"Pressing Between: The Aesthetics of the Contemporary Small Press"
Charles Alexander at the Threads Series
During Charles Alexander’s recent visit to town, I was pleased to attend a talk he gave for the new Threads series at Granary Books, co-curated by Steve Clay and Kyle Schlesinger. Just as Threads uses the book arts as a lens through which to explore collaboration between different fields, so the title of Charles’ presentation, “Pressing Between,” addressed the many ways in which he sees the role of the bookmaker as “between”:
Between the poem and the book
Between the letters
Between this reader and that reader
Between the book and not the book
Charles’ thesis was, in a way, that the book is an extension of the poem or part of the poem. Several possibilities arise from this, that the text is only part of the experience of reading (that physical context matters), and that a book constitutes a reading in itself, a way of reading the text. Charles talked about how this understanding became clear to him when he printed an edition of Edward Dorn’s work and found himself wondering about whether he would actually want his edition of Dorn to be the definitive one – the answer, of course, is that it could never be, that the book itself is a reading.
I was struck by certain similarities between the talk and, in some ways, Wordsworth’s Prelude. Charles was able to obliquely address the vital importance of his biography without the bad pathos of the isolated or overly precious self. On the contrary there was an emphasis on “the context of family, or those with whom we are connected.” He examined how certain types of personal details obliquely made their way into informing the work of Chax Press, from the name (Charles Haskell AleXander) to his father’s work as a mathematician to the places he grew up and the way Charles himself first became acquainted with poetry – he notes one of the things that first fascinated him about poetry was the use of white space and the fact that “it didn’t take up the whole page.” The first work he read in any college class, Williams’ Spring and All, was for him like the experience of “the book set free” and acted as trigger to him seeking out all of Williams’ works. The history of reading thus has a narrative arc and a series of surprises, changes in direction. This unusual combination of the themes of memory and destabilization was foregrounded throughout the talk by Alexander’s repeated refrain “Let’s go back between” which was sounded many times.
I found myself thinking that this is the kind of information you always wanted to know about poets and publishers but you’re always having to imagine it or reconstruct it from scratch. But context is important, and the way the political interacts with the personal is important here, too. Our sources for inspiration can be unexpected too, for example Charles mentioned that he was first introduced to Olson’s work in, of all the unlikely places, a class by Donald Davie, who was involved with New Criticism. And this vision of the editor/publisher was something he felt was given to him by reading Olson, despite phenomena such as grants panelists who might in the past have asked “What gives you the right to select which books are to be published?”
I was also moved by Charles’ emphasis on the physical qualities of the book as “between” here, his coming into awareness of letters as simultaneously “a bit of sound” and also “a piece of metal or wood, a building block.” Though he can justify the design of every book he has ever made, he said that this is always a question of the individual materials, circumstances, and writers: “there are no rules / not to break.” This relentlessly independent sensibility has guided the publishing process by avoiding certain types of useless or arbitrary branding: Chax Press has no logo, no consistent size, and no official typeface. Yet Charles has strong opinions – I can remember a time working as an intern in his studio when he was having us stamp red letters (Cs, Hs, As, and Xs) on broadsides, and we were instructed under no circumstances to spell the words “HA” or “AH.” In the case of a book like Mac Low’s French Sonnets for example, it made sense to design a book that would reflect the sensibilities of “a radical and a classicist rolled out together.”
The rest of the talk consisted of a review of many fine art books Chax has done over the years. Take a look at the Chax Press website for some examples of these. He discussed how finding paper size, margin, etc is “like finding a form for a poem.” I find this projection of organic poetic form into the material conditions of the book to be fascinating, and I’ve never heard it articulated in quite this way before: “Read margin, read covers aloud.” And finally, there was the reminder that through books something else is made – through making books Charles knows all these people. It is as if books act as a kind of connective tissue, a fibrous language or connecting point. I was intrigued by a question that Kyle asked toward the end of the event, namely "To what extent do you design when you write?" and Charles' answer that he thinks about the shape of the poem and the relationship to the page it's written on, but that ultimately he wants other people to publish what he writes, to read it and make decisions and in some ways complete the circuit, so that writing and design become part of a social conversation.
Let’s go back between!