spatial reconfiguration” (whether “expressionistic” or not) that the Noigandres poets called to our attention.
In my own case – to return to that – Cummings first allowed me to see that language was more than an adherence to the rules we had imposed on it, that there was in fact a range of remaking that was not only possible but often necessary in all our language acts as poets. I began with that when I was very young, lost it for a time (along with others of my generation) into my early twenties, and began to recover it again at the time of our rebirth (our renaissance, to put it baldly) in the later 1950s. I have never gotten back to Cummings in that sense, but I know that many of his works (among the first I memorized without ever really trying) are a part of my own body and state-of-mind down to the present. I will hardly try to ferret out the traces of it in my writings, nor do I think that derivation functions in that way. But I will close this presentation with a shortened version of a poem in which I atomize or break up words and reconstruct them – not as Cummings did but in a way that he and others both before and after him allowed to happen.
The origins of what I’ve written here go back to practices of verbal composition that are widespread in oral traditions around the world and notably among the traditional Indian peoples in the Americas. In the early 1970s, fully aware of the experimental writings and soundings of my contemporaries (in America and Europe), I worked with the assistance of the ethnomusicologist David McAllester from a series of Navajo horse-blessing songs that had been part of the Blessingway of a Navajo hatali (medicine man or, literally, singer) named Frank Mitchell. In doing so I made the English accountable for all the word distortions and nonsemantic sounds and syllables that are characteristic of that kind of poem-song. The result on the page was a text with diminished readability but one that I could use to rescore a performance, not following a Navajo melody or rhythm but one that seemed to me to issue from the English words and sounds of my own poem. If this connects Cummings (and the rest of us) to a tradition deeper and older than the modern and postmodern present, it will have been part of my intention all along.
[reads or chants]:
(Nnnnn N ghan) because I was the boynging raised ing the dawn & nnnn but
some there are mine all (ghan) & some (gwing) there 'rrr mine there
(Nnnn N ghan) & in the howse the bluestone home & mmmrrrr but some there
're mine all (ghan) & some (gwing) there 'rrr mine there
(Nnng N ghan) & in the howse the shininggwingNdghan & some there are mine
all (ghan) & some (gwing) there 'rrr mine there
This exciting news comes to us from Charlie Morrow:
ROTHENBERG CELEBRATION: On December 11, 2013, www.Misterbowlerradio.com celebrates poet Jerry Rothenberg's 82nd birthday with an online broadcast from producer Bent-Erik Rasmussen’s ICMM studios in Svinø, Denmark. Danny Snelson will celebrate by launching the digital version of Jerry's New Wilderness Letter poetry journal.
The program features a birthday reading by Jerry from his home in Encinitas, California, and celebrates nearly fifty years of collaborations with composer and sound artist Charlie Morrow in selected works from the Other Media archive. The program includes performances, greetings and links to Rothenberg’s wide circle. It will remain online and continue to grow.
As Michael Bloomberg leaves his 12-year reign as Mayor of New York, here are two suggestions for Bill de Blasio for continuing his predecessor’s legacy.
1. Convert the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) to the The Brooklyn-Queens High Line (BQH), as a tribute to city-planning visionary Robert Moses, who helped created the famous “stationary” expressway where drivers have ample time to take in spectacular views. Eliminating car traffic would enable tourists and natives alike to traverse the many mile of elevated roadway, with a unique angle on outer borough life and architecture. As laws evolve, the BQH could be an ideal center for recreational drug use.
2. Sell the naming right to the city and its five borough: Citi of New York (and its CitiHall), Chase Manhattan, Bill and Malinda Gates The Bronx, ExxonStatan Island, Continental Brooklyn, and Foxwoods Queens.
by Darin Klein
Box of Books is an annual project from Darin Klein & Friends. Each volume comprises a box filled with handmade publications created specifically for the occasion by 20 or so different artists and writers.
