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Sunday, January 26, 2014

Robert Sheppard: small presses part two: Bill Griffiths The Book of the Boat and Collected Poems and Sequences

Bill Griffiths’ Collected Poems and Sequences (1981-91) has just come slapping through the door. I had expected this to complete the serial Collecteds, but of course there is another decade’s work yet to be assimilated. To celebrate I want to post the second half of my lecture All the Little Presses that Fly with the Phoenix in the Sunshine: Bill Griffiths and the form of Book of the Boat,’ to give it its full title. It is destined for serious revision as a chapter on book forms (and it is planned to combine it with work on Allen Fisher’s ‘Proposals’ posted in draft form some weeks ago) for a book on formally innovative poetry. It is on Book of the Boat which is reproduced with illustrations in this volume in better quality than I imagined, although I had corresponded with editor Alan Halsey on this matter. There is also a hand-coloured version of a picture of Griffiths’ boat (of the book!) on the cover. So I’ve had to delete a few sentences about my fear for the survival of the images. Of course, it isn’t the pamphlet itself, but as near as we’ll get. My piece is about how the form of the book determined the form of the poem/prose. I dedicate it to the dedicated editor, Alan, and to the generous publisher, Ken Edwards of Reality Street. More on the book (and the first volume here. 

After part one of the lecture (a series of speculations and ideas about poetry publishing), I got down to business with text and Power Point images.

I want to discuss poetic form as it manifests through the medium of poetry and in the medium of the small press pamphlet, in the work of Bill Griffiths (while remembering that I am talking in the middle of a revival of that publishing form, so what I say could be encouragement for poets and publishers alike, now).

Griffiths himself was a keen adopter and adapter of new technologies, even if he hit on the wrong ones at times, as in his exploration of microfiche in the 1970s, but he had assembled an impressive website by the time he died in 2007. He was an active small press publisher (Pirate Press, mainly mimeo, followed by Amra Imprint, mainly photocopied). The 1990-91 ALP catalogue lists 6 of his own books as Amra Imprint publications, ranging from Anglo-Saxon dictionaries and translations (his independent academic specialism) to poem-sequences such as Morning Lands and On Plotinus. Alan Halsey speculates that ‘It is unlikely that ALP would have sustained its impetus … without Griffiths’ energetic contributions under the chairmanship of Bob Cobbing’. (47). (‘Busy’ would be a better word: I think of Bill as quietly emphatic, modestly insistent, rather than ‘energetic’.) Griffiths was also part of the Collected Poems phenomenon: The Mud Fort from Salt in 2004 is an undeclared Collected (or selected) Poems 1984-2004 and the posthumous 2010 Collected Earlier Poems (1966-80) from Reality Street is exactly what it says it is. (Now there's the new one.) One of the editors of the latter, Alan Halsey, has described his experience of dealing with Griffiths’ slippery oeuvre. Of the poem ‘To Johnny Prez’, he remarks, it ‘was frequently reprinted during the next twenty years but I have yet to find two entirely identical texts,’ yet this was common to many poems, and obviously a nightmare for an editor or bibliographer: lines come and go through subsequent reprintings of poems with jaunty indifference to textual stability. This was partly because every re-printing was a potential re-writing, and some re-printings were transpositions of text from one work to another, easily achieved with Pirate Press mimeography. (p.45) More generally, Halsey acknowledges of these early years, Griffiths ‘appears to have used the possibilities – advantages – of short-run mimeo as part of his process of composition, as part of his active poetics, his making of forms. ‘ p. 41 halsey) [1] When Griffiths met Bob Cobbing he recognised ‘a quite remarkable set up, not only a Gestetner duplicator but a scanner that would make stencils from visual material, and best of all, a great deal of experience in producing small books, designing them and even marketing them.’ (Rowe: 174). More than this he recognised a pragmatic and philosophic matching between the forms of poetry and pamphlet form, both in his mentor’s work (Cobbing could write a concrete poem in the morning, publish it, printing it as a visual poem, in the afternoon, and launch it in the evening, performing it as a sound poem) and in his own emerging practice: ‘I was writing poems in small groups and the small press booklet seemed an ideal medium.’ (174) 

