Americas and Oceania Collections blog

31 posts categorized "Poetry"

14 November 2022

On my desk – On Spirit Lake: Georgian Bay Stories from Church Street Press

My thanks go to Alan Stein for granting permission to use images of his artwork in this blog

The Americas team is fortunate to work with some fascinating items that cross our desks for a variety of reasons from exhibition loans to Reader queries. Through the On my desk blog series, we ask the team three questions which will give you an insight into the work of curators and cataloguers at the Library and a behind-the-scenes peek at some of the items in the collections. Today’s post features Rachael, one of the curators for the Library’s North American Published Collections Post-1850.

What is the item?

On Spirit Lake: Georgian Bay Stories with wood engravings by Alan Stein and introduction by Tom Smart (RF.2022.b.35) – a fine press book from 2018 printed by The Church Street Press, based in Parry Sound, Ontario, Canada.

Why is it on your desk?

While standard Canadian monographs are processed by our teams in Boston Spa, the more delicate fine press items are invoiced, stamped, catalogued and stored at our London site in St Pancras.

On Spirit Lake: Georgian Bay Stories is on my desk because it's a new acquisition which needed to be stamped before passing onto the Americas Cataloguer who makes the item available and, very importantly, findable in the British Library catalogue.

I always love visiting the stamping room; seeing the team delicately place a handstamp on an item means it’s one step closer to being made available to Readers. The stamping team make sure all new acquisitions display a British Library stamp in a way that clearly shows a mark of ownership but which is discreet enough to not invade or obscure the content on the item’s pages. A steady hand is needed, particularly where artists’ books, fine press and other visually appealing items are concerned, materials you might see displayed in exhibitions for example.

As you’ll notice, this book displays a small British Library (BL) stamp and crown (unlike the larger round stamps used on standard monographs) in red ink, indicating this has been a purchase – rather than a donation (green) or arrived via Legal Deposit (blue).

Photographs of British Library stamps
Photographs of British Library stamps

Why is it interesting?

For me this item is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, having lived in Canada for a short time in my youth, I always find it a bit of a treat to look through books which focus on the unique landscapes found there.

Front cover of On Spirit Lake: Georgian Bay Stories with wood engravings by Alan Stein and introduction by Tom Smart (RF.2022.b.35), on my desk
Front cover of On Spirit Lake: Georgian Bay Stories with wood engravings by Alan Stein and introduction by Tom Smart (RF.2022.b.35), on my desk

Painter and a printmaker Alan Stein established Church Street Press in 1998; through his private press, he hand prints limited edition books which feature his own illustrations in wood engravings, like the ones here, or stone lithography[1]. Alan states that much of his work ‘has been influenced by summers spent on Georgian Bay’[2], and this book, as the title implies, epitomises that. Alan’s archives are held at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.

Georgian Bay – a large bay of Lake Huron – is located entirely within the borders of Ontario. As Tom Smart (art historian and curator) explains in his introduction, the book comprises a number of authors whose ‘prose poems, fictional narratives, autobiographical episodes and…invented passages from historical records’[3] examine the influence the Bay has had on their lives and works. I find it fascinating how the same natural spectacle has had such deep connections with so many authors and artists, many more beyond the pages of this book I’m sure, and how that influence manifests itself so differently from person to person; inspiring them to write on topics from climate change to culinary encounters.

One contribution that stood out for me when reading this item is Manido-gaming by Waubgeshig Rice. An eight-year-old Anishinaabeg boy fishes on the side of his lake, his grandmother beside him, the boy asking the elder about the Anishinaabeg presence that has been at the lake before his lifetime, and before hers. Through their exchange, the lake becomes a kind of metaphor for the Anishinaabeg experience: ‘It gives us all life. It’s sacred. And it’s your home, my boy’ his grandmother tells him. But looking at the town of recreational homes across the bay, reminders of displacement are ever-present: the young boy observes that ‘[u]nder the wind-swept evergreens of its shoreline, Georgian Bay’s flowing contradictions whirled.’ The title of this story, Manido-gaming, refers to the name by which the innumerable Anishinaabeg generations who have lived on or near the Bay’s shores, know the body of water: “Manidoo gaming,” or “spirit lake”[4].

Wood engraving by Alan Stein illustrating Manido-gaming by Waubgeshig Rice; a boy’s fishing line creates ripples in the water
Wood engraving by Alan Stein illustrating Manido-gaming by Waubgeshig Rice; a boy’s fishing line creates ripples in the water

As well as being of potential research interest to those studying Canadian and Indigenous authors and Canadian landscapes in literature, I should also mention the beauty of this book physically. The mottled watery effect cover invites the reader to dive into the pages.

Blue hues on the book’s cover
Blue hues on the book’s cover

Stein’s prints not only interpret the words as image, but also ‘trace a personal iconography testifying to his own deep connection to the land and water and to the histories of the place’[5]. These comprise 14 wood engravings including one stunning hand-coloured in blue, green, yellow and red showing a more tempestuous scene printed on Gampi Torinoko[6]. Alan kindly gave me some insight into the inspiration for this frontispiece image: this being a tale Alan was told by his friend, Canadian poet and diplomat, Douglas Valentine LePan, about the dream of a local native Ojibway guide by the name Peter Pemajuan. The rough, rocky-coloured pages add a real tangible element to reading the book will no doubt appeal to researchers interested in paper- and book-making techniques, engraving, printing and binding. 

