Multitasking Mail Art
essay by Karl Young

Paper Echoes of the Wine-Dark Sea

Many people in the mail art network insisted that each piece should be a hand-made original. Others too working in multiples as a matter of course. Creative xerography grew up with mail art, and you could probably reconstruct the evolution of photocopiers from mail art samples. Other practitioners moved further towards traditional and in some instances antique methods as they developed.

Working as a printer in the early 1970s, I had more than my share of letter heads and other forms of stationery to produce for my clients. It seemed silly to me to simply print an address and perhaps a few decoration on paper, particularly when you could type your address at the top with a few keystrokes. It made more sense to print something substantial on the side of the paper on which I did not write letters. Since I hoped that I was writing and publishing "news that stays news," and participating in the mail art network, my letters could not only be letters, but also news of what I was working on and mail art all at once. Until I got my first computer in the early 1980s, nearly all my mail was in part mail art, with a poem or graphic on one side of each sheet and my letter on the other. People in the network knew what I was doing immediately. Others may not have, but I hope they appreciated the poems and art work they received. Since I used whatever I happened to be printing at the time, I felt confident that the recipient of my mail would not only have something to see and read, but also the fragrance of ink and fountain solution.

The transition from mimeo to offset and the poetry I was writing in the early 1970s played a role in some of the work I produced, both as poetry plain and simple and as mail art. In the first suite that follows, there are two poems I originally did with mimeo in mind, but revised for offset printing. The first poem in the following suite, based on a fragment of a poem by Sappho, was first done with the riough edges and typewriter grid in mind. This seemed particularly important in working with fragments, as i discuss in my essay The Valence of Fragments. Similarly, the Arachne lyric, discussed in Minimalism's Expansions was first conceived for mimeo production in the 1960s. Part of my procedure in adapting mimeo qualities to offset came from enlarging type in order to get the rough-edged, tactile quality of mimeo and expand it from there.

Following Ezra Pound's example with fragments, I worked on a series initially titled Echoes of the Wine-Dark Sea. This began with Greek fragments, but I added work based on classics from other cultures as the project grew. I also produced original work that suggested the Greek sources, and tried various means of interlacing different parts of the work progressed. The present suite include "Canon Clock," a performance score based on the ritual hours of the night and day in the indigenous calendar of Central Mexico - America's Greece. Work with fragments moved on to the veiled Holocaust memorial, Cried and Measured, based on 5th Century BCE Aramaic fragments. I sent pages of this work to people as I printed them. Perhaps the funniest incident in sending out such mail art came from Harris Lenowitz, a scholar of ancient Semitic languages, and his colleagues. Harris gave me considerable assistance with linguistic problems in the work. He also put pages of the book up on the walls of his office as I sent them to him, creating a de facto mail art show. I sent out more elaborate mail art based on my next fragment book, Should Sun Forever Shine before moving on to Chinese sources.

I have hopes of adding on to the following suite when time permits, but the poems presented here from the Wine-Dark Sea on-line at Dan Waber's site, suggests a severe and restrained form of mail art.

Automatic Print Writing

Printing produces scrap. The uses of scrap can approach infinity if you follow it. Once you've made a mistake, it's a good idea to save the paper and reuse it when performing such functions as establishing register, adjusting ink and water ratios, restoring image balance, and a myriad other tasks. Even if you're not trying or not thinking about it, passing paper through the press multiple times with different plates generates collages. Although some can be fascinating or magnificent, many aren't. Even those that aren't, however, can provide grounds for something else. After discovering interesting collages, you can develop an intuitive sense of what might or might not work.

I started saving stacks of scrap paper with which to try things. Some had ink on only one side, and I kept collaging the printed side so I could use the other sides to write letters. In I believe 1973 or 74, I began binding the collages into books. By that time I had started making book objects of various sorts. In addition to such items as books that could be played as musical instruments and books made of mirrors or human hair, I made books out of the blotter sheets used to clean the press. The collage and blotter sheet books were at least four inches thick, and I liked the way some pages made minimalist variations on the same base image while others broke away from each other. Since scrap generally gets used in multiples, the images and texts appear over and over, and sometimes seemed like fugues.

I gave away a fair number of the collage books, and sold more than any other book objects I produced. I only have one left now. It's not the best, and that may be one of the reasons I still have it. The samples provided here come from this book. I may be able to add some more at a later time. It may be an odd irony that I once had more scrap than I knew what to do with, but without presses, I no longer have a means of generating collages precisely like these. The samples here, however, suggest the kind of collages that could be used as leaves in books or as paper on which to write letters. Of course, there were times when scrap paper got soaked in ink and press wash, and that made it hard to write or type on, though these made interesting pages in their own right.

I had started using recycled and salvaged papers exclusively by the time I started making books and I believe by the time I started using collages as mail art. These proved another step in the recycling process.

I liked both the poems I printed in Echoes of the Wine-Dark Sea and the collages. But it was and remains essential to me that neither type of mail art, or of visual poetry, should become exclusive of the other.

Click here to go to samples of print collages at Dan Waber's site

Click here to return to Some Volumes of Poetry