This accurately describes Griffiths’ work, from the early A History of the Solar System (1978) which is a stitched folded concertina booklet through to On Plotinus (1990), the latter a photocopied booklet, but whose contextualising commentaries, essays and quotations are missing (and missed) when the poems are simply excerpted, as they are in The Mud Fort, for example. The reading experience is completely different – in fact, the poems become more difficult, and seemingly elliptical. They are formed otherwise. 

 Book of the Boat, which dates from 1988 and is a Writers Forum booklet, though using photocopying rather than mimeo, presents a more radical version of this dilemma. Presented in Japanese folding, with a sea-blue cover, it is subtitled ‘Inland and Blue-water texts with illustrations by the Author’, and the sections are accounts of various encounters with boats from the rhyming hymn of praise on the re-opening of the Blissworth Tunnel, to a brief memorial text in Anglo-Saxon, taken from Archbishop Wulfstan, to record ‘MY BOAT IS BURNED AT UXBRIDGE BOAT CENTRE’. One of Griffiths’ faux naïf  illustrations of the houseboat at the Centre, records the calm before this catastrophic event in Griffiths’ life.

The longest text is entitled ‘LOG OF THE CIMMERIAN’, which records the navigating of the barely sea-worthy Cimmerian from London, around the coast, through one of the busiest shipping lanes, to Brightlingsea in Essex, in July 1986. The motor is unreliable, anchorage and its retrieval dangerous, and the crew consists only of Griffiths and his long-term friend Alf Harman (who appears throughout Griffiths’ work). It makes Iain Sinclair’s account of navigating the same stretch of water in Downriver a few years later look like a trip on a boating pool. I have not yet commented upon the most obvious aspect of the making of this book: it doesn’t just contain hand-drawn images, the text is handwritten by Griffiths. This gives it an air of intimacy. [2] This obviously suits the ‘log’ form described above, but it also allows Griffiths to design the pages himself. The most notable aspect is the adoption by Griffiths of one of the most ancient orthographic approaches to the poetic line, that zero degree determinant of poeticality. Before printing asserted capitalised repeated lines as the normative form for notating this poetic unit, a simple dot was often used to mark a rhythmic unit, in continuous margin-to-margin writing. This was to save papyrus, stone or tablet, or as here, to present an array of poems in as few pages as possible. Griffiths’ handwriting makes him a virtual scribe, so this scriptural convention from the days of manuscript culture is appropriate to this book’s poesis. However, for the modern eye, used to undertaking an eye-scan of saccades to detect the difference between poetry and prose, this may be disconcerting. But once adapted to it, the reader is drawn into its myopic and detailed progress. In fact, the ‘log’ consists of two texts: the chronological ‘LOG OF THE CIMMERIAN (prose)’ as well as the numbered dot-line poems of ‘LOG OF THE CIMMERIAN (Sea-Shanties)’. This spreads across six pages, with prose on the left folio and ‘shanties’ on the right. As ‘shanties’ they are the tuneful accompaniment to a job of marine work, the delivery of Alf’s boat to new moorings. The hairy adventures on the journey in the ‘prose’, are presented in a slightly hammy, but colloquial, rendition:

At 05 30 after a short sleep we awoke to find ourselves quite close to Bradwell-on-Sea, that is, on the wrong side of the Blackwater Estuary, while ahead of us was a formidable array of tankers, fortunately riding at anchor, like us. The captain [Alf] was surly and uncivilized, but managed to locate some blockage of the fuel-filter and never-properly tightened or worked-loose components… At last the outboard worked properly … and powered us ably … into the entrance of the Colne. (20) 

The matching two ‘sea-shanties’ read:

Calling with the horn in my gob, aghast at. four mamothian (sic) tankers lined up, straight at us. till I see them riding to the tide, like us, anchored up.

