Let Us Hail The Millennium,
As Prophets With Computer Printers
By the summer of 2000, despite the fun I had had on the web, it seemed time
to get back to producing books on real, live paper - and to do something other
than web work and copy prep with the new technologies available to me.
Although each of the books has its individual story, I initially decided
to see about doing one book by a master from the generation before mine,
one from a poet of my own age, and two from poets who were a bit younger.
I wanted at least one book to be a score, and one to be a home-made coffee
table art book.
I had produced my web anthology with no more resources than the average
university student in the U.S. (in fact, being then as now without a
broadband connection, quite a few college kids might have had more advanced
toys by that time, and perhaps the majority are ahead of me now).
William Blake made a point of quoting a favorite passage from the
Biblical Book of Isaiah: "would that all God's children were prophets."
He seemed to be striving for something like this in his ad hoc printing and
illuminating methods. A bit over a century and a half after that, I and a
number of other young people had made an attempt at distributing our poems
(or prophecies, if the term seems different) via mimeo machines. I had gone
on to building a home around an offset press with similar intentions. It
was interesting to imagine what the 1960s would have been like if we had
had such sophisticated gadgets to work with, and how much more
appropriate the word "revolution" might have been if we'd had not
only the access to fast, graphically sophisticated, and voluminous print,
but instantaneous, global interconnectivity.
It seemed only logical, as well as serendipitous, to welcome in the new
millennium with the tools for universal prophecy that computer technology
was mass producing at a dizzying speed. Nearly everyone who owned a computer
also owned at least one printer, and these devices did just what they were
called - they PRINTED. Everybody with one could become a publisher. In
addition to printing books on paper once more, I wanted to make the point
that the new tech not only universalized the printing press. This was a
challenge and an invitation to the world, whether anyone paid any
attention to what I was doing or not.
In addition to the computer and two printers, I also had a machine for
wire binding. This was not part of a student's standard desk top equipment.
But it was not expensive, and if any of God's children wanted to become
prophets, they could either buy one or have books bound in similar manner
at a modest cost at a Kinko's or other duplicating service. I did not want
to consider these bindings as neutral expedients. Unlike the plastic combs
that had preceded them, they were environmentally friendly. Unlike saddle
stitched or perfect bound books, you could turn their pages with only the
slightest effort, and the books could lie absolutely flat on a table, the
way all books should in an ideal world. This capacity simply makes reading
more pleasant under what had become standard reading situations. For scores
for music, theater, or other types of performance, a binding of this sort
becomes more important in learning parts or in looking at the score on a
lectern or music stand.
Of those I had in mind to publish in this series, Michael McClure was one
among the elders. Joel Lipman was definitely the one I wanted to work
with among poets of my own age group. I definitely wanted Susan Smith
Nash to be one of the younger group, which also included Mike Basinski
and several others. I believe I thought of doing one multilingual book
that went beyond mere translation separately from Susan's, though I'm
not sure, and what I asked her for was just that. This book expanded as
soon as we began talking about it, and we found a funding source for an
offset edition quickly, so a book by her left the list almost
I had in mind a book of Joel Lipman's stamp and collage based visual poetry.
This we began discussing right away, and we are still talking about it.
It is a book that needs to be done. Virtually all of Joel's work of this
sort that has been reproduced has been done so in black and white. The major
exception has been the work of his which I put up at my web site. This alone
is not fitting for an exquisite colorist like Joel, and I would like to see
our edition, whenever we get it done, as a prelude to a larger offset
edition done by a publisher who can afford to do a large, well distributed
To go to my Survey of Joel's work on-line
Michael McClure's The Masked Choir
As much as I admired Michael's poems, my presentation of him on the
web seemed incomplete without one of his plays. The web site does include
a passage from The Beard, but this comes across more like a poem
than a passage from a play. Few of Michael's plays had been performed in
recent years, and most weren't even in print. The Masked Choir
had never been published in book form, though it had been printed in a
magazine. I asked Michael if I could publish this play, and he was
enthusiastic. The basic edition we had in mind would be primarily for people
to read to themselves, though it could be used by actors as a script easily
enough. In addition, once we had the type set in electronic format, we
could pass that on to anyone wishing to mount a production. They would still
have royalties to pay, but the costs of having copies made would disappear.
