Some Volumes of Poetry:
A Retrospective of Publication Work by Karl Young

Click Here to Begin with Part 1: 1970's Outreaches.
Click here to Begin with Part 2: Mail Art.
Click here to Begin with Part 3: Projects Ongoing and To Be Continued
Click here to Begin with Part 4: Usual and Unusual Circumstances


We use the word "volume" as a synonym for a book. In my practice, and in the essays in this retrospective, I try to explore the volume of books as objects, and as they interact with the world around them. Their volume is not simply the shelf space they take up, but the way they lead into networks of human association, create sounds that fill small apartments and large performance spaces, and build lives around themselves. Volume needn't be large, but it does need three dimensions. A means of enhancing the sense of volume in music is polyphony, the use of simultaneous melody lines that run separately, converge, and diverge again. You can hear it as easily in the music of the Baroque as you can in classic Jazz, and the primal musics of cultures around the world. Even in the private space created by silent reading, the sense of possibilities, of freedom of movement, pleases me, in a way that the narrowness of dogma can never do. For me, the sense of volume in the poetry most important to me has always implied liberation.

This June, the June of 2006, will mark the 40th anniversary of the day on which I typed my first mimeo stencil, cranked up a Gestetner, and produced my first chapbook. Since then, I have published over 250 books, produced countless more for other people on a job basis, engaged in editorial and organizational processes to make poetry more widely accessible (both in the sense of available and understandable). I have also composed poetry and related arts myself and they have been brought forth by other publishers. Some have been created through collaborative processes, and their publication has often been a form of collaboration itself. In the last 12 years, my main effort has been in setting up the Light and Dust Anthology of Poetry. The latter has allowed me to do all sorts of things I could not have done in any other medium, though it has involved a sense of déjà-vu in relation to the mimeo and make-shift letter press with which I began. As much as I am happy with web publishing, I don't like the idea of replacing one medium with another, and have continued to publish a few books on paper. The biggest limitation on this activity has not been media orientation but lack of facilities to print books such as I had for some 20 years and lack of money to farm out printing.

In 1966, I was only partially aware of how many people were publishing with mimeo machines, and certainly didn't imagine that it would someday be considered a "revolution." Mimeo machines were just readily available, and in the early years, I used letter presses when I could without seeing much difference between the two. They both got lines of poetry on paper, though neither was very good at reproducing graphics. Silk screen, one of the forgotten arts of the period, was good for art and visual poetry. In many of my early books I used what might now seem curious if not perverse hybrid tech: mimeo books with letterpress covers, for instance. Approximately 30 years after my first mimeo books, I had become thoroughly self conscious about the long route which had lead me from mimeo through offset to the real revolution of electronic publication. I have hopes that part of this revolution will not be a replacement of one medium with another, but a means of collaboration between the two. I don't like single approaches to poetry, and a thread that runs thorough my work on all levels is an argument against any sort of monoculture.

Back in 1966, I had formulated, albeit tentatively, some basic ideas that would work themselves out in a multitude of different ways as I went along. The most important were that A books should be seen as pieces of sculpture, that they should be apprehended and perceived as more than the illusion of two dimensional space presented on any single page. B That books were not final resting places or static containers, but rather stages in transactional processes which could go on indefinitely, potentially connecting all experience. C That books should never be impersonal.

In 1966, I did not know that in less than a decade I would be making books out of everything from cinder blocks to human hair, books that could be played as musical instruments or worn as earrings. I did, however, have the strong sense that a book should be felt in the hands as well as read with the eyes, and that even its smell could have significance. Although I could be pleased with the complete, utilitarian simplicity of the magic books published by City Lights, I could also be dissatisfied with the much more elegant covers of the more miraculous books published by New Directions. As well chosen and profoundly moving as the photos on the front of New Directions books might be, they had nothing to do with the blurbs on the backs. This is something I have consistently tried to avoid during the 40 years of publishing books. I have at times seen this disjuncture as metaphor and evidence for a fracturing of books into separate departments for decoration, promotion, and contents, and have resisted this kind of division to the extent that I could.