Box of Books, Vol. VI, 2013, edition of 150
Harold Abramowitz, Elijah Burgher, Jaqueline Cedar, Bernard Cooper, Garry Davis, Adam DeGraff, Jenna & Cali Thornhill deWitt, Hedi El Kholti, Johnnie JungleGuts, Jeremy Lucido, Scott McPherson, Mission Mini Comix, John Parot, Marina Pinsky, Andrew Printer, Peter Sebeckis, Lily Simonson, Vivian Sming, Jesse Spears, Mark Todd, Esther Pearl Watson, and Trevor Wayne
Box of Books, Vol. V, 2012, edition of 100
Brandon Andrew, Sadie Barnette, Ryan Brewer & AA Bronson, Deric Carner, Ray Cha, Joshua Chaney, Brian Gainey, JIMMY the zine, Daniel Ingroff, Jonesy, Karen Kevorkian, Tommy Kovac, Molly Larkey, Perla Yasmeen Meléndez, Narcissister, Paul Pescador, Steven Reigns, Jimena Sarno, Matt Wardell, and Suzanne Wright
Box of Books, Vol. IV, 2011, edition of 100
Heather Benjamin, Ryan Brewer & AA Bronson, Julia Dzwonkoski & Kye Potter, Brennan Gerard & Ryan Kelly, Abel Baker Gutierrez, Handbook Magazine (Darren Ankenbauer), Johanna Jackson, Chris Johanson, Christopher Kardambikis, Dawn Kasper, David Larsen, Sarah Locke, Jeaneen Lund, Francesca Mirabella, Zac Monday, Erwin Ong, Davy Rothbart, Jen Smith, Chris Vargas & Greg Youmans, and e war
Box of Books, Vol. III, 2010, edition of 100
Sonja Ahlers, Rich Bott, Sarah Cain, Keith Carollo & Chris Bick, Michael Dates, Jef Diesel, Epsilon + Epsilon, Deanna Erdmann, Michael Hayden, Onya Hogan-Finlay, Anthony Lepore, Matt Lipps, Noah Lyon, Amos Mac, Kirk Maxson, M. Pernod, PJB, Sumi Ink Club, Carla Verea & Francisca Rivero-Lake, Kate Wolf, and Austin Young
Box of Books, Vol. II, 2009, edition of 100
Brent Armendinger & Ben Fife, Kate Barclay, Math Bass & Eve Fowler, Eden Batki, Amina Cain, Crystal Z. Campbell, Shannon Michael Cane, Patrick Dunagan, Simon Fujiwara, David Gilbert, Lia Halloran, Johnny Ray Huston, Lamesha Melton, Amir Nikravan, Louis M. Schmidt, Christopher Schulz, Cedar Sigo, Max Steele, Margaret Tedesco, Carla Verea & Francisca Rivero-Lake, and Sy Wagon & Orson Wagon
Box of Books, 2008, edition of 100
Micah Ballard, Robert Becraft, Noel Black, bodega vendetta & prvtdncr, Timothy Cummings, Chantale Doyle, Zackary Drucker, Julia Dzwonkoski & Kye Potter, Marina Eckler, Edie Fake, Darin Klein, Nate Luce, Lucas Michael, Christopher Russell, Jim Schatz, Kelly Sears, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Ami Tallman, Sunnylyn Thibodeaux, and Jim Winter
There is a unifying factor tying together the diverse range of concepts and aesthetics in Box of Books. A simple folding and cutting technique turns a single piece of 11x17” paper into a six-page book. [see below]
The continual enthusiasm and constant replenishment of Box of Books participants speaks to the passion that is shared by others for the nurturing and shepherding of the project. Reactions to Box of Books by those who encounter the project at Printed Matter’s New York and Los Angeles Art Book Fairs, occasional release parties and select retailers is overwhelmingly positive. Participants are genuinely thankful for the opportunity, and audiences mirror that excitement in discovering so many little books all in one box.
