When will the book be done?

By Steve Clay, originally printed as introduction for When will the book be done? Granary's books. Granary Books, 2001.


The first item that I identify as a Granary Books1 publication was actually published by Origin Books2 in 1986—Wee Lorine Niedecker by Jonathan Williams. It embodies several elements that remain important to me now, some fifteen years later, among which is an acute awareness of the "book" as a physical object. I write this in quotes because the work in question is not a book per se but presents a short poem by Mr. Williams, printed on a small piece of card stock contained within a printed envelope which is enclosed within yet another printed envelope. As such, its references include Williams's own Jargon Society3 ("the custodian of snowflakes"), a press which made ample use of a diverse array of publishing formats including folding cards, broadsides, postcards, pamphlets and books. The Jargon Society was one of two or three publishers4 which loomed behind the emerald curtain at the fore edge of my imagination as possible exemplars for an entity which had not yet been conceived. Publishing did not prove central to my concerns5 until the advent of Nods in 1991.

A sense of necessity was at the root of this project. There was a strong desire to connect with John Cage, whose music and writings (linking Buddhist philosophy with expansive yet centered notions and definitions of art and musical composition) had been crucial for me over the years (yet such influence is probably not evident to an outside observer). Although Nods fits easily among the group of artist/writer books published later, its seminal position marks, as much as anything, a way of collaborating, a procedural approach to working together with those involved in a particular project. Nods brought together the writings of John Cage and the drawings of Barbara Fahrner.6 Mr. Cage gave Ms. Fahrner permission to perform chance operations on his published works toward arriving at a new text; she then made a series of drawings after the book had been set in type by Philip Gallo7 at The Hermetic Press. Subsequently, the edition was bound by Daniel Kelm8 at the Wide Awake Garage. What came together in my mind quite vividly as this project concluded, were the (until then) seemingly disparate elements of publishing: words, pictures, printing, binding and distribution. In a very real sense, Granary as a publisher was born with Nods; this book was the foundation of the master plan without a master plan, very much in keeping with my sense of Mr. Cage's logic.

It is convenient for me to observe now what was neither clear nor evident at any other point during the last fifteen years. Looking back, I see the publishing activity of Granary Books falling into three broad and overlapping zones of activity: 1) artists' books9 2) books of theory and documentation pertaining primarily to books, writing and publishing10 and 3) writer/artist collaborations.11 The daily reality of the process of publishing was that one book led to the next and the next and the next (nearly 100 times now), with no predetermined plan of who or how to publish,12 with hardly any sense of how to pay for it all13 and equally little sense of how to distribute the works once produced.14 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 Stephane Mallarme meant when he wrote that everything in the world exists in order to end up as a book. The series of projects which followed were caught up in, among other things, their own material, visual and sensual inclusiveness; the ideas driving the work demanded, and to some extent were determined by, an extravagant edifice.

A massive range of materials and techniques were exploited (letterpress, offset, etching, photo-transfer, drawing, painting, tearing, collage, metal, latex, fur, wax, rubber and sandpaper to name but a few) in the service of realizing artists' books15 by Shelagh Keeley, Pati Scobey, Tennessee Rice Dixon, Toni Dove, Jane Sherry, Timothy Ely/Terence McKenna, Buzz Spector, Carolee Schneemann and Holton Rower, among others. My motivation for producing such works was counter to what I perceived was then happening in "book arts," where on some level, the crafts of bookbinding, printing and papermaking often appeared to be the driving force behind the finished work. I imagined these Granary publications to be anthropological as much as aesthetic artifacts, where craft per se was seen as a technology, a means of getting things done, rather than as an end in and of itself. The desire was, in part, to resonate or rhyme with books from cultures and times very different from our own and to seek out a form of visual language rooted in the acts of assembling and marking, i.e. handwork. Toward that opening, the encouragement of scholarship and documentation of the work began to take on additional significance.

