Introduction, and interview by Alastair Johnston
PRIVATE PRESS ventures can be established almost anywhere a printing press and type can be operated or obtained and do not need to be restricted to metropolitan areas. On the contrary, many private press printers delight in living in remote obscurity and firing their works off via the international mails to far-flung correspondents.
Robert & Ann Creeley established the Divers Press in Mallorca in 1953 in some giant footprints. Laura Riding and Robert Graves had founded the Seizin Press in London in 1928 and ran it in Mallorca for many years. Riding and Graves issued books by themselves, naturally, and the writings of Gertrude Stein and Len Lye, for openers. They printed the books from Monotype composition on an Albion handpress and stated as their intent, "To print necessary books by various particular people. Our editions are decidedly not addressed to collectors but to those interested in work rather than printing -- of a certain quality. That is as far in prophecy as we care at the moment to go. You must take our word for it that our reticence is due to something more than an uncertainty of standards. Quite the contrary."
Roderick Cave's The Private Press (New York & London, 1983), poses worrying dichotomies about Seizin and other similar endeavors. Speaking of Nancy Cunard's Hours Press, Cave says: "In its three years, the Hours Press was typographically insignificant (despite its exciting bindings), but in literary terms it was one of the most important of all the private presses." Despite the fact that Cave's book is a revision, he still has not taken adequate notice of those presses that were concerned first and foremost with the literary content of their books. Significant typographical innovations or a recognizable style have also been characteristics of the major small presses established since World War II including Untide, Divers, Jargon, Trigram, Fulcrum, White Rabbit, Auerhahn, and Goliard. Untide was born out of political strife; the others were all formed around an ideal, like that of Graves and Riding, of a kind of writing, or genre of books, that should be in print, not in several years, but at once.
Divers was the brainchild of Robert Creeley and his wife, Ann, and in three years produced a dozen titles, several of them literary heavyweights, one a diverting curiosity, all with exceptional collaborations in the design and illustration. Paul Blackburn's The Dissolving Fabric, Larry Eigner's From the Sustaining Air and Douglas Woolf's The Hypocritic Days were among authors' first appearances.
A literary correspondence brought the Creeleys to Palma de Mallorca where Graves still lived, though that eminence grise of English letters had not used his press since the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War prohibited such activity. The Creeleys found themselves at the end of the beaten track, in a little village that had never seen a washing machine. They had certainly found the quiet life they were seeking. In his novel, The Island (Scribners, 1963), Robert Creeley characterizes the place: "The island sits in the sea some two hundred miles from the mainland, filled with an oldness of time and place, complexly primitive and secure."
Expatriate artists, such as Arthur Okamura, John Altoon, and René Laubiès showed up and became involved in executing illustrations for the books which Divers issued regularly in runs of two or three hundred. For Blackburn's The Dissolving Fabric, Dan Rice designed a cover painted on newsprint which Arthur Okamura executed in silkscreen over a cliché of the newspaper reproduced by the printers. The cheap, if labour- intensive, costs enabled such books to be sold for 75 cents; the format determined by the sizes of offcut or other available paper. The marketing was never formalised. Creeley would mail off copies to friends and several copies to one or two people who could place them in bookstores in New York. Discussing where books actually end up, Creeley told me that a friend once discovered a neighbour in Los Angeles noisily shredding a book and incinerating it. The book turned out to be Creeley's For Love which has been known to drive women into a frenzy. On another occasion a reader was having the poet inscribe a book and mentioned that the first book of Creeley's he had encountered was one found under a tree in Alaska.
Among the landmarks of literature issued by Divers Press are Paul Blackburn's Proensa, translations from the Troubador Poets, and Charles Olson's impressions of the Yucatan, Mayan Letters. Creeley also published unsolicited work, such as Douglas Woolf's first novel, which struck him as an American classic in the tradition of Nathaniel West. The one odd book in the Divers canon is a work on pigeon-breeding, often erroneously attributed to Creeley himself. Since childhood, Creeley had been a pigeon- fancier and so he wrote to the dean of pigeon journalists, H. R Macklin, whose columns on obscure breeds of pigeons were then a regular feature of the American Pigeon Journal. Macklin happily supplied A Handbook for Pigeon Fanciers, complete with his own drawings. The whole edition, or most of it, was bought up by the American Pigeon Journal and distributed by them. They subsequently did a second edition, using the same format.