In addition, if they had cast members with visual impairments, or if there
were any other reason why they might want to change the format for active
use, they could move the file from the disk to their computer and alter
it to suit their needs. If they lost copies, they could print new ones
As a poet, Michael has remained the essential Orphic singer
of the second half of the 20th Century in North America. Trends and
fashions have come and gone during the last 50 years, but no matter
how much they've run into dead-ends or clouds of pretension and
obfuscation, the ancient and basic mammalian capacity to vocalize
from personal impulse has never lost its usefulness and its
indestructible beauty and strangeness. No matter how much fops and
savants try to crush it, it always finds poets to renew it. And no one
has been able to keep attuned to it over decades as Michael McClure.
The orphic voice can emerge in Michael's plays, but the plays tend to
bring out other dimensions of his personality and ability. One of these
characteristics is wit, in the classic sense. Just as important, Michael
assimilates a large number of modes and models in his dramatic work.
In his plays, you can see Aristophanes bump into Buster Keaton, Eugene
Ionesco shake hands with the Goths from Icelandic Sagas, John Webster
find his descendants in Restoration farces, TV sitcoms hold conversations
with the harshest linguistic minimalism, stick figures carved in the
walls of men's restrooms hold hands with angelic holographic projections
filling the skies, courtly masques find themselves
at home among shamanistic ritual. The main patron of the plays may be
Antonin Artaud, but nothing holds them to any sort of subservience to
that master's approach to magical theater.
In their heyday of the 1960s, the plays tended to generate other plays
around them. Staging for the first production of Michael's first play,
The Blossom, was arranged at the University of Wisconsin - Madison.
When the wardens of that school threatened to have the theater company and
supporting faculty members from the campus, the student actors expelled
from the school, and prohibit all future productions, Michael, aided by
Morgan Gibson, made a shrewd deal with the people in authority. According
to this agreement, the play could be staged once, as long as it was not
advertised and no mention of it was made to anyone. Although this meant
only one showing, no advertising strategy could have worked better than the
prohibition on announcements, and the theater was packed to overflowing
for its single performance.
Michael's most celebrated and notorious play, The Beard, went through
numerous busts and closures, becoming ritualized in their own right.
In one important performance, the police made video tapes of the play
while people opposed to its censorship made videos of the police
making the videos, creating movies within movies. One production was
mounted at the Fillmore Auditorium accompanied by the kind of light
show that only such a venue could provide. Legislators used it as a
prime example of decadence in proposed legislation to ban all obscene
theater in the state where, in the strange irony that always
seems to follow censors, topless bars first appeared. After a long period
of incessant busts in California, the production moved to New York City,
where it won two Obies, and to London, where it received an equally
enthusiastic audience, and as close to an equal measure of censures as
Britain could manage. During this period, raucous rock and jazz musicians,
actors attuned to experimental forms of improvisation and experiment, and
audiences devoted to creating a new culture made Michael's plays more
like festivals than sober places for uninterested people to show
off their clothes and their culturedness - and to doze off after
Some major playwrights have written plays meant as much to be read alone
and in silence as to be brought to the boards. Michael's plays read best
when you imagine the production, visualizing the actors on-stage, and the
audience moved to unpredictable responses. Like any other Orphic
productions, they have a life of their own, and you can tap into it
just as you can with Michael's poetry.
The cast calls for two giant pandas, and for the cover I used images of
pandas with photos of people at a sporting event in their eyes. I thought
it would be fun to make it look like its cover had a film lamination finish.
To accomplish this, I printed the cover on paper normally used for
photographs. I printed the text out on a duplexing lazer printer. I had
hoped that this would be the easiest way to go. It wasn't. The paper
buckled considerably and had to be pressed for a long time to get the pages to
lie flat. This meant that I didn't get more than a couple sample
copies to Michael much before Thanksgiving, but perhaps Christmas wasn't
a bad time for him to receive the copies. In the meantime, I had Mike's book
Michael Basinski's Beseechers
My first publications of Mike's came out of a set of unfortunate
circumstances, one of which was my most painful experience as a publisher.
I had begun a love affair and dumped most of my mail, with little
examination, into cardboard boxes in a foyer closet during the affair's
first flowering. Some of it got lost, and I didn't discover it until
considerably later, after the lady and I parted company. The most important
envelope that I didn't open included a copy of a book another poet had
dedicated to me. Since I didn't open the envelope, I didn't know about the
dedication for over half a year, and hence didn't write to the poet. This
left him assuming that I had rejected the dedication.
