When the Book Blinks Back: Granary at a Glance

By Kyle Schlesinger, originally published in Artists' Book Yearbook 2006–2007, edited by Sarah Bodman.

The theory of books is noble. The scholar of the first age received into him the world around; brooded thereon; gave it the new arrangement of his own mind, and uttered it again. It came into him, life; it went out from him, truth. It came to him, short-lived actions; it went out from him, immortal thoughts. It came to him, business; it went from him, poetry. It was dead fact; now, it is quick thought. It can stand, and it can go. It now endures, it now flies, it now inspires. Precisely in proportion to the depth of mind from which it issued, so high does it soar, so long does it sing.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, The American Scholar

In this passage, the repetition of “came” and “went” creates a rhythmic sway resembling the way Emerson’s language acts in the reader’s mind. Words, passages and books come and go—some leaving a dusty trace, while others make a sustaining impression that echoes and evolves over time in the libraries of our thoughts. At Granary Books, the circuitous activities of critical thinking, creative reading, innovative writing, and maverick publishing are aspects of the revelatory exchange that takes place on the page when meaning steals the stage. That is to say that a book has the potential to be more than the sum of its parts—it is a social object with an agency and aura all its own. It presents the possibility of an embodied reading practice that changes the way the reader sees the book, one’s self and the world one coinhabits. Publishers transform manuscripts into print, so it seems fitting that Granary (literally a storehouse for grain after it is threshed) is at the threshold of reading for it is the art of making that keeps the possibility of re-imagining the book a constant.

Aesthetic decisions signify (and are signified by) their visual, political and ideological underpinnings. I will outline three observations about the circumstance of contemporary publishing, and then sketch some of the events that have informed the aesthetic decisions behind the press’ vision, or more poignantly, that of its founder, Steve Clay.

a) It is extraordinary to find a publisher of quality experimental writing who embraces the radical and self-conscious zones of material and typographic integrity familiar to book artists and artisans. It is my opinion that the most inventive poetry published today typically appears in functional trade editions that seldom draw attention to their physical, temporal and conceptual dimensions. According to the poet Robert Creeley, “form is never more than an extension of content,” and yet for many publishers of experimental writing, form is integral insofar as it concerns the text, while the book itself is all too often overlooked.

b) Among the gamut of publications (including journals) available under the expansive heading “Book Arts,” one finds a host of essential titles devoted to developing the practice and preservation of traditional crafts such as binding, typography, papermaking, and more recently, desktop publishing and digital printing. In turn, the lack of scholarship devoted to the theoretical, historical and the inherently intertextual/interdisciplinary fabric of book arts discourse in the 20th and 21st Centuries may be at least partly attributed to publishers’ lack of initiative when it comes to encouraging scholars to take an active interest in pursuing these “zones of activity” (to invoke the phrase of Johanna Drucker).

c) The finest of private press publishers producing sumptuous, elaborate and beautifully crafted editions have a tendency to shy away from esoteric writers, generally preferring to invest in the safeguards of the mainstream literary milieu or reprint texts already firmly embedded in official literary canons. While it is a glorious undertaking to bring the words of James Joyce or William Shakespeare into print, the small press is, and has always been the driving force behind the constantly changing face of contemporary literature.

Vigilant on all fronts, and attentive to the condition outlined above, Granary is committed to “publishing innovative writing and visual work,” while “observing progressive scholarship and supporting adventurous book making in the context of exploring the relationships between seeing and reading, reading and seeking.” It is difficult to imagine that any syllabus (or practioner’s bookshelf for that matter) about the artists’ book could be complete without at least one title from Granary. For this publisher, theory is not simply a reflection of practice, but the artful praxis of attending to the work as a whole. I am preoccupied with, what I loosely call the ontology of the book: where do they come from? how are they conceived? and how do we as readers perceive of them as objects and concepts in their relationship to one another? I can’t answer these questions, but I know that Steve Clay has been the conductor orchestrating every movement behind the press’ symphonic past. Here’s an abbreviated history of how Granary came to be.

