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Friday, January 24, 2014

Robert Sheppard: All the Little Presses that Fly with the Phoenix in the Sunshine

Parts of a Keynote Lecture at the ‘Writing and the Small Press’ Conference at the University of Salford, March 2012.

(There is a fine review of the conference by David Kennedy in Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry, Volume 4: Number 2: September 2012.)

I like and, as you’ll see later, I distrust, the arbitrary alphabetic democracy of the academic bibliography. It pleases me to see

Fisher, Allen. Place. Hastings: Reality Street, 2005.

next to

Goethe, J.W. Faust Book One. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

in the ‘works cited’ that completes one of my essays;

or (to stay with Ken Edwards’ press Reality Street or its precursor Reality Studios, for a moment) to spot

Edwards, Ken. The We Expression: The First Person Plural in Poetry. London: Reality Studios, 1985.

This is a fugitive self-publication by Edwards, a Spartan mimeographic production, largely forgotten, rubbing alphabetically-contiguous slightly-foxed covers with an acknowledged classic of post-War poetic mediocrity, one re-designed smartly through many trade editions:

Larkin, Philip. The Whitsun Weddings. London: Faber and Faber, 1964.

I like all this because it says: this small press book is as important to my essay or article as the one published by the mainstream press. Indeed, there is more on Fisher than on Goethe and definitely more on Edwards than on Larkin in their respective episodes in my book When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry. I like it simply because it allows Reality Street to announce its vital mediation of the work cited on a level field of literary production with OUP and Faber and Faber. I like all this because the names of small presses are often colourful compared to those of many commercial presses: they intoxicate the sobriety of the bibliography. As Nigel Wheale said: ‘The only opulence which small presses and magazines traditionally allow themselves is their name’. (9) For example (and in alphabetical order):

Arthur Shilling
Burning Deck
Damaged Goods
Excello and Bollard
Fleeting Monolith
Galloping Dog
If p then q
Joe Soap’s Canoe
Knives Forks and Spoons
New Departures
Queen of Sheba
Reality Street
Spectacular Diseases
Toads Damp Press
Unidentified Flying Printer
Writers Forum
X Press
Your Poetry

Talking about the small or little presses can feel like cartography of a peculiarly Borgesian kind: if you’re not careful, the map you make turns out to be the size of the territory; it’s all or nothing. Summary fails the totality. But I distrust the temptations of the publisher’s list, the enchantments of the alphabetic bibliographic, which leaves us insensible in the face of informational overload. Bibliographic democracy evades (for a moment only) the true configurations of the power relations of the poetry world, say between the respective economic and cultural capital of Reality Studios and Faber, their actual (though shifting) positions in the field of literary production. The academic representation of small presses, however masterly, as in Wolfgang Görtschacher’s two massive tomes, or in the recording of Mimeo Mimeo’s journal and blog, breaks down into publisher profiles, lists of published books and pamphlets, authors, dates, print runs, the minutiae of printing methods, paper quality, the all-important binding and – less often – statistics of sales, and accounts of distribution methods, the last two not always a good story. There are taxonomic distinctions between small presses and independent presses, private presses and commercial presses to be negotiated, between art books and small press books, in faintly fetishistic ways – and that doesn’t even begin to mention little magazines!
The archive or its burrowers provide additional addictive narratives: the technical histories of the little presses, with their branches in bibliography, librarianship, information science, in the Sinclairesque lore of second-hand and rare book selling, and in the practice and history of publishing generally. Such particularity is important for the complete mapping of an otherwise incognito bibliosphere, but this obsession with process and product (material production and material object) takes us away from the literature produced into hopeless business studies – by which I mean the study of largely hopeless businesses! The results are closer to studies of micro-breweries than to discussions of literary form or the poetics of contemporary writing, which is normally the focus of my work as a critic. (As a poet I’m obviously interested in the materiality of my books and booklets!) In short: I like all this detail, could wallow in it for ever, but I distrust its propensity to obscure the aesthetic, even where the aesthetics of book production itself is concerned. We build histories that are distinct from the history of writing, and from the practice of writing, at their perils.
However, before I attempt to bring history and practice together, I want to look back at an organisation called the Association of Little Presses, which was formed in 1965 by Stuart Montgomery of Fulcrum and Bob Cobbing of Writers Forum, and which continued through what I have seen described as the ‘golden age of the little presses’ – much under the influence of Bob Cobbing –  as a ‘loosely knit association of individuals running little presses who have grouped together for mutual self-help and encouragement’ (n.d 1990/1 cat), until December 1992 when Cobbing resigned (partly to spend more time with his family, or rather his family magazine: Cobbing Kith and Kin). ALP fell into almost immediate disarray despite having (by 1990) over 300 members, many of them publishing poetry. Two major casualties were the regular listings magazine PALPI (Poetry and Little Press Information) and the annual catalogue which carried publishers’ adverts and as comprehensive listings and addresses as was possible, and which was produced in editions of 500. In 1990-1991, I provided a concise introduction to the eleventh annual catalogue: it sums up much of what I felt about the little presses up to 20 years ago, and much since. Ken Edwards of Reality Street had preceded me 5 years earlier with his introduction in which he defined the small presses in terms that perhaps have more in common with Eastern European samiszdat than micro-publishing. The love – the sheer amateurism in its real sense – is what essentially divides the small presses from the professionalism of the big commercial presses, a world in which ‘market research has indicated the potential for another commodity’, in Edwards’ words. (1985) His themes – of community and commodity – are ones I consciously pick up in my introduction five years later, which is entitled ‘Perfect Knowledge’ and which was dedicated to the memory of the great publisher (and poet) Asa Benveniste who had died a few months previously.[1]