When Robert Duncan arrived in Mallorca with Jess and Harry Jacobus, on the grand tour, he was, Creeley recalls, the fully-equipped tourist. Duncan knew, for instance, that the small local church, which Creeley hadn't bothered to visit in his two years of residence, contained windows by Gaudí. One of the last books of the press was Duncan and Jess's Caesar's Gate. Jess recalls that as he had never reproduced any of his paste-ups before, he didn't understand the problems inherent in half-toning magazine pictures which are already halftones. Undaunted, the printer cut multiple masks for each image and was able to strip together a satisfactory composite incorporating various angled screen shots. Katue Kitasono, a Japanese artist (mentioned in Pound's Guide to Kulchur), was one of the lesser-known poets published by Creeley. His artwork appeared on Divers covers and on the first four issues of the Black Mountain Review (printed in Mallorca) which formed the transition back to the U.S. for Creeley.
Creeley's wife felt he had squandered money on publishing. Ironically most of the titles fetch upwards of $200 today. Some years later, in fact, Creeley had the satisfaction of being asked to sign copies of his Divers titles for his by-then ex-wife to sell!
During his hectic visit to the Bay Area in November 1986, I was able to talk to Robert Creeley about this publishing venture. The foregoing is what I recall from that conversation. I also managed to capture a few further remarks on tape as I drove him from Berkeley to San Rafael. AJ
Art by Katue Kitasono from BLACK RAIN
Q: What motivated you to become a publisher, was it like
your prospectus says, because "Printing is Cheap in Mallorca"?
RC: Well, partly that. We came to Mallorca thanks to a dear pen pal met through classic letters. I'd seen John Sankey's magazine The Window, one of the curious literary magazines of the period. There was a poem by Martin Seymour- Smith called "All Devils Fading," and I was struck by this Coleridge-like tone to the poem, a kind of spooky -- interesting spookiness of it and I wrote to say how much I liked it, care of the magazine. Not long after comes back this letter from Martin. Turns out he's living in Mallorca with his wife Janet. They had a holiday so they decided to come up and see us. That was great. We were living in Lambesc, above Aix-en-Provence. I described meeting them in the novel, The Island. The couple Artie and Marge are Martin and Janet. It describes the meeting in Marseilles. We go then to Mallorca thanks to Martin.
Q: Were you inspired by Seizin Press?
RC: I think partly inspired by Seizin Press, started by Graves and Riding. Apparently Tómas Graves is starting it up again -- the youngest son. In any case this was that tradition. I think Martin's real impulse initially was to print his mother's poems -- Elena Fearn -- that was her nom de plume. Her husband was a great bookman, a really brilliant bibliographer, Frank Seymour-Smith, and this was a really powerful woman dissatisfied with her workaday-world husband. She was a curious femme fatale. Martin seemed determined to publish the poems. I was interested in the possibilities of publishing and Martin seemed to know his way around. So we had a little money thanks to Ann's trust fund; we decided to do some books. First we tried a collaboration: we published his mother's poems. Actually it was called the Roebuck Press and at that point I realized, as much as I loved Martin, that this was not going to work. He was a classic Englishman in obvious ways and his pleasures were not, finally, mine. So we managed to back off quite nicely. Then Ann & I began to publish in our own interests.
Q: Dealing with Mossén Alcover?
RC: Louis Ripoll is the actual name, a sweet man, ran Mossén Alcover's as shop foreman. Just incredible, in those days it was actually cheaper to handset than it was to use Linotype because the machinery was such an awful expense initially. He was a job printer who did newspapers and any kind of work that came along. Again, they were incredibly careful with their type fonts and literally picked through and kept reusing every single piece of type. The books I remember most vividly are Katue Kitasono's Black Rain, Olson's Mayan Letters, for which Ann copied the glyphs freehand ...
Q: The first book you did was Paul Blackburn's Proensa, following Olson's In Cold Hell, In Thicket (Origin VIII).
RC: That's right. That was a dear pleasure. I remember the printers were fascinated with it because they could read the Provençal: the Majorquin was very close. There were some old-timers in there. Guasp, for example, I think was possibly the most continuous printing establishment in Europe, since the Renaissance. That part of it became delicious. It seems to me we could produce a book for . . . Proensa cost between 3 & 400 dollars, which was something then. The same book today would cost $1500. So then we really got into it.
Dan Rice's cover for Blackburn's DISSOLVING FABRIC
Q: Later on you published Paul's own poems, in The Dissolving Fabric.