This gets complicated by another factor. After over 30 years of publishing,
and almost as long being part of the mail art network, I developed some
eccentric attitudes toward mail which may be difficult to understand for
people in other circumstances. The mail art I always looked forward to.
The endless barrage of unsolicited submissions I did not. It was easy enough
to distinguish the two types of mail from each other, and from other kinds
of mail by their manner of address and packaging. I think going for periods
lasting as long as several months during which one receives an average of 80
unsolicited manuscripts a day can induce a callousness to them, particularly
when my time and energy are finite, and I'm working in an area of publishing
where rewards tend to small and rare. I know that due to my callouses I
have undoubtedly missed out on some magnificent books. But, again, my
time and energy are finite. Once the habit of ignoring some mail becomes
established, it can spread to others. I have, for instance, taken to
not answering mail that would tend to lead to meaningless contention,
or to rudeness on my part that would be no more severe than simply not
answering the mail at all. There are some types of mail that are blatantly
hostile or coercive, and these I usually do not deign to answer, in part
to lift a middle finger toward the sender.
Under ordinary circumstances, its easy enough to distinguish between
envelopes (or even e-mail addresses), but at times when new love flourishes,
all sorts of things outside of it become blurry. There's no way I can ever
make up for not responding to the book dedicated to me. It is something
about which I will feel profound shame for the rest of my life, and about
which nothing can be done. This makes the quantitatively most wretched part
of being a publisher, the typos that act as myriads of never-healing,
ever-infected little wounds, seem much less important.
Fortunately, this kind of extreme was not the case with the envelope that
came from Mike. It contained some notes on my poetry, and a request for
some work in exchange for that enclosed. That I did not answer this
immediately was perhaps rude, but no big deal. I had liked other poems
I'd seen by Mike and particularly one of the pieces in the envelope.
Feeling like an idiot, I got Mike's phone number from a friend and called
him. To my relief, he had no problems accepting my apology. I later got
the sense that this was the kind of goof he might make himself. Although
I've still not met Mike in person, there have been some odd little sitcoms
that we've wandered into in part due to our sometimes similar eccentricities.
The bundle Mike sent included a draft of "The Wild Elephant," a performance
piece made out of references to elephants and divided into entries
for each reference. I asked if I could use this piece on the web. Further,
I said I'd like to try using different colors for each entry, not only
so that it would look more interesting but also so the color codes
could be used by performers to differentiate their parts. I said I'd put it
up in a "sequester," that is a place on the web linked to nothing else so
that nobody would see it unless one of us gave them the address. Mike
agreed to this, and we proceeded with the coloring of the elephant lines.
Along with Mike's notes on the piece and on performances, I put in a
request that anyone wishing to perform the piece should use the web version
to print their score, and to send us a recording of the performance.
I had seen several versions of Mike's "Venedian Beseechers" before the
advanced form he sent me. These too I arranged in color code, and we
included performance notes and beseeched readers to perform the work
and send us copies.
Harry Polkinhorn and I acted as the Anglo-American curators for the 6th
Post Arte Biennial, held in Mexico City. I asked Mike for "The Coming of the
Circles" to send for exhibition in Mexico, and also for the Biennial
web site that we put on-line.
I put several other pieces by Mike on-line, but these three seemed to
make a good nucleus for a different kind of project. Mike is a poet of
basic and intuitive magic, of impulses that proceed from a type of wisdom
not hindered by anything but direct personal experience, of pungencies and
tactilities that other poets tend to ignore. This does not mean he's a sort
of nature-boy type who can't read or learn from his artistic environment.
He is a sophisticated librarian and a shrewd organizer of conferences and
other events. But his poetry still gives a new definition to terms like
"earthy." On the most apparent level, he takes some of his most basic
ideas from moss on stones, mold in the corners of basements, spider webs
in the back yard. In his correspondence, he bases a kind of improvised
poetry out of his uncorrected misspellings, keys struck accidentally or
too hastily, letters multiplied by leaving his fingers on a key a bit
too long. This he elaborates, often adding intentional distortions to
those he has learned to let happen.
