Thursday, March 5, 2009

Better Late Than Never

The Golden Anniversary:
(a few months late)
First Ten Books of the White Rabbit Press

A few months ago marked the 50th anniversary of the end of a storybook run of poetry chapbooks put out by a small press. I haven’t been able to find any special notice of that fact anywhere on the web. So here goes, a bit late but definitely necessary: a celebration of the first ten books of the White Rabbit Press, published between November 1957 and September 1958.

When I say “a storybook run of . . . chapbooks,” I mean it. As first told in the White Rabbit Press bibliography (published by Poltroon Press, 1985), and expanded upon in Poet Be Like God (Wesleyan University Press, 1998), the first ten chapbooks came about in a way that brings a smile to my mind every time I think of it, and which should inspire anyone who wants to bring poetry books into the world.

The joy here comes not simply because Jack Spicer was the main impetus behind the press (he wanted to publish himself and others in his Magic Workshop circle), nor because Robert Duncan and his partner the artist Jess Collins were major energizers (Duncan drew the pressmark, pictured above). Those facts, while important, aren’t what resonates most deeply fifty years later.

What’s really special, and inspiring, is the do-it-yourself (DIY) low-budget White Rabbit ethos, that brought the poetry into the world. Joe Dunn, the man who actually printed the books, first went (at Spicer’s urging) to secretary school at night to learn to operate commercial printers. To me, going to night school, or holding a second job, defines self-initiative: folks who take time to learn something different while the rest of us are at home, out socializing or at work.

Dunn then got a job doing printing (flyers, schedules, and so on) at the Greyhound Bus Lines in San Francisco. After hours and on weekends, and with the permission of his immediate supervisor but apparently without the knowledge of others at Greyhound, Dunn used the company’s printer to lithograph the sheets for the first ten White Rabbit chapbooks directly from the poets’ typescript or holograph. The sheets were then assembled communally in small (tiny, really) editions of approximately 200 copies (except for one book, which had 500 copies) and, with one exception, bound that way too, using needle and thread.

In this way, White Rabbit serves as an example for the ages of how poverty poetry publishing can happen, particularly when actual hard-copy put-em-on-a-shelf books are desired.

The books that came about are charmers. The first ten White Rabbit titles are essentially the same size – basically, 8.5" by 6.5" – and with one exception quite thin (between 6 and 20 pages). All have hand-illustrated and/or hand-lettered covers, several done by Jess and a couple designed by Duncan. The books, as the Poltroon bibliography puts it, “though not ‘fine printing,’ are of an artistically high standard . . . .” And the poetry, for the most part, is too.

Because so few copies of each title were printed, and distribution was quite limited, it’s very difficult today to find complete sets of the first ten White Rabbit chapbooks. Most of the ten can still be bought used. However, that’s not an option for most. Prices currently range from around $75 to $150 for the more common, less-in-demand of the books, to $300 or more for certain others, and (believe it or not) around $2,000 for the title most in demand.

Presumably, there are some poets and readers from late 1950s San Francisco who bought them all at the time, and still have them, and there no doubt are a few odd collectors who have over the years gathered all ten. But such folks are hard to find and are unlikely to want to share their treasures. Then there are the university rare book collections. But even there the pickings are slim. According to my research on WorldCat, only about twenty libraries have any of the first ten White Rabbit titles, and fewer than that have them all.

So, in celebration of the passing of 50 years, and in tribute to the DIY publishing that resulted in these important and enduring chapbooks, here are the first ten White Rabbit titles, in order of publication. Brief comments are included below each image. Clicking on each image will enlarge it, in a new window:

Love, the Poem, the Sea & Other Pieces Examined
Steve Jonas
(November 1957)

Some (click here) call Jonas a “neglectorino,” and if so, perhaps that makes this, his first book, a neglectorinosity. It’s a single poem of four parts, or four short poems, over seven pages. I love this set of lines, from part ii, which seemingly accurately prophesize America’s direction, and I think criticize it too:
                    . . . men are no longer interested
in the sea of their minds
                    they have visions of other worlds
accurately numbered
                    they visit them daily in papers and
                    in the meantime plan
                            Within a decade to
         shoot the moon.
Also cool: the way words and images (the sea, birds, grass) re-appear one section to another, and this, from the final section, an assertion that must be considered key to the poetics of Spicer, Duncan and most all great poets:
I did not intend a serious poem but the Poem
                    has a will all its own.

After Lorca
Jack Spicer

(November-December 1957)

This is a justly revered book of translations, original work passed off as translations, and a faux introduction and letters that double (and triple) as prose poems and statements on poetics. It’ll cost you several hundred bucks for a copy, but if you like Spicer, it’s essential.