{At this point I read the document.}

In some ways nothing much changed in the first ten years after I made that statement, in terms of the organisation and systems of the small presses. The gift economy described jocularly at the end cannot be dismissed as simple embarrassment: exchange is a major index of creative environment, poetic culture. As Bourdieu points out the avant-garde has little else to exchange but its lofty ideas – and its tatty pamphlets, I’d add. Very little has occurred in the last 20 years as regards the absorption of the avant-garde by the mainstream (not that I’m advocating that, but I find Lucie-Smith’s remark still suggestive). One could point to the single example of Keith Tuma’s 2001 Anthology of Twentieth Century British and Irish Poetry which practised ‘larding’, i.e. mainstream poets are placed next to non-mainstream ones: Larkin next to Cobbing, cris cheek next to Carol Ann Duffy, instructive accidents of dates of birth. Oxford, however, refused to glorify the volume with the imprimateur of The Oxford Book of…. which such a comprehensive coverage deserves, and which undermines the very accommodation the book proposes. However, there has been a revolution in the writing of criticism about this work, in which Tuma participated, and witnessed by this very conference. The kind of criticism I’ve written and published in the last ten years (and books and journal I’ve edited), was difficult in the previous ten – and unthinkable in the decade before that, the eighties, reviews aside. I couldn’t have found a publisher for my PhD on Roy Fisher, Lee Harwood and the British Poetry Revival when I was awarded it in 1988; I had to wait until 2005 to complete that project. It is impossible not to reflect on just how important Peter Barry and Robert Hampson’s New British Poetries: The Scope of the Possible of 1991 was in that respect. And, vitally, it contains a lengthy piece on little magazines and publishers by Roger Ellis, acknowledging the importance of material production to this poetry. All well and good, but academic criticism has not led (as I’d hoped with my own criticism) to a revaluation of British poetry and the wider appreciation of alternative forms: perhaps awareness without assimilation. In fact, this body of criticism endlessly reiterates the narrative of exclusion and the concomitant eulogies of praise to the sustaining activities of the little presses.
One result of this lack of assimilation is, I believe, the impulse amongst the larger small presses – Salt, Bloodaxe, Carcanet, Shearsman and Reality Street – to issue retrospective Collected Works by important figures such as John James, JH Prynne, Roy Fisher, Lee Harwood, David Chaloner, Tom Raworth, Gael Turnbull, and Bill Griffiths, in the early years of this century. Unassimilated into the canon, they are, to use the vocabulary of Pierre Bourdieu, which has already crept in here once or twice, consecrated outside it instead (which in the long run may be a better thing). [2]
            To publish a Collected Works you need the ability to produce large books and POD enables that. Which brings us to technology. I want to pause on the large, and obvious, changes that have occurred over that last 20 years, again, concentrated in the second decade: digitalisation and digital media of various kinds with various and even contradictory effects. With POD a pretty lean outfit can publish many books and bigger books. Salt, for example, has always reminded me of one of those either courageous or foolish small dogs in the park that bark at you as if they were five times their real size. In some ways, though, POD made commercially available what had been the MO of many smaller presses for years, particularly after difficult and messy mimeography gave way to clean and flexible photocopying. To run off a small number and do some more when (or if) needed, whether that’s on a substantial scale, with ownership of the means of production (Bob Cobbing’s Writers Forum had over a thousand publications effectively in print) or like Ship of Fools, where Patricia Farrell and I were running booklets off now and then on others’ machines, was both economical and doable.
