Tuesday, 27 January 2009

A book by Stuart Montgomery / Little presses display

In Brighton for the Zukovsky A-24 seminar last Friday, H brought me back a present: Stuart Montgomery's Circe, Fulcrum, 1969, picked up for a tiny sum in very good condition (the dustjacket just cracking its surface at the spine, top edge sl. sticky). Lovely book, all brown & green; fabulous wrapper design, end-papers and title-page, image is an Etruscan bronze mirror with a superb incised depiction presumably of Odysseus and Circe.
The poetry's growing on me. A decent version of the Homeric story, verbally textured and slightly disjunctive, is interrupted towards the end by a series of shorter more detached pieces (that I like best), which include more immediate, self-reflexive elements (i.e. it mentions poetry ...).

Fulcrum is one of five presses featured in an exhibition on briefly now at the St Bride Library in London ('the world’s foremost printing, technical and graphic arts library'). The others are: Keepsake, Trigram, Writers Forum, and Gaberboccus. '"Short run": experimental book design and London's little presses' is curated by Rathna Ramanathan.
Here's a very brief account:
It is a nice, quite extensive display in three or four upright vitrines and a couple of lengthy desk cases, in the room that also houses St Bride's collection of printing presses. The displays include books of course, also some archival material such as artwork and photographs of people. The material is not all grouped by press, and the principle of arrangement wasn't entirely clear to me at the private view on Thursday [15th Jan.], but Rathna's talk gave some idea of the ways in which she has thought about the subject.

The show is based on Rathna's PhD, and the selection of presses one suspects was partly determined by what archives were found to be readily available, but it does make for instructive comparisons. She is also a practising designer, so it was interesting to hear her quite practical analysis of how each of these presses functioned, and the consequent stylistic and material aspects of their productions.
For instance, the Keepsake Press of Roy Lewis was the one most in the 'private press' tradition: letterpress-printed in-house by the proprietor, fairly conventional text layout (and poetic genre), illustrations commissioned from artists of note but not supposed to 'interfere' with the text; a system of signed limited editions, distributed to 'collectors'. At the other extreme, Bob Cobbing's Writers Forum of course, utterly anti-precious, using office printing technology; the production process constituted 'a performance of the text', unlimited editions, extremely open editorial policy (not based on the notion of 'quality'); linked to a whole milieu of performance, workshops, self-help and cooperation (the Association of Little Presses etc.) and general counter-cultural activity.

In between, Fulcrum and Trigram produced high quality books within somewhat more normal commercial parameters -- up to a point. Stuart Montgomery outsourced production to Villiers Publications Ltd., and the books looked conventional, but (aside from being an excellent list) they were distinguished by great cover designs by good contemporary artists. Also the paper is excellent and the printing looks pretty good to me. Additionally, Fulcrum produced 'special' editions of the same books, aimed at collectors. At Trigram by contrast the Benvenistes and Paul Vaughan were totally involved in the design and printing, and profoundly interested in incorporating image with text, and in the 'rhythm' of book construction.
But the centre of Rathna Ramanathan's research is Gaberbocchus, the press of Stefan and Franciszka Themerson, for the range of texts they published, perhaps the wider European (rather than American) relationships, and for its continuous relationship with the Themersons' own creative work and very distinctive style. There are some nice examples of artwork, with text and illustrations being worked out through physical cut & paste.

That's an inadequate summary. The presses were noteworthy for literary reasons, several responsible for introducing important foreign writers to British readers; etc. etc. But most of that can be found out elsewhere. It's if you love the look of little press poetry books that the display is really worth a visit (free admission; somewhat restricted hours but open late on Wednesdays). LAST DAY 30th JANUARY.

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