Writers are outnumbered by visual artists in Box of Books. Over the years, several writers have declined when invited to participate, while visual artists invariably accept the challenge. It may have something to do with the tactile nature of the making, not to be confused with the writing, of a book. Los Angeles contributors have really mixed it up, with writers turning in visual work while musicians, visual artists and performance artists have created text-based or text-heavy pieces. One of the most rewarding aspects of the project is seeing the contributions from people who have never before self-published or hand-made a book; the prospect of being included in Box of Books offers them the incentive to do so.
From Bohemia to Conceptual Writing: Literary Publishing and Printing in California from 1890 to The Present
by Johanna Drucker
On October 9, 2010, I convened a symposium at the William Andrews Clark Jr. Library, accompanied by a small book fair, that was designed to put a number of different communities together, even if only for a day: scholars, poets, publishers, artists, librarians, and graduate students in the MLIS program at UCLA. A part of the UCLA system, the Clark Library was established in the 1920s as a private collection that focused on 17th and 18th century literary and scientific works, late 19th and early 20th century fine press, British Arts and Crafts printing, and the work of Oscar Wilde. These strengths remain the core of the Clark’s holdings, and among them are an extensive collection of the work of the fine press community that developed in California in the early 20th century.Clark knew the figures in this community personally, and commissioned work from them for unique editions of classics for his library, such as a number of volumes designed for Clark in the 1920s by John Henry Nash, the San Francisco fine press printer. The deluxe approach appealed to Clark, and though not all the works in his collection conform to the same code of production values, the term “fine press” is defined by the use of handmade paper, handset type, and elegant bindings of large-sized volumes. The contents of these books are more often drawn from the classics than from the work of contemporary literary figures, and the symposium was meant to address (or redress) some of the tensions that have put fine press printing into dialogue with independent publishing, artists’ books, and other innovative, experimental, and conceptual works over the last century.
The UCLA librarians who became the stewards and curators of Clark’s collection also knew the small circle of Southern California printers who saw themselves as the direct continuation of the fine press tradition. Ward Ritchie, a charismatic figure in the circle of Los Angeles printing, first learned to use a press at the Grabhorns. Nash’s slightly younger contemporaries, Edwin and Robert Grabhorn, assisted by Robert’s wife Jane, were known for their generosity and mentorship, and through their informal apprenticeships trained another generation. Their tastes were middle-brow and eclectic, and remote from the radical work of Futurism, Dada, or other major modern movements shaping print and poetic aesthetics in Paris, Milan, London, and New York at the time. Adrian Wilson, also acquired printing skills and design knowledge in the Grabhorn shop in the mid-1940s. Wilson, and his wife Joyce, had strong connections to the theater, where the modern texts of Ionesco, Beckett, and others were among the repertoire. But modernism was an import, not an export, for the California literary scene until Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s founding of City Lights in 1953 put San Francisco on the map as a site of innovative beat publication.
Lawrence Clark Powell, Ritchie’s childhood friend from Pasadena, became a scholar and librarian, writing on the work of Robinson Jeffers, a poet whose hand-made stone house on the California coast and proto-eco sensibilities marked him as an idiosyncratic figure in American modernism, but one with a national profile that the local culture could claim as its own. Powell’s personal connections and professional interests left their mark on UCLA’s libraries (including one that bears his name) and the traditional tone of his literary and aesthetic tastes seemed suited to carry on Clark’s legacy. The codes of material production, rather than literary credentials, have tended to be the criteria on which the collections have been built. The rich history of literary life in California, particularly from the 1950s onward, is barely represented in fine press publishing, and the symposium and fair were meant to suggest that this dimension of cultural history might usefully be brought into the Clark’s purview. The collecting of artists’ books is a more recent development, though in my opinion, very few artists’ books are in active dialogue with either the literary or art mainstream, and their isolation from trends of critical aesthetic activity makes them a kind of intellectual backwater. The observation does not hold universally—but among the many artists who make books, only a handful have a reputation outside this limited community. While we might say the same of the literary figures in conceptual writing or experimental poetics, the critical, scholarly, and academic interests in their work broaden the audience and circulation networks beyond the precious realm of special collections’ vaults. Contemporary fine press creates a trade in fine leather, exquisite binding, and concentrated production value for a luxury market, rarely one that troubles its consumers with writing from the world we live in. Material codes signal the class lines of taste, in classic demonstration of Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological parameters, and the contents of the books across these various categories in the spectrum of fine press, artists’ books, small press, and independent publishing conform to similarly distinct domains. So my project was to suggest more synthesis, more dialogue, more cross-pollination. Even for insiders, the tasks of judging the relative merits of different strains of contemporary writing are difficult, and charged with politics of a scene and its players. Would Clark’s literary and aesthetic tastes have evolved? After all, he brought Merle Armitage to the LA Symphony, and appreciated the designs of Alvin Lustig, two of the most advanced graphic designers in America at the time.