In designing books, I have tried to make the front and back covers coherent and continuous visual units. These in turn should in some way relate to the design of the pages inside the book. And all design should start from the text or graphics that made up the book's contents. The book should be a piece of sculpture, designed to work with the changes it goes through as the reader holds it, opens it, and moves from page to page.

Likewise, once a book has been published it should begin a process of interactions that, ideally, should not have a final goal or stopping point. The interactions can go from simple to complex, and there's never been a way to predict how or where they will exfoliate. On the simplest level in 1966, they became focal points in my conversations with my home-town literary friends. The books took part in the active and animated discussions of poetry while I was a university student, and literary discussions tended to include pulling books out of shelves in apartments or to be centers of discussion during cross-country drives or shorter trips for local adventures. They would later become a medium of exchange, in all senses, with poets throughout the world, eventually reaching leading edge writers as far away as Eritriya, Paraguay, and Japan. Some would foster long stretches of what has been a nearly monastic discipline, while others would lead to love affairs, soap operas, changes in attitudes and perceptions, new friends, preposterous situations, strange farces, and dedicated social activism.

In the late 1960s, sending the books out brought others back to me in exchange. d.a.levy was the great master of passing books around during that phase of American letters, and although I didn't fully appreciate the first books I received from him in 66, his work and his presence still continue to grow long after his death. Some of the books I sent out did not bring back immediate responses, but lead to meetings at later times. Once I started getting things around, I started getting mail from people I did not know. In a short time, this lead to networks of correspondence that were in many respects more complex than those later facilitated by the internet. Those networks sometimes lead to meetings and long-term friendships. Some during the 1970s were part of the lavish performance and intermedia festivals of the era. Others lead to travels to visit poets, attend readings, go to art exhibitions, find books and manuscripts in special collections departments and odd little libraries, and so forth. Yet others have been magnets to draw people here, for readings, for visits, for collaborations. The volumes of interchange even in a flickering and ethereal medium like the internet could still explore the volume of the world and its potentials as no other medium had done before.

By 1970, I had come to the conclusion that poetry needed what I called "triangulation." On a private level, this lead to my basic practices as a poet, editor, and critic: There were many ways to understand poetry and other art forms than simply assimilating information on pages. Translation has been a basic stage of apprenticeship in many literary milieux, and it has been essential to me, even though most of my translations have not been done for publication and will not be published with my consent. Writing criticism and essays is not only a way of getting closer to the work of other people, it has also stimulated my own poetry. With certain types of visual poetry and art, painting facsimiles has been an essential tool in understanding the work. Publishing poetry should enhance understanding of the work published, and it can be seen as a form of translation. This work requires (at least for me) particularly careful reading, keyboarding, design, and all the care and concentration needed for those processes to make sense. The interpersonal web of human connections makes sense of making sense. Setting up readings and performances not only got poets to a place where I could hear them, but conversation with them augmented the work - as discussion of them as poets with whomever I've worked in setting up the reading deepens the understanding of the text. Trying to create a scene where this can take place and generate more poetry becomes yet another part of reading the city and the world and trying to make something of both. My sense of the importance of reading venues was fostered in part by poets in Milwaukee, my home for over two decades, but it was augmented by checking out other scenes, particularly that in near-by Chicago, and most importantly that of Lower Manhattan, which was going through one of its most active and creative periods when I started writing.

In the early 70s, I felt the need to work out triangulations by a practice I kept up through the period in which I produced books, and carried on to the time when the web was my major medium of publication. This consisted of publishing multiple books by the same author. At first, I tried creating synergy between the different levels of ephemerality of magazines and the greater durability of books. From this starting place, I tended to publish at least two books by the majority of poets whose work I wanted to present. This practice meant that I did books by a smaller number of poets, but went in-depth with each writer I published.