 POD can be used to make books, bigger, brighter, more frequent, but essentially the same sorts of book as before. POD is only one of the new digital technologies, of course, and we might legitimately wonder where the small presses will go with it. ‘What is this technology telling us?’ asks David Shields, fashionably plunderphoning Kevin Kelly, in his book Reality Hunger, ‘Copies don’t count anymore; copies of isolated books, bound between inert covers, soon won’t mean much. Copies of their texts, however, will gain in meaning as they multiply by the millions and are flung around the world, indexed, and copied again. What counts are ways in which these common copies of a creative work can be linked, manipulated, tagged, highlighted, bookmarked, translated, enlivened by other media, and sewn together in the universal library.’ (Shields, p. 30)
            Digital technology can be used for the publishing of poetry and for the generation of a new type of poetry, texts that morph into the fluid channels of the medium, as in the work of, and as exemplified by the website of, Caroline Bergvall. Or, as Tom Jenks says: ‘After years of seeing the page as simply a place to put words, my increasing familiarity with computers has gradually transformed my practice to the extent that I now view myself as a producer of illuminated manuscripts, incorporating images and non-verbal figures to work in a way that is as much about the eye as the ear and the voice. The screen, far from being a stifling, standardising influence, can be liberating.’ (Jenks 2008)
However, it’s surprising how the internet is often used more effectively for the publicising and selling of poetry, whether conventional or digitally produced for the page, like Jenks’s. The ALP Catalogue seems archaic and slow looking back at it now. Google and links take you to easily navigable catalogues of contemporary presses, where you can often read samples of a book as a pdf, see its cover, read the blurb and author page, and buy online: Shearsman’s website is a model of this. Perfect knowledge is almost possible, given the links and the energy required to click on them.
Brian Reed asks: ‘Why limit oneself to publishing a chapbook with a small press when sound files uploaded to the internet can travel further, faster, and cheaper? Nowadays many poets have Web pages that promote the full range of their work, including everything from blogs to poem drafts to webcasts of their latest public readings.’ (282)
Indeed, why publish a chapbook with a small press at all, with those possibilities at one’s fingertips? And that was certainly the attitude around the millennium, when the pamphlet went into decline as the large POD books rose. The chief surprise of the last 10 years has been the re-birth of the printed pamphlet, whether the cheap samizhat model like yt communications of Bonney and Kruk or the fine letterpress model of Richard Parker’s Crater Press. There is even, and for the first time, a major national prize for publishers of these fascicles, which ensures their persistence. Obdurate but ostensibly obsolete, I contend that they are reactions to the extensive catalogues of POD presses, and the ever-growing size of monumental books, collected or otherwise. I can talk! Twentieth Century Blues was huger than I’d imagined, but most of it had been produced as short run pamphlets first, like the ones I’m considering. Indeed, like me before them, newer authors may not have had the bulk of work and a short sample seems a sensible preliminary showing. But there’s something beyond the practicalities. I think people have re-discovered that the pamphlet is a good format to access units of poetry: a 20 pp sequence in a 20 pp pamphlet offers readerly satisfaction (Nicholas Royle’s Nightjar has similarly focussed on the neatness of single short stories packaged as booklets). In short, a pamphlet provides the satisfaction of literal (or literary) and psychological closure. You hold the object in your hands; you hold its contents (complete) in your mind. Form and function of one interinanimates form and function of the other. When unique design is added to text, it’s irresistible.   
Something comparable and instructive is going on in the alternative music scene. ‘There’s more vinyl than ever – sometimes in editions as low as 200 – and the strike rate for memorable LPs is way better than for CDs’, says Derek Walmsley of The Wire. ‘They’re produced with passion, with vivid sleeves and quick turnaround.’ (issue 335: p. 48) The analogy is obvious.