The holdings at the Clark contain archival resources as well as fine press books. Together these offer insight into the way fine press publishing served as one instrument for community formation and creation of identity for Los Angeles, particularly, at a time when the region was emerging as a cultural center. Ritchie’s studio was situated at one point near to the Disney studios, and hard as it may be to reconcile the esoteric world of fine press with the burgeoning industry of film and fantasy, Ritchie’s archives contain evidence of direct connection in the form of the publication titled Mousetrap, with its irreverent humor and mocking tone. At another extreme, accounts of the young John Cage, a fellow Pasadena resident, pounding away at a piano in the corner of Ritchie’s shop while the presses are running, intriguingly points to an encounter with another, very different, dimension of contemporary art. Suspended between industrial production and radical avant-gardes, though partaking very little of either, the fine press tradition made a local contribution to the varied strands that comprised mid-twentieth century California.
Printing arrived in California in the 1830s with the Spanish governors when Agustin Zamorano set up a press in Monterey to print political tracts and government documents. Utilitarian printing of all kinds supported the boosterism essential to a growing economic region. Newspapers in Spanish and English, some in bilingual editions, as well as the usual job-shop fare of public notices, business forms, commercial advertising and other ephemera proliferated in the 19th century. The first work claimed by afficiandos of fine print, Edward Bosqui’s 1877 Grapes and Grape Vines of California, was produced under the auspices of the California State Vinicultural Association. Beautifully printed and illustrated, it detailed regional agricultural bounty with lush and sensuously colored images.
In the 1890s a small band of imaginative pranksters in San Francisco helped create a spirited, if belated, Bohemian literary movement. Calling themselves “Les Jeunes,” the group around Gelett Burgess produced witty and often irreverent imitations of works by well-known figures such as Aubrey Beardsley in England or Will Bradley in America. They addressed their publications to a literary audience that was au courant or “in the swim,” to use the language of the day. Their pages were filled with in-jokes that depended on current trendy references. Though Bohemianism was already a nearly defunct cultural trend by the 1890s, Burgess was a wit who made his living writing popular humor. The literary journal, The Lark, was shortlived but lively, and part of a large international trend in which small magazines fostered modern poetry, prose, and critical exchange within the social media of their day. If Burgess was quintessentially middle-brow, so was Nash, though his pretenses and aspirations were towards Brahmin status. He began printing in San Francisco in the 1900s, his aspirations were to emulate the work of William Morris and Thomas Cobden-Sanderson and their conception of the “ideal book.” Printing in the mode in which he practiced was an art, he asserted, not a trade, and the volumes were prized by a wealthy clientele who perceived the elegant bindings and exquisite press work as markers of cultivated taste. Designed with type fonts and page proportions copied from the great humanist printers of the Renaissance, his productions showed their allegiance to venerable bookmaking traditions by reproducing texts of canonical writers.
