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Press News: March 2012
This has been the best of years, and the worst of years: our ten-year odyssey on the seas of Pericles finally reached its destination, and the most aesthetically and personally satisfying journey of our printing lives is over. There is always a moment of mourning at the end of a major project, but the feeling of loss at the completion of Pericles seemed much more akin to the post-partum blues that set in at the close of a theatre production, when the world that you have been immersed in, body and soul, simply disappears, “melted into air, into thin air”. And this analogy is indeed apt for the realization of a book whose raison d’être has been to ‘stage the play on the page’. The designing, typesetting, illustrating, and printing of this book have been a process of immersing ourselves in the words, and collectively, creating a ‘performance’ that suggests subtleties of character relationships, thematic threads, and dramatic purpose. Now, the act of making is done, but the performance remains, relived on every fresh reading of the text in the context of its permanent typographical and visual setting: type and image respond to one another, and illuminate the words. So we comfort ourselves with the knowledge that we have left more than a “rack behind”; the stuff of our dreams can be seen, page by page.
We will never realize our youthful ambition of printing all of Shakespeare’s plays, but with Pericles and others to come, we can bring to a few select plays skill of craftsmanship gained in over 30 years of printing, and a depth of understanding developed through a virtual lifetime of reading, teaching, performing, and directing with the words of Shakespeare in our ears and our mouths. We cannot imagine what our younger selves would have made of the texts, but we do know that our ways of seeing the plays have been changed, and continue to evolve the longer we live with them. For the past eight years, I have had the privilege of witnessing student actors’ first encounters with Shakespeare in my ‘Shakespeare in Performance’ classes and productions, and adding my experienced perspective to their own delightfully fresh ones. In recent auditions for As You Like It, the actress working up the character of ‘Rosalind’ commented with both frustration and pleasure, “She has so many layers; getting under her skin is like peeling an onion: you keep finding more and more”. In such moments, the teacher in me sits back and beams with the sure knowledge that Shakespeare is working his inevitable magic. He is not too difficult, or too distant, or the language too complex for student actors; in fact, he is just the thing, ever contemporary, ever generous to the actor. Teaching can be the most exhilarating of occupations. In the teaching of literature, I also come face to face with my shifting perspectives toward Shakespeare, and the gap between myself and my students. When reading and teaching The Tempest, I no longer identify with ‘Miranda’, but with the parent, ‘Prospero’, and as he does, bear witness to the blossoming love between his daughter and ‘Ferdinand’ with a mixture of sadness and delight. My students, however, who read the scene aloud to one another, found Miranda “kind of drippy” and the expressive language of love in the scene “corny”. Such judgments are understandable – especially in a generation so wary of sentiment and a society alert to the dangers of appearing foolish – but they were too callow to let stand unchallenged. I launched into an impassioned exegesis of the way in which the language encompasses feelings too new and overpowering for the young lovers, and helps characterize the differences between the male and female approach: Ferdinand expounds, Miranda simply wants to know, “Do you love me?” I took them through the scene, line-by-line, pointing out every felicity of word and dramatic nuance I could; I felt I had reached the ‘zone’, when the right words came to me and I found new and exciting understandings, and the students leaned in and listened with shining faces. At the end, one of the boys piped up, “Does anybody else think that Miranda’s just stalking him?” Oh, teaching can be the most humbling of experiences.