Spurting & spuming, the lovely motor. steers us across the estuary, crossing. making for the marked Colne channel. (21)     

Neither is a version of the other. The ‘sea-shanties’ narrate the events in compressed imagistic form, leaving aside much of the social interaction and the technicalities of sailing. The ‘formidable array of tankers’ (understating the threat if they had not been at anchor) becomes ‘four mamothian tankers lined up, straight at us’, which embodies the almost atavistic animate, even co-ordinated threat, of the huge tankers’ presence. (The Cimmerian is depicted as a smallish boat in one of Griffiths’ pictures, tossed and rearing, a slave to the waves.) Tony Baker reports Griffiths informing him: ‘Shanties is really a set of haiku in which alliteration replaces syllable count, which doesn’t work in English, as a binding device’. (salt 89) Alliteration, of course, is the binding device of Anglo-Saxon verse, but the haiku form is preserved in the tripartite division of the lines. The biggest shock is not the difference between these discourses – prose and poetry – but the difference in form when one encounters the poems elsewhere in Griffiths’ books, lineated and also revised, though I am not making assumptions about priority of composition.[3] 

The prose ‘log’ ends:

Alf & boat, proud as apples. in the fine-sunned field of. Brightingsea, boat-starred.

Although the boat had passed through the boastful ‘pride of Greenwich’, here the image of the apples (proud in fullness and rotundity) seems apposite, and the Anglo-Saxon-like collocation ‘boat-starred’ suggests the galaxy of sailing-craft at the boat’s final moorings. (BB: 21) The Mud Fort version of the poem, just called ‘Shanties (through London to Essex)’ ends with the same words, bar an ampersand, lineated:

            Alf and boat, proud as apples
            on the fine-sunned field of
            Brightlingsea, boat-starred (MF: 42)

The line-break before ‘Brightlinsea’, the hanging preposition ‘of’ enacts the expectation of arrival. However, in the version in Future Exiles (an anthology of 1992), just entitled ‘Sea Shanties’, the sections are still numbered rather than appearing as continuous verses, and carry initial capital letters and are punctuated. The end, though, runs:

            APPENDIX: A note on the Captain:

            After, proud as an apple,
            In the fine-sunned field of
            Brightlingsea, boat-starred.

Alliteration, note, has guided the revision: ‘Alf’ becomes ‘After’.
Separated from the prose log, the poem in these other showings (lineated, and however numbered or punctuated), becomes more poem-like. The Cimmerian all but disappears. The loss of narrative context engenders poetic autonomy. The expectations that readers carry with them to form lyric structurings during their encounters with such a text come into play. Lineated, the lines are more easily read as alliterative and iterative. Not just sounds but words repeat, no more so than in the opening poem or verse or section:

Locked in in the beauty
Locked into the beauty
Locked in in the beauty (MF 39)

Tony Baker testifies to the haunting power of those opening lines but admits it takes him some time (partly because he is not responding to the poem as a part of Book of the Boat, which he does not know) to realise that ‘locked’ refers to the lock gates of the canals leading to the Thames. But he misses the sinister undertone of the repetition of the word ‘locked’ from a poet whose work is full of protest against incarceration. ‘Knock and lock my sleeping’ is the fourth line of one of his most famous poems, ‘Cycles One: On Dover Borstal’, a poem featuring an institution where Griffiths had spent some time, knocked about and locked up.  (collected earlier p. 64) The beauty is obviously the boat (remember it has a ‘lovely’ motor, when it works) but it is held captive by the canal banks and lock gates. Griffiths admits of rudimentary navigational skills which means the boat beats against its prison walls, the word ‘bound’ neatly illustrating the iterative patterns of sound and the subtle shading of the theme of containment:

Blundering, to be blunt about it
in the darkest bits of the canal, night-bound
bound into a dark alley (MF 39)