Hand-coloured wood engraving on the book’s frontispiece
Hand-coloured wood engraving on the book’s frontispiece

Remember you just need a free Reader Pass to gain access to this and hundreds more fine press items in the Library’s collections. Find out more about the titles available using our collections guide and the bibliographic guide from the Eccles Centre for American Studies.

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[1] Lithography being a ‘flat-surface printmaking process in which a design is drawn onto a flat stone, or prepared metal plate, usually zinc or aluminium, and affixed by means of a chemical reaction’. Definition provided by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, for more details see https://www.metmuseum.org/about-the-met/collection-areas/drawings-and-prints/materials-and-techniques/printmaking/lithograph

[2] https://www.alanstein.art/

[3] From the book’s introduction by Tom Smart

[4] ‘Ancestral Waters’ by Waubgeshig Rice, an excerpt from Locations Of Grief: An Emotional Geography: http://hamiltonreviewofbooks.com/blog/2020/5/15/ancestral-waters

[5] From the book’s introduction by Tom Smart

[6] ‘Gampi Torinoko is a strong, crisp sheet that is translucent, with almost no visible fibres. Gampi is a bush found in the mountainous, warm areas of Japan’. Definition provided by Legion Paper, for more details see https://legionpaper.com/gampi-torinoko

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.

A colourful book slip-case stands upright, alongside a colourful opened book showing a portrait of a man on the left and a blue and pink illustration on the right.
Fig. 1: This Loujon Press publication of the Order and Chaos volume comes with a slipcase made out of flowery-patterned and colored paper. On the verso cover page is Hans Reichel’s photograph, while on the recto cover page Reichel’s painting “Homme dans La Lune” is reproduced on the dust jacket.  Henry Miller, Order and Chaos Chez Reichel. Tucson, Ariz.: Loujon Press, c1966. British Library shelfmark: YA.1992.b.1551.

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.

A collection of hand-printed poems and images are displayed on a table top.
Fig. 2: Four of the uniquely crafted broadside poems and the booklet containing information about the project, all of them gathered together into a big black portfolio box as well as carefully wrapped in thin white paper. The specific box is number 57 out of the limited edition of 150 copies. Alastair Reed and Dana Gioia, editors. The Printed Poem/The Poem as Print: Twenty-four Broadsides of American Poetry. Colorado Springs, Colorado: The Press at Colorado College, 1985-1986. British Library shelfmark: HS.74/2350.

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.

Works Cited

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.

 

03 October 2022

On my desk: Double Persephone by Margaret Atwood

The Americas and Oceania team is fortunate to work with some fascinating items that cross our desks for a variety of reasons from exhibition loans to Reader queries. Through the On my desk blog series, we ask the team three questions which will give you an insight into the work of curators and cataloguers at the Library and a behind-the-scenes peek at some of the items in the collections. Today’s post features Rachael, one of our curators for North American Published Collections Post-1850.

What is the item?

Double Persephone by Canadian author Margaret Atwood – which is a self-published poetry collection written in 1961.

Why is it on your desk?

Our team were recently tasked to update some British Library webpages related to the collection areas we are responsible for. Jobs like this always make for a great opportunity to dive into the collections and gain a better understanding of our holdings. Alongside lesser-known authors, I was looking for particularly interesting or unexpected titles by popular Canadian authors which might help give Readers approaching our collections an idea of the sheer breadth of what’s available at the British Library. It was a real delight when I discovered we held a copy of Margaret Atwood's rare first book, the poetry collection Double Persephone (Cup.503.i.1.)

Photograph of the front cover of Double Persephone (Cup.503.i.1.) showing the cover Atwood designed
Front cover of Double Persephone (Cup.503.i.1.) showing the cover Atwood designed

Why is it interesting?

Margaret Atwood would have only been around 21/22 years old when she self-published (meaning, ‘made public’) the chapbook, Double Persephone. The collection would see her enter and win a poetry competition for students at the University of Toronto, awarding her the E. J. Pratt Medal. I wonder if the selection committee reading those poems and deciding on Atwood as the winner knew the gem they were holding in their hands at the time, or what lay ahead for the young author?

Her follow-up poetry collection published three years later would win the Governor General's Award (The Circle Game, of which the British Library holds the fourth printing at X.950/8654.). As we now know, Atwood would go onto publish in excess of 100 works, from poetry collections to short fiction, novels, graphic novels, television scripts, works of non-fiction, and children’s books. To think this unassuming-looking little collection of seven poems was the start of that, I think is quite amazing.

The small, private press, Hawkshead Press of Kitchener and Toronto, in Atwood’s home province of Ontario, published Double Persephone. In order to afford to self-publish the collection, student Atwood was hands-on in the design and publishing process; she handset the book herself with a flat bed press, designed the cover with linoblocks, and only made 220 copies[1]. The copies were sold for 50 cents apiece[2].

Photo of the full cover illustration showing a light and dark shoot, one with its eyes open and the other with them closed
The full cover illustration showing a light and dark shoot, one with its eyes open and the other with them closed

In a talk Atwood delivered in 2011 (which is available to watch online – see link below in footnotes), she joked at wishing she’d made and kept more of the publication – on the market today, the item can fetch some considerable amounts. The Library’s copy has a red British Museum Library stamp with the date 15th December 1961, so whoever was responsible for purchasing the item some 60 years ago acted quickly indeed, securing a copy for the Library in the same year the item was published, and at what is now considered a bargain price no doubt!

Double Persephone is available to view in the Library’s Rare Books and Music Reading Room in St Pancras, London. Anyone with one of our FREE Reader Passes can order and consult the item, as well as the thousands more collection items available for your research, inspiration and enjoyment held at the British Library. 