When he sent me the copy of Venedian Beseechers, I was glad to
see not only that he had played with the type since the last version that
I'd seen, but also by the fact that this time it had a title. I wrote
asking him to what extent he saw the Venedians as his Polish ancestors,
and to what extent he saw himself working in a tradition outside and perhaps
preceding that of Greco-Roman culture. He didn't pay attention to much of
this when I first wrote to him, but did provide notes saying that, yes, he
did like celebrating a pagan culture outside the "arrogance of western
culture and its imagining that it had sprung from some positive hybrid of
pastoral Greece and Imperial Rome." He also noted that the Venedians "had an
elite pantheon and a host of household gods and spirits." The latter seemed
like a perfect Basinskian pantheon, probably including spirits for the
energies and substances of lost paper clips and oatmeal clumps wiped off
the breakfast table a few seconds after they'd been spilled. The lines
of the poem, each made up of discrete columns of two, three, and four
letters, some suggesting parts of words, some suggesting a proto-language,
or an urge toward articulation, or a jolly or contented avoidance of
specific meaning, gave a performer (silent with the page, or aloud
in ensemble vocalization) a great deal of room to work in, and allowed
for almost infinitely diverse performances.
The Wild Elephant included a polemic for the preservation of an
endangered species, but also allowed for a range of precise and punctilious
articulations, some in the manner of antique rhetoric, and the opportunity
for hoots, honks, and abstract sonorities of all sorts.
I liked the way the round shapes disrupted and played games with grids in
The Coming of the Circles, and saw this as related to the paganism
of Beseechers without knowing precisely why. Mike's notes made what
I had intuited clear, and in the process made me feel more confident in my
intuition about Mike's poetry: "All notion and recognition of other energy
originates with the circle. . . the coming of circles is the moment in
which paganism - which in my mind/heart is the recognition of the great
solar wheel - begins. Therefore, this Coming of Circles celebrates that
instant when poetry enters the too often, or always, dark, dumb, unpoetic
mind of the poet, which is here represented by the reality of straight
lines and the words enclosed by and locked into slavery by the dictionary.
I am sure that Dr. Johnson was the anti-Christ and Webster's book remains
the bible of the dark."
This seemed like the basis for a book - particularly one that could be
used as performance score for those too lazy or shy to print out the
copies I put on the web. As we proceeded, Mike added two more poems that
did not employ color: "Breathe Song of the Soil Fungi" and "City of
Webs." These made the book more rounded and extended it in a number
of directions beyond those I had originally conceived.
The two new poems Mike added, being plain type and monochrome, presented
no technical problems or challenges. The problem presented by "The Wild
Elephant" seems almost comic, and perhaps demanded a comic solution.
Although a purely typographical work, I could not get the kind of colors
I had used in the web version from a word processor. Using the type tool
of PhotoShop didn't give good definition to the letters. But if I was
satisfied with the colors I got on the web, I might as well use the web to
print the pages. I had, after all, invited people to print the score from
the web copy. All I had to do was to create new web pages that would match the
pages on which the type would be printed. The next step was to set the print
function of the web browser so that it didn't print such things as date,
time, location, and other defaults. This solution not only worked well
enough, there's something both Rube Goldbergish and perhaps childish about
it that still strikes me as funny, and at the same time totally in
keeping with the great bard of cob webs and soil fungi whose work I
The size of the letters in Beseechers made it likely that they
would produce significant bleed when printed with an inkjet printer. I
could have solved this problem in a number of ways, but one appealed to
me more than others. I had used a dark background and complex but
luminous colors for the text in the web version. For the print version,
I experimented with blue-green colors that didn't seem to have the right
density to create bleeds. This unusual color range brought out a slightly
different emphasis of the poem.
There was no way to prevent bleeds with Circles. This gave me the
chance to try something I had planned for the Joel Lipman book. This idea
was suggested to me by
oriental book binding methods. If I printed two pages on an 11" x 17"
sheet with a fold in the middle placed in such a way as to leave the
pages facing outward, and the loose ends facing into the spine, the
bleeds would be encased in the page and hence not show. Given the nature
of Mike's poetry, and an important book of my own, Five Kwaidan In
Sleeve Pages which used a different variant on pages with insides
and outside, the tucked away bleeds seemed appropriate.
For the cover, I used a drawing Mike had included with the first copy of
The Wild Elephant, colored in various ways.
There had been some additional fun and oddities going on during the book's
production, and one continued after the book was done.