The repeating ‘night-bound. bound’ of the unlineated version reads very strangely, without enjambment to separate the repetition, to hold the binding of the over-arching night off from the binding confinement of the London canalbank. Characteristically in the ‘sea shanty’ entunement of the voyage we do not experience our mariners running into ‘some fishermen on the way, who slung a handful or two of maggots in retaliation’ at this point, as we do in the prose. (p. 16 boat ) 

I have looked forward to the day when the beauty of the Anglo-Saxon alliterative haiku sea-shanties would be re-united in our reading experience with the slapstick prose and now they are in the second volume of Griffiths’ Collected. (The orthography is standardised in print, of course.) The original book as a whole, in its idiosyncratic, limited form, presents not just texts for later assimilation in various other publications, bigger and better; its careful dovetailing of form and function of text (of various kinds) and its presentation as a whole (or at least a complete provisional presentation as ‘book’ as its title asserts) offers a reading (and viewing) experience that cannot be had in any other way, that brings us (with image and text bearing the imprint of Griffiths’ own hand, not unlike the manuscript culture that preceded and overlapped the introduction of printing) close to a formal object that demands our readerly encounter to form it in our making. The poesis of text and medium is handed over bodily to the reader who is then responsible for its final form in cognition and recognition. One of the ‘contents’ received is an expanded sense of book making as form. Griffiths’ book is a singular and brilliant example of that, but I suspect some of the small press pamphlets being produced now – as well as, in their different ways, digital enterprises where medium has created the possibility of the medium’s own new message – are engaged in small scale (and small press) counter-enterprises against the world of the big publishers who might (still) not recognise this work – prose as well as verse – as poetry. In its genial scriptural resistance, Griffiths’ book is an anti-commodity, for the ‘labour which made it retains its visibility’. (Ed 1985 alp).

WORKS CITED (in this posting and the one on the small presses preceding this. See the full links to all posts that relate to my work The Meaning of Form here.)

Baker, Tony. ‘From Black Cocoa Out’ in Rowe, Will. ed. The Salt Companion to Bill Griffiths. Cambridge: Salt, 2007: 88-107.
Brinton, Ian, ‘infernal methods or Tigers of Instruction’ (sic), Tears in the Fence 54: Autumn 2011: 100-116
Edwards, K. ‘Writing and Commodities’, Association of Little Presses Catalogue, London: 1985.
Griffiths, Bill. Book of the Boat. London: Writers Forum, 1988.
Griffiths, Bill. ‘Interview with Will Rowe’, in Rowe, Will. ed. The Salt Companion to Bill Griffiths. Cambridge: Salt, 2007: 171-196.
Griffiths, Bill. (with Fisher, Allen, and Catling, Brian) Future Exiles: 3 London Poets. London: Paladin, 1992.
Griffiths, Bill. The Mud Fort. Cambridge: Salt, 2004.
Griffiths, Bill. eds. Halsey, Alan, and Edwards, Ken. Collected Earlier Poems (1966-80). Hastings: Reality Street (with West House Books), 2010
Halsey, Alan. ‘Abysses & Quick Vicissitudes: Some Notes on the Mimeo Editions of Bill Griffiths’, Mimeo Mimeo 4: Winter 2010: 41-50.
(accessed 28th February 2010)
Reed, Brain M. Reed. ‘Visual Experiment and Verbal Performance’, in Perloff, M. and Dworkin, C. The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Sheppard, R. ‘Imperfect Knowledge’, Catalogue of Little Press Books in Print 1990-1991. London: Assocation of Little Presses, 1990.
Shields, David. Reality Hunger. London: Penguin, 2010
Wheale, Nigel. ‘Uttering Poetry: Small-Press Publication’, in Riley, D. ed. Poets on Writing. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992.

See the Special Issue on Griffiths of the Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry here.

Update September 2016: For those who can buy The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry, or order it for libraries, here are the places

[1] Each mimeo page was assembled separately; I remember with my magazine Rock Drill one would have enough pages left over to make incomplete copies: I called them ‘bizzarros’ at the time. Put another way: a jamming accident on the second side printing of a single sheet would deplete the full print run; stencils were not easy to use again. 

