Jonathan Penton


What Is Left Out

In the film Velvet Goldmine Mandy Slade, played by Toni Colette, posits that during times of great change, exceptional, transitory individuals are chosen to alter the consciousness of the citizenry in order to accommodate the rapidity of the necessary cultural changes (in this case, through glitter makeup and group sex, but bear with me). In his book A Man Without a Country Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. says that he was labeled a science fiction author because his first story took place in Schenectady, New York, and the sort of people who read literary magazines were simply incapable of believing that a place like Schenectady really existed. He then states that "novels that leave out technology misrepresent life as badly as Victorians misrepresented life by leaving out sex."

The book Poet, Be Like God opens with the 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference. It talks about how the brilliant poet Jack Spicer gave a particularly poor lecture, and shortly thereafter was rushed to the hospital, where he died ten days later, on August 17th, of alcohol-related illnesses. He was forty years old, and was pioneering, among other things, the concept of the chapbook as an art form symbiotic with but independent of the art of the poem. Thus, when Black Sparrow sought to release a definitive collection of his work, it was not a "Collected Poems," but The Collected Books of Jack Spicer. It is partly through this facet of his work (not to denigrate the importance or profundity of his poetry) that has caused Spicer to be such a seminal figure in the way the poetic counterculture of the late 20th Century views itself. By being focused around the chapbook, his work seems to inherently belong to the world of community-run printing presses, independent distributors, and the unfounded devotees of poetry distribution laboring in basements across the country.

Richard Denner was twenty-three when he attended the 1965 Conference. Jack Spicer was not the only famous poet he met. He was not the only famous poet who applauded Richard's work. He was the only famous poet there who applauded Richard's work and died a few days later. These things happen. Not very often, but they happen.

Denner founded D Press, a self-publishing "company" for the production of his chapbooks, which he individually physically produced. From his chapbook, My Process:

Then, I moved to Alaska and began printing in an attic apartment in Ketchikan, near the ball field. I'd come home from a day's work in the back shop of The Ketchikan Daily News, and I'd print 100 pages and hang them to dry on cotton string along the roofline of the apartment. On the weekends, I bound my books together, set type, and prepared for the following week of printing. The printing was smudgy and uneven, but I pressed on. The typefaces were worn, so I over-inked and pressed harder, pressing the letters into the paper, embossing the page, letting the ink bleed through. Grant Risdon taught me how to cut linoleum blocks, and in a rush of visual imagery, I tipped my linoleum nudes into the books, alternating poems and blocks, giving color to the big words.
After reading How to Live in the Woods on $10/Week, I moved wife and child and press to Deep Bay, fifteen miles from the nearest road by boat. D Press moved into a new dimension. Pouring the words right into the type case seem natural. I began to break my poems into smaller and smaller units. Tried to express myself with just the Anglo Saxon. I was printing with 60 point Bodoni type, and this limited the number of words that could be arranged in a 4X6 inch type case.

The essay goes on to discuss his return to California, where Wesley Tanner taught him signature stitch, which can be done with book-binding thread or possibly dental floss. And it takes us up to the presence of contemporary desktop publishing on computers. Denner discusses his methodology only briefly, here, commenting on how the margin justification that a typesetter must do by hand can be achieved by a click of a button in a contemporary word processor. He doesn't really go into all the things he's been able to do with the time he's saved.

The D Press web site is now an enormous, ever-growing publishing company with more than forty authors, several with multiple titles, all run entirely by one dedicated, hardworking man. The Collected Books of Richard Denner now total twelve volumes, the first eight of which appear in their near-entirety on the Web. The printed copies are full-color, perfect-bound, and printed on fine stock. Although a physical copy of the Books is expensive, a few years ago it would have been almost impossible. If you read through such a copy in order, you'll see the very clear progression in technologies. The charm of the early volumes is inescapable. But ultimately, Denner's technology-enabled freedom to expand D Press to its current scope is worth more. And while reading the early volumes of the Books from the D Press web site might lack the tactile pleasure of bound chapbooks, it's a bit free.

If, then, The Collected Books of Jack Spicer stand as a working example of how to use the form of the poem and chapbook to subvert the dominant paradigm of publishing, The Collected Books of Richard Denner (especially when viewed in context with its [baby] sister project, Kickass Review, can serve to illustrate how technology can be used to that end. Denner is now a Buddhist monk, and uses the term "service" to describe his work with D Press, but at no point did he intend it as a profit-making enterprise. D Press exists for the love of literature, and it is for the love of literature that Denner labors before his computer screen and printer, just as he once labored before his press.

If personal computing technology had not developed, there would still doubtless be a D Press and The Collected Books of Richard Denner. If it had developed at thrice the speed, Denner would still be using it to its full capacity. This is the object lesson of his work as a publisher. The last few decades have had enormous, and in many ways highly negative, ramifications for the small publisher and poet. Denner looks at these changes and, at a physical age associated with Social Security checks, asks what he can do to promote literature in ways he couldn't a year before.

Works Mentioned:
Velvet Goldmine, directed by Todd Haynes, Channel Four Films, 1998
A Man Without A Country, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Seven Stories Press, 2005
Poet, Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance, Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian, Wesleyan University Press, 1998
My Process, Richard Denner, D Press, 2003