Essential because After Lorca as re-printed in the Black Sparrow Collected Books or last year’s Wesleyan Collected Spicer, is NOTHING like the original. It’s not just that the subsequent Collected editions don’t have the gorgeous cover by Jess, with its striking illustration and red lettering (the Wesleyan has a tiny black-and-white reproduction). The huge problem with the subsequent Collected editions – it’s almost a travesty – is the failure to duplicate either the book’s typography or the text’s placement on the page.

The White Rabbit After Lorca was litho-ed from typewritten sheets. Each poem and letter begins at the top of a page, regardless of where the previous poem (or letter) ended. Thus, each work has its own space-page integrity. The effect on the letters in particular, because they are typewritten – including uneven right-side margins -- is profound. The letters in the White Rabbit After Lorca actually look like something someone (Spicer) would or did actually type out and then send. Yes, it’s an illusion, but it’s perfectly executed and the energy within the informal-looking but mind-blowing letters, each specially set off at the top of a page, is something else.

In contrast, the Black Sparrow and Wesleyan editions do up After Lorca in a slick printing fashion. The typescript font is replaced with something more modern. The letters get further gussied up with fully-justified margins both left and right. And all the work, including the letters, begins immediately after the text that comes before: there’s no starting each piece at the top of a separate page. Compared to the original, it’s poor, almost odious. Sure, Spicer’s words, lines, and sentences are all there, but his writing, especially the letters, seems entombed alive.

No ill-will towards the people who did this to Spicer’s work, but why? It appears those “in charge” either never thought about what they were doing, or were too embarrassed to say anything about it. In both the Black Sparrow and Wesleyan books, the editors take time to emphasize that they preserved Spicer’s “orthography” (his sometimes odd spellings). But those same editors never mention the changes to how After Lorca actually looks on the page. It’s as if they believed that the look of the work on the page was some mere coincidence having nothing to do with Spicer’s intentions. What a shame.

Anyway, let’s celebrate Spicer’s achievement. Here’s a great paragraph from one of the letters (at page 19), with original line breaks preserved:
         I yell “Shit” down a cliff at an ocean.
Even in my lifetime the immediacy of that word
will fade. It will be dead as “Alas”. But if
I put the real cliff and the real ocean into
the poem, the word “Shit” will ride along with
them, travel the time-machine until cliffs and
oceans disappear.
After Lorca had a print run of 500 copies, by far the largest of White Rabbit’s first ten. At about 70 total pages, including preliminaries, it’s also by far the longest of the first ten. The book, in design, production, and content, is a masterpiece.


Five Poems
Denise Levertov
(January 1958)

The title describes the contents. Cover and two drawings within by Jess. Good line that I like to remember (it’s repeated twice in “Seems Like We Must Be Somewhere Else”):
If we’re here let’s be here now.

The Wapitis
Ebbe Borregaard

(January 1958 )

Neither Borregaard nor this book (which consists of three poems centering on “wapiti” (also and more commonly known as elk) are much remembered today, even though the first of the poems here was included in Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry (1960). (An exception: Ron Silliman, in the third section of his poem “For Larry Eigner, Silent” (in VOG, which in turn can be found in the Alphabet) has a sentence that in part quotes from Borregaard:
Odd how, after 30 years, a phrase such as “the beauty     wapiti” still rings in the mind.
I think it’s the rhythm of that phrase that makes it stick, that and the internal rhyme and the oddity of “wapiti.” Poetic rhythms and unusual vocabulary, perhaps not surprisingly, are the strengths of the book’s poems as a whole. There are mostly long, long lines (all the way across the page), and many unfamiliar words: “dolorosa,” “cuckoopoint,” “stames,” “wastrel” “vatrix” “wolfsbane,” “pico,” and “heterogenesis” show up in just the first nine lines! You gotta love those weird words!

The cover of this book is by Robert Duncan. I believe it uses Greek letters to spell out the poet’s name and title.


The Love Root
George Stanley

(March 1958)

The title poem, one of about a half-dozen in the book, is dedicated to Duncan. It has eight stanzas, mostly consisting of very short sentences, linebreaked, with a bit of extra space between the sentence-ending periods and the start of the next. Many stanzas are quite evocative. Here’s one:
S-curve.      Counterfeast.
From the bridge you are going
over now, night.      Leftward, a bridge.
A bridge to the right.      A salt
tongue in the air.      And verbana, rinsing
the glass eye.      Thick boy is
drowning.      Jewels rise,
drowning.      A fish runs sleek and handy
under the lip of the world.
And oh yes and as you probably guessed: all text in The Love Root is litho-ed in purple!


Faust Foutu -- Act 1
Robert Duncan

(March 1958)

The first of four parts of this play, which, per the book, was produced as a dramatic reading at King Ubu’s Gallery, San Francisco, in 1954, starring, among others, Duncan, Spicer, Mike McClure, (filmmaker) Larry Jordan, Ida Hodes, Helen Adam, and Jess. Think of a cast party with those poet-players!