The first real test for our completed Pericles came at the Codex Fair in Berkeley in February. God knows, others had seen the book in various stages along the way, as we hauled it out at successive fairs in Oxford, Vancouver, and Berkeley with the promise of its eventual birth. The consequence of such a long birthing was that the deluxe edition was sold out, and only 14 copies of the regular remained by February. The 2011 Codex was my first, and I was able to experience for myself its glories as described by Crispin. However, a bureaucratic disaster almost prevented us from reaching our destination as we attempted to clear US customs in Vancouver. An honest admission that yes, we were planning to sell books at the fair, landed us in immigration limbo; we were shunted into a room and told to wait. We waited; our plane left for San Francisco; we saw financial ruin looming. In the end, sanity prevailed in the form of an understanding customs officer who let us through with the proviso that we would never enter the US again with books in hand to sell. We could take orders and ship them down later, and so resides the logic of a little, brief authority everywhere. As we were released from purgatory, we noticed a listing for a flight leaving in 20 minutes. Naturally the gate stood at the far end of the terminal, and we puffed our way there to discover we could be on the last minute waiting list. Six passengers had not shown up. Two arrived. Minutes ticked by. Two more slipped in. We almost prayed. And then, we were in, our bums hitting the seats moments before the door closed and the plane taxied out. Some people may relish such suspense; they live for that adrenalin rush that makes life meaningful to them. We do not.
We arrived in Berkley late in the evening to join a convivial gang of printers for dinner. We were being hosted by friends and neighbours of organizers Peter Koch and Susan Filter, Kit and Hayne Leland, in the downstairs suite of their house. This accommodation and the friendship which burgeoned became one of the delights of the visit. In the morning, we pulled back the curtains behind sliding doors to reveal a view that looked out on a terraced garden below, and beyond, the Golden Gate Bridge, shrouded in morning light and mist. We received visits from a friendly tabby named Armando who allowed our attentions gracefully and provided a daily lift to our spirits. Life without animals is a desolate one, never to be tolerated for long. An added gift came with the spotting of a hummingbird perched on eggs in her nest in a tree by the front door. Who knew anything could be so small and delicate, yet imbued with the promise of such vivid life? The setting, the privacy, and above all, the kindness of our hosts conspired to make our stay there the relaxing antidote to the frenzied Fair environment of constantly being ‘on’ and accessible.
One of the slightly daunting, but welcome, duties of this Fair was a lecture to be given on the second day on the subject of Pericles, and in particular, the collaboration in its making. Reaction to the book had been enthusiastic, even one might say ecstatic at times, but after our talk, eager customers clustered around our table, and snapped up the rest of the 12 copies available (the remaining two were reserved for the Oxford Book Fair in the autumn). The exposure of speaking at a major Fair raises one’s work out of the abundance of beauty on display, and a large thank you must be extended to Peter and Susan for their invitation. The talks went well. Crispin described the process of editing the text, and working so closely with Simon in choosing moments to illustrate, and in designing the arrangement of type and images on the page. Their collaboration became instinctive as the staging of the play took shape, each attuned to the other’s thoughts, and united in the spirit of love for their own daughters as inspired by the play’s deeply moving father/daughter relationship and reconciliation. I represented my sense of the collaborative work as a kind of dance in which I had the three greatest partners imaginable: Shakespeare, Crispin, and Simon. We spoke personally and passionately, and found an audience willing to celebrate with us. It was both joyful and painful to speak of a thing which has been so meaningful, and which now was at an end. The older we get, the more it seems important to us to speak from the heart, and to pass on to others what matters to us in this working life with books.
Pericles’ swansong came at the Oxford Book Fair in November, where the last two copies sold, and where we spoke again, but in the presence of our dear friend and collaborator, Simon. As we looked into the audience at Simon’s attentive face, our hearts were in our mouths. Crispin coped by improvising a talk about the play’s textual problems, filled with humour as well as pith; I by adding anecdotes gleaned from the Fair itself as I watched Simon tell the story of Pericles page by page to a young couple across the press’s table from him. He told it with his whole body, hunched forward and eager, as he took them through the perilous adventures of Pericles. Afterwards, I spoke with the woman who exclaimed, “I know that it is the work of three minds, but it feels like the work of one.” We could, none of us, ask for a better tribute. During my exposition of how Simon and I worked together, Simon chimed in from the audience, and eventually joined us on stage, as was only right. He revealed his astonishment that even near the end, Crispin could surprise and delight him with design choices of typography and colour, and I with the nuances I seemed to achieve in blocks he thought he knew. In the end, I thanked my dancing partners, and could not find the words without tears as I faced Simon. A woman in the audience came up to Crispin after our talks and said, “The two of you are the perfect couple: you made me laugh, and Jan made me cry”. Again, they could not have been paid a better, or more welcome, compliment. The addition of a Judge’s Award for Pericles was the icing on an already splendid cake.