RC: This was a book fraught with many painful dilemmas for Paul and me, I would say now, thanks to the antagonism of our wives who had got into an oblique argument. Let's see, there are letters of Paul's published in an issue of Bertholf's magazine and Paul at that point thought I was absolutely insane and so flooded with impotent egocentricity that I was completely --"forget it!" Anyhow the problem was it was such a curious emotional contest between Ann, my wife then, and Freddie, his wife, who were somehow fighting. Then he left and went on to Toulouse and, thankfully, we went ahead with the book.
[ONCOMING CAR HONKS AS WE MAKE A U-TURN]
RC: Drive, you sonofabitch!
Q: You were receiving manuscripts in the mail, through correspondence with Duncan, Larry Eigner ...
RC: I remember Douglas Woolf's The Hypocritic Days came out of the blue, that was great. I thought it was terrific. Also we'd been wanting to publish some prose. I published my volume The Gold Diggers after I'd stupidly mistaken Alex Trocchi's -- and the Merlin people's -- real interest in the book, and I thought they were just being nice to me so I refused their generous offer of publication and we published it ourselves.
René Laubiès was a friend we met through Pound. He was a translator and did covers. We improvised some from Kitasono. He was also a well-established painter who showed at Fachette's in Paris along with the Americans Sam Francis and Lawrence Calcagno. It's where I first saw Pollock's work. I went to Black Mountain and returned. I met John Altoon while in New York City, he was a friend of Julie Eastman who had come from El Paso. Arthur and John had known each other from L.A., I think. Arthur got this prize, some money, and heard from John about this good place to live. So Arthur and John both showed up. Liz and Arthur had just got married.
Q: What kind of editorial control did you exercise on the
manuscripts, apart from editing Olson's Mayan Letters?
RC: None, really.
Q: What about design?
RC: We did the design. That was what was so terrific about these printers, they were so articulate in translating our -- neither one of us were really artists, so we would mock up or improvise what we wanted it to look like.
Q: You managed to get a nice balance between the classical
Spanish types for the text ...
RC: I love that. Q: ... and then modern Bauhaus-style layout on the title page of Futura sans serif.
RC: You would know, for example, the absolute horror of the classical European printer when you mix fonts. Q: Mmhmn.
RC: That really got to them. Our heads were in Futura and the body in ... Q: Mercedes. A weird Spanish type.
RC: Well rounded, good natured. Q: Right.
RC: So the thing -- they were terrific with us, being a small shop. I remember trying to reproduce the drawing for the cover of The Gold Diggers, which has the drawing of Laubiès'. There's a red background, the red kept bleeding through, but they overprinted at least twice. They went through these incredible efforts and they charged us virtually nothing. Extremely sweet. Their shop was down from the central plaza, going along the sea wall. There was a beautiful prospect. They used to keep the back door of the shop open to get this lovely breeze. Extremely good natured. They were extraordinarily patient.
René Laubiès cover for Creeley's GOLD DIGGERS
Q: Did you run into Graves at all?
RC: Yeah. We met him when we first arrived thanks to Martin and Janet. Palma was already a very desirable place to live so suggestions of various other places included Bañalbufar, which was the end of the road. In those days it dead-ended. I remember when the first washing-machine arrived. It had a sort of fan ... Q: You were the Ur-colonists.
RC: Dig it. On the buses, for example, my wife wouldn't understand Spanish and the Spanish ladies therefore assumed she was deaf.
Q: At your reading the other night you expressed malcontent
with the idea of a "Table of Contents."
RC: I had the imagination that a book would be an entire process or thing, more accurately, that almost -- not simply like one's mother saying, "eat all your food," but the idea of, I like the sense of, someone's beginning and reading through the whole continuity. So that I had this rather simple sense that if one didn't provide a table of contents that more or less committed people to reading the whole thing, but obviously a contents page is a very useful thing to include. Q: For access and retrieval.
Q: To your own ideas on book design: I remember when
your Collected Poems came out you were very pleased with
the way Marilyn had laid out the running headings so that
you knew exactly where you were in the book.
RC: Extremely good. We were thinking of that yesterday. I was back in the same company and Bill McClung was sitting with that book under his hand. That book has such a physical clarity for me, not just its size, but it's extraordinarily comfortable with those poems: the shifting lengths and line patterns, it just holds them with such good-natured clarity. I think Marilyn Perry did a great job. The only typo in the book is a bleak one. When the stuff was together for the final printing of the jacket, someone either brushed or disturbed it so that her credit went. On the paper it's returned, but on the hardback she got brushed. Q: A designer is the most invisible part of a successful book.