At the University of Iowa, Clay studied with Sherman Paul, a transcendentalist whose early scholarship focused on Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Herman Melville. Paul later became interested in Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and other modernist figures before engaging with writers of the post-war years, such as David Antin, Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn, and Robert Duncan. Paul stressed the importance of reading books in their first edition form, and encouraged his students to make full use of Iowa’s superb Special Collections Library where Clay indulged in hours of serendipitous reading. In 1978, he attended the Charles Olson Festival organized by Paul at Iowa and became attracted to his concept of “re-reading.” This form of criticism emphasized a generative and highly performative (as opposed to a hermetic or entrenched academic) way of engaging with poetry. If one were to follow this thread to the present, it is clear that Clay has been consistently supportive of bold scholarly methods that nomadically traverse gutters, bindings and succinct categorization.

Shortly after the Olson Festival, Clay made his way out to the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, where he had the opportunity to audit courses with Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs and mingle with other writers affiliated with the Beats, Black Mountain College, Language, and New York School. Although Clay has published individuals affiliated with each of these movements, he has constructed a distinct, if not eclectic, corpus of titles that refuses to stagnate or dwell in any particular camp or dogma. Clay publishes what he likes to read, and publishes it the way he wants to read it. While living in Boulder, he wrote poetry, worked in a bookstore and took part in the lively scene that was then flourishing around the Institute. Intent on opening his own bookshop, he moved to Chicago for a spell before settling in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he and Merce Dostale opened Origin Books. Shortly thereafter, he became involved with Granary Books, then the literary fine press branch of the distributor Bookslinger that sold publications produced by Abattoir Editions, Toothpaste, Windhover, Copper Canyon and Red Ozier Presses.

The seed of thought that inspired Clay to begin publishing was planted on a cold winter day when Alison Circle dropped into Origin and asked, “if you were going to publish anyone, who would you publish?”to which he immediately replied “Jane Brakhage,” whose “Lump Gulch Tales” he had been reading in Ed Dorn’s Rolling Stock Magazine. Clay recollects, “I was surprised even to hear myself say that, but I didn’t forget and eventually we published Jane’s From the Book of Legends in 1989.” Like all acts of creation and happenstance, inspiration and chance have contributed to Granary’s growth as much as its earnest desire to contribute to the rich cultural life of the book Clay admired.

The first publication from Granary (technically Origin at that time) was Jonathan Williams’ Wee Lorine Niedecker in 1986, but publishing remained an extremity until he brought the experimental American composer John Cage and the German artist Barbara Fahrner together to collaborate on a project that culminated in Nods (1991). Like so many of the books to follow, this was one where the initiative may be attributed to author, artist and publisher alike. Moreover, Nods was brought into print through the talents of Philip Gallo and bound by Daniel Kelm who would collaborate with Clay for years thereafter. The range of materials and methods of reproduction employed following Nods is staggering; letterpress, offset, etching, photo-transfer, drawing, painting, tearing, collage, metal, latex, fur, wax, rubber, and sandpaper pushed the definition of “book arts” to its outermost edge. Clay, in conjunction with Granary’s surprisingly small staff, worked in collaboration with revered artists such as Shelagh Keeley, Pati Scobey, Tennessee Rice Dixon, Toni Dove, Jane Sherry, Julie Harrison, Timothy Ely/Terence McKenna, Buzz Spector, Carolee Schneemann, and Holton Rower. In a sense, this bounty of books had all of the signs of an extraordinary book arts press in the making, with a captivating emphasis on form, texture and extravagance. Clay recollects, “Although the impulse to publish was imbued with (or defined by) a sense of writing and poetry, most of the dozen books immediately following Nods were primarily visual, created as if to make evident, in a very literal sense, what Stéphane Mallarmé meant when he wrote that everything in the world exists in order to end up as a book.” After Granary relocated to New York City, the emphasis on fine press distribution dwindled as publishing became the press’ primary agenda.

