In praise of Steve Clay and 'Granary,' for 'The Book Undone: Thirty Years of Granary Books'

[The grand exhibition of Granary Books at Columbia University's Rare Book & Manuscript Library began on September 16 with a panel of readers & talkers, for which the following was my own contribution & heartfelt tribute, duly cobbled together. (J.R.)]

The history of poetry in our time has also been a history of those who provide conduits & vehicles, containers & wrappers, for the physical presentation of poetry: publishers, typographers, printers, designers, or those artists-as-such who are often the collaborators in making poetry a visible, even a visual, art.  For this the book has remained the principal vehicle – the material book, like the material poem, still active in the age of virtuality.  In the true history of American poetry, which I have long threatened to write & never will, Granary Books, as a press & resource, is exemplary of how poets & related artists in the post-World War Two era were able to establish shadow institutions that operated, nearly successfully, outside the frame of any & all self-proclaimed poetic mainstreams.

If Steve Clay & Granary Books were not the first participants in this history, they have played a major role in it, both as makers of books & as chroniclers of poets’ & artists’ books – their own & others’.  What’s on view in this exhibition is a display of works by many of these artists, working alone or, typically, in collaboration.  The books as such come in different shapes & sizes, & the production methods involved vary as well – from standard letterpress & offset to incredibly fine printing & graphics, plus a degree of handwork in the more limited editions.   The flood of work links both to what had come before & what continued to be conceived & realized contemporaneously.  This linkage shows up as well in a series of bigger books – anthologies & histories – that made Granary the principal purveyor – both artistic & critical – of what was a virtual renaissance of American poetry & book making.  Of such works two by Johanna Drucker set the standard for a historicizing of this movement in the arts: The Century of Artists’ Books and Figuring the Word: Essays on Books, Writing and Visual Poetics.  These were followed by Renée & Judd Hubert’s The Cutting Edge of Reading: Artists’ Books, & my own attempts by way of anthology, The Book, Spiritual Instrument and A Book of the Book, the latter in collaboration with Steve Clay. 

To speak of myself, then, with relation to Steve Clay and to Granary Books, the anthologies played as always a major role, though there were other books as well, before and after: Pictures of the Crucifixion & Other Poems, with drawings by David Rathman and typography by Philip Gallo, in 1996; A Flower Like a Raven, translations from Kurt Schwitters in an artist’s book edition by Barbara Fahrner, also in 1996;The Case for Memory, & Other Poems, a collaboration with Ian Tyson, in  2001; The Burning Babe & Other Poems, with Susan Bee, in 2005; and the Introduction to A Secret Location on the Lower East Side, published by The New York Public Library and Granary Books in 1998.  But beyond all these, A Book of the Book, co-edited with Steve Clay, remains the crown jewel of the books produced between us.

So …

As the twentieth-century faded into the twenty-first, I republished through Granary Books an issue of my magazine, New Wilderness Letter, titled after Stéphane Mallarmé The Book Spiritual Instrument and co-edited with David Guss, one of my earlier companions in writing and editing.  And in the immediate aftermath of that I embarked with Steve Clay on another anthology project which we called A Book of the Book: Some Works & Projections About the Book & Writing:  a wide-ranging book of writings on “the book,” taken in some sense as an extension of what The Book, Spritual Instrument was attempting with those materials that were then immediately to hand.  (This is the difference, then, between a magazine & an anthology.)  It was in this context that we hoped to explore more fully the points at which a poetics & an ethnopoetics of the book & writing come together or illuminate each other.  And we wanted at the same time to expose the material bases (ink & paper, manufacture & dissemination) of those ends to which the work of Mallarmé (among other predecessors) was leading us. 

With Steve Clay as publisher as well as co-author, there were no limits here to what we might include - of books that had been made & books that had still to be imagined.  I believe in this regard that there is also a future of the book – as an extended & self-contained compendium of (visible) language – & that the emergence of new technologies – new cyberworks I meant to say – is not a threat to our identity as poets & book people but a new aspect of it that can & will enhance all that  poesis is or ever has been.  In much the same way, I no longer believe, if I ever did, that the book or writing had – in some earlier time  – destroyed orality or made the human voice obsolete.  The book is as old as fire & water, & thought is made in the mouth – as it is also in the hands & lungs & with the inner body.   If that was our condition at the beginning, it will be also in the end.

The role of Steve Clay and Granary in all of this remains of utmost importance to me. so that having worked so closely with him before and being able to say some words today in his praise, fills me with the greatest pleasure.

To conclude, then, is to say that here as elsewhere there is no conclusion.  “Of the making of books there is no end,” as the old scriptural saw once put it (while reifying a single book as the unalterable word-of-god), and Mallarmé in his modernist détournement: “Everything in the world exists in order to be turned into a book.”  It is my sense – at least in our common work as poets – that the movement, the dialectic (to use a once fashionable word) is between book and voice, between the poets (present) in their speaking & the poets (absent) in their writing.  That is to say, we are (up to & past our limits) full & sentient beings, & free, as Rimbaud once told us, to possess truth in one soul & one body.  For myself [as for many others here present] the return to the book is the step now needed to make the work complete.