Variations on the Hermit; Translations from the Chinese, by Hilary Ayer.
4" x 7"; 40 pp; perfect bound. 1973.
Variations on the Hermit; Translations from the Chinese
by Hilary Ayer
Hilary Ayer made frequent visits to Milwaukee during the late 1960s and early 1970s. I don't remember our first meeting, and it doesn't seem important. What does is the good times we had when she visited. This included reading our own poetry aloud in different manners, but also each of us working out oral deliveries of the other's as a means of discussion. Hilary sang, accompanying herself on guitar, during public readings, interspersing spoken poems with the songs. This kept the two arts together, not letting either take over from the other, and letting each act as something like a pitch pipe to set the tone for its sister art. In addition to the aesthetic benefits of this presentation, it was one of several ways in which Hilary established a rapport with her audience, and made work of any difficulty level accessible. This was a time when poetry readings could attract large audiences of counter-culturists, yet Hilary always wanted to expand the listeners and make sure that none of them felt left out.
Of the work she had with her on visits during late 1972 and early 1973, I selected Variations on the Hermit to do in book form, and a piece almost as long, "Reflections on a Tarot Fortune" for Stations magazine. I hoped this would be the basis of triangulation which would eventually include criticism and at least an audio recording - with the possibility that I could find some means of adding a video tape at some time when I could afford it.
Hilary's reading style, like the tone of her poems, was disarmingly friendly. She seemed a personification of what was best and least phony of the "peace and love" dimensions of the alternate society some of us believed in at the time. As important as this was in any poem or public reading, it took on a particularly important significance in Variations, making it, for me at least, one of the major books of poetry of the era. The book consists of loose translations of traditional Chinese poems on the theme of solitude, of voluntary withdrawal from the world. Many of the originals are by T'ao Yuan Ming, and these form a unifying thread for the series. In addition to the theme of solitude, they included the difficulty of agrarian labor and the release of temporary escape by drinking wine. You could see this set as a recasting of Chinese poems in terms of the work and play of the counter culture of the day, whether it be worked out on a commune or in a basement work shop. This was also a time when people in the arts devoted a good deal of their reading, writing, and discussion time to themes of alienation, angst, despair, the impossibility of knowing or understanding yourself or anyone else - carried out with the background beat of a vicious colonial war, corporate rapacity, and what seemed like the failures or inadequacies of the civil rights movements and the great society's war on poverty and prejudice. Initially, Hilary's completely disarming friendliness and likability might seem in marked contrast to the loneliness, isolation, and (at times) despair and anger in the source poems. What Hilary had done with the book was to show how much the various states and conditions of aloneness, loneliness, and even invective could be humanized and at least temporarily resolved by an unwearied spirit - and most importantly, intimating how that spirit can be maintained. The book is thus a singular answer to propositions that seemed key to the Existentialist stoicism that remained in our minds from an era that was passing, and something like a guide book for a new era that some hoped we were building.
A theme that runs through several Chinese poems of seclusions is that "the greatest hermit lives in market and court." Hence, for the front cover, I used a photo I found in a copy of National Geographic of a crowded street in China. For the back, I used a photo of Hilary, looking particularly attractive. At this time I was unsure about using author's photos on book covers. I later moved away and, except when the authors themselves insisted, ceased using them altogether. I'm glad I hadn't come to that conclusion at the time I did this book. This photo allowed me to emphasize one of the aspects of the poems, as a cover should do.
I did the book in late autumn-early winter of 1973, and remember how good the crisp, autumn air felt as I planned production on the book; and as the light mellowed, how much the frustrations and accomplishments of the two previous years seemed to be coming together in ways that made more sense than my schemes for life and publishing in the purity of their intellectual and ideological base. There were personal problems going on in the background, but at this point, writing, publishing, and setting up a cottage industry made them easier to bear.
This was one of the first books I produced completely in my "production cell" at the corner of Bartlett and Kenwood. As a result, the job included improvisations on the theme of how to produce books without much money. I ganged up all the text negatives on a single sheet of paper and had my clandestine camera people shoot it on scrap film when their schedule left them some open time. In addition to shooting the negs from which to print the book, I asked them to do a neg at 20% for a visual poem, Summary of Hilary Ayer's Variations on the Hermit. For text stock, I used the least expensive recycled paper Bergstrom made: legal sized sheets packed in reams with "Paper from the Concrete Forest" printed on it. I could print four pages up on these 8 1/2" x 14" sheets. This smaller scale gave the book a greater sense of intimacy than other books I produced at the time. With the two half tones for the cover, the Bergstrom 100 text stock, the colored inks, and the cover scoring done by Sentinel Bindery, the first edition of 700 copies cost around $120. Just right for the kind of money I had and the point I wanted to make about doing attractive books of important poetry on environmentally responsible paper in cottage industry shops, without aid from grants and without relying on the Capitalist market system. The market system had a few surprises in store for more. The first printing sold out in about a year. The second lasted twice that, as did the third. This was high volume sale for books of alternative poetry at the time. Just as strangely, in 1977 or 1978 orders for the book abruptly stopped. They never resumed. I don't have any idea what the sales or the lack thereof were about. I like leaving it at this: people knew a good book when they heard about it, and as long as people talked about it, their friends would order it. Conversations change, however, and why people ceased recommending the book, or why people stopped ordering books on recommendations, remains a mystery. By this time, I had lost contact with Hilary. Directories put out by Len Fulton and Poets & Writers listed phone numbers for her for years to come, but the phone numbers were not accurate. Perhaps the nature of the alternative publishing scene lent itself well enough for poets to disappear. And if they must, it's delightful when they leave magic books behind them.
During the time I was producing the book, I went to a star show at the U.W. Planetarium a few blocks from my house. I loved these shows, including the seats that allowed you to lean way back and watch the stars move across the domed ceiling, and the voice of the professor reeling off immense numbers of light years and other data. My guess is that Hilary would have liked this conjunction of stars and her book.