This retro-analogue jive is a reaction against the world of instant downloading: like the pamphlet there’s a human investment in the physicality of groove and tape over intangible e-files. The interaction between media is interesting too. Reed says that ‘broad media literacy … has had profound effects on how certain authors write’, as Tom Jenks points out, but he names Caroline Bergvall, Kenneth Goldsmith and Christian Bök. ‘One consequence has been the emergence of figures who define a poem less as a one-off artwork … than as a cluster of related works in different media.’ (282)  Caroline Bergvall’s work often versions into print (including pamphlets) and back into digital media (not to mention installation work and performance), just as record outfits are producing LPs, CDs, DLs and even cassettes, sometimes packaged in ingenious combinations.
Musician James Kirby made all of his work available online, free, in a Creative Commons-like gesture, but after a few years ‘it had grown so vast it had reached the point where nothing could be seen’. (1 p. 14). He begs other artists to contemplate the ‘long-term consequences of making everything available, never to be erased’. (14) The internet’s dream as a ‘fluid set of possibilities’, he says, becomes ‘a vast online mausoleum’. (14) I wonder how many poets will be tempted to resist the additive linking nature of the web and rationalise their web presence, or like Kirby, eliminate it. ‘Including everything’ may not be the answer. The pamphlet also offers resistance to this form of monumentalism, as well as to the codexical tome.
The e-book has been around for a while, unsexy pdfs dangling off the edges of websites, as well as embedded on host sites like Lulu Books for print download. It has been embraced in a limited way by small presses. The Kindle – despite the fact it looks like something out of 1950s SF – carries the potential to download poetry, though it’s little used by small presses, as yet. I suspect it will be superseded by integrated computer systems and involve multi-media, but for the moment it presents the screen as page rather than as video. It is interesting to imagine whether small presses will morph into file-sharing databases and whether books will become luxury items. Whatever the case, there will remain the potential for a close tie-in between the making of poetry and the making of books (or whatever is expected to supersede them).
I want to pursue this issue, not via online or digital technologies nor with the gleaming machinic thinkerly plunderhood of conceptual writing that owes to them, but by a return to the making of small press books which was also the making of poems, to examine an earlier example of how ‘media … had profound effects on how .. authors write’. (Reed 282) I hope to bring the history of publishing and the practice of writing closer to one another, as I promised earlier. I want to trace not just a fashionable materiality but (something that could survive the e-book revolution,) the extraordinary author-designer-publisher-printer relationship (even if conducted within one person), the means by which booklets (and even the poems in them) come into being. This extended poesis of the physical medium ultimately leads outwards into communities of readers (elites and wide networks alike) and in doing so makes innovative contemporary poetries signal their very contemporaneity. Though that outward possibility is beyond my scope today, I’ve hinted at its effects in the past by emphasising the work of ALP.

The rest of the lecture was on the small press book forms of Bill Griffiths. Read it here.

Or link here for the full set of links to the emerging critical work (of which this post was prefatory) The Meaning of Form here.

You can read about my own recent poetry published by small presses here and here, and follow the links to points of online purchase.

[1] Asa Benveniste of Trigram Press. Indeed, the issue opens with his Kabbalistic poetics essay ‘Language: Enemy, Pursuit,’ (1980) which feels out of place until you realise that ‘the black fire on white Fire’ of letter-press printing is part of his poesis, as he faces the bareness of word, the metaphysics of type, watching all that language falling to pieces, then thrown back together as a page of a book. I returned to Benveniste’s excellent selected poems Throw Out the Life Line Lay Out the Corse (1983) and wondered whether the impaction of the sequence ‘Dense Lens’ derived not just from a reading of Zukofsky but from the experience of typesetting sections of A for Trigram.

[2] Nigel Wheale sees it the other way round: ‘The current economic situation … has affected the publication of poetry by making established publishers unwilling to continue paternally with their poetry lists… This restriction has driven a good deal of writing into the arms of the small presses.’ (quoted in Brinton: 112)