Commentaries - April 2012

It’s only Wednesday, and so far, it’s been a pretty good week as far as poetry and comics are concerned. On Monday, Sommer Browning’s first full-length book of poems (with some comics), Either Way I’m Celebrating, came in the mail direct from Birds, LLC. The press is based in Austin, Minneapolis, New York, and Raleigh. So far Birds, LLC has put out half a dozen books and uphold the opinion that ‘great books are a collaboration between editors and authors.’ I couldn’t agree more—and this is a great book. When I opened it, the first thing I noticed was that Browning has published over twenty books between 1985 and now, but only two are associated with small presses, the others simply identified by date and title on the ‘also by’ page opposite the title page. Where have I been all my life? How could I have missed all of these? My best guess is that those that are not are not associated with a press are self published and/or unique works of art. Either way, Either Way I’m Celebrating was the first book by Browning I’ve read, and yet, by the time I was a third of the way through, I felt like I had known Browning’s work for years, in that funny way that every now and then you encounter a stranger in a strange place, and suddenly there’s nothing strange about the place or the person.

And maybe that’s the other connection (aside from poetry and comics) I see between Browning’s first ‘book-book’ (as people sometimes say) and Joe Brainard’s Collected Writings just out from the Library of America, which arrived in yesterday’s mail. As far as I know, all of Brainard’s writing, with the exception of Granary’s wonderful edition of I Remember, has been out of print for a long, long, time. So long in fact, that for writers of my generation and younger, the only way to read Brainard has been in special collections libraries. On a ‘now or never whim’ I bought a very rare copy Brainard’s Bolinas Journal a few weeks ago, in part, because it was the first book published by Bill Berkson’s by Big Sky Books in 1971. The cover mimics a classic composition notebook, and it includes journal entries and a lot drawings (some comics, some not) and holograph poems from Brainard’s first visit to Bolinas. I was worried that a book with so much graphic complexity wouldn’t be included in The Collected Writings, or worse, that the publisher would reprint the text and omit the images. But happily, it’s here, with all of the images and text that were included in the magnificent first edition, sans cover and colophon. It’s a very ambitious undertaking, a marvel to behold, and I’d like to extend my thanks to Ron Padgett for his dedicated work as editor of this book, as well as The Library of America for producing it with integrity and imagination. Together, they have made it possible for present and future generations to experience The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard.  


Mina Loy, 1917 (photo by Man Ray)
Mina Loy, 1917 (photo by Man Ray)

I first read about Mina Loy in 1987, in Shari Benstock's book about twenty-odd women artists and writers living and working in Paris in the decades 1900 until 1940 - Women of the Left Bank (University of Texas Press, 1986). Of course Gertrude Stein was the prominent or most-known figure in this community. It took many years for some of her less widely read contemporaries to gain notice. London-born Mina Loy was a painter, poet, essayist, sculptor, collagist and a member of the prestigious Salon d'Automne in early twentieth-century Paris. She was in a relationship with the proto-Dadaist poet and pugilist, Arthur Cravan until he disappeared, mysteriously, possibly into the ocean, off the coast of Mexico in 1918. She became involved in the Italian Futurist movement but soon became disillusioned by it and began to write satirically about Futurists' attitudes towards women. Her poetry was praised in journals by T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and, later, by Kenneth Rexroth. She lived for three decades in France and Italy moving, in 1936, to Lower Manhattan and the Bowery in the United States of America.

In 1989 I was spending a weekend in a house in the bush at Bullaburra in the Blue Mountains, about 100 kilometres outside Sydney. The house was owned by publisher and book importer/distributor Pat Woolley. Among the books and magazines there, I found a copy of  Jonathan Williams' Jargon Society 1982 edition of  Mina Loy's The Last Lunar Baedecker. Although I had heard of Mina Loy, until then I had not read her work and I was astounded by the poetry, especially 'Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose', and her short essays and notations ('Ready Mades') and profiles of other writers and artists.

I began to research Mina Loy and found a couple of articles by Carolyn Greenstein, later  Carolyn Burke. It transpired that Carolyn Burke was working on a biography of Mina Loy. Serendipitously, in 1995 I noticed that Carolyn Burke was launching a magazine for a University of Western Sydney women writers group at gleebooks in Sydney. I introduced myself to her at the launch and asked if she would be willing to be interviewed. I had no idea of where the interview could be published but I was keen to find out as much as possible about Mina Loy. I borrowed a tape recorder and we met in  Carolyn's tiny borrowed flat in King's Cross.

Mina Loy 1957, (photo by Jonathan Williams)

Carolyn Burke's exhaustive and illuminating biography, Becoming Modern : The Life of Mina Loy, was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1996.