We had another opportunity to present our life’s work during the overseas trip at the Museum Meermanno in Den Haag. This talk was not focused entirely on Pericles, but more on the history of the press and our reasons for pursuing such a craft. The audience consisted mostly of advanced students of design at a nearby school, and so Crispin was in his element, able to discuss the fine points of typography and design with a willing and knowledgeable audience. Their questions were probing and intelligent. As I stood in the midst of a museum housing many of the great books in a city steeped in the past, I wondered somewhat anxiously how I might contribute to this vast body of knowledge, and then decided not to try. Instead I spoke of what I knew: how the threads of coincidence and interest had initiated our printing journey that eventually brought us there that day, and of my methods of learning and practicing my craft. When we finished, the essentially young audience gathered around the table where the museum’s collection of Barbarian books had been compiled, and ran their hands over them, carefully and knowingly. Not a white glove in sight.
There is life after Pericles. During the summer, we began our next mammoth undertaking with the proofing of the roughly 100 ornamented borders for our up-coming book devoted to the Curwen Press. I printed black proofs of all the borders, most of them in two parts, and Crispin laid them out to ponder the lay-out of so complex a book. How to display the borders without presenting them like soldiers on parade? What texts should he incorporate? How to differentiate between states of the edition? These and other questions arose, and continue to be addressed. We also printed a two-colour border for a page-sized prospectus to be distributed in Oxford, Crispin finishing the second run at four in the morning the day of our departure for Europe. On the basis of this prospectus, several orders were taken, especially of the A-state special. At the Fair, David Jury confirmed that he would write an extensive essay on the Curwen Press by the summer of 2012.
In addition to the prospectus, we also produced a pamphlet: Under Vermilion Wheels: Poems for Autumn. This presents a selection of our favourite autumn poems, omitting obvious choices such as Keats’ Ode to Autumn, printed on vintage Barcham Green handmade paper and decorated with type ornaments designed and set by Crispin. This is to be the first of a series of four seasonal pamphlets through to summer 2012, all printed on different handmade papers. A suite of 55 will be housed in a box made by Alanna Simenson and reserved for subscribers and patrons; the remaining 45 will be generally for sale. A relatively small project such as this comes as a welcome breather between the long-range ones.
Beyond the Curwen book, scheduled for publication in 2013, the press looks forward to a return to its Endgrain Editions series with a book devoted to Simon Brett who celebrates both 50 years of engraving and his 70th birthday in the coming year with retrospective exhibitions and a launch at the Oxford Book Fair of Endgrain Editions 4: Simon Brett – An Engraver’s Progress. The three of us spent several happy hours in his studio after the 2011 Fair poring over his hundreds of engraved prints, and making a tentative selection for the book. It became clear that this Endgrain Editions would have to display many more engravings than the previous ones in order to do some justice to Simon’s extraordinary achievement. A book on Gaylord Schanilec is still in the offing, but delayed temporarily by difficulty in obtaining blocks from the university which houses his collection of blocks. His book in the series is expected to follow in 2014.
As Crispin and I look even further into the future, we begin to make more concrete plans for our elaborate edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the version adapted by a 16th precursor to Shakespeare, Arthur Golding. This text is richly imagistic, and full of that Elizabethan relish of language and verve in rhythm. As such, it is a gift to an illustrator. We met with our dear friend Peter Lazarov in The Netherlands to discuss the details of his engravings for this edition, focusing especially on how the classical and the Renaissance can be married in the images to produce a cohesive reflection of both. Peter’s work was featured in Endgrain Editons Three, where he demonstrated his mastery of classical forms and innovative engraving; it displays an artistic sensibility and style ideally suited to the transformative nature of the myths. Further consultations in person after the 2013 Oxford Fair should finalize an approach for beginning work on the book in the following year.
