From the Vaults of Granary: A Preface; A Start

By Elliot David, originally published on Art Slut. Feb. 2007.

We’ve reached a privileged historical moment when keeping an archive can be a work of art.

—Ulises Carrion

Granary Books publisher Steve Clay knows everything: Ask him. Anything. Ask him anything about the history of the small press: its manufacturers, distributors, spine binders, font designers and content providers. Ask him about poetics on film, semiotics collectives, brushless painters, the conductors of orchestral space concepts. Ask him about your grandmother’s diary entries re: your grandfather’s erectile dysfunction. Ask him, and he’ll tell you what you want to know, speak it softy and with the humble generosity of an unpretentious encyclopedia. Didacticism is below him. He’s not so much a Lecturist as he is that guy downstairs with the exquisite self-made bong -- the one who’d smoke you out, then walk you through your stoned existential crises. And even if he’s just guessing, his postulations could likely disprove the Ph.D. thesis you never finished. And after disproving it he could finish it for you, then publish it, print it on the surface of your flaked off skin, your baby teeth, the side of a building, the sun. Ask him, and you’ll without question learn something that you didn’t even know you cared about. Next level shit, best tangents ever, &c. Not to mention he’s one of the few people I know who can pull off a beret. So let me rephrase with a bit more accuracy: Steve Clay knows everything you want to know, especially if you don’t know you want to know it. What’s more: he has (published as well as collected) all the books you’ve always wanted (to read and write and have to hold). And his metaphorical bong is cooler than your real bong, and he can wear a beret and you can’t. Deal with it.

Here’s the quick bio: Steve Clay started publishing writing (rather than “books,” because often they categorically were not): A Jonathan Williams poem; Jane Brakhage’s first publication, From the Book of Legends; a collaboration between John Cage and Barbara Fahrner.

Not. A. Bad. Start.

Steve Clay lives in Manhattan, where some twenty years ago he started Granary Books. Rather, he put the name Granary to the art works he was producing. Granary Books published (and continues to publish), to be reductive, three types of books: artist’s books, books about books, and writer/artist collaborations (like the Cage/Fahrner book; Terrence McKenna and book artist Timothy C. Ely’s gorgeous Synesthesia; dozens and dozens others; and one in particular between Johanna Drucker and Susan Bee that we’ll get to in a sec. It’s so good. So good).

Granary Books has produced work from some of the most innovative, creative, mischievous minds. To name a few (of my favorites): Lewis Warsh, Charles Bernstein, Joe Brainard, David Antin, Jackson Mac Low, Jerome Rothenberg, John Zorn, John Ashbery, bill bisset, Buzz Spector, Rosmarie Waldrop, Clark Coolidge, Robert Creeley, Lyn Hejinian, Alison Knowles, Carolee Schneeman, Anne Waldman, Kenneth Goldsmith, Timothy C. Ely [ellipsis]. A band of insiders. A mafia to be reckoned with.

And here’s the long bio, in Steve’s own words; it’s way worth the read if you have any interest in art and independent publishing (which you obviously do).

But Granary’s books aren’t the books you think of when you think books. They’re something more. They explore and redefine the symbiosis between information and its distributors; the mutualism between access and design, image and the word and tactile comprehension; the couriers of font, the carriers ideas.

Even the books that aren’t distinctly in the tradition of artist’s books can, without question, be considered works of art. To use someone else’s words: Charles “Charles Bernstein Is Awesome” Bernstein:

“At Granary, books are not neutral containers but are invested with a life of their own, conceived as objects first and foremost, entering the world not as the discardable shell of some other story but piping their own tunes on their own instruments. Nothing is taken for granted -- the binder is as much a star as the printer or writer. The design is an extension of (not secondary to) the content, just as the content is an extension of the design. For a book, a Granary book, is never about delivering information in the most expeditious form. Piping down the valleys of bibliophilic excess has led to the palace of Clay -- Steve Clay, Proprietor and Impresario Extraordinaire.” (From his essay, "Claymation, A Reader’s Guide.")

