Steve Clay's Granary Books: A Tribute

By Jerome Rothenberg, originally published in catalog essay for Too Much Bliss: Twenty Years of Granary Books. Smith College Museum of Art, Nov. 12, 2005–Feb. 19, 2006.

The history of poetry in our time has also been a history of those who provide conduits & vehicles, containers & wrappers, for the physical presentation of poetry: publishers, typographers, printers, designers, or those artists-as-such who are often the collaborators in making poetry a visible, even a visual, art. For this the book has remained the principal vehicle – the material book, like the material poem, still active in the age of virtuality. In the true history of American poetry, which I have long threatened to write & never will, Granary Books, as a press & resource, is exemplary of how poets & related artists in the post-World War Two era were able to establish shadow institutions that operated, nearly successfully, outside the frame of any & all self-proclaimed poetic mainstreams.

There is by now a history of poet’s books as there is of artist’s books, & the convergence of these two interests is more the norm than the exception. From Blake’s illuminations through the craftsman-artists of the later nineteenth century & the livre d’art collaborations of high modernism, the book emerged as both a physical object & itself a work-of-art conceived anew or re-created through the art of those who make it. Still closer to the present moment, poets & artists with new & often democratized technologies at their disposal, have been papering the American landscape with books & paper works at an unprecedented rate. That development began to pick up speed by the middle 1950s & was central to movements of that time with generalized names like the New American Poetry as one pole or pivot & Fluxus as another. Their accomplishments have been chronicled elsewhere, & there are still others outside those frames to further “thicken the plot” – as John Cage said in another context.

If Steve Clay & Granary Books were not the first participants in this history, they have played a major role in it, both as makers of books & as chroniclers of poets’ & artists’ books – their own & others’. For Clay the beginnings of the work go back to 1986 – not a book but a card-sized poem by Jonathan Williams, wrapped in a printed envelope inside a second printed envelope. But there is already a clear sense of predecessors – Williams’ Jargon Society publications, Cid Corman’s Origin, Dick Higgins’ Fluxus-connected Something Else Press, Simon Cutts’s Coracle Press in London, & Charles Alexander’s Chax Press, with which an early collaboration was also possible. The start was slow – an occasional book but mostly cards & broadsides – until the 1991 publication of Nods, Barbara Fahrner’s drawings which illuminate texts derived, using chance operations, from John Cage’s published writings. From that point on, something like 120 publications followed – mostly books – that brought together a diverse range of poets, artists, printers & craftsmen: David Antin, Susan Bee, Charles Bernstein, bill bissett, Paul Celan, Emilie Clark, Robert Creeley, Tennessee Dixon, Toni Dove, Henrik Drescher, Johanna Drucker, Timothy C. Ely, Ed Epping, Barbara Fahrner, Philip Gallo, Max Gimblett, Mimi Gross, Julie Harrison, Lyn Hejinian, Yvonne Jacquette, Daniel Kelm, Alison Knowles, Ligorano/Reese, Emily McVarish, Maureen Owen, Ron Padgett, Archie Rand, George Schneeman, Carolee Schneemann, Buzz Spector, Anne Waldman, Lewis Warsh, Trevor Winkfield, John Yau, & myself, among others.

What’s on view in this exhibition is a display of works by many of these artists, working alone or, typically, in collaboration. The books as such come in different shapes & sizes, & the production methods involved vary as well – from standard letterpress & offset to incredibly fine printing & graphics, plus a degree of handwork in the more limited editions. The flood of work links both to what had come before & what continued to be conceived & realized contemporaneously. This linkage shows up as well in a series of bigger books – anthologies & histories – that made Granary the principal purveyor – both artistic & critical – of what was a virtual renaissance of American poetry & book making. Of such works two by Johanna Drucker set the standard for a historicizing of this movement in the arts: The Century of Artists’ Books and Figuring the Word: Essays on Books, Writing and Visual Poetics. These were followed by Renée & Judd Hubert’s The Cutting Edge of Reading: Artists’ Books & my own attempts by way of anthology, The Book, Spiritual Instrument and A Book of the Book, the latter in collaboration with Steve Clay. And Granary & Clay, at his most ambitious, began to produce large collections of works by individuals or groups of artists – The Angel Hair Anthology of the pivotal magazine of that name, or Jackson Mac Low’s Doings: Assorted Performance Pieces 1955–2002, or A Secret Location on the Lower East Side as a heavily illustrated history & compendium, circa 1950-1980, of underground literary activity in New York & elsewhere, among other examples.

The Granary project has been not only useful but essential, an incomparable gathering when laid end to end, as it is here. Those who have collaborated with Steve Clay know him as a facilitator for the work of others, with a sense of detail & finish that allows those works to find the form & texture needed for their realization. In this pursuit, whether it’s the bigger books or the small works where craft & artistry are at the forefront, the Granary collaborations aren’t limited to the poets & artists whose names appear on covers & title pages, but Clay calls also on the skills of typographers, printers, designers, & binders – an ensemble that he brings together with the skills of a consummate director or producer. The process is therefore active & marked by an interdependence & coordination that has, for those of us participating, the feel of a nearly communal project – a work, even a working through, in common. The results – speaking here as a poet & writer – go beyond & above what lackluster print can do by itself, so that each work is a new work & every part illuminates or transforms every other.

The current exhibition, then, is a celebration of Granary as a collective entity & a tribute beyond that to Steve Clay as a publisher who raises publishing to an art in itself. I am reminded here of David Antin’s definition of an artist as “someone who does his best,” & yet it seems to me that Steve Clay & company, like David, do something even more. I don’t know what that does to David’s definition but maybe points to something we less often get to, something that may be “more than art.”

Jerome Rothenberg
Encinitas, California
August 2005