In the early 1990s there was a dearth of information16 which might establish a useful overview of recent activity, relevant historical precedents and a set of critical terms for framing and talking about artists' books. Discussions with Johanna Drucker revolved around the idea of a traveling exhibition and an accompanying descriptive catalog. Tony Zwicker and I spoke about editing a new volume of writings modeled on Joan Lyons's work, Artists' Books. For specific reasons now forgotten, the exhibition and the anthology didn't happen. The whole project was conflated into Ms. Drucker's seminal study, The Century of Artists' Books,17 which Granary published in 1995. I decided upon a first printing of 4000 copies in hardback, and later learned that this was perhaps a somewhat large first run for a scholarly book. Nevertheless, 3000 copies in paper were printed in 1997 when stock in cloth dwindled to about a thousand. The lion's share of the sales have been generated by word of mouth—there have been only a handful of reviews and those were published primarily in off-the-screen journals. Century was (and is) distributed, as are all of our trade books, by D.A.P. (Distributed Art Publishers),18 thus beginning our continuing association.

Emboldened by the success of Century,19 we brought out The Book, Spiritual Instrument,20 edited by Jerome Rothenberg and David Guss in 1996. This is a lean and learned work which focuses on relations between ancient and modern forms of the book and writing, "Éa vision of books as laboratories for the invention and performance of perceptual systems: new worlds carved out of the wilderness of human thought and language."21 Discussions with Mr. Rothenberg inevitably led to another book, further exploring the regions hinted at in The Book, Spiritual Instrument. After a couple of years of editorial work, Granary published our co-edited A Book of the Book: Some Works & Projections about the Book & Writing. These books join a growing shelf of Granary works devoted to the study and documentation of books, writing and independent publishing, including Stefan Klima's Artists Books: A Critical Survey of the Literature, Judd D. and Renée Riese Hubert's The Cutting Edge of Reading: Artists' Books, Steven Clay's and Rodney Phillips's A Secret Location on the Lower East Side: Adventures in Writing, 1960-1980: A Sourcebook of Information, Aaron Fischer's Ted Berrigan: An Annotated Checklist, Johanna Drucker's The Century of Artists' Books and Figuring the Word: Essays on Books, Writing and Visual Poetics and Anne Waldman's and Lewis Warsh's Angel Hair Sleeps with a Boy in My Head: The Angel Hair Anthology. As of this writing, I am collaborating with David Platzker to publish a book documenting the twenty-five-year history of Printed Matter Bookstore.22We also have plans to publish a catalog documenting the archive of dealer and collector Tony Zwicker.23

Finally, the primacy of words and writing to the Granary publications again becomes more evident in the mid-1990s with books conceived of as collaborations between poets and artists exploring and identifying verbal/visual relations, possibilities and limitations. This is a particularly rich vein of activity to mine because the tradition of the poet/painter book is highly referential and has a long and sometimes tawdry past. Yet within this rather traditional mode of working lie the possibilities for being blind-sided by the new and the unexpected. Recent collaborations include works by Kimberly Lyons and Ed Epping, Joe Elliot and Julie Harrison, Lyn Hejinian and Emilie Clark, Jerome Rothenberg and David Rathman, Charles Bernstein and Susan Bee, Ted Berrigan and George Schneeman, Robert Creeley and Elsa Dorfman, Clark Coolidge and Keith Waldrop, Anne Waldman and Susan Rothenberg, Larry Fagin and Trevor Winkfield, among many others. As always, we aim at a means of production appropriate to the work at hand, with a determination to incite and expose multiple senses of how and what a book might be.