In 1984  Carolyn Burke had published an essay, Without Commas, on the friendship and literary connection between Mina Loy and Gertrude Stein in issue four of Poetics Journal. She wrote that when Gertrude Stein was visiting Mina and her then husband, painter Stephen Haweis, in Florence in 1911, Haweis thought that The Making of Americans needed commas.  Mina though 'was able to understand the absence of commas'.  Later, the essay was incorporated into Becoming Modern (P129) in an extended piece on the relationship between Mina Loy and Gertrude Stein. Here is a brief extract -

      "Meeting Gertrude for the first time at the [Mabel] Dodge's, Mina, too, felt an affinity with this large, intelligent woman. It was not until she received a formal letter of introduction from Alice Woods Ullmann, their mutual friend, that she wrote to invite the Stein household to the Cosa San Giorgio. Since Leo was busy, Gertrude and Alice came without him. Recalling the day with pleasure, Toklas noted that "a friendship with her commenced that lasted over years." Mina regained her high spirits in their company: she was, Alice wrote, a charming companion, "beautiful, intelligent, sympathetic and gay." On another occasion, when Mabel asked Gertrude, Alice and Mina to dine with André Gide, Alice watched their hostess drape herself on the chaise longue to converse with the Frenchman while Mina, "who thought this highly ridiculous," danced behind them with an imaginary partner.

      Gertrude later recalled that the Haweises were "among the very earliest to be interested in Gertrude Stein." Although she had published Three Lives in 1909, the book sold poorly, and so few readers had responded positively to The Making of Americans that Gertrude noted, "I am writing for myself and strangers." When Stephen pleaded for the insertion of commas in her long, unpunctuated sentences, Gertrude replied that "commas were unnecessary, the sense should be intrinsic and not have to be explained by commas and otherwise commas were only a sign that one should pause and take breath." Following this mimetic demonstration of her principles, Gertrude added that while she had granted Stephen two commas in exchange for a painting, on rereading the manuscript she took them out. The passage concludes: "Mina Loy equally interested was able to understand without the commas. She has always been able to understand."

                                                                                  *    *    *

After my disappointing failure in finding an Australian magazine interested in publishing our interview, a friend of Carolyn's published it in the Boston Review and then I published it on my web site in 1996. The following year John Tranter offered to re-issue the interview in Jacket magazine.

Carolyn Burke has continued to write biographies. Her book about photographer Lee Miller has been translated into French and most recently she has published No Regrets: The Life of Edith Piaf.

Recently, I mentioned Mina Loy's two pieces on Gertrude Stein - they are linked here on my blog, the deletions.

        To revisit the featurette on Mina Loy here are the links to issue 5 of Jacket magazine :

        My (illustrated) interview with Carolyn Burke

        Keith Tuma's review of Mina Loy, The Lost Lunar Baedeker, Edited by Roger L. Conover         
       (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996)

        Marjorie Perloff on 'Mongro-Angels and the Rose'

plus reading of "Pinky's Rule"

recorded in New York on Feb. 7, 2012

Charles Bernstein (pt 1) from David (Jhave) Johnston on Vimeo.
part 1 video on PennSound


Charles Bernstein (pt 1) from David (Jhave) Johnston on Vimeo.
part 2 video on PennSound


Charles Bernstein reads "Pinky's Rule" from David (Jhave) Johnston on Vimeo. (Video on PennSound.)
An animated drawing of "Pinky's Rule" by Amy Sillman &  Bernstein, 2011 can be viewed here.

Jhave's related  video intereviews for CAPTA (conversations about poets on technology)  with Christian Bok, John Cayley, Brian Stefans, Steve McCaffery, Christopher Funkhouser, JR Carpenter, Andrew Klobucar, && Video on PennSound.

Well, almost. It’s nine o’clock in the evening on April 2nd, and I just got home from the wild after-party celebrating the 37th anniversary of Poltroon Press, founded on April Fools’ Day 1975 by Frances Butler and Alastair Johnston. I would have stayed for breakfast but I knew that I was supposed to start writing a new column on book arts for Jacket 2. Guests included Lucia Berlin, Philip Whalen, Joanne Kyger, Darrell Gray, Tom Clark, Luxorius, Jess, Larry Fagin, and many more. The colorful, and at times controversial, history of this press is essential reading for anyone interested in Bay Area poetry, book arts, and the relationship between the two. These are captured and actively illustrated in Trance & Recalcitrance: The Private Voice in the Public Realm and Pshaw!, produced to mark the twentieth and thirtieth anniversaries of the Press, respectively. In addition to publishing typographically-informed books of poetry by some of my favorite authors, Poltroon began producing artists’ books before anyone really knew what that genre could be or mean. But the thing that first drew me to the Press was the trilogy of bibliographies they wrote and produced about three of the most important presses in the Bay Area of the 50s, 60s and 70s: The Auerhahn Press, White Rabbit and Zephyrus Image. Remarkably, a few copies of all of these are still available, as are many others, including two recently unearthed ‘vintage’ books by Tom Raworth, Nicht Wahr, Rosie (winner of the AIGA excellence in typography award) and now-canonical artists’ book Logbook (with remarkable images by Butler). Still going strong after 37 years, I just finished reading their latest, Typographical Tourists: Tales of Tramping Printers, an anthology of amusing tales from the road by one of America’s most bizarre subcultures. Learn more about this, and other titles at

Thanks for checking out the Book Arts column. I’ll be back soon with more poets, printers, publishers, and places soon.