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[1] TOC 2011: Margaret Atwood, "The Publishing Pie: An Author's View" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-6iMBf6Ddjk#t=784s

[2] Rare book library celebrates Canada’s small presses by Nick Davies (published 3rd July 2013) https://www.mhpbooks.com/rare-book-library-celebrates-canadas-small-presses/

16 June 2022

Publishing in the Colonial Anglophone Caribbean: A New Guide to the British Library's Holdings

We are delighted to let you know that the Eccles Centre has just published its first Caribbean-focused bibliographic guide: Caribbean Publishing: A Selective Bibliography of British Library Holdings, 1800-1974, by Naomi Oppenheim.

Caribbean Publishing: A Selective Bibliography of British Library Holdings, 1800-1974 is the unexpected outcome of research conducted for my doctoral thesis, ‘“Writing the Wrongs”: Caribbean Publishing in Post-war Britain from a Historical Perspective’. This thesis uses publishing as a channel to explore socio-political transformations and the relationship between print and politics. The bibliography emerged from what I had initially assumed would be a quick research exercise in which I’d call up a selection of nineteenth and twentieth-century Caribbean publications in order to garner a sense of key publishers. It soon became a much more ambitious task!

In essence, I decided to go on a mission to locate everything in the British Library collections that was published in Barbados, British Guiana, Grenada, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, between 1800 and their respective independences: 1966, 1970, 1974, 1962 and 1962, excluding Government Printing Office publications. This entailed creative navigations of the online catalogue, using a combination of territories, cities and date ranges.

Although the bibliography began as personal research endeavour for my thesis, doing a PhD Placement with the Eccles Centre at the British Library – where I worked on the Caribbean Foodways project – meant that I had time to continue working on it with guidance from the Centre’s staff and thus turn it into a public resource. By the end of the project, I had tracked down over 500 books, many of which I had called up and looked at, driven by the curiosity that a sparse catalogue record provokes.

I believe that books are vessels for producing knowledge about history, culture, politics and the nation. My interest in the Caribbean publishing landscape as a lens to understand societal and cultural shifts motivated me to create a detailed subject index for the bibliography: I wanted to know what types of books were being published, by who, and when. I divided this subject index into 11 categories – including Cultural, Economics, Geography and Space, History, Literature, Slavery, Travel and Tourism, and Religion – and I gave each of them multiple sub-categories. The index reveals that history texts, which were the most popular genre, account for a quarter of all books published between 1800 and 1974. Likewise, a quarter are literary - poetry, fiction, memoir, folktales and plays.

As well as aiding British Library users’ navigation of the Caribbean collection, this subject index also helps us to understand historiographical, literary and print trends. And there is 
a list of more than 50 digitised items that are accessible from the comfort of your home, local library or school.

A book frontipiece, brown and slightly worn, with black type.
Fig I: Frank Cudnall, Political and Social Disturbances in the West Indies: A Brief Account and Bibliography. 
Kingston: Institute of Jamaica, 1906. British Library shelfmark: 09004.bb.14.(2).

Publishing was hugely important in shaping ideas of the Caribbean through articulations of history, literature and vernacular language: whether it’s Frank Cundall’s prolific writing about Jamaican bibliography, biography and history, published by the Institute of Jamaica in the late nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries [Fig. 1], Claude McKay’s Songs of Jamaica (1915) [Fig. 2], or Eric Williams’ self-published Historical Background of Race-Relations in the Caribbean (1955).1

The title page of Songs of Jamaica, with a photo of Claude McKay opposite in a military-style shirt and peaked hat.
Fig. 2: Claude McKay, Songs of Jamaica. Kingston: A. W. Gardner & Co., 1912. British Library shelfmark: 011645.df.40.

Published in Kingston in 1912 by Aston W. Gardner & Co., Songs of Jamaica is one of the earliest printed examples of Creole poetry. The introduction was written by Walter Jekyll, a planter who had a keen interest in collecting the songs and stories of the Jamaican peasantry, writing works that reproduced and appropriated this folk culture such as Jamaican Song and Story: Anancy Stories, Diggins Sings, Ring Tunes and Dancing Tunes (1907).2 Jekyll classified Jamaican Creole as a ‘feminine version of our masculine language’ and introduced the volume as offering ‘the thoughts and feelings of a Jamaican peasant of pure black blood.’ Despite his deeply essentializing and gendered framing of McKay’s poetry, Songs of Jamaica gives us insight into the early blossoming of Creole literature and the profound importance of publishing as a vehicle to express and circulate vernacular cultures. Published during a period of proto-nationalist sentiment – the Jamaican National Club was founded by Sandy Cox in 1910 – the book was indicative of a Caribbean, especially Jamaican, publishing boom that signified shifts in terms of author, language and audience.

Caribbean Publishing contains all of these works and a plethora of riches, yet like any research guide, it has its limitations. Publishers across the British Empire were required by law to send copies of all published works to the British Museum, so, technically the British Library should hold a copy of everything that was published in the Caribbean before independence. Yet, this is not the case, for several reasons to do with collecting and archiving. For example, ephemeral publications – which likely included radical, unofficial and DIY pamphlets – would have escaped legal deposit, thereby never becoming part of the collection. And even once items had arrived safely, they were vulnerable to loss, damage and destruction. For example, many of the cookbooks in the bibliography, including Caroline Sullivan’s The Jamaica Cookery Book: Three Hundred and Twelve Simple Cookery Receipts and Household Hints (Kingston: A. W. Gardner & Co., 1893) and 100 Jamaica Recipes (Kingston: Gleaner Co., 1934), were destroyed by bomb damage to the Museum during World War II. Despite these gaps, I hope that this bibliography will support further study of Caribbean publishing, book history, literature, and any of the subjects covered in this extensive guide.