[2] In a couple of the multi-voiced performance texts here, it is difficult to read what would otherwise be italics playing off against standard type.

[3] This is the same with many poems in the book, but they are beyond my remit today.

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)

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

IKLEFTIKO: new poetry magazine

I wish to announce that the first issue of this new magazine is now live on the website here,

Poems by Andrew Taylor and Robert Sheppard, among others.

 Elio Lomas


Robert Sheppard: Meeting Bob Cobbing

In 'Work' there appears the sentence: 'Groundhogs ticket in his pocket: Cobbing plays him "e".' This is a 'writing-through' of an entry that reads (and is enscripted) thus:

Diary Saturday November 3rd, 1973

i got the tickets for the groundhogs before going to london
            in the afternoon I arrived at bob cobbing’s where he already had a girl student doing a thesis on language in art. his room was covered in papers and untidy. cobbing answered questions helpfully and played tapes including late stuff for radio 3 and a tape with peter finch of the ‘e’ part of his 5 vowel piece which is unfinished. showed us mss of it
            after miriam left, cobbing and i discussed other aspects of poetry today – making money, poets conference and during tea talked about eliot/pound/auden and jazz and school – he was a rebel teacher with nuttall. he knows tina fulker (!) and had a visit from lawrence upton that morning

            i finally left loaded with material at 9.00 after 6 hrs!
                                                                                                he’s agreed to help me put on a display of concrete poetry at school.

A photo of Bob Cobbing of about that time.  More on Bob here and our 2001 collaboration (which would have surprised and delighted my 1973 self) here.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Robert Sheppard interviewed by Christopher Madden for The Wolf 29

Click here to read an in-depth interview conducted by email by the searching and insightful Chris Madden for The Wolf 29

Also in this issue: reviews of Valérie Rouzeau, Niall McDevitt, The Panic Cure Panic Cure: Poetry from Spain for the 21st Century, Dalit poets from India. Scott Thurston on ‘Poetry and Movement’. John Sokol as Artist in Residence, poems from Ange Mlinko, Tomaž Šalamun, Ken Babstock and much else besides.

More details:

On Issue 31 see here.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Robert Sheppard: Research Video

Here's another video I can't seem to embed here. It was made at Edge Hill University and I explain my creative and critical research and I'm speaking in front of the collaborative work with Pete Clarke. Other than I forgot to smile, it's fine. This here link takes you to my work web page. Just scroll down and the video is at the bottom.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Robert Sheppard reading the Flemish poems of Rene Van Valckenborch at The Other Room (set list)

 Click Here for the Video. I am reading from the second half of the book A Translated Man on December 4th 2013 at The Other Room. Thanks James, Scott
and Tom for the reading. I hope you enjoy it. The poems performed are:

The Light
from Roomstanzas
from In the Complex
from Revolutionary Song
Ode to Orbit

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Robert Sheppard: Work (from Words out of Time) in Blackbox Manifold 11

Read more of my autrebiographies, two parts ('Words' and 'Work'), which together with 'With' make up the third part of the book, called 'When' (it's the cool conceptual end of the project) which I have now decided to call Words Out of Time: autrebiographies and unwritings. (Buy it here.) More of that to come. These two parts appear in Blackbox Manifold 11 here. Just click for the pdf.

Blackbox Manifold 11 is a great issue. See here.

The new issue also features work by Louis Armand, Dan Beachy-Quick, Andrew Cox, Jen Degregorio, Mark Dow,
Valerie Duff, Giles Goodland, Anne Gorrick, Ben Hickman, Linda Kemp,
Burgess Needle, John Regan, Denise Riley, Gary
Sloboda, Simon Smith, Jeffrey Thomson, Philip Wilson, with an essay by
John Wilkinson on D.S. Marriott, and Adam Piette reviewing Alan
Halsey; _CUSP_, ed. Geraldine Monk; Helen Mort; John Birtwhistle;
David Kennedy & Christine Kennedy's Women's Experimental Poetry.