At the same time, I realized the flawed nature of criticism written from a single point of view and usually by a single critic. Tom Montag's Margins magazine gave me the perfect place to start trying out multiple reviews of the same book, or books by the same author. The importance of breaking the one-review-per-title custom cannot be stressed too much, though it has not been widely practiced. In the armed citadels of the seemingly never-ending 1990s (ya, we're still in them), this could easily degenerate into a tool for enforcing conformity and idol worship, so maybe it's an approach that should lie dormant for another generation. The publishing of multiple books by the same author helped bring forth a greater diversity of response. Part of the attempt to break away from the single opinion of the solitary critic included the attempt to create bodies of criticism and commentary by the poets who best understood the work which they discussed. As much as the need for multiple points of view seemed a near-absolute, I also wondered if poets would better understand their own work if they were the ones who produced literary criticism. This latter point remains uncertain to me today, but still, the encouragement of critical and historical (as opposed to fashionable and theoretical) writing by practitioners seems an important step in creating voluminous webs of interaction.

A text is something you usually see on a page, imitating two-dimensional space. Poems read aloud moves in waves, filling the space within the range of the waves. Silent reading can create something completely different: in reading silently, you can create a private space for yourself that pulls in your concentration and focuses it. The function of reading which carves out private space often works best when it interacts with more public correlatives. Yet there are times when shutting out the world through reading has a significance which can't otherwise be recreated and without which life seems tacky. Visual poetry, sometimes without any semantic content, can none the less be vocalized, or create a private space around it equal in intensity or serenity to that of the silent reading of text.

Mallarmé had quipped that everything existed to find its way into a book a bit over a century ago. I later found a more intense and, to me, more appropriate statement of what the French savant had been fumbling for in the Aztec oral poems, collectively known as the Cantares Mexicanos,

Only as painted images in your books
have we come to be alive in this place.

This first became a motto of sorts. Later, the title of my collected essays, the first volume of which will be forthcoming this spring. Books aren't simply passive receptacles but creative instruments that shape the human world.

A year and a half ago, Michael Rothenberg and I began discussing this retrospective. It may seem like 40 years to him that I've worked on it, missing his deadlines with great chagrin as new adventures, growing obligations, and nasty health problems intervened. All this tested his ever immaculate patience. I can only thank him most profoundly for putting up with the delays.

At the time we began, we had something more modest in mind. It's difficult, however, for me not to push basic ideas to new conclusions. Thus the original plan of presenting 100 of my book covers with comments on their design grew into what now might be called multi-genre essays, which include autobiography, literary criticism, literary history, discussion of funding projects and on how to do them without funds, and notes on reading, performance and other manifestations and transformations.

It's also typical of me to need something to make my variations on the Watts Towers more manageable. In this instance, we decided that the way to make this project do-able was to break it down into installments. I decided to do the same with the above mentioned collection of my essays during this time.

The first installment, for the Winter 2006 issue of Big Bridge, sketches books and cognate projects that began in the 1970s. This time frame does not encompass everything that went on during that decade, just work that began then or that demonstrates the volume of triangulation in its early stages. What I try to do in this installment is sketch out the growth of my ideas on poetry as it relates to other people. That is, my activities as a publisher in the widest sense. Learning to print books is most important. But the section also deals with the means of production and the politics of cottage industries. None of that makes any sense without consideration of the poetry in the books, their authors, the authors' reading or performance style, the history of the times, attempts at finding and/or creating an audience, the establishment of a public exchange center for ideas, books, and virtually all forms of human interaction with poetry. The volume of interactions involved is much more than the shelf space a book takes up. But in this section, it stays on an immediate and personal level. If this installment spends more time on printing than those to follow, so it should. It seems important to me that we do not get so engrossed in consumer culture that we forget that books are the product of labor. They do not magically appear on the shelves of book stores or libraries or, increasingly, arrive from nowhere through the mail or over the internet.