I would like to end by noting that it was thanks to the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s student development fund that I was able to do a placement at the Eccles Centre focusing on Caribbean collections. And I would like to thank all of the wonderful Eccles Team!

Dr. Naomi Oppenheim

Notes

1. Eric Williams, The Historical Background of Race Relations in the Caribbean. Trinidad: [s.n.], 1955; British Library shelfmark: Document Supply W9/3965. 

2. Walter Jekyll, Jamaican Song and Story: Anancy Stories, Diggins Sings, Ring Tunes and Dancing Tunes. London: Published for the Folk-Lore Society by David Nutt, 1907; British Library shelfmark: Ac.9938/24.

20 April 2022

Writer's Award Winner Philip Clark on the Sounds of New York City: Part I

In this first installment of a series of blogs, Philip Clark shares his experience of being a 2022 Eccles Centre and Hay Festival Writer’s Award winner. The Writer’s Award offers £20,000, a year’s residency at the British Library to develop a forthcoming book, and the opportunity to showcase work at Hay Festival events in the UK and Latin America. Philip’s book – Sound and the City – will be a history of the sound of New York City and an investigation into what makes New York City sound like New York City.

At last, I’ve made it. After two years of pandemic travel bans, followed by an embarrassing gaffe with my visa back in January, I’m writing this blog sitting in the café at Barnes & Noble bookstore on Union Square in New York City. Since my arrival, I’ve checked in religiously every morning at 9am for a few hours’ writing; ingrained habits, even when in the city in which we’re told sleep is optional, die hard. Wake up, write. That’s the rhythm. The Barnes & Noble café – the equivalent of the café in Foyles, Charing Cross Road, my usual haunt – is quiet, comfortable and studious. I write surrounded by fellow scribes and ferocious readers – also a young couple gazing into each other’s eyes over a chessboard, who were here yesterday, too. This café has character, although not so much character that I’m distracted from my work. And best of all – the book I’m writing, Sound and the City, a history of the sound of New York City, will, in a few years’ time, be sitting on one of the shelves here. In this space where it was partly written, an idea which appeals to me very much.

People walking and cars driving at the corner of a New York City street in the evening; skyscrapers can be seen in the background.
'Atmosphere'; image, author's own.

My book opens an investigation into what makes New York City sound like New York City, a soundscape completely different from, say, London, Paris or Berlin. What my book is not is a history of music in New York. Instead, the project is to piece together interwoven histories from architecture, geology, immigration, politics and city planning to explain the unique relationship this city has with sound. Alongside, I’m exploring how writers and musicians who have called this endlessly fascinating resonating chamber home have dealt with the sound of the city – a long, impressive role-call that includes Henry James, John Dos Passos, Antonín Dvořák, Edgard Varèse, Duke Ellington, John Cage, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Philip Glass, Bob Dylan, Meredith Monk, Ornette Coleman, Debbie Harry, Lou Reed, Don DeLillo, Grandmaster Flash, Cecil Taylor, Gloria Gaynor, DJ Kool Herc and Wu-Tang Clan.

A five-storey brownstone house with a bay window on the third floor.
Miles Davis'  house; image, author's own.

What does New York do to an artist’s sense of pacing, proportion, structure? Of the sort of material they’re minded to put into their work and the way it behaves once they’ve put it there? In his memoir Words Without Music, published in 2015, Philip Glass claimed “My music sounds like New York”. Which is undoubtedly true. But so does the bebop of Charlie Parker, the modernist composition of Edgard Varèse, the rock of Debbie Harry and the nimble vocal gymnastics of Meredith Monk – none of which sound remotely like Glass. Could factors beyond musical style and idiom knit all this work together? It is my duty to find out.

As life drifted on between lockdowns, and I wondered whether travel would ever be a realistic proposition again, a fantasy New York ran riot inside my imagination. That said, ever since I discovered modern jazz, West Side Story, Morton Feldman and Bob Dylan in my mid-teens, some thirty-five years ago, I have always carried around my own inner-New York. The environment of the city, transferred to reality, felt entirely familiar to me when I started visiting seriously around 2005, testament to how much information its sonic footprint carries within it. New York played a crucial role in my previous book, a biography of the jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, A Life In Time, but there I needed to curb my enthusiasm; editing out superfluous city history became a continual necessity. Now the time has come to fully understand my New York fixation – why that fascination with the sound of its sound, and the sound of its music, has never left me alone.

Last year was spent immersing myself in histories of the city, and also in a pair of works that I knew would give my book its starting point: Edgard Varèse’s orchestral Amériques and John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer. Dos Passos’ novel was published in November 1925, with the premiere of Varèse’s composition following only a few months later in April 1926. The degree to which these panoramic captures of the city mirror each other virtually word-to-note and note-to-word is uncanny. The steamboat whistles and fire engine sirens which Dos Passos describes so vividly are not merely evoked in the fabric of Varèse’s music – he literally wrote both machines into his piece, urban objets trouvés he made sing and holler.

A couple of steps lead down to a brown wood front door, with a white surround; an iron balcony is immediately above.
Edgard Varèse’s front door; image, author's own.

