Please Come with Me on the Yellow Bus for a Field Trip to the Library Where We Will Find Bean Spasms and Other Rare Treasures
Sometimes it happens that you forget why you love books, or sometimes you lose the connection. There is so much noise. But then you find yourself at the library. Not just the library–although your everyday, basic county library is a wonderful place to be–but a special library. A library at the nearby university, which is five levels high and houses one on of the levels a Special Collections and Archives Library. A library within a library: the Small Press Collections at the Special Collections and Archive Library at UC Irvine. There, you can touch, in every sense of the word, the life of small presses from decades ago. These texts, most of which are carefully stored in archival envelopes or boxes, are there living their book lives and breathing their papery breaths, just waiting to be taken out and opened once again. But to get a book in your hand (say, for example, Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett’s Bean Spasms)–to hold it and touch it, sniff and caress it, to read it, is a bit of a process.
A single room, small, behind a nondescript door. A desk at front with a sole librarian who asks you to place your belongings in the lockers provided before getting started. Food and drink, purses and backpacks are not allowed. Neither are pens; you may either type on your computer or write on paper with a pencil. Yes, a pencil.
You are allowed one book a time. When you are finished with the item, you return it to the librarian and take another. This process, though involved, is some sort of holy experience. The room is quiet and cool. There are no sounds except for the typing of a student doing research a few tables over, an occasional sigh or ‘hmmm” from the librarian nearby. You are being brought books from the hidden vault: small press specimens, collected, preserved, kept, kept safe.
You hold each book and notice choices regarding spine, cover, binding, paper, length, image. Alice Notley’s Tell Me Again (Am Here Books/Immediate Editions, 1982) is twenty-four typewritten pages stapled together and fronted with a blue construction paper flyleaf. Notley’s Incidentals In the Day World has a smudged cover and you wonder if the smudge was an accident caused by inky fingertips or quirk of the mimeograph. Perhaps, you imagine, the smudge is purposeful, a reminder of the handmade quality of the publication. Diane Di Prima’s Hotel Albert (Kriya Press for Poet’s Press, 1968), has style and sense of humor that comes through in every page of the petite, hand-lettered chap, complete with drawings, notes, and doodles. The chap feels like a happened-upon notebook, a privacy made public for a lucky reader: you.
On the other side of the spectrum is the elegant (yet still small and hand-numbered) chap series by Yes/ Capra Chapbook Series, bound with sumptuous fabric, a print of cream, gold, and russet, the image on the cover perfectly beckoning.
You hold this tiny not-tiny text and understand why it’s absolutely necessary for backpacks and purses to be locked in lockers. Diane Di Prima’s chapbook Loba Part 1 (Capra Press, 1973) makes you want, for the briefest of moments, to become a book thief. Potential book thief self: No. It is enough to simply look. Hold. Read.
salty earth, she
breath cloud heavenward
You are trusted with these artifacts, these old books, broadsides, and chapbooks whose lives through paper still thrum.
The first time you visit, you will wonder what this place is. What this place is: the secret life of the library, the secret trapdoor in the floor that reveals an entire city below. It turns out some libraries have lives that go way deeper than the stacks. This library in particular holds numerous special collections including one devoted to the small press. From the library’s website:
The Small Press Collection consists of works issued by publishers who traditionally promote new and original creative writing, irrespective of mass-market trends. Correspondingly, these publications are often produced in small limited editions. UCI’s Small Press collection is decidedly literary and is particularly strong in American poetry and presses from the 1960s onward.
Some of the presses represented are Angel Hair (read Anne Waldman on Angel Hair at Jacket 2), Big Sky Press, Capra Press (Yes! Capra Chapbook Series), Kriya Press, Kulchur Press, and Telegraph Books. These are a handful, a couple afternoonfuls, of the small press publishers the collection offers, and digging deeper into a single one of these presses will lead you into a book-lined labyrinth of small press history.
You hear the conversation between small press then and small press now. Anne Waldman on the creation of Angel Hair: “Conflation of time triggered by romance adjacent to the glamorous history-making events of the conference seems a reasonable explanation.” Or Ted Berrigan in the notes section of Bean Spasms: “There are no tricks. It was New York City and friends, and most of our friends were writers or painters, and when we got together…we wrote. That is, we collaborated….It wasn’t the new thing, we didn’t invent the idea, and we didn’t think we were being revolutionary. It was just what was happening and fact, still is.” Friends in each others living rooms, reading pieces out loud to each other, printing pages, stapling them together, sending them out into the world. Or, as Anne Waldman writes, “[P]erhaps Angel Hair was what we made together in our brief substantive marriage that lasted and had repercussions.” Two lovers printing work they love. Or the video of Shanna Compton printing and cutting and assembling Sympathetic Nervous System by Jackie Clark. Or, simple fervent interest in another’s work: “Mutual recognition lit us up. Don’t I know you?” asks Anne Waldman.
Venn diagrams until the whole small press world is a beehive of circles and moons and hexagons of touch and reach and connect. How is it possible you ever thought of a book, or your book, or your press (if you are an editor) as a singular, independent (oh yes we are indie!) being? Think: small press as call and response. Small press as give and take. Small press as lit (Lit) right now, but also then and next. Small press as mutable energy, changing gathering growing disappearing emerging evolving.