By this time, Granary had already set a precedent for innovative bookworks by way of example, while actively advancing the range of historical and scholarly frameworks for thinking about the glorious past (and future) of media, literacy and print culture at large. Situated in a Soho gallery scene, the art world was not altogether accepting of this approach to bookmaking, somehow preferring a narrower definition of book arts that took Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations as a finite point of departure. Conversely, poets responded with an overwhelming support for the project, and while it remains one of the most exciting book arts presses anywhere, Clay’s poetic and scholarly interests have diversified Granary’s agenda, organically building and redefining its legacy—still in process.

In the mid-nineties, Drucker’s groundbreaking The Century of Artists’ Books made its début, and 4,000 hardcover copies were snatched off the shelves like hotcakes. This was the first time Granary had produced anything other than elaborate limited edition works by artists (and occasionally writers). The Century of Artists' Books (recently brought back into print with a new preface by the author, an introduction by The New York Times senior art critic Holland Cotter and a brilliant cover designed by Emily McVarish) is the first full-length study of the development of artists' books as the twentieth century art form. Drucker traces the stands of artists' books within the wider context of recognizable movements in the arts, including Russian Futurism, Surrealism, Fluxus, Pop, and Conceptual Art. The second critical edition was The Book, Spiritual Instrument (edited by Jerome Rothenberg and David Guss) which Clay fortuitously learned was an issue of New Wilderness Letter while helping Schneemann organize her personal library. Contributors to this book include Stéphane Mallarmé, Edmond Jabès, Becky Cohen, Alison Knowles, George Quasha, Dick Higgins, Karl Young, David Meltzer, Tina Oldknow, J. Stephen Lansing, Paul Eluard, David Guss, Jed Rasula, Gershom Scholem, Jerome Rothenberg and Herbert Blau. Clay’s discussions with Rothenberg led to the publication of the massive, yet meticulously edited anthology A Book of the Book: Some Works & Projections about the Book & Writing. Meanwhile, trade edition books of poetry (often in collaboration with visual artists) by Bernadette Mayer, Kimberly Lyons, Lyn Hejinian, Clark Coolidge and Simon Cutts began to appear, offering readers new writing stylishly designed at very reasonable prices. The handmade limited edition works continued to break new ground, striking a remarkable balance insofar as the content never overwhelms the form, nor the form the content. Although primarily self-taught, Clay’s unerring editorial eye ranks among his mentors: Cutts of Coracle, Higgins of Something Else and Williams of the Jargon Society.

When I interviewed Clay at the Small Publishers Fair in London in the autumn of 2004, he boasted that he had almost cleared his desk of all commissioned works, and was looking forward to “doing less” for a little while. Naturally, it didn’t take long for his zeal to catch up with him. In 2005 he published Jackson MacLow’s Doings (including an audio compact disk), Mimi Gross and Charles Bernstein’s collaboration Some of These Daze, Lenore Malen’s The New Society for Universal Harmony, and Betty Bright's No Longer Innocent: Book Art in America 1960-1980, the first history to trace the emergence of the artist’s book in the U.S. during the 1960s and 1970s, as well as Emily McVarish’s Flicker, one of the most inventive uses of the letterpress I’ve seen in some time. All of these titles will be available direct through their homepage (granarybooks.com) or through D.A.P. (artbook.com). Other books by Knowles, Alice Notley, Cutts, and Norma Cole and collaborations between Steve McCaffery and Alan Halsey & Rothenberg and Susan Bee are also in the works.

There is and will always be more. To respond to the question that serves as the title to their twelve-year catalogue published in 2001, When Will the Book Be Done? — the answer is simply “never.” The wellspring of ideas radiating from these works will continue to inform and fracture the way we as fellow readers, artists, writers, scholars, and publishers conceive and perceive of books with no end in sight. In closing, I am reminded of Karl Kraus’ aphorism invoked by Charles Bernstein in his “Defense of Poetry”: “the closer we look at a word, the greater the distance from which it stares back.” Don’t blink.