Surely Varèse and Dos Passos had enjoyed long discussions about the meaning of art, life and the universe itself in various hostelries around the East Village? The closeness of their art suggests they must. Having won the Eccles Centre and Hay Festival Writer’s Award at the end of 2021, and now with the whole British Library at my disposal, this was one of the first questions I set out to answer: did they ever meet? Varèse, I read, enjoyed the company of the composers Carl Ruggles and Carlos Salzedo, the conductor Leopold Stokowski, the violinist Fritz Kreisler, the artist Marcel Duchamp – and there is also a documented encounter with the writer Theodore Dreiser. Dos Passos’ associates at the time included the writers E E Cummings, Hart Crane and Dawn Powell. At the British Library, I was very happy to find an extended critique by Sinclair Lewis of Manhattan Transfer, published in 1926, in which Lewis describes Dos Passos’ novel as “the moving symphony itself” and talks up the central role sound takes in the narrative (although Lewis’ respect for Dos Passos was, sadly, not reciprocated).

Plotting the various addresses before I left home where Dos Passos and Varèse lived in the mid-1920s – and then this week walking between them – I discover that they criss-crossed each other constantly and, during different periods, lived but a few blocks from each other. The hotel in which Varèse took up long-term residence when he first arrived from his native France in 1916 – The Brevoort on the corner of 8th Street and 5th Avenue – is where two characters in Dos Passos’ novel, Elaine Oglethorpe and George Baldwin, conduct their affair.

Novelist and composer are traceable to some of the same bars and cafés. Romany Marie’s famous bistro-tavern, the place in the Village where artists, musicians and writers met to talk, was a regular meeting place of Varèse’s – and surely Dos Passos went there too. Walking a block from 188 Sullivan Street, Varèse’s home from 1925 until his death in 1965, I find Caffe Reggio – the first café to bring cappuccino to the city is the boast – which opened its doors in 1927. Given Dos Passos’ love of European culture and Varèse’s yearning to find tastes of Europe in New York, could their paths have crossed there? And then there’s McSorley’s Old Ale House, opened around 1860, and subject of a poem by Dos Passos’ close friend E E Cummings. And we know that Varèse loved ale. His wife, Louise, in her memoir, Varèse: A Looking Glass Diary, tells us how he took a shine to a barmaid – who called him ‘Dearie’ – in a London pub, near Broadcasting House, when the BBC performed his piece Hyperprism in 1924. Degrees of separation melt away by the moment.

The window of McSorley's Ale House reflecting nearby buildings and trees; gold lettering tells passers by that McSorley's was established in 1854 - 'before you were born'.
McSorley's Old Ale House; image, author's own.

But even if they managed never to meet, my thesis holds firm. Varèse and Dos Passos walked those same sidewalks, listening deep into the sound of the city, and you feel that kinship in the work they produced. New York works as an artistic matchmaker apparently – even when artists are not aware it is happening.

26 January 2022

"Hope’s ragged symbol": 50 years of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in poetry and prose

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this post contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

 

Black and white photograph showing Billy Craigie, Bert Williams, Michael Anderson and Tony Coorey at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, outside Parliament House, Canberra, 27 January 1972
First day of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, outside Parliament House, Canberra, 27 January 1972. Left to right- Billy Craigie, Bert Williams, Michael Anderson and Tony Coorey. Image courtesy of Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales and Courtesy SEARCH Foundation. Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 BY International Licence

On the evening of 26 January 1972, four men set up a beach umbrella on the lawn opposite Parliament House (now known as Old Parliament House) on Ngunnawal Country in Canberra and established the Aboriginal tent embassy. The four men, Michael Anderson, Tony Coorey, Billy Craigie, and Bert Williams, erected a handmade sign claiming the site as the 'Aboriginal Embassy' and became the first occupants of the longest continual protest site for Indigenous sovereignty and land rights. Numerous, and often violent, attempts since 1972 to remove the embassy have ultimately failed and it remains a site of continued resistance. In recognition of its significance to Australian history, the site was included on the Commonwealth Heritage List in 2015. This blog will look at some of the poetry and prose which inspired or was inspired by the Aboriginal tent embassy.

 

Cover of 'We are going' by Kath Walker. Jacaranda Press, 1964. Shelfmark
We are going: poems by Kath Walker (now Oodgeroo Noonuccal). Brisbane : Jacaranda Press, 1964. British Library shelfmark X.900/2567.

In 1962, the poet, educator and activist, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, prepared a poem for the 5th Annual General Meeting of the Federal Council Aboriginal Advancement in Adelaide. Entitled Aboriginal Charter of Rights, the poem gave voice to the feelings of Aboriginal people, articulating them in 44 lines for the rest of Australia in a way that they had not heard before. Noonuccal, a descendant of the Noonuccal people of Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island), uses short, sharp, repetitive lines to make clear the disparity between demands of basic human rights and the current conditions imposed on Aboriginal people:

We want hope, not racialism,


Brotherhood, not ostracism,


Black advance, not white ascendance:


Make us equals, not dependants (Noonuccal, 1962).

Aboriginal Charter of Rights was subsequently published in her first book of poems We are going: poems (Jacaranda Press, 1964, shelfmark X.900/2567.); the first collection of verse published by an Aboriginal poet. The poem reverberated in the Aboriginal rights demonstrations of the 1960s, fueling a growing civil rights awareness amongst students and leading to the 1965 Freedom Ride.  Aboriginal Charter of Rights nears an end with Noonuccal asking "Must we native Old Australians, In our own land rank as aliens?".