Other projects I began in the 70s will be chronicled in later installments along with periods before and after the decade. The second installment will include a greater sense of completion and maturity which I associate more with the later 1970s and the first years of the 1980s. The books I have published by Jerome Rothenberg and Theodore Enslin began in the 70s, for instance, and have been more numerous than those of Toby Olson and Jackson Mac Low. The presence of these two poets in this section seems an important pairing for this section on a number of levels. On the simplest, I had written an essay on four poets of the early 1960s, of which they were two. I wrote the essay in sonata form, with Toby's part being an allegro and Jackson's, an adagio. I didn't publish the essay, but the contrasting tones and materials seemed worthy of preservation, even if they worked their way into a larger and less linear work. As I proceed with the current work, these two sections took on greater significance for the new project. Toby's books I began as an apprentice, and their history seems a good example of ways things can be done easily, pleasantly, and efficiently. Jackson was altogether different. Producing his books was always difficult, and the most important of them did not get published. In this section, I try to affirm the importance of doing what is difficult, as well as pointing out where the only type of real loss of the last 40 years has occurred in my publishing activities. As the greatest poet of my time, it seems important to get Jackson in early, as simple homage and as a hedge in case something prevents me from finishing this project. Foregrounding his importance does not diminish in any way the abilities of other poets I have published. As in acknowledging my sources and influences, my homage to Jackson simply raises the standard of all the poets I have worked with, whether they have received adequate recognition or not.

The third installment may deal with the late 1980s and with electronic publishing, or there may be separate installments for the two. If enough people seem interested in the series, the last installment will deal with my own poetry and criticism. I am leaving my own work for the last section for a simple reason. It has nothing to do with modesty, but with the nature of the project. Although autobiography is the thread that holds this group of reflections together, I don't see myself as the major figure in it. Most of the 40 years I've spent as a publisher has been oriented toward publishing and otherwise interacting with other people. They, the poetry they produced, and the milieu in which they functioned are the subject of these observations. Likewise, my primary purpose in doing this project has not been to document things that have already happened, but to suggest and encourage developments from this point onward. As a utopian, I'd like to see a future in which the fronts and backs of books are no longer alienated, and in which new generations accomplish better things than I and others of my age have managed.

You can see two photos of me at the top of this page. The one on the left was taken in 1970; the one on the right in 2000. It amuses me how little my appearance seems to have changed in that time. Other photos over the years don't bear as much similarity to each other. I like the ur-rhythm created by the repetition of expression and posture in these two images. And more so the way the dimmer young figure seems to be looking toward the older one. The older one also seems to be looking at something outside the frame. I hope to continue to look outside the box for the rest of my creative life. Whatever I seek out there, it will not be trendy, fashionable, or predictable, but always searching out what has not been used up and chronicling what for me are the figures and tendencies of my time, most of whom remain in obscurity. For me, publishing has always been an art of exploration, and I hope that some readers will find what I have to offer more than worth the effort of checking them out.

Note on Part 2, added January, 2007

Autobiography may be the thread that holds these notes together, as I wrote last year. If so, autobiography as it unfolds at sany given moment can be a stronger force. I had to give constant care to my parents during the period when I would have written and assembling the Part 2 I originally had in mind. The original conception would have been impossible, given the time restraints placed on me by the situation of the last months. Much of the Part 2 that you may find here was written or assembled for other projects and put together for this issue. Planned or not, this installment seems to have merits in its own rights.

Note on Part 3, added February, 2008

I hurriedly put together last year's entry at the beginning of January. During November and December of that year, my father was undergoing a great deal of pain, and my companion and I had a difficulty arranging for competent and adequate care. He was relatively pain free during the brief period at the beginning of January when I hurriedly put together some preexisting pieces for the year's installment. He died peacefully shortly after the issue went on-line. He would have liked to have been a writer himself, and wanted me to do that as his proxy and heir. Problems left in the wake of his death have set me back in that task for much of the year, and my main literary activity has been finishing the Selected Poems of Kitasono Katue, discussed elsewhere in this issue, and, perhaps ironically enough, acting as web monkey for this issue of Big Bridge. I was still unable to continue my original plan for this retrospective, but there's so much of my stuff elsewhere in this issue that I imagine most readers will have more than enough of me in it. My modest continuation this year is a quiet reflection on a long arc of association and development, and a small project I did partly as an example of what can be done with limited resources. This seems appropriate to the moment. I wouldn't mind directing the reader's attention to a general Carl Young memorial I put up on its own or a memorial poem for him in this issue of Big Bridge instead of or as well as reading my ruminations — all of which are part of his legacy.

Click here to go to Part 1
Click here to go to Part 2
Click here to go to Part 3
Click here to go to Part 4