A more immediate project arose as a result of a conversation with the Printer to Massey College in Toronto, Brian Maloney. He agreed, in tandem with P.J. MacDougall, the College Librarian, to lend us 9 blocks by the Dalziel brothers, well-known 19th century engravers, for an edition of a selection of poems from Richard Barham’s Ingoldsby Legends. Crispin is in the process of matching engravings to stories, as little is known about the blocks except that they do illustrate the text, and they have not been published before. This is the sort of publishing coup which we Barbarians relish. I am already drooling over the prospect of printing pristine 19th century blocks carved from a single piece of boxwood (instead of blocks consisting of small laminated pieces – especially after the shattering of a much-laminated block in Pericles). They are in far better condition than the Gibbings’ blocks which I printed several years ago that required delicate printing techniques, and much crossing of the fingers.
More details of up-coming books can be found in Forthcoming Books.
In an eventful year, so notable for its happy moments, it is inevitable that sadness should intrude. Two passings in the printing world in Canada have touched us personally, and the community generally. Designer and printer Glenn Goluska died, leaving a legacy of innovative and beautiful work, the example of which no serious book maker can do without. He was followed by a fast friend of the book, and of ours, Richard Landon, curator of The Thomas Fisher Library in Toronto. Richard had championed the cause and helped many presses sustain a livelihood. They will both be much missed.
In this exceptional life, there is so much to be thankful for: books to be made; others to be handled and cherished; friends, past and present; collaborations enjoyed and those yet to be realized; and most of all, a marriage and partnership profound and sustaining beyond all imagining.
Mad Hatter Bookbinding Co.
We are happy to announce the official opening of Alanna Simens’s bindery, Mad Hatter Bookbinding Co. Alanna has bound several books for the press, most notably the regular edition of The Play of Pericles, and is now our official binder. She has spent the last several months working in our bindery here at the press while looking for a larger space in order to set up independently.
We recommend Alanna wholeheartedly. She is delightful to work with, imaginative and efficient, and her terms are most reasonable. She has worked with other presses as well, among them Greenboathouse Press and Éditions Lucie Lambert. She is interested in binding single copies or editions of up to 200, and will also undertake repairs. Please call or e.mail for discussion and estimates:
PRESS NEWS 2: An Editorial
The last few years are now spoken of in the Barbarian household as “The Age of Pericles”, in which regard we view any dismissive comparison with the golden days of Periclean Athens as distinctly ill-bred. Between 2001, when we meandered along the banks of the Delaware River one autumn evening with Simon Brett and first bruited the possibility of the project, and January of 2011, when the first copies of the book appeared from the binders, not a day went by when we were not in some way immersed in the text, the history, and the human delights of this extraordinary play. Perhaps more to the point, we were daily concerned with making the book.
Pericles is certainly our magnum opus to date, although we have at least one similarly ambitious future project in mind. What distinguishes Pericles from our other books, apart from its scope, is the delight and the pleasure of our collaboration with Simon Brett, with whom in this process we have made something else – a deep and loving friendship. That in itself is a great work, to our mind, and one from which we continue to draw a sustaining and nourishing strength and happiness. His work for Pericles is evident in more than a hundred blocks which appear in the book, but his other contributions in discussions of the text, design suggestions, printing hints, and collaborative good will were just as important, and we are proud to be able to mention them here. We are also happy to announce – as may be seen in the Books Forthcoming section of this website – that we are planning a celebratory volume in the Endgrain Editions series to mark Simon’s 70th birthday (and 50th year as an engraver) in 2013.
Earlier I said that we were daily concerned with making the book. In the Foreword to his 1926 collection is 5, E. E. Cummings characterizes the poet as ‘someone who is obsessed by Making,to whom things made matter very little. For instance’ – he goes on to say – ‘my only interest in making money would be to make it. Fortunately,however,I should prefer to make almost anything else including locomotives and roses.’ It has often been suggested to us by jocular friends concerned about our occasionally Dickensian economic conditions that we might consider using the presses to ‘make’ some money. (We assume they were not suggesting we sell them to raise the stuff.) Perhaps lamentably, like Cummings we would prefer to make other things – especially books.