Book design and small press publishing in Los Angeles might have followed the same path of humanistic revival that had formed Nash’s taste had Ritchie not been gone to Paris to pursue training with the remarkable printmaker, François-Louis Schmied. Ritchie absorbed lessons about modern book design that were more recent than the Arts and Crafts artists notion of the ideal book, but still remote from the avant-garde. A number of exceptional artists helped shape a regional aesthetic. Valenti Angelo, Paul Landacre, Mallett Dean, and Mary Fabilli worked within the conventions of figurative and landscape traditions, but in a modern idiom. Literary tastes in the fine press world stayed close to the mainstream, while engagement with book form and formats kept to a book-club sensibility meant to appeal to a subscription list. Robert Louis Stevenson and Edgar Allen Poe, not D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, or the Bloomsbury crowd—let alone André Breton, Tristan Tzara, or Wyndham Lewis—were the authors whose texts populated the lists of books boasting hand-set type and printed end-sheets.
Through the 1950s and 60s, beat poetry and pop art became major cultural movements with strong communities in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The publications they spawned were distinct in character from those of the fine press. Slim chapbooks and the ubiquitous broadsides printed letterpress flourished alongside a growing number of self-published projects using mimeo machines, or the local copy shop. When Ed Ruscha published Twenty-six Gasoline Stations in 1963, he could not have realized that the small offset-printed book would come to be seen as the founding instance of artists’ books in the conceptual vein. Traditions of hand composition and fine presswork remained constant through the 1960s and 1970s, most often linked to conventional literary values, but the underground press and alternative publishing flourished from the 1960s onward. The graphic designs and aesthetic sensibilities of feminist works, activist journals, underground comix, and the street press (tabloids, newspapers given away for free on the street) diversified the range of writers in print.
The creation of a print shop at the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles in 1973 had national repercussions. A few years later, in 1975, the West Coast Print Center was established in the Bay Area to provide low cost printing services for the literary community. Its offset presses and photographic darkroom, platemakers and light tables, were industrial, not craft, equipment. Language poetry flourished, along with procedural writing and conceptual work in the experimental tradition. A steady stream of chapbooks, magazines, and small press publications gave evidence of the vitality of literary activity that connected the Bay Area art, literary, and performance scenes to those of Southern California (Beyond Baroque and other sites) as well as to a national network of activities in New York’s alternative spaces (Franklin Furnace, The Kitchen, Printed Matter) and beyond. Many literary presses came, went, or endured, from the 1960s onward including Black Sparrow, Tuumba, Turtle Island, Sun and Moon, Oyez, and others that sustained the literary scene through their varied printing activities. Well-made books, meant to serve as respectful presentations of work their editor-publishers deemed important enough to bring to the public, the volumes of these publishers reflected the vibrant literary life in many communities across California. A full history of this publishing history and its impact on larger cultural spheres has yet to be written, but if and when it is, the faultlines that divide the strata of publishing activity will be markedly clear.
All of these strains of activity continue. The legacies of aesthetic positions imprint themselves, taken up by each generation, and sometimes questioned, sometimes not, sometimes engaged with self-consciousness and other times merely imitated, like manners, in order create work that looks just like its author/publishers think it should. Thinking a book or publication and bringing it into being is always an argument for what a book is, could be, and how it works and circulates in the media and aesthetic ecologies of its conception. My own aspiration is to see more dialogue with vital poetics in the production of books to come, and less adherence to codes of production for their own sake or marketing purposes. More concept, less product—the statement is not a prohibition against fine work, elegant design, or engagement with traditions of printmaking, photography, aesthetic traditions of all kinds, but it is a caveat against mistaking form for content in the valuation of a work, and for taking seriously the literary dimensions of work curated and collected. The formal innovations that artists bring to books, and the commitment to the craft of production that are central to fine press publishing, both have a role to play in the creation of innovative literary works, but most likely these will arise through partnerships, and not in isolation. I don’t know if anyone left the symposium that day with a sense of new possibilities, or merely left with a reinforced sense of justification of their own position, but at the very least, the chance for the students to see the range of work being produced and to participate in its discussion and recognition provided an opportunity, all to rare in graduate school, to have a direct connection to ongoing artistic and literary activity.