One of my very first lessons in business was to understand that most work is accomplished in cooperation with other people. It is thus one of my great and enduring pleasures to have had the opportunity to work with the people identified throughout this catalog and to count a great many friends among them. This book is dedicated to them all. Furthermore I wish to acknowledge and thank several people whose efforts specific to this catalog are amply evident. Estela Robles, designer extraordinaire, graced our offices with her impeccable skills for several months during the summer of 2000 on an extended visit from Mexico City. Gratitude to Emily Y. Ho for her irrepressible bibliographical proclivities, to Amber Phillips for her well tempered organizational choreography, to wordslingers Charles Bernstein and Johanna Drucker for their rare abilities to articulate the ineffable and to our indefatigable summer intern, Daniele Anastasion. Grateful thanks to special friends Michael Mann and Deborah Wexler, who have been of crucial importance to the project of Granary over the years, in ways immeasurable. And finally, but essentially, to my partner Julie Harrison—thanks for the fount of aesthetic, editorial and moral input germane to the realization of this and so many other Granary books—loving affection to her.


1 The first work published by Granary was a broadside, an ominous beginning as it presented a horribly depressing vision of books and the book trade by John Locke (with which I only partly agree).

2 Origin Books was a poetry bookshop run for a couple of years by Merce Dostale and myself in Minneapolis. The shop was named after Cid Corman's magazine. I remember one particularly germinal afternoon being visited by Alison Circle, then of Black Mesa Press (a precursor to present-day Chax Press)—Ms. Circle asked, "If you could publish anybody you wanted, who would it be?" I immediately answered, without thinking, "Jane Brakhage." [Now Jane Wodening.] I'd read Jane's odd, eccentric and almost experimental stories in the "Lump Gulch Tales" column of Ed Dorn's and Jennifer Dunbar Dorn's magazine Rolling Stock. I later met Jane in New York during her camouflage-road-garb and matted-hair period—a fascinating and intimidating sight. I screwed up my courage and invited her out for a muffin the next morning. Granary published her first book, From the Book of Legends, in 1989.

3 The Jargon Society, founded in 1951 (the year I was born), was an education in both publishing/bookmaking and literature, particularly the first twenty years. Weaned by Sherman Paul on Olson, Duncan and Creeley, the Origin/Jargon nexus occupied a royal spot in my imagination. Holding a copy of Origin II featuring Robert Creeley, for example, or Maximus 1-10 by Charles Olson—these were expansive moments. Jargon not only published terrific writing by the likes of Zukofsky, Levertov, Williams, Niedecker, Loy, Oppenheimer, DawsonÉthey did so with a defining sense of style, care and commitment.

4 Dick Higgins's Something Else Press (founded in 1964) ranks high as well. Associated with Fluxus, Something Else produced books remarkable for both form and content. The designs had a fascinating new/old look; the exotic content lured me far away from my Midwestern roots. Another important exemplar was Coracle Press (founded in 1975), then of London, now of Tipperary in Ireland. Coracle produced (and produces) a wide range of materials: poetry, criticism, essays, artists' books, postcards, catalogs—with a particular reverence for the small scale. Simon Cutts (now in partnership with Erica Van Horn) and Coracle have decisively extended and grounded my sense of publishing.

5 From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, primarily at Granary's gallery space in Soho, we curated (with much help from others) and hosted innumerable exhibitions, lectures, performances, musical events, poetry readings and publication parties.

6 Barbara Fahrner is a German artist whom I first encountered at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1989. She'd recently completed "Das Kunstkammerprojekt," a work of massive intellect and imagination.

7 Philip Gallo studied with Harry Duncan in the mid-1960s. His Hermetic Press has issued a veritable trickle of found and concrete poetry (all by Mr. Gallo) since about 1970. For years (and to his obvious delight) the reach of Mr. Gallo's audience extended for about one block around a bar at the corner of Lake and Hennepin in Minneapolis. It has since reached beyond that somewhat.

8 I first encountered Daniel Kelm's work at a birthday party for Tim Ely* in 1989 near Northampton, MA. He showed and described a recent work called The Earth Book made in an edition of three—which was very much under the influence of studies in alchemy and bookbinding—a rich mixture of chemistry, poetry, craft and intelligence. Mr. Kelm aptly likened the role of publisher to that of midwife. *Timothy Ely's work was presented in a slide lecture given by Ruth and Marvin Sackner at Granary's office in Minneapolis around 1986. There were perhaps six people in the audience. When the work of Mr. Ely appeared on the screen, the floor moved palpably.

