Friedrich Kerksieck established Small Fires Press after meeting Walter Hamady in 2004. With a handful of titles to his credit, he enrolled in the esteemed MFA in Book Arts Program at the University of Alabama, where he studied with Steve Miller. Being an entirely self-taught printer, I’ve always been a little bit jealous of those who have had the opportunity to learn the finer points of typography and printing from Miller, who in turn, learned from Hamady when he was a student in Wisconsin in the 1970s. Hamady, in turn, was inspired by (but never formally studied with) Harry Duncan of The Cummington Press. Suddenly, the roots and branches of the family tree become more pronounced. Although each of these artists and their presses are, of course, distinct, there is a family resemblance worth noting. Compare Wallace Stevens’ Esthétique du Mal published by Cummington in 1945 to Scott Pierce’s Some Bridges Migrate published by Small Fires in 2008, and you’ll see what I mean. However, in book arts, it’s critical to note the importance of the distinction between resemblance and imitation. For example, there’s a whole lot of Perishable Press knockoffs floating around that aspire to Hamady’s mastery and originality through mere imitation that, unfortunately, culminate in an absurd collection of literary tropes and cute, but meaningless, artsy gimmicks. Resemblance has more to do with a history of ideas, the integrity of the imagination, and respect for the construction of things.
The focus of the Poems & Pictures exhibition I curated in 2010 for the Center for Book Arts in New York City was primarily on collaborations between visual artists and poets, primarily in book form, between 1946 and 1981. I fondly refer to these thirty-five years as a ‘renaissance’ in the art of collaboration, a rich period of revitalization that was often made possible by adventurous publishers who, in various ways, made such collaborations and ways of exploring and complicating the relationship between word and image possible. The history of the book often sidesteps art history and criticism, while a close examination of the work itself tells another story, its own story, distinct, but not dissociated from other artistic and literary traditions. In these years, arguably for the first time, Americans created the first books that broke from the principles of European book design, while rivaling the experimental works of the Dadists, Futurists, and Surrealists of the early decades of the twentieth century. Some of the books included in this exhibition were: Joe Brainard’s C Comics; Wallace Berman’s Semina; Robert Duncan & Jess’ Caesar’s Gate; Tom Raworth & Jim Dine’s Big Green Day; Larry Eigner & Harry Callahan’s On My Eyes, Kenneth Patchen’s Panels for the Walls of Heaven; Ted Greenwald & Richard Bosman’s Exit the Face; Charles Bernstein & Susan Bee’s The Occurrence of Tune; Bill Berkson & Philip Guston’s Enigma Variations; Joanne Kyger & Gordon Baldwin’s Trip Out & Fall Back; and various collaborations between Ron Padgett & George Schneeman. And a whole lot more.
Portland, Oregon is a book town. While it may be known nationally as the home of Powell’s and zines, and of course, Women & Women First Bookstore from the TV show Portlandia, it is also the home of two of my favorite bookstores: Passages and Division Leap. Both are run by artists and specialize in poetry, artists’ books, little magazines, rare, and signed copies. Both have a relatively small, but carefully curated inventory.
Jed Birmingham’s library began with his William Burroughs collection. After he obtained all the books, he started to research and obtain any periodical that Burroughs contributed to, but quickly realized that the small press culture of the little magazines was just as interesting (if not more) than Burroughs’ contribution, and that’s how our little magazine, Mimeo Mimeo, got started. The poets, artists, printers, paper, collating parties, distribution, associations, manuscripts, postcards, and, letters are all part of the overall aesthetic and culture of the Mimeograph Revolution, brilliantly documented in Steve Clay and Rodney Phillips’s A Secret Location on the Lower East Side. There are few people who take the art of mimeo as seriously as Jed, whose attention to detail is more common amongst bibliophiles specializing in incunabula and antiquarian books. In addition to sharing his research, he also shares aspects of his collection and others online in the Bibliographic Bunker at Reality Studio. Check out the Floating Bear archive, for startes, which includes a free, downloadable spreadsheet mapping the recipients of Di Prima and Jones' legendary mimeo magazine.
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.