05 October 2022
Delicate Materials - Imaginative Texts
Dr. Tatiani Rapatzikou is Associate Professor in the Department of American Literature and Culture, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, and was a 2020 Eccles Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
My visit to the British Library in April and August 2022 was fully dedicated to the exploration of diverse primary and secondary sources that fall under the theme of book design, materiality, and storytelling in the context of print and digital American literary practice.
With the Library having in its holdings an array of uniquely made books by contemporary US-based print makers, I felt that I had only scraped the tip of the iceberg.
While searching for my own project, I came across and I was tempted to explore a number of paper-made gems that fueled my curiosity and whetted my appetite for this area of American literary, as well as publishing, experience. The first example I’d like to share is the Loujon Press 1966 volume titled Order and Chaos Chez Reichel by Henry Miller (see Fig. 1) that I had been reading about but had never seen.
Made out of a range of materials such as coloured paper, cork and tissue-lace paper, and coming in a decorated cardboard slipcase, this is a unique codex creation. This special volume contains, in addition to Miller’s own text, an introduction contributed by Lawrence Durrell, one of his close friends, written in red ink on light blue and beige-coloured paper. In the opening paragraph of the introduction, Durrell writes: “This little book is, if my memory serves me right, only one of several which Miller completed around this time (1937-38) and gave to his friends as personal gifts” (7). This particular book creation was dedicated to Miller’s painter friend, Hans Reichel, whom he met during his Paris days in the late 1930s. Building on Miller’s initially handwritten book-letter to Reichel on printer’s dummies, Jon and Louise "Gypsy Lou" Webb, the founders of the New Orleans-based Loujon Press, published Miller’s Order and Chaos in six limited editions, each one resorting to different materials and bindings.
The specific book mentioned here serves as a memento of a special friendship. Ιt is the tactile and visual as well as colour quality of the materials used (paper, cork, tissue, ink) that transfer to the readers Miller’s diverse thoughts and feelings for his painter friend.
The second example, I’d like to point at is the limited edition of a broadside poem project (see Fig. 2), which started in 1982 with Alastair Reed and continued in 1984 with Dana Gioia, aiming to bring together a diverse range of poems by American poets residing in fourteen different US states. Amidst the poets who participated in this special endeavor were: May Swenson, W.S. Merwin, Jay Parini, Judith Hemschemeyer, Amy Clampitt and others. This project was completed in collaboration with James Trissel, who was the designer and printer of the letterpress and book arts studio known as The Press at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
In the booklet accompanying the broadside poem creations, Gioia writes in her “Introduction”: “Printed on one side of a single sheet of paper, a poetry broadside is the most intense and unified genre of printing. […] While a book may have hundreds of pages to create its effect, a broadside has only one forceful gesture to satisfy simultaneously the requirements of both literature and design.” While in “The Printer’s Comment,” contained in the same booklet, Trissel notes: “These twenty four broadsides […] represent the opportunity to deal with poetry in an expansive range of typographic situations” by resorting to special paper materials and an array of printing techniques. He also points out that, “Unlike the book, the broadside tries within a single plane to strike a resonance between the poetic text and its visual circumstance.” These two comments offer an insight into the crucial role materials, typographic design and printing can play in the delivery not only of an aesthetic effect but also of a multilayered and synthesizing experience.
It was thanks to the Eccles Centre's US Fine Presses Established after 1945: A Guide to the British Library's Holdings, which is available both on the Centre's website and in the British Library's Shared Research Repository, that I was able to systematize and expand my research as well as broaden my knowledge about American specialist presses and their print-based projects.
What is certain is that materials enhance the experience of writing, since they strive not merely for a conceptual, but also a bodily and even gestural engagement with the texts composed and the narratives brought forward. Each one of the examples presented here sheds light on a different way of printing and manifestation of creativity. These kinds of material creations both bring to our attention an alternative artistic and literary activity that values craftsmanship and collaboration between the print-maker and the writer or the poet, while also personalizing the overall experience and establishing a meaningful connection with the readers on the basis of the materials and printing method chosen.
In a reality governed by mass production and commercialization, material design and book-making invite us to reevaluate literary practice. This has become even more pertinent since the turn of the 21st century due to the ubiquity of digital technologies. It is not accidental that in the context of current scholarship on American literary production there is a resurgence of interest in digitally-assisted book design and materials, with “bookishness” being the term that is now used in order to mark this kind of turn. Jessica Pressman interprets bookishness as a “creative movement invested in exploring and demonstrating love for the book as symbol, art form, and artifact” (1), which increases in intensity as our every day actions also demand an increased engagement with digital technologies.
Considering this observation in tandem with the examples shared in this short blog, one can realise that materials, even though overlooked at times, play a decisive role in enhancing the literary experience by multiplying the opportunities readers have for imaginative exploration and immersion into the story told.
Henry Miller, Order and Chaos Chez Reichel. Tucson, Ariz.: Loujon Press, c1966. British Library shelfmark: YA.1992.b.1551.
Jessica Pressman, Bookishness: Loving Books in a Digital Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020. British Library pressmark: YC.2022.a.2100.
Alastair Reed and Dana Gioia, editors. The Printed Poem/The Poem as Print: Twenty-four Broadsides of American Poetry. Colorado Springs, Col.: The Press at Colorado College, 1985-1986. British Library shelfmark: HS.74/2350.