“Print Is Not Dead”: Peter Valente on A Poetics of the Press: Interviews with Poets, Printers, & Publishers

A Poetics of the Press: Interviews with Poets, Printers, & Publishers contains sixteen interviews Kyle Schlesinger did with publishers from the United States, England, Germany, and Australia. Most of the interviews were conducted in person and later transcribed, while the rest were done using the computer. The first of these interviews was with Steve Clay, the publisher of Granary Books, in 2008. Having learned so much about Clay and his publications, Kyle sought out other publishers to interview; the last interview, from 2018, was with Annabel Lee, publisher of Vehicle Editions. Many of these publishers were also poets and printers who were interested in the visual aspect of language and the actual creation of the book as a physical object in the world. As Kyle writes, “A Poetics of the Press takes us back to the root of the word “poetry”: “to make, create, compose,” or “to pile up, build, make.” The letterpress printers and poets in this collection working with letterforms forged in hot metal understand that poetry is both a material and immaterial thing.” They experimented with the form and content of books, taking their cue from Robert Creeley’s assertion that “form is never more than an extension of content.”

Reading A Poetics of the Press, I kept thinking of when I decided to pursue the life of a poet, right out of college, after I graduated in 1992, and when I first published in one of those xeroxed, hand-stapled mags that were still coming out of San Francisco in the early 90s such as Lyric& (ed. Steve Carll), Angle (ed. Brian Lucas),  ÄnTənym (ed. Avery E.D. Burns) and Kevin Killian and Dodie Bellamy’s wonderful Mirage #4 [Periodical] (they published my first poem in 1994); later, I published some work, in softbound magazine like Lee Chapman’s First Intensity, and Peter O’Leary’s LVNG which he gave out for free. I attended many readings at the Poetry Project, and elsewhere in NYC, while commuting from Jersey and got my education there (I graduated from Stevens Institute of Technology with a degree in Electrical Engineering in 1992).

I read everything I could get my hands on and encountered many of the books from publishers such as Rosemarie and Keith Waldrop’s Burning Deck, Lyn Hejinian’s Tuumba Press, Steve Clay’s Granary Books, Annabel Lee’s Vehicle Editions, Geoff Young’s The Figures, and many others, including Angel Hair, whose original publication of John Wieners’ Asylum Poems is one of my treasures. I used Spencer Selby’s list of experimental magazines and their addresses to find places to send work; that’s where I first happened upon Mirage #4 [Periodical] because the title seemed strange to me! During this time, I also collaborated with the editor of a mag I found on Selby’s list; I sent some pages of artwork to John M. Bennett, publisher of Lost & Found Times, who wrote on them, and sent me photocopies to give out for free. These early experiences with publishers taught me about community and the possibilities for collaboration; I did eventually collaborate on a book with Kevin, many years later.

All these experiences were important for a young poet (I was 23 years old at the time), living in New Jersey and working in a bookstore, and showed me to see that there were poetry scenes and a sense of community throughout the United States and Europe. It led to my correspondence with Peter O’Leary, Kevin Killian, Gustaf Sobin, William Bronk, Gerrit Lansing, and others. I familiarized myself with the publishers of the magazines on Selby’s list and reading them taught me about the different ways a poem could exist in the world as well as certain trends in the world of poetry at that time. As Lyn Hejinian writes, “Editors and publishers contribute enormously to the shaping and substance of the literary reality of their times.”

The way we live now is a matter of speed and productivity. It seems that there is never enough time. We are unable to slow down, do nothing, think. I remember long hours alone, in my parent’s house, reading. I never felt I had to do something else; that I had to be productive. This was before the Internet and cell phone deceived us all into thinking that every moment is precious and must be “saved;” there is now the illusion that something is always happening; that you may miss something: an email with urgent news, or some video on YouTube about the current political situation, or a friend’s “like” or comment on a Facebook post. We are in a rush. Going where, exactly? Mary Laird, co-publisher of The Perishable Press, writes, “A flat computer screen and an index of movies to watch on the TV, all those cell phones and excitements in the hurry-hurry mod…fun for a while perhaps, but not soul fulfilling. Holding that book, and daydreaming, reading in a tree or a hammock… reading at a coffee shop…these are the ‘ah’ experiences. Slow and enjoyable. Setting type is slow. Folding the paper is slow.”

Several publishers in Schlesinger’s collection discuss the relation between setting type and its appearance on a computer screen, and point out how this fundamental operation changes one’s perception of time; Alan Loney, publisher of Electio Editions, writes:

In setting type, the time it takes for one letter to appear after another in the composing stick is a lot longer than the time it takes for one letter to appear after another on the computer screen. In that time anything can happen. It has something to do with slowing down, from the uninterrupted sound-flow of speech to separating words on the page to handsetting type where every letter, mark of punctuation and word-space is a separate entity…In this sense, what is a word-space? After all, the earliest Greek writing doesn’t have them, yet we tend to behave as if word-spaces are the most natural thing in the world.

The difference is between the arbitrary rules we take for granted about language and seeing words and letters in a new light; Aaron Cohick, publisher of NewLights Press speaks about when he first attempted to set his own writing in lead type: “Each word became too much of a presence, and seemed wrong…That moment of defamiliarization continues to open, to yield new work.” These experiences suggest why some poets are attracted to a printing press; this relation to words as material objects can liberate the imagination into exploring new territories of linguistic possibility, new ways of viewing language as a visual art.

