Bibliography as Memoir
Carolee Campbell’s Ninja Press: Dispatches from the Lizard Brain [New York City: Gaspara Stampa, 2022]
Read any great bibliographies lately? This is not a question that gets asked very often in my experience, even among bibliophiles, let alone the general reading public. Of the many publishing genres, bibliography might be reputed to be the most dry-as-dust, esoteric, and antiquarian. Bibliographies are not the kind of texts you read for fun. That is, unless the volume in question is one of those rare annotated works like Dispatches from the Lizard Brain, the recently published bibliography of Carolee Campbell’s Ninja Press. A complete profile of Campbell’s four-decade output, Dispatches is at once a memoire filled with personal anecdotes and a reference of her extensive corpus as a printer-publisher. Dispatches fits the bibliography genre and bends it simultaneously, just what those of us who know Campbell expect from this lithe spirit. Issued in a limited edition of a hundred and two copies, it was also reproduced in a facsimile edition of two-hundred and fifty, so is unlikely to circulate broadly outside of special collections reading rooms and rare book libraries.
Before offering a detailed description of Dispatches, however, I want to backtrack nearly fifty years to another example of an outstanding bibliographical work which made both an immediate and a lasting imprint on my own brain–and in part provides a basis for appreciating Campbell’s approach.
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In the mid-1970s, the Bay Area printer-scholar Alastair Johnston assembled A Bibliography of the Auerhahn Press (Poltroon, 1975). The Auerhahn Press had been enormously influential in the San Francisco Renaissance of post-WWII literary activity. Auerhahn’s founder, Dave Haselwood, had published works by major writers in the Beat era—William Burroughs, Michael McClure, Diane di Prima, Philip Lamantia among others. The Press had also served as a major node in a vibrant social network–a poetry scene–while steadily producing well-wrought works of cutting-edge literature. Johnston’s research resulted in a volume rich in facsimiles and citations, excerpts of letters, flyers, publicity and communications, that situated the poets and publisher within the networks their work created. Naïve and far too unlearned to fully understand what Johnston was doing, I watched the project develop from a distance, intrigued by his process of digging in archives, constructing a history from the multiple facets of material evidence and varied witnesses. I had no idea what a “bibliography” was and the project seemed difficult to research and hard to write. But the result was a portrait of the Press as a site of social relations and Johnston brought vivid anecdotes and facsimile materials into his final publication. Bibliography was a living form in his hands. The Bibliography of the Auerhahn Press exposed crucial features of literary life through an approach that was, I realized later, unique. At the time, Johnston’s project inspired me to an elaborate work of my own, namely From A to Z: The Our An Bibliography (1977), whose subtitle was an obvious pun and tribute to Johnston’s undertaking. Now, nearly half a century later, I am far more keenly aware of the combination of wit and erudition that gave Johnston’s project its flair. Though this review is not about either Johnston’s or my early work, the connection to Dispatches should become evident.
For nearly forty years, Carolee Campbell has printed letterpress editions of contemporary works, mainly poetry, under the imprint Ninja Press. Her work has all the material characteristics of fine press work—handset type, elegant design, beautiful handmade papers, finely executed bindings. But what also distinguishes the output of Ninja Press is the sophistication of its editorial choices and Campbell’s commitment to contemporary writing. No reworks of Ovid, no ponderous Moby Dick updates or time-worn sonnets by William Shakespeare appear in her list. We are (mostly) spared the standard stuff of collaborations with dead authors who might or might not have given their consent to be paired with a living artist, printer, or other partner. Campbell works with poets whose work she knows and respects, many figures of considerable stature, and Dispatches offers a record of the many friendships and relationships that developed through her publishing practice. Once again, this is bibliography as personal and cultural history.
Recently issued, and mainly produced during the pandemic, Dispatches was designed by another consummately skilled fine press printer-publisher, Russell Maret. A tribute to and record of Campbell’s considerable accomplishments, the bibliography will provide a definitive reference text for future scholars. The volume includes a preface by printer-publisher Harry Reese, an afterward by Maret, detailed descriptions by professional cataloguer Nina Schneider, and even a list of Campbell’s collection of typefaces. But most important, Campbell’s own commentary-as-memoir on her work is presented throughout. The text is charming, direct, spunky, lively, and filled with information about the thought process and production history of each book (and more briefly, the broadsides and ephemera) that have been her steady output. Twenty-nine book titles appear in the final list beginning with a modest pamphlet and developing into full-scale fine press volumes.