Total best BFF forever.

That’s Steve Clay as Publisher. But there’s also Steve Clay as Archivist. His personal collection of books is daunting. Daunting not in volume (though, yes in volume) but as proof of his impeccable taste, and as a reminder of the difficulty in nourishing true passion: the effort it takes to recognize it, cultivate and understand it, and ultimately contribute to it. It: that thing you love. Art. Experimentation. Language. The cream. The real deal.

The archive is not a library. You’d think so looking at it, but you’d be wrong. Well, looking at it you’d really just think it was a lot (like, a lot) of bookshelves in his apartment and at Granary HQ. But that would make you an asshole. Here’s what it is: It’s a readable, caressable collection of works of art on shelves: an archive. It’s historical. It’s comprehensive. And, most of all, it’s specific: Steve Clay has gradually acquired a terrific majority of the publications that outline and define the genealogy of independent literary publishing: journals, magazines, mimeos, microfilms, entire catalogues of essential and obscure presses. To scan your eyes across the their spines, their proud front-line posture, you’d be seeing an impeccable cartographic anthology of page-bound expression.

So if what Carrion says is true, then Steve Clay is one of our most important contemporary artists.

Still with me? Good. So here’s the deal. Art Slut will now and again -- let’s say every other month -- profile a couple books that Granary has published and a couple books in the Granary archive. For the first, Granary publications alone. Next time, more archive, but a bit of both. Keep in mind that this is just the start. The preface. The It.


A Secret Location on the Lower East Side: Adventures in Writing, 1960-1980
Steve Clay and Rodney Phillips

First published in 1998, Steve Clay and Rodney Phillips co-wrote this "sourcebook of information." This falls in the Books on Books category. It’s a compelling narrative detailing the evolution of the small press, the indie page printers, and lit related collectives: Black Mountain, New York School, the Beats, the Mimeo Revolution, Fluxus, etc. After the insightful poetry that is Jerome Rothenberg’s “Pre-Face,” Clay and Phillips describe and contextualize journals and presses and places and happenings as best as one can without actually presenting the things in person, holding your hand and taking you there: Something Else Press, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Dennis Cooper’s Little Caesar, San Francisco Renaissance, Berrigan’s “C” Press, so much more.

Listen all you New Yorkers: Read the section on LeRoi Jones’s Totem Press before you go see the revival of The Dutchman. Your friends will think you’re tops. During one of the more intense soliloquies you can announce to the audience that Did You Know Baraka (you’ll call him this) Published Michael McClure, Paul Blackburn, Ginsberg, O’Hara, Sorrentino, and Himself? People will love you. Try to drop some n-bombs too. Make sure to pronounce the "r."

There’s a fold-out chronological timeline of underground writing from the book’s bookending dates, broken into four signifiers/signposts: magazine, press, event, book. You’ll want to know it all, rip the thing out and pin it to the ceiling above your bed. But the respect you have for the anthology might make that difficult.

Like the book as a whole, and everything at Granary, this timeline is impeccably designed for both readability and visual beauty. The book itself is reflective of the ideas inside. Because that’s what Granary does: keeps the spirit of this time alive: the efficiency of cross-disciplinary, collaborative expression, subtle and maximized; the prolificacy of a supportive, independent community of adventurous, poetic heads.

A Girl’s Life
Johanna Drucker and Susan Bee

This is it. This is the one. Several times -- art parties, readings, self-congratulatory gatherings with liquor sponsorship -- I’ve pulled one if not both of Steve’s daughters aside and said, “What’s it called?” Shrug. “A Girl’s Life. Come on. We’ve been over this. Tell your dad to read you that book at night. Or steal it from him and read it to each other.”

I don’t know if that’s happened, but here’s what I do know: my kids are going to be fucking unbalanced.

Painter/book artist Susan Bee and visual poet Johanna Drucker are both Granary regulars, not to mention two of my favorite bookmakers. Johanna Drucker’s terrific The Word Made Flesh was an important scripture for my conversion to the cult of Typography. (Not to mention my introduction to Granary Books.)