9 As Stefan Klima has pointed out, "definition" has been the dominant topic of published discourse around artists' books since the early 1970s. At the risk of flogging a dead horse, let me quickly interject that in my estimation, artists' books are best understood within a wide context nurtured by several lineages and as such they show up, in our time, in a vast array of proliferating forms, quickly changing guises as soon as any one definition seems certain.

10 This list extends to include occasional books about music and film.

11 In regard to the controversial livre d'artiste I quote David Antin from his essay "The Stranger at the Door": "The viability of a genre like the viability of a family is based on survival, and the indispensible property of a surviving family is a continuing ability to take in new members who bring fresh genetic material into the old reservoir. So the viability of a genre may depend fairly heavily on an avant-garde activity that has often been seen as threatening its very existence, but is more accurately seen as opening its present to its past and future."

12 The works published are nearly always initiated by Granary; seldom, if ever, do they come in over the transom. I would suggest that this is typical of an independent press and almost unheard of among mainstream publishers.

13 The cost of producing small edition works is anywhere between 10K and 30K out-of-pocket expenditures. The major trade books cost between 25K and 40K while the trade poetry books cost between 2K and 4K, depending primarily on the nature of the cover.

14 But what does it mean to distribute a work that exists in an edition of perhaps thirty copies for sale? In David Antin's words, "What is the radius of the discourse?" Is the radius significantly increased as the price goes down? As the edition size goes up? One wants to say yes, yes it is increased—but for most of the works described in this catalog (and for art works in general) I'm not so sure. The radius of discourse for a painting by Jackson Pollock, for example, is quite large in spite of its existence as a unique object and its astronomical price (if for sale at all). Johanna Drucker identifies the crucial element as being content, and I tend to agree.

15 Two statements by Robert Creeley seem to have been imprinted onto my consciousness and have consequently played themselves out in all of Granary's books: a) "form is never more than the extension of content" (which came to me by way of an essay by Olson) and b) "never write/to say more/than saying/something" (from Pieces).

16 I have a three-foot shelf of materials pertaining to artists' books in my library. In 1990 I sorted out the useful titles and it quickly boiled down to a handful of catalogs and one book: Artists' Books: An Anthology and Sourcebook edited by Joan Lyons, first published in 1985. Artists' Books charts a significant range of work and, much to its credit, is not driven by ideology. However, for a genre growing as rapidly as artists' books at that time, something new and relevant was an urgent concern.

17 In 1995, MOMA's exhibition, A Century of Artists' Books, and its accompanying catalog by Riva Castleman, seemed off the mark. Ms. Drucker's use of the word "the" in her title, rather than "a," was a challenge to the somewhat narrow interpretation comprising the MOMA exhibit.

18 Our trade books, and some of the small editions, are also available from the premier source for new poetry and poetics in this country, Small Press Distribution, of Berkeley, CA.

19 Success is measured here not in dollars but in number of copies sold. My best inside sources confide that, in scholarly publishing, success equals 2000 copies sold. In dollars, given the $35,000 initial investment, after five years we've just about broken even.

20 Having followed Jerome Rothenberg's work for twenty years, including the several magazines he edited, I say with some degree of embarrassment that I had never laid eyes on issue #11 of The New Wilderness Letter subtitled "The Book, Spiritual Instrument." As I was poking through books one winter's morning at Carolee Schneemann's house, there it was. A half-dozen attempts over the next couple of months to locate additional copies turned up nothing. Thus, the reprint.

21 Quoted from Charles Bernstein's cover blurb.

22 Since 1976, Printed Matter, located in New York City, has served as a tremendous resource for artists' books, complimenting its distribution activities with exhibitions and publications.

23 Tony Zwicker was the spiritual godmother of a great many artists whose paths in and through books she dignified with her rare intelligence and generosity.

Introduction for When will the book be done? Granary’s books. Granary Books, 2001.