At the outset, Campbell offers a succinct story of her life from her origins in Los Angeles to her migration to New York city in 1958 at the age of twenty-one to pursue her dream of becoming an actress. She provides a thumbnail sketch of working with Lee Strasberg and others at The Actors Studio whose venerable lineage connected back to Moscow and Konstantin Stanislavsky’s invention of “method” acting. She tells us that in 1967 she got a part on a soap opera, The Doctors. (Video clips showing Campbell in that soap opera can be found online, and they shore up her story of playing a shy nurse whose character develops unexpectedly through her riveting performances.) For various reasons, by about 1976 she had decided she was the end of her acting career, a realization that would eventually bring her to perfect another craft, that of printing.
While the story is engaging and charming, I would not pause on a personal memoir by a printer unless there were more to the story—and to the mode of writing which extends from that sprightly anecdotal opening into an auto-bio-bibliographical profile of her books. First, the autobiographical story takes a turn. Before leaving New York, Campbell, who had long been practicing photography, was inspired by a visit to a Madison Avenue gallery where she saw the work of David A. Hanson, an artist who was creating books featuring early photographic processes. Suddenly, Campbell realized she too could make books. And make books she does, as she and her husband, the actor Hector Elizondo, move to California. She studies bookbinding with Margaret Lecky in Los Angeles and then takes up the study of letterpress under the tutelage of Harry Reese at the College of Creative Studies at UC Santa Barbara. Reese was the ideal teacher for Campbell. He and his wife Sandra Liddell Reese, a superb printer/bookbinder, ran Turkey Press in Isla Vista. Their commitment to modern art and literature as well as to fine craft set (still does) a high standard for production in this mode. Campbell proved adept at many things, not just the book arts and crafts, but, something more profound.
Campbell’s gift is her ability to conceptualize a material realization of a literary work within the fine press tradition while reinforcing the aesthetic features of the text. Fine press can too easily substitute production values for conception values, using a text as an excuse to produce a deluxe volume. Too many fine press works consist of an elegant binding, opulent materials, or other physical features used to take an insignificant work and make it seem more important than it is. Campbell’s design proceeds from her commitment to a poet’s voice, vision, language, and forms. She thinks in the book format, conjuring the work into being as an instantiation of a specific text, not an arbitrary treatment that would work for any text. While the result is still a deluxe edition for a specific market, and the conventions of fine press dictate that the work conform to certain expectations, that does not limit Campbell’s capacity to imagine each book on its own terms. No formulae, no templates, no repetition of motifs and ideas—each book has its singular gestation.
The conceptual development of books is something which I am familiar, both through my own experience across forty years of creating letterpress and limited editions, but also, through study of the work of Ilia Zdanevich, among others, who was also an inspiration to Campbell. The process of developing a book always occurs within a lived context that is lost once the book is complete. Books cannot tell us their stories beyond the limits of their covers. They appear as autonomous entities, born of labor but freed from connection to the networks of social relations, communication exchanges, and other conditions from which they emerged. Returning the history of conception and production creates an entirely different framework for understanding and reading and makes the books come alive.
In 1984, I met the widow of Ilia Zdanevich, known professionally as Iliazd. I worked with her for several years, in the personal archives of her then late husband, and also in conversation with many individuals with whom she connected me. The result, published only in 2020, was a study of the remarkable books of Iliazd within their complex histories. I wanted to describe each book in terms of how it had come into being. What does it mean to know that a book is inspired by a chance encounter, a long relationship, the study of the notes of an impoverished astronomer, or a love of dance? All manner of information accrues to a work and it becomes a node in a network of relations, a slice across the multiplicities of time-based experiences, rather than an autonomous object. I am not the first to imagine books in this way, and literary critics intent on recovering the conditions from which any individual project derived have long specialized in these thick descriptions, though they study texts, not books as material objects. In the book arts, only a handful of such studies have come to full maturity. And few with the material investment evident in Maret’s publication of Campbell’s bibliography. Campbell’s own contribution is what makes this project so rich. She offers her description of correspondence, exchanges with authors and artists, her decisions about design, and the search to find just the right combination of elements.