 

Cover of The Aboriginal tent embassy : sovereignty, black power, land rights and the State / edited by Andrew Schaap and Gary Foley and Edwina Howell. London : Routledge, 2014. Shelfmark YC.2013.a.13107
The Aboriginal tent embassy : sovereignty, black power, land rights and the State / edited by Gary Foley, Andrew Schaap and Edwina Howell. 2014. British Library shelfmark YC.2013.a.13107

Noonuccal's words were revisited by Gary Foley, the Gumbainggir activist and academic, who played a key role in the establishment of the Aboriginal tent embassy. In the 2014 edited collection of writing on the tent embassy, The Aboriginal tent embassy : sovereignty, black power, land rights and the State (Routledge. Shelfmark YC.2013.a.13107), Foley recalls the decision to name the protest site an embassy was to reflect how Aboriginal people were treated as "aliens in their own land" and so, like other aliens, needed an embassy of their own.  However this embassy wouldn't be a grand government building like the one across the lawn, but one which would reflect the living conditions of Aboriginals; a simple tent which Bobbi Sykes designated "Hope's ragged symbol" in the liberal newspaper Nation Review in 1972.

 

Cover of Sykes, R. (1998). Snake dancing. French Forest, N.S.W. : Allen & Unwin. Shelfmark YA.2000.a.1826
Sykes, R. (1998). Snake dancing. French Forest, N.S.W. : Allen & Unwin. British Library shelfmark YA.2000.a.1826

Bobbi (or Roberta) Sykes was a writer, activist, and the first black Australian to attend Harvard University in the US. She became the executive secretary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in 1972. Her piece in the Nation Review begins by outlining the symbolism of the tent:

From the first, the Aboriginal embassy represented the people. It was an embarrassment to the government same as the people are. It was poor and shabby just like the people. For many of the residents who passed through and stayed for a while it was more luxurious than their own homes despite the cold, the lack of facilities, the constant need for money, for food. The embassy was everything that the people still are (Sykes, 1972, 165).

and continues with her personal account of the multiple, violent clashes with police who attempted to remove the protesters and tent from the site; "I was hurled to the ground on several occasions, and walked over by heavy cop boots. 'The whole world's watching, the whole world's watching' we chanted". Sykes later revisits these struggles from 1972 in a haunting description of the tent being torn down in the second volume of her autobiography, Snake Dancing (1998, Allen & Unwin. Shelfmark YA.2000.a.1826). Bobbi Sykes was instrumental in publicising the fight for Aboriginal rights to an international audience and inspired many others to do the same.

In her 1998 speech for International Women's Day in Sydney, the Wiradjuri woman and activist Isobel Coe declared:

Now the Aboriginal tent Embassy is all about Sovereignty, this is Aboriginal land, always was and always will be and we are there to tell the truth about Sovereignty. [...] The time has come for us to sit down, we’re mothers, we’re grandmothers aunt’s we’re sisters and we all have a common goal and we all have a stake in this country because we all have children and if we are to go into the next century in peace and harmony we have to address the sovereignty issue. That dirty word that no-one wants to talk about, Aboriginal Sovereignty (Coe, 1998).

Another 'dirty' word in her speech that Coe, a prominent figure at the Aboriginal tent embassy, wanted to get people to talk about was genocide, "We are the first people, not just of this country but of the world and that recognition hasn’t come [...] and when there is another genocide you people [...] will be a part of the conspiracy to commit genocide now!". In 1998 Coe, along with three others, applied to the Supreme Court of the Australian Capital Territory to get the crime of genocide recognised as a crime in Australian law. The application was dismissed and the words in her speech here reflect the shared frustration among Aboriginal people that 26 years have passed since the embassy was established and little progress has been made.

One year later in 1999, that frustration is echoed by the essayists Felicia Fletcher and John Leonard in Australia Day at the Aboriginal tent embassy; an evocative account in the literary journal, Meanjin, of the corroboree ceremony for Aboriginal sovereignty which took place on Australia Day at the embassy in 1999 (58 (1), 10-17. Shefmark P.P.5126.gbn.). The piece oscillates between descriptions of the ceremony itself, which involved merging water and fire; "All day the smoke continued to billow out over Parliamentary Triangle; fragrant wood-smoke blowing over the non-native trees and formal gardens", and bitter humour:

'Dear Aboriginal people/s, I hereby enclose your citizenship rights. I have retained my rights to dispossess you of your land. Making a fuss will not prove worthwhile because we are many and you are few. Our God is now your God. Enjoy. Goodbye erstwhile companions of my explorers, and thanks for all the land' (Fletcher & Leonard, 1999, 13).

Canberra poet, Paul Cliff, who has co-published with Oodgeroo Noonuccal, similarly employed a particularly ignorant, non-Indigenous voice to great effect in his poem, Tent Embassy, Winter (Parliament House Lawn, Canberra) which features in his 2002 collection The Impatient World (Five Islands Press. Shelfmark YA.2003.a.48502). In this short but striking poem, Cliff takes the position of an outsider looking in: "Frost grips the tents [...] 9am: and no one's stirred. Is that -- traditional?". This question brings us to one of the final writers to feature in this blog; Lionel Fogarty.