It is this aspect of the visual nature of language that is important to Johanna Drucker, publisher of Druckwerk, who writes about the origin of her belief in the power of aesthetics; “This was sparked early on in creative work as well as a conviction that the visual properties of language were essential to meaning production.” This concept departs from letters (words) viewed as mechanistic strokes on a page and conceives of them as fluid, unstable, almost abstract shapes, with their own meaning or epistemology; this view also short circuits the ability of language to proliferate meanings and information haphazardly as on the Internet, and rather extracts meaning in the word’s function as a work of art; this changes the frames of perception and slows down our ability to simply interpret a text, moving our gaze from left to right, and creates an engagement with language as we would view a painting; in sense, language now inhabits the space of the page like a painting. We can see this tendency for the visual in the work of the poet, Murat Nemet-Nejat. For him, the empty space of the page is crucial. It is a kind of force field with a strong gravitational pull, and there are points where we enter a space, where words seem to be in a process of forming and reforming, as they are pulled apart. We are at the origin of language, prior to meaning, “at silences’ threshold.”  The following image is from Io’s Song (Chax Press, 2019):

o      r
o p
o  r!
o        r

In this boiling assemblage of language, the words are tactile, in motion, fluid, unconstrained. For Drucker, “the notion of knowledge has shifted from older, mechanistic ideas of things “known” to a probabilistic and co-dependent situation of knowing.” Johnathan Greene writes, “In theory, poets should have a greater sensitivity to words in all realms, including how they look on a page.”

The publishers, poets, printers in this book are concerned with and create objects that question the very idea of what a book is, not only in terms of the design, or font used, or color scheme, etc. but as a physical object in the world. I remember having a “copy” of Clark Coolidge’s On the Slates, published by Flockophobic Press, Ltd. In 1992; it was a shoebox that contained a leather shoe that was wrapped in tissue paper with pages rolled in a dollar bill and tied with a shoelace; inside the bill was a poem by Coolidge and one by Rosemarie Waldrop:

This “art object” was not a “book” at all and yet it contained writing. This interesting object led me back then to think of what constituted a book? Can a book, like Coolidge himself once said about a poem, be like a rock, in that it interrupts the flow of mainstream information? I think it originally sold for around $150; I can’t imagine what it’s going for now, if it’s even available. This kind of object demands to be looked at in a different way, not simply read, but “seen.” There is also considerable wit. On the other hand, there are also publications where the pages are Xeroxed and stapled together, and that over time become brittle while the pages turn yellow. The ephemeral nature of handmade things in the word becomes apparent when we think of books. I am here thinking of the Angel Hair publication of John Wieners’ Asylum Poems. I value it for the modesty of the publication, the simple and wonderful drawing on the thick cover by George Schneeman. But holding it in my hands I need to be careful since the pages are fragile due to age. Betty Bright, in her book No Longer Innocent: Book Art in America 1960-1980 (Granary, 2005), writes about Wallace Berman’s important publication Semina, that it “resulted from limitations in time, money, and materials, but it also represented an ephemeral aesthetic that eschewed the slick finish of mainstream art and publishing.” 

In the late 1990s, with a couple of friends, I published a magazine of poetry; the poems were Xeroxed, and the pages were stapled together; we published friends as well as some better known poets, such as Alice Notley; we only published four issues. We basically Xeroxed a few and gave them out to friends; a few went to bookstores and to the Poetry Project in NYC. Becoming a publisher is a way to be a part of a community, and to meet other poets. Charles Alexander, publisher of Chax Press, said:

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 share it and we build relationships and ultimately other kinds of community. In fact, I think I learned to make books partly for that, partly to enter relationships.

Which directly leads to the idea of publishing your own work using print-on-demand. This way the book always remains in print. Also, the quality of most print-on-demand books is relatively high. And all the poet-publishers in A Poetics of the Press had no problem with publishing one’s own work, provided it was not the only thing a poet did. But I do think a young poet should start a magazine, print a few, and send them out. It could be modest, a few pages like Mirage #4 [Periodical], but it’s a way to make contact with other poets and feel part of a community.  

The changing forms of media also play a part in the world of publishing. Given the popularity of Kindle, where one can download a whole library of books digitally cheaply, it might seem that the physical book is going to die because of economics. One rarely sees people reading on a train or subway; they’re usually gazing at their cellphone or tablet. Mainstream publishers are increasingly using eBooks as an alternative for the physical book. But the evidence in terms of sales shows that most of us will not abandon the physical sensation of touching a book for the computer screen. As Schlesinger writes, “these interviews address the question of how poetry comes into being and why–the ontology of the book.” In doing so, the collection asks fundamental questions about the nature of reading and the book: What is seen? What is actually there? How is one’s perception of reading changed? How does the visual aspect of language generate meaning? So as Aaron Cohick offers, “Print is not dead. We are beginning to see it clearly for the first time, and now we can get to ask questions about its own structures, internally and externally.”

A Poetics of the Press shows that the love of reading and publishing books is still important to people. These publishers continue to create interesting books despite the economics involved. Dale Smith once told the publisher of Effing Press, Scott Pierce, when he was starting out, “You really want to do this, you’re gonna lose money. You need to really learn how to lose money.” A Poetics of the Press: Interviews with Poets, Printers, & Publishers is a significant contribution to the ongoing discussion surrounding this subject and is a must-have book for any serious student, collector, librarian, visual artist, or poet.

A Poetics of the Press: Interviews with Poets, Printers, & Publishers, edited by Kyle Schlesinger. Brooklyn, New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, May 2021. 384 pages. $24.00, paper.

Peter Valente is a writer, translator, and filmmaker. He is the author of eleven full length books. Forthcoming is a collection of essays, Essays on the Peripheries (Punctum, 2021), and his translation of Nicolas Pages by Guillaume Dustan (Semiotext(e), 2022). He’s presently working on editing a book on Harry Smith.

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