The unique visual and linguistic playfulness common in Drucker and Bee’s individual work is here hyped to the max. A Girl’s Life is a trapperkeeper of teeny-bopper decoupage, scratch-and-sniff marker drawings gone scentless, wacky fonts spazzed-out around the page and magazine cut-outs of geeks, dreamboats, bracefaces, babes and boytoys. It’s a prose poem about friendship, sex, murder, daytime TV, betrayal and being totally rad. It’s a hilarious contrast between striking poetic turns of phrase and valley-girl mall-speak. Example (w/o line breaks): “An aura came up around her frizzy curls. Ethnicity and enlightenment. A vision of smashed sugarplums danced through her head. A swaggering energy field arose from her delicate flesh. Becki, her best friend for life, was in mega trouble.”

As a mid-twenties man, I can safely say that nothing has made me more nostalgic for being a teenage girl than this book. I want to crawl inside it, get under its covers, turn on my flashlight and write jealous letters to foreign pen pals until dawn; I want to feel awkward in my new body; I want to witness a murder, cut someone’s tongue with my braces, cut out someone’s heart out with calculated neglect. I want to read the book, go back to the beginning, read it again.

Time Samples
Alison Knowles

“fragments and leftovers, sampled by time itself, take on a new life”
– from Knowles’ introduction

This book is a fantastic example of two primary practices at Granary: 1) the designers/printers have a fundamental creative voice in the conversation between book object and the content within; 2) the book object itself, alone, can be its own aesthetic artwork.

I’ll partially assume you’ve heard of Alison Knowles and partially give you a bio: Duchamp; Dick Higgins; Fluxus; Genius.

Time Samples is, simplistically, fifteen different fabrics, textiles, and/or surfaces that Knowles had amassed in her studio over many years -- the ones that could be cut into forty-five 6 1⁄4 inch squares. In her own words, some of these squares, these "leavings" -- “This book is to be selected leavings plus used tools of the trade, the trade of art-making” -- are comprised of: green china silk remnant bought to act as a sun shield over the skylight; red lentil embedments in flax; live body prints; iron-on color Xeroxes of objects; mostly small sun-printed items like spoons and nails used to test the shade of blue possible to get, given the decay of light after its zenith at noon. (Did you get that those were her words too?) With each element are explanatory captions and text sections from a written performance of the 1962 Fluxus event score, Celebrating Red: Celebrate every red thing.

Katherine Kuehn designed and produced the work. Collapsed, it’s a book. But Keuhn structured it like an accordion: unfolded and outstretched, it becomes a beautiful 5-plus foot vertical column of hangable, admirable art.

You can’t see that, can you?

Imagine this: a Rauschenbergian strip of various beautiful textures and colors. A story to read. A timeline to be touched. A book to be installed on your wall. A one-of-a-kind. A complete idea. A work of art.

All of these books, and the entire Granary catalogue, can be purchased, searched and researched on their website: Go there. The descriptions, essays, and bios are more edifying and eloquent than any wikipedia entry.

Next time on From The Vaults of Granary:

The Archive: A Taste.

Jerome Rothenberg and David Antin’s journal "Some/Thing": Warhol, Bukowski, Robert Bly, David Ignatow…

Ed Sanders’ "Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts." (This is the best thing you’ve never heard of)

"Aspen" #5+6: Duchamp, Naum Gabo, Merce Cunningham, Alain-Robbe Grillet, Burroughs, Susan Sontag… (If this wasn’t a direct inspiration for McSweeney’s: shame shame shame. If so: tsk tsk tsk.)

PLUS: Art Slut delivers tons more than the opposition: highway motor madness; all-natural nymphets and the patrons of botched cosmetic surgery; trouble chasers and cold-blooded creeps; bedroom treaties and broken bodily promises; muscle to muscle; bone to bone; a total gas.

Same slut channel. Same slut time. See you whores there.