However, this matter of simply Making is under threat these days. We have been increasingly concerned with the appropriation of the crafts of book design, hand-setting, letterpress printing, binding, and all the other handiwork which contributes to the making of books, into the nebulous and politicized realm of ‘Book Arts’. This term has been bandied about now for many years, although just how many is difficult to say, and has raised some consternation among those of us who make books for a living, or who simply live closely with them as readers and lovers of their forms and their history. One difficulty with it is its apparent determination to split off the craft of bookmaking and to redesignate it as an ‘art’; and a further result of that splitting away is that these activities and processes become a matter for the attention of the academies, and critics.
Now we have no antagonism toward the academy (we have served time there ourselves as both students and teachers – not that the two are mutually exclusive) and we feel only a reasonable antagonism towards criticism. Critics of literature (the area we are most familiar with) sometimes come close to making sense; when they do not they are at least occasionally amusing. In any case, critical positions shift back and forth as quickly as skirt lengths move up and down, so one is never saddled with anything outrageous for too long. As for books and printing, there are many fine histories of books, typography, and printing, and excellent biographies of leading figures from Caxton and Gutenberg to Baskerville, Morris, and Gill.
Lately there has been much perhaps understandable speculation about the nature of books and their cultural significance, some of it interesting. It is partly occasioned by the emergence of the digital E-book and the increasing reluctance of many people to read texts of any length, or to read in deep draughts in a logical and consecutively argued way. This seems particularly to apply to young people, weaned on the computer and subject to the coarse, blunt signage of online discourse. This in turn has unavoidably eroded their attention spans. (An aside: when so many people are obsessed with the evils of processed food, why are they blithely content to submit the language in which they communicate their every thought to word ‘processing’? In Wilde’s phrase, I ask merely for information.)
Of course attitudes toward the book are changing, and it would be foolish to ignore the fact, but acknowledging the change in attitudes toward the book is not the same thing as altering the form of the book or redefining its nature in order to render those attitudes prophetic. There is a serious danger of letting the tail wag the dog. In a recent letter to a letterpress site on the internet, Barbara Hauser, a printer from California, had this to say about the critical mare’s nest which is growing up around the making of books:
Like many such terms, ‘book arts’ is so vague as to be essentially meaningless: on the face of it, ‘book arts’ should include writing (novels, poems, essays, biographies, mathematical guides and cookery books), editing the texts, correcting spelling, and marketing and selling the results, and should not only refer to the functions involved in creating the codex which holds the results of all this. But experience suggests that these things don’t much interest ‘book artists’ – this being the term chosen to apply to those who exercise the Book Arts. What seems to interest at least some of them is the possibility of using the form of the codex as a basis for visual art, including sculpture and kinetic constructions. These include books boxed in containers with cabinets and small drawers which open to show artifacts of one sort or another; pop-up books of sometimes dizzying skill and complexity; books with their text blocks hollowed out and replaced with machines or other objects; books like Tom Phillips’ Humament series in which each page of a three-decker Victorian novel is altered by hand to hide much of the text and to reveal single words or phrases which together create a new text; and books whose contents have been ‘treated’ by cutting, folding, colouring, or added attachments to create what I would describe as small kinetic sculptures – often quite beautiful.
These are only a few of the sorts of artists’ books which have been made, and I have restricted this selection to pieces which retain notable elements of the codex form, such as a spine, distinguishable pages, covers, or continuative text of some kind. Other book artists go much further. Having been asked some years ago to be part of a jury to select a group of artists’ books, I was faced with some pieces which I simply could not conceive of as books. One, for instance, consisted of a tangle of variously coloured fine telephone wire in a long skein, to which were attached at various points small scraps of papers with random words written on them. Another had a number of pieces of broken mirror glass sandwiched between nets of stout wire and attached at one side to form a sort of ‘book’, but one which so far violated my understanding of the word as to be unrecognizable. In other words, sometimes the emperor has no clothes. One of my colleagues on the jury insisted that these objects be called ‘books’ because that was what their creators called them, and he evidently assumed the primacy of the artist.