Each of the projects undertaken by Campbell from 1984 onward gets its profile. She begins with her very first printing projects, an edition of one of her own poems, “Courting Sorrow.” As the bibliography unfolds, she describes her gradual exposure to poetry, and the development of her own taste and judgment. A handful of those “collaborations” with the dead make their appearance in her early years—texts by Guillaume Apollinaire and Henry David Thoreau—but they are anomalies. Her widening circle of friends, printers and poets, offers opportunities to work with persons of her acquaintance. The poet Michael Hannon and a friend of longer acquaintance Betty Andrews were some of the first living writers she published. Then she began to approach writers whose work she found compelling, as in the case of José Montoya. At once incidental and deliberate, these acts of growing her circle of literary figures constitute a network over time. Campbell’s collaborators include W.S. Merwin, Nathaniel Tarn, Breyten Breytenbach, Alan Loney and others whose credentials are well-established but with whom she has personal connections. However, as her recollections make clear, the Ninja Press publications are very much her books. She knows every page and bit of punctuation and where and how each fold of paper was made, color of ink chosen, sliver of spacing material inserted or hand-cut kern achieved.
But she also makes clear how her printing fit into a life, with meals and friends, juggled schedules, and persistent drive. Campbell generously shares all of this in her description of one book after another in this anecdoted (I take the term from Emmett Williams and Daniel Spoerri’s brilliant Anecdoted Topography of Chance (Something Else Press, 1966) bibliography. A bibliography should not be a graveyard for books, a dead space in which collation formulae and page counts, dimensions and binding techniques, assert priority over the other aspects of a work. If it cannot live, show how and why a work has come to exist, what is the point?
At every point in the bibliography, Campbell provides rich accounts of the way her design concepts come into generative dialogue with materials of production. Whether she is describing putting salt into Sumi ink, taking photographs of a poet’s home, using ledger books and materials with vivid associations, she offers insights into her aesthetic process. Every one of Campbell’s works resolves the relation between production and conception on its own terms. I have only known her well-enough for the last decade to have been witness to the process by which she works, and which she documents in Dispatches. I have enjoyed watching her think through the color, feel, texture, drape, grain, and other features of paper. I have benefitted from seeing her dare to make a gestural brush stroke, change the color of a ground, pick a size for a headpiece or tail. But Dispatches offers some of this to an audience who might never have the chance to watch a book—hers or anyone else’s—come into being. It provides a view of the decisions and feedback loops, iterative considerations, the long spell of sitting with a dummy in one’s hands, looking at it in various lights, to see how the ink sits on the page and the page turns in the binding.
Russell Maret’s flawless production of the deluxe edition includes tip-ins of original pieces printed by Campbell and is as elegantly done as the (rather more) monumental Adrian and Joyce Wilson’s Printing for Theater (1957). The Wilsons were part of the Bay Area fine press scene, and uniquely gifted figures each in their own right. But Maret, who has justly established a reputation for scholarly, imaginative, and printerly excellence, has produced a work that does moving homage to Campbell’s oeuvre. The facsimile reproduces as much of the letterpress original as it can, and does it as artfully as possible. But this old-fashioned reader will never be drawn to the simulacral reproduction of paper texture as much as to the experience of actual sheets, and the weird halo effect of the type scanned in raked light was a bit unnerving.
What I love most about Dispatches, in its deluxe or facsimile edition, is the voice and spirit of Carolee Campbell. Those who know me know I am not, usually, an uncritical fan of fine press printing. Frequently over-produced, under-thought, and priced for a market, it almost always feels more like a commodity than an aesthetic object. Carolee Campbell’s work is an exception to that, work made in accord with its artistic vision. Likewise, though Campbell’s taste in poetry is a far cry from mine, steeped in the lyric mode, personal voice, and unrelated to the avant-garde traditions of formal experimentation in which I grew up, I respect the clarity of her editorial position. I want to celebrate this work without fetishizing it—not every press, printer, or work in the book format deserves this treatment, and many that do will not be fine press objects. Works of humble origin, scrap material, with voices from marginalized communities could also benefit from this bio-bibliographical treatment. But Campbell’s Dispatches provides a vivid example of the way bibliography can be used to produce a fascinating and engaging account of the many aesthetic decisions that shape books and prints. Returning these stories gives whole new dimensions to the work, makes them vividly alive.
Read any great bibliographies lately?
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