RC: Yet the most crucial. Q: In an unsuccessful book their name is usually on the cover in big letters.
RC: Her rapport with what the poems are is impeccable. Q: Coming from a press like U.C. it helps to have a designer who's at least familiar with the terrain.
RC: A classic alternative therefore of what else can happen is the design of Selected Poems with Scribner's. That was an absolute mess. The print, the layout is pedestrian. The order gets shifted in order to accommodate some imagination of spacing which has nothing to do with the text. The cover is grotesque, with that weird type and the curlicues. No rapport with the text whatsoever. In that case, sadly, it was the eldest editor, who'd been the book's authority, got ill and it was handed to two younger persons and they were new in the business and they didn't know what to do. And the Art department was always negligible, you know, and it just fell apart.
Therefore back to that sense of the Divers Press and having this extraordinarily small local printing shop to work with, all of the work being handset. Their patience and ability to stay with us through our own sort of inchoate attempts to resolve design work were terrific. And they had such a physically clear sense of what a page could look like and so -- their sense of spacing was so graceful -- they could do any kind of text and give it that very comfortable feel of words progressing. Just delicious.
Q: Was the format determined by what paper supply was
RC: To some extent. But we would at times, probably, not wastefully, but add to expense. We had basic folds. I remember The Snarling Garland is printed on stock that Paul retrieved from his work in the printshop that Larry Bronfman's uncle runs. So there'd be waste and Paul would pack it up and send it over to us. Again they were the kind of printers that would work with that and not feel that we were putting some awful burden on them. This was fun to them. This was fooling around in ways that were out of the regular run.
Louis Ripoll, the owner of the business, used to come out to the house at times and I think we were all variously intrigued with each other and so it was sort of playful. It wasn't a big job, but they got very involved with it. The relation must have lasted at least three years.
Q: You had a great pool of artistic talent on your doorstep
too. With Dan Rice, Arthur Okamura, John Altoon, Katue
RC: He was in Japan. This is the Pound connection. He'd been immensely responsive and helpful. He publishes several of my poems in an edition of his own as curious American haiku he translates and publishes. He also publishes parts of "Notes for a New Prose" in his magazine Vou. Finally he and I parted ways in a very old-time human confusion. He was an old friend through correspondence with Kenneth Rexroth and when he sadly learned of Kenneth's and my dilemma he felt that he, in honor of his old friend -- the precedent friend -- must stay loyal to Kenneth. I remember he wrote this very sad letter, in no wise accusing, but just saying, "My commitments are sadly necessarily with Kenneth and I'm afraid that must end our relationship." I didn't, obviously, enjoy it but I could dig what he was saying.
Q: Did you have any dealings with Jonathan Williams back
then when he was just starting his own press?
RC: I met Jonathan in Mallorca. There are some photographs of Jonathan's of Ann and myself at the place we then lived, the first place we had there, before I went to Black Mountain. He had been a student at Black Mountain and now in the Army in Stuttgart and came, as I recall, on vacation to visit us in Mallorca. And I think he it was who gave me an extraordinary classic book of typefaces, which I still have. I can't recall the name of it -- it was lovely -- a German book. It gave all the range of historic types and was a very useful book. He was using a printer in Stuttgart.
Q: You used whatever types your printer had?
RC: Alcover had also a Bodoni that we used for Paul Blackburn's Proensa. The type that we used for the magazine, the basic working type, the one he had the most of, was the Mercedes.
We used a printer who was a little more expensive, I
don't know why we were persuaded to use him, to publish
the book of Irving Layton's In the Midst of my Fever. It was
okay but it wasn't nearly the fun of working with Louis.
He wasn't just the cheapest. His work permitted ways
for books to get in, you dig. He was one of the smallest
printers on the island.
Q: Next to Graves.
RC: He knew of Graves -- Señor Grah-ways -- everyone knew him. Graves wasn't hostile to our attempts but he certainly wasn't remarkably impressed, because of the contents mainly. He felt them negligent.
I was just determined to publish Americans of my own interests. I was far more idealistic than Martin. I haven't seen Martin now for 22 years though I've had occasional correspondence. I thought it was deliciously ironic he should write the official biography of Graves. He left under a cloud, as they say.
[First published in Ampersand vol 7 no 1, San Francisco, Winter 1987]
copyright © 1987, 2005 by Alastair Johnston
Photo of Robert Creeley showing my a Louis Sullivan building in Buffalo, April 1988