This sort of disproportion has also been an element of the work of some design bookbinders in creating bindings which, in my estimation, fail the books they are supposedly serving. Philip Smith’s ‘book wall’, for instance, combining multiple copies of the Tolkein trilogy splayed out in a large mounted box frame to display their bindings, together presenting a large image made up of the leather onlays, inlays, and toolings of the many books, is problematic at best when considered as binding. No one denies for a moment Mr Smith’s brilliance as a craftsman (I am not interested in his possible credentials as an artist) or his having created many beautiful and functional bindings, but to call this book wall ‘bookbinding’ is surely disingenuous: the nature of the work is essentially painterly rather than bibliographic. The books cannot be read as they are, cannot be books. If one of them is removed for reading it will compromise the overall work – which, after all, might as well have been made on a wooden backing without using the text blocks of the books at all – and apart from all this, even the most fanatical reader of Tolkein requires no more than one copy of each of the three volumes.
These are admittedly extreme examples – at least, I hope they are. But I want to point out that there are many books which alter or disrupt the traditional codex in ways which are interesting and beautiful or effective in themselves, yet which demonstrably remain books in the full sense: Claire van Vliet’s wonderful Aunt Sallie’s Lament, in which the pages are cut into various traditional quilting shapes from a variety of coloured papers so that they overlay one another as one reads and make a pattern, supports the text of the fine poem which is clearly printed on each page. Caliban Press’s edition of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, printed on a variety of papers, with cut-out figures mounted in the text and a page with sets a magic circle on a central pin so that it turns as one reads, remains a profoundly intelligent interpretation of the play. And Betsy David’s Half Off, a witty group of very short narratives about bargain shopping for underwear, is appropriately bound in a plastic shower cap with pink net endleaves. There are many printers – Robin Price, Julie Chen at Flying Fish Press, Sam Winston and Karen Bleitz at ARC, Peter Koch, Carolee Campbell at Ninja Press, and Lawrence G. Van Velzer & Peggy Gotthold at Foolscap Press, among others – whose work moves into this area, and is beautiful, informative, and clearly book work. The matter of what one considers the limit beyond which a book ceases to be a book is very much an open question.
The problem in all this is the insidious softening of definition and terminology so that everything becomes anything one likes, and therefore nothing is anything in particular, thus making any useful discussion moot – even mute. (“When everybody’s somebody, then no one’s anybody”, to quote the Grand Inquisitor.) The insistence among some people that pieces like the more extreme examples I’ve given above are indeed books, rather than art objects, is a problem for two reasons: first, because it suggests that the book as a medium for passing on knowledge (and I mean knowledge, not information) is no longer culturally important in its essence; and second, because in linking the traditional fine or private press book to the artists’ book it opens the judgement and criticism of traditional fine press books to a variety of comment which is unsuited to it, viz. academic fine artcriticism.
The artists’ book and the fine press book are distinct areas of work. The term ‘fine press’ has been disputed by some as elitist (what is a book which is not a fine press book? A lousy press book? Says who? – so apparently runs the argument), and the term ‘artists’ book’ has been criticized in the same terms by fine printers who are apparently worried lest the sense of artistry might, by the term’s continued use, become attached only to the experimental work of book artists, and therefore reduce their own status to that of ‘mere’ artisans. In either case it seems to me that those involved in the wrangling about this are merely losing time in which they might be making their chosen work – whether a simple well-printed edition of a collection of poems or a bibliography, an essay, or a collection of wood engravings on the one hand; or an experimental book structure including illustrations in various media, perhaps some text, and a beauty arising from the judicious and creative application of fancy to material on the other. Neither need exclude the other. Both have gifts to offer.