The Bird Poems
Harold Dull
(May 1958)

Yep, five short poems about birds. And no, they are not dull. Yet neither do they as a whole soar. But there are moments. For example, between poem IV and V is a coupon that the reader could cut out along dotted lines, which prompts the reader to send the poet “dollars” to buy paper, with the reader’s signature verifying an understanding that paper “means as much to” Dull “as the sea does to the gull.” The book’s colophon provides the poet’s address, and states that coupons be sent there. How cool is that?!


The Galilee Hitch-Hiker
Richard Brautigan

(May 1958)

A typically marvelous and hilarious Brautigan nine-poem sequence, with Baudelaire the central figure in each. If I typed my favorite parts I’d type the whole dang book. But, okay, the first poem, which gives the book its title, has Baudelaire driving a Model A across Galilee and picking up a hitch-hiking Jesus:
“Where are you
going?” asked
Jesus, getting
into the front
“Anywhere, anywhere
out of this world!”
shouted Baudelaire.
“I’ll go with you
as far as
said Jesus.
There’s another few lines, but you get the idea: how brilliant is that Baudelaire quote?

The seventh poem in the sequence, titled “A Baseball Game” (hey, were are deep into spring training, aren't we?), is another flat-out great one, and begins:
Baudelaire went
to a baseball game
and bought a hot dog
and lit a pipe
of opium.
The remainder of the poem carries forth the promise of that opening, I assure you. The entire poem sequence has been re-printed in a couple Brautigan collections, and is available on the web, at a page devoted to the book in the exceptional on-line Brautigan bibliography (click here and scroll to the middle of the page).

Of the first ten White Rabbit authors, Brautigan has attained the most widespread recognition and fervent fans. The Galilee Hitch-Hiker was his first solely-authored published book, and only 200 copies were printed. For these reasons, the title is now a serious challenge for the collector, to say the least. Copies are genuinely rare, and when available are priced at around two grand each. Wow!


The Queen O’ Crow Castle
Helen Adam

Adam’s medium-length Scots-style narrative ballad is told mostly in rhymed couplets. A man named Callastan loves a Queen, but so too did seven husbands before him, each of whom is now “ashes and dust.” What happens, you ask? All I can say is, I hate those fuckin’ crows. Cover and drawings within by Jess.


O’Ryan 2 4 6 8 10
Charles Olson

(September 1958)

The book prints the five even-numbered poems of what was a ten-poem sequence (in 1965, White Rabbit published the entire sequence). The cover is by Jess, and a rarely seen variant to that pictured above featured blue ink and silver sparkles.

The poems are intensely conversational in tone, raw and even brutal, and powerful. Almost miraculously, a somewhat but not impossibly hiss-filled tape-recording exists of Olson reading these exact poems at San Francisco State in 1957, the year before their publication (click here to go to the PennSound Olson page, the "O’Ryan Poems" are Track 11 (the last one) under the 1957 reading near the top of the page). The poems were the final thing Olson read that day, and take a listen: the crowd, not surprisingly, really goes for them (click here to go to the Penn Sound page with this track!).


End Note: After a four year hiatus, White Rabbit in 1962 began again to publish poetry, mostly printed by Graham Mackintosh. More than 50 additional books were published under the imprint, most in the 1960s but continuing through the mid-1970s with one title in 1981. See Johnston, Alastair, A Bibliography of the White Rabbit Press (Berkeley: Poltroon Press, 1985). See also, Ellingham, Lewis and Killian, Kevin, Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance (Wesleyan University Press, 1998).




Joseph said...

Thank you, Steve. A great piece. Though now I have to spend the day waiting out the desire to buy them all!

Steven Fama said...

You're welcome Joseph -- it was fun to write and do up this one -- I love these books and how they were made.

Hope you made it through the day!

Pris said...

I followed the rabbit's munchings and found this post. It's a great one. Love your blog. Am adding you to my rss feed to follow on my own blog.

Andy Gricevich said...

Yes, this is lovely. An inspiration for poor publishers (and publishers-to-be) as well as a grand chance to peer a bit into these books from, maybe, my favorite period of U.S. poetry.



Steven Fama said...

Thanks Pris and Andy. I loved doing this post, and I appreciate you letting me know you enjoyed reading it.

Ray Davis said...

Your mouth-watering description of After Lorca helps explain Spicer's return to the pseudo-letter formula in Admonitions. I imagine (not owning either book in their original form) it used a similar one-work-per-page layout with similar effect.

One of my most prized possessions is a copy of Language which Graham Mackintosh very (breathtakingly, even) generously gave me. If I owned a copy of After Lorca, I think there'd quickly be a bootlegged PDF floating around the web....

Thomas Sullivan said...

The Spicer cover is beautiful. I was wondering if you had a copy of The Heads of the Town up to the Aether. I've been looking for a high-res image of that cover for some time now and haven't come across anything. I would be very grateful if you had any ideas about that. This blog is wonderful.