Mike had applied for tenure as Associate Librarian at SUNY-Buffalo. He
asked me to write a letter of recommendation to his review committee. For
reasons that remain mysterious to me, a fair number of people make such
requests of me - some for academic positions some for NEA or Guggenheim
fellowships, some for nearly any purpose imaginable. Since my academic
credentials are meager (I don't have a Doctor's Degree, haven't taught in
over a decade and when I have it's just been little odd creative writing
gigs), I'm not a widely recognized figure in any field, I haven't won (or
tried for) any major awards, and so on. I still like having the opportunity
to make recommendations when the candidate deserves to win. As is my
custom, I wrote a basic draft and sent it around to a number of friends
in academe to see if I'd done a job within the standard parameters and
to make sure I hadn't committed some sort of blunder or indiscretion. A
couple made suggestions for minor revisions, and I sent the finished
paper to Mike's review committee.
I had assumed that Robert Bertholf, the
head librarian, and several other people on the staff would know something
about me, and that one of the reasons Mike asked for the recommendation
was that I was one of the very few people who had taken part in what
had come to be known as "the mimeo revolution" and was still actively
putting out books, and that I had been involved in all sorts of other
alternative publishing in all sorts of areas. In this case I did have
something like credentials, and as a matter of fact would actually be a
resource for someone in a special collections library dealing with
the poetry of the second half of the 20th Century. I also thought I
would not be a completely alien entity to Bertholf. So once Mike had
safely received his tenured position, I thought it would be a good
idea to check with Bertholf as to why my recommendation might be taken
seriously, and what were good and bad points in it that I should
remember in writing other recommendations. Bertholf somehow got the
idea that I was suspicious about something other than my credentials and
my ability to write a letter of recommendation. His response to my
telephone call on the subject was simply to repeat that there was no
"hidden agenda" involved, that I was not being asked to take part in any
nefarious plots, and so on. Hidden agendas, nefarious plots - hunh? Well,
okay. I will behave myself and simply write recommendations when asked
for them, and not try to figure out why or how they were received.
I finished the book just after what had so far been the most disgraceful
presidential election in U.S. history. Unlike the election of 1972, this
one had not been rigged by an incumbent, but by a dynasty working in
coalition with some of the nastiest political entities and most
destructive industries in the country. This was before the attack on the
World Trade Center or the unjustified and malignantly-conceived war on Iraq,
and before the consumerist tossing aside of American music's sacred city
and home town. In my strong but eccentric patriotism, I have seen
the U.S. as a country that makes at least as many horrendous mistakes as
any other, but that we make efforts to correct them. This was also before
the 2004 election, when the nation had gone precisely against its greatest
strengths across the board, and had refused to correct its mistake at a
time when that mistake had trashed and was continuing to trash everything
positive the country has embodied. What was going on in Florida in 2000 -
2001 was an attempt at self correction through extensive examination of
chads, a process that included detailed study of paper and the formation of
rediscovered and new vocabularies for its condition. The word "chad" had
been highly specialized before this. Now there were dimpled chads, pregnant
chads, hanging chads, for instance - and the television and radio were
filled with discussion of them. I had not yet bound Michael's book, so that
all (or nearly all - certainly a purer count than Florida's) the chads in my
binder's collection bin were from Mike's book. The laureate of lost
lint and hidden moss should surely be able to appreciate a bag full of real,
unmistakable chads, and I sent him the collected chads along with his
copies of the book. He wrote that he was pleased and amused by the chads.
Whether he has found a use for them or his wife has thrown them out,
I don't know, but I'm sure he was at least amused by receiving a bag of
chads from his publisher at a crucial historical moment, and for the
first and probably only time. Whether this year the United States will
restart the now daunting task, certainly one of the most difficult in its
history, of correcting the waste and destruction begun in 2000 remains to
be seen. Perhaps younger publishers than I can find something like games with
chads to bring a little amusement and relief into the process.
Mike is in the habit of giving away books when he gets them, and I assume
that all the copies he received from me went to other poets and friends
within a few weeks of receipt.
I have since contemplated other projects that can make use of the print as
well as the electronic possibilities of our computer toys. Joel Lipman's
book, whether it comes from a printer of mine or from some other publisher
or gets produced by me using some other means, is something contemporary
poetry needs. I have at times made jokes about spending my last days,
whenever they may come, producing books as I have for the last 43 years,
using potato prints if nothing else. I don't have any doubts that projects
such as Full SPectrum Editions will continue as long as I'm around.