The letterpress (fine printing) tradition evolved over time, as a surviving technology of the moveable type era in the history of printing. Over the last century and a half, as automated mechanical printing methods developed and progressively replaced old fashioned moveable type techniques, hand-set impression printing has become the province largely of art. Today, given the costs and time associated with moveable type printing, there are fewer and fewer opportunities to explore and exploit the relationship between creative text generation and the means of reproduction. Indeed, as I explained in my essay for the Collected Eigner edition [Stanford University Press, 2010, "The Text as an Image of Itself"], the alienation of the artist writer from the medium of expression has been a characteristic of Western Literature for half a millennium, and continues through to this day. A few "strugglers in the wilderness" continue to produce limited editions of livres d'artistes books, broadsides and pamphlets, employing the older tradition of hand-set type and quality sewn gatherings and bindings which once were the prevailing manner of book production. Modern book design and traditional moveable type book making have been uncertain collaborators during the last century--as craftsmen, devoted to the old-fashioned look and feel of old quality book construction and templates, have tended not to embrace Modern or Post-Modern design ideas. The incorporation of newer visual or structural concepts into the dwindling fine arts printing tradition has been piecemeal, at best.
But there have been exceptions. A while back I received a gratis copy of Miles Champion's pamphlet Eventually. It's published by The Rest Press. Neither the pamphlet, nor the press's online web page say where it's located [New York? Alabama?]. The web site states the press "exists as an entity dedicated to publishing poetry in printed forms which do justice to the visual and tactile dimensions of the work," which is probably how I'd put it myself. Especially the "tactile" part. As the physical qualities of books produced for mass consumption continue to degrade, under the increasing pressure of the new non-material ("electronic") vanguard, books made to appeal as objects to be held and experienced in the hand and by the eye become scarcer and scarcer.
The Rest's edition of Eventually clearly belongs to the art book tradition, and deserves consideration as an ideal example of the form. Ultimately, what we'll want--somewhere down the road--is writing which could not exist in a form other than its material realization. Champion's work doesn't attain that standard, obviously because it wasn't composed as an integration with the presentation, which succeeded the writing as a possible presentation, as a wine glass "serves" the wine--wine served "by the glass." So it's possible to defend the work on purely extra-material grounds, without reference to its container, though in this instance, the form contains the content with considerable panache. We don't ask of writers--or artists--to be other than they are, or to aspire to goals that they haven't already set for themselves.
If major publishers were interested in exploiting the market for tantalizingly attractive books like this, they might actually instigate more interest in it, but of course publishers already have their backs to the wall, and are unlikely to indulge in any appreciation of the material qualities of the text. If traditional material publishing gets pushed into a corner, it might end up occupying a place not unlike that which fine press printing has had in the larger universe of print media.
V E N T U A L L Y is published in an edition of 300 copies, 30 of which are signed hardcovers. A run this short imposes an automatic limitation on the number of possible readers, but that exclusivity may be a part of its appeal. Small is not by definition beautiful, but it may indicate an attention to detail unattainable at a larger scale. Hand-sewing, to take one aspect, is a painstakingly slow process, rich in human ingenuity. The preciosity of that production value, alone, is a gift the craftsman offers to anyone sensitive enough to appreciate the result.
As a contextualized surface of event, Eventually is a platform for the elaboration of spheres of linguistic occasion. Marshaling the resources of chance, surprise and invention into an integrated sequence of variable continuity (wow, does sound abstract!), Champion folds and refolds the panels of implication and connotation in a weird, flickering movie of total transformation. Each change (or combination), which occurs as often at the level of the phrase, as it does at the splice of the line-break, allows the reader to sample the disjunction (its distance, stretch, bull's-eye) at his leisure, without necessitating the apprehension of any larger narrative, strung together along provident or gratuitous linear vectors. If enough is happening minutely that we lose track of the larger picture, it may be that we've become so accustomed to constructing puzzles, that we've mixed up the pieces from different boxes, and so may never be able to find where this one piece fits. And maybe the picture was never really a picture at all, but a mosaic of what's simply happening.
Invention is obstinacy
sitting on memory's blade
Notched by unfolding an inner transparency
in Haikuesque tweed
These delightful changes inspire a delectation of qualities that are both purely linguistic (aural, familiar, unique) but also somehow pre-existing in the universe of meaning. They're like social references emerging from the cornucopia of surprise--
Goods sunk in the sea with a buoy attached
. . .
The text appears to radiate in and out of
. . .
Hits return with its skull
. . .
I pollinate blotters
--and so on. If Chico Marx had been a Post-Modern poet, he might have conjured phrases as titillating as these.
I walk by bouncing
up its pages
where clouds are
faint from farsight's
tandem red brick
in spoke room
each clock face
to its interval
Could lines (changes) like these have been written without Tom Raworth coming before? Listening to an MP3 tape of Champion reading on A Voice Box archive of recorded readings (from August 2008 in Oakland), I learn that Miles is a Brit (or at least a Commonwealth guy) who reads his poems so fast you can hardly follow them, which may of course be the point--hastening the performance so that the breathlessly quick passage is experienced with a rapidity that mimics the presumed mental velocity. Can poetry be a model for the ultimate trip? QED.
First page of text
give bound to a susceptible formalism
bends the show of things to a brain-like source
Signs of rust
abandon a whistle or paint chip
are prefigured like flowers
frisk in the air
flip an aesthetic switch
transfigure maples and alders
comes into ear
Though it may be true that "walls give bound to a susceptible formalism" it isn't true that "roofs frisk in the air." The distance between these two kinds of statement provides a range of possible levels of statement which either asserts or denies their co-existence within the context of a single poem. "Dust" obviously does come "into [the] ear" though "extremities" cannot be said to be "milling about" except in some arena of definition which allows for the reassignment of deliberate meanings. One must develop a taste for these kinds of flips and segues, and the manner in which anyone's practice, by habit or inclination, employs them, is a measure of the specific nature of one's mind.
It is sweet and made up
. . .
Moving time by contrast
. . .
They found the summers lightly boxed
. . .
order the rocks with ice
. . .
There shrinks a pebble
--and so on. What I like about this writing is its freedom and relaxed air of distraction, which belies to some degree what I hear in the poet's reading of it. The poems ask to be weighed and weighted on a careful scale of balance, whereas their evident orchestration is to be propelled into a blur. Which is why I have such trouble with readings. One's sense of what survives the page, into thin air, is ephemeral and insubstantial. What texts do do, and should do, is give us the gist of everything, sans any spin or cadenzas of exaggeration. Champion's work bears watching, and I'll look for more. But I'll read it as I like, with no thought of how it's likely to be sung in church on Sunday.