 

 

Cover of Mogwie-Idan : stories of the land / Lionel George Fogarty ; co-edited by Ali Cobby Eckermann. Newtown, NSW : Vagabond Press, 2015. Shelfmark YD.2018.a.3977
Mogwie-Idan : stories of the land / Lionel George Fogarty, 2015. British Library shelfmark YD.2018.a.3977


The poetry of Lionel Fogarty, Murri poet and activist, subverts the question of what might be considered 'traditional'. Described by poet, John Kinsella as ‘the greatest living Australian poet’, Fogarty's work is abstract, radical, and at times indecipherable through his mutinous approach to traditional grammatical structures. His poetry draws inspiration from Oodgeroo Noonuccal and is directly informed by his involvement in Aboriginal activism since the 1970s. His 2015 collection Mogwie-Idan : stories of the land (Vagabond Press. Shelfmark YD.2018.a.3977) includes the poem Tent Embassy 1971-2021 as well as number of his own drawings which push and pull at the reader. Mogwie-Idan ends with the poem Power Lives in the Spears:

    Power live in the spears

    Power live in the worries

    Power air in the didgeridoo

    Power run on the people heart

    Bear off the power come from the land (Fogarty, 2015)

 

Cover of Gilbert, K. (1994). Black from the edge. South Melbourne, Vic. : Hyland House. British Library shelfmark YK.1995.a.1312
Gilbert, K. (1994). Black from the edge. South Melbourne, Vic. : Hyland House. British Library shelfmark YK.1995.a.1312

Fogarty's words here are reminiscent of the closing lines of Winter Camp, Aboriginal Tent Embassy, a poem from the Wiradjuri poet, playwright, printmaker and activist, Kevin Gilbert, which features in his award-winning 1994 collection Black from the edge (Hyland House. Shelfmark YK.1995.a.1312.). Gilbert was instrumental in the continual occupation of the tent embassy site and spent the final year of his life there. A memorial was held at the embassy for him following his death in 1993. Gilbert's poem, Winter Camp, Aboriginal Tent Embassy, begins with the lines; "We see them, shoulders hunched, standing in the rain", and pays homage to the undiminished, and vital, flames of anger and hope in those who have kept the Aboriginal tent embassy site running for fifty years. The poems ends with the following lines which feel an appropriate way to conclude this blog post:

human spirit flames for love

to light the pages of history

with their heroic form (Gilbert, 1994, 30).

 

Pay attention,"The whole world's watching."

Lucy Rowland, Oceania Curator

 

References:

Cliff, P. (2002). The Impatient World. N.S.W. : Five Islands Press. Shelfmark YA.2003.a.48502

Coe, I (1998). Speech for the virtual tour Sydney 1998 IWD. [Online] Available at: http://www.isis.aust.com/iwd/docos/tour98/coe.htm

Fletcher, F., & Leonard, J. (1999). Australia Day at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. Meanjin, 58 (1), 10-17. Shefmark P.P.5126.gbn. Also available online in Reading Rooms at: https://search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/informit.898736456225388

Fogarty, L. (2015). Mogwie-Idan : stories of the land. Newtown, NSW : Vagabond Press. Shelfmark YD.2018.a.3977

Foley, G. (2014). A reflection on the first thirty days of the embassy. In: Foley, G., Schaap, A., & Howell, E. (eds.). (2014). The Aboriginal tent embassy : sovereignty, black power, land rights and the State. London : Routledge. Shelfmark YC.2013.a.13107

Foley, G., Schaap, A., & Howell, E. (eds.). (2014). The Aboriginal tent embassy : sovereignty, black power, land rights and the State. London : Routledge. Shelfmark YC.2013.a.13107

Gilbert, K. (1988). Inside Black Australia : an anthology of Aboriginal poetry. Harmondsworth : Penguin, published with the assistance of the Literature Board of the Australia Council. Shelfmark YH.1989.a.6

Gilbert, K. (1994). Black from the edge. South Melbourne, Vic. : Hyland House. Shelfmark YK.1995.a.1312

Sykes, R. (1972). Bobbi Sykes 'Hope's ragged symbol' Nation Review, 29 July-4 August 1972. In: Foley, G., Schaap, A., & Howell, E. (eds.). (2014). The Aboriginal tent embassy : sovereignty, black power, land rights and the State. London : Routledge. 165-168. Shelfmark YC.2013.a.13107

Sykes, R. (1998). Snake dancing. French Forest, N.S.W. : Allen & Unwin. Shelfmark YA.2000.a.1826

Walker, K. (1964). We are going: poems. Brisbane : Jacaranda Press. Shelfmark X.900/2567.

Watson, I. (2000). Aboriginal Tent Embassy: 28 years after it was established [Interview with Isobell Coe by Watson, Irene.]. Indigenous Law Bulletin, 5(1), 17–18. Available online in Reading Rooms at: https://search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/ielapa.200104820

 

 

 

23 November 2021

Shoot Me with Flowers

The British Library’s Caribbean Collections recently acquired a beautifully compact volume of poetry by the writer John Agard.

Shoot Me with Flowers was the writer’s first collection of poetry which he self-published in his birth home Guyana.

Jon Purday, a retired British Library staff member who volunteers with Oxfam in Boroughbridge, Harrogate spotted Shoot Me with Flowers in October and contacted the Library. Once catalogued, the book will be available for enjoyment and research.

While surprisingly inexpensive, the little book is a big treasure for the British Library. It is also a personal highlight for a couple of reasons: my appointment as Curator of the Caribbean Collections began in September and John Agard is someone I have known for some years! We saw each other some days after the Oxfam find and I told him that the BL would be acquiring Shoot Me with Flowers to which his proud response was “Self-published you know!”

Earlier this month within a day of the Harrogate Advertiser running an article on the discovery and subsequent acquisition of Shoot Me with Flowers, John Agard became the first poet to win the BookTrust Lifetime Achievement Award. An apt turn up for the books!

Nicole-Rachelle Moore is the British Library's Curator for its Caribbean Collections

 

Photo of John Agard taken in October 2021 at House of St. Barnabas, London

 

Front cover of Shoot Me with Flowers

Introduction to Shoot Me with Flowers

Images by Nicole-Rachelle Moore 2021

26 October 2021

US Fine Presses: a new guide to the Library's holdings

We are delighted to let you know that the Eccles Centre has just published a new Americas-focused bibliographic guide: US Fine Presses Established after 1945: A Guide to the British Library's Holdings (just scroll down a little to find it!)

This guide grew out of a conversation in late 2019 with then-Head of the Centre, Phil Hatfield, who had recently pledged financial support towards the cataloguing of a backlog of US fine press publications. A large number of these works – produced on old-fashioned hand-presses by contemporary printers – had been acquired by our curatorial colleagues in the previous 15 years. Phil rightly noted that without some kind of check-list or guide, it would be almost impossible for Library Readers, now or in the future, to appreciate the depth and richness of these holdings.

A colourful, stretched-out concertina style book, with images of faces and text throughout.
Borderbus. [Poem by Juan Filipe Herrera; prints by Felicia Rice.] Santa Cruz, CA: Moving Parts Press, 2019. British Library shelfmark: RF.2019.b.144

Initially, the guide was just going to list the works that were then being catalogued. This suited me perfectly since at that point I honestly didn’t understand the time, money and effort that my colleagues had devoted to obtaining these items! Thankfully, as I immersed myself in this world, my appreciation grew – both for the beauty, originality and boundary-pushing nature of the items themselves, and for the imagination and skill of their printers. And as my appreciation increased, so too did the scope of this project. After discovering P.A.H. Brown’s Modern British and American Private Presses (1850-1965): [catalogue of the] holdings of the British Library (London, 1976) it seemed sensible to push our own guide’s start date back to 1965.1 And as it became apparent that several post-war presses had been omitted from Brown, so we pushed that date back even further, to 1945.

An image of an orange/brown toned mountain thrown into sharp relief by a starry blue sky. The image is signed by its artist: Daniel Goldstein.
Kenneth Rexroth, Between Two Wars: Selected Poems Written Prior to the Second World War. Illustrations by Daniel Goldstein. Athens, OH: Labyrinth Editions; San Francisco, CA: Iris Press, 1982. British Library shelfmark: Cup.408.rr.9

The first step in tracking down these presses was to search the Library’s catalogue. Covid-19 related Library closures, combined with often-minimal cataloguing data, made it difficult to verify many of the items’ fine press credentials in person. Thankfully, however, online access to rare bookseller and auction websites made it possible, slowly but surely, to determine whether an item was hand-printed and whether a press had been founded after World War II.

An open book. On the left hand page a black and white lithograph appears to depict shards of glass flying towards the reader; on the right is a poem by Diane Ackerman.
About Sylvia. Poems by Diane Ackerman; lithographs by Enid Mark. Wallingford, PA: ELM Press, 1996. British Library shelfmark: Cup.512.d.9

In total, items by more than 180 such presses were found in the Library’s collection. More than 160 of these presses started after 1965 and – incredibly – more than 90 were established between 1965-1980. This fifteen-year period truly was a golden era for hand-press printing in the United States – a cultural phenomenon which seems entirely in-tune with that counter-cultural moment. Crucially, too, this was the point at which graduates from the recently established university book arts programmes began founding fine presses of their own.

A double-page blue and white print depicting the sea, mountains and a wooden boat on its side.
Tom Killion, The Coast of California: Point Reyes to Point Sur. Santa Cruz & Mill Valley, CA: The Quail Press, 1979. British Library shelfmark: C.180.k.1

Researching the emergence and development of these presses was absolutely fascinating. Time and again it showed me the profound impact that great teachers can have not only on individuals, but on an entire creative landscape. For this reason, in addition to listing the names of these presses and some of their works, the guide offers a short ‘biography’ of each of press, including, where possible: the name of the press’s founder(s); the founder’s training and/or education and mentor; how long the press was in operation; how it developed over time; any speciality in subject matter or genre; any change in location; the type of equipment used; and whether it made its own paper. After this ‘biography’, the full details of up to ten works are listed for every press. And at the end of the guide there is a geographic index to the presses, arranged by US state.

An open book. On the left hand page a swirling black and white image appears to depict cigarette smoke; on the right hand side is a black and white image of Charlie Parker, with his name written underneath.
Trading Eights: The Faces of Jazz. Essay by Ted Gioia; engravings by James G. Todd, Jr.; poem by Dana Gioia. California: Mixolydian Editions, 2016. British Library shelfmark: RF.2016.b.69

I hope this guide will prove useful to all those working in this field. And for those who are not, I hope it will offer an insight into a lesser-known aspect of the Library’s Americas holdings.

A dark and brooding image of Edgar Allan Poe. His black hair looks unkempt and he wears a high-neck collar and a dark jacket or coat.
Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven. Etchings and wood engravings by Alan James Robinson. Easthampton, MA: Cheloniidae Press, 1980. British Library shelfmark: C.136.g.42

Jean Petrovic

References

  1. Philip A.H. Brown, Modern British and American Private Presses (1850-1965): [catalogue of the] holdings of the British Library. London: British Museum Publications Ltd for the Library, 1976. Shelfmark: Open Access Rare Books and Music 094.4016 ENG; General Reference Collection 2708.aa.36; Document Supply 78/9820. 

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