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Books Printed by Walter Tisdale

(Sketch for a chapter of Leaf Mosaic)

by Karl Young

As a magic art, printing has many ways of bringing people together and, at times, bringing out the best in them. I have written about some of the channels through which this process can move, as have virtually all those who write on literacy or, indeed, about human endeavors of any sort since the time when people began copying signs and symbols. Aside from my tendencies toward such sweeping generalities, I, like others, have written about collaborations between poets and between mail artists. At present, I'd like to write a little, in gratitude and delight, about collaborations between a poet and a printer- publisher. This can seem a bit odd since I've been a printer- publisher myself. In this capacity, my primary motives have been expediency. Although I've made a few one-of-a-kind books as works of art, my main activity has been producing books that I could distribute as inexpensively as possible. I have not been particularly good at it, but simply adequate to my purposes. I've had the good fortune, however, of having some of my books produced by people with abilities far beyond my own. The benefits have extended considerably beyond having beautiful books. The most profound have included learning a good deal about the conduct of life, what people can do, and even gaining a better understanding of what I have written.

Perhaps a cornerstone of my good fortune in this regard cam from living in Milwaukee, a short distance from Madison, Wisconsin, at the time when Walter Hamady mentored to some of the best printers of the day. Among them, Charles Alexander has proven a good friend and producer of my Five Kwaidan In Sleeve Pages and the tentative publisher of Only As Painted Images In Your Books Have We Come To Be Alive In This Place, a collection of essays that has played an odd game of hide and seek with us for over a decade. Other Hamady alumni have been important to me in various ways.

In whatever direction Hamady's students have gone, the base of their work remains a thorough knowledge of traditional artisanship in printing from lead type. At present, some see this as elitist or retrograde or some such nonsense. You can find all sorts of people who print from lead type doing a thoroughly wretched job of it, considerably less competent than the trade editions I've produced. Some of them see inherent virtues in lead. I don't. I started printing from lead myself, and did so in the same spirit as I worked with mimeo: the tools were available - that's all. I didn't do a good job in using them. Much more important for those who have made an art of this kind of printing has been the attitude toward skill engendered by a tradition that holds up unsurpassed models and that can encourage sensitive artists to extend themselves as far as possible while maintaining a sense of respect for themselves, the materials they work with, and those who read their books. What they can build on that base extends itself through all sorts of manifestations. This configuration of attitude and skills, rather than lead type, is what distinguishes people like Walter Tisdale.

I don't remember when I first met Walter. I'm sure it was during one of my visits to Madison, or one of the occasions when Hamady's students came to Milwaukee to meet people or to attend readings. Whatever the first meeting may have been, it evolved into a long conversation, much of it carried out through letters and telephone conversations. In person or through the mail, manuscripts were often as much as I could give back for the books Walter lent or gave me - certainly copies of the books I printed would make an inadequate exchange. In person meetings included my showing Walter facsimiles I made of pre- Columbian Mexican books, my collection of Chinese books, prints, calligraphy, and sketches for visual poetry based on these sources. In addition to his own books, Walter almost invariably had copies of books other printers and calligraphers had done to show me.

Walter's edition of my Milestones, Set 1 worked its way through these conversations. His procedure on this book followed a course similar to other books I had the good fortune to watch evolve. Essentially, Walter doesn't simply print books, but rather he performs an extended meditation on the text, on book forms, on the nature of design and printing. Books result from this meditation. The process includes the creation of several dummies before setting type, and several proof drafts before "completing" a book. I put completing in quotes because Walter usually continues to refine his work during the editioning process until he runs out of copies. In books done after Milestones 1, this moves toward making each book unique. Through earlier stages of most books, Walter develops his work to a tentative conclusion that most printers would give their eye teeth to achieve, but aren't quite what he wants, and at these points he can radically change direction or even start over. There's nothing skitterish or whimsical about this, but rather a slow process of finding out how to make the best book possible. The books of mine Walter has produced have taken from four to ten years to reach the stage where copies might be sold, and during those time spans, I've had the opportunity of seeing each manifest itself as several different one-of-a-kind books and variations on the final recension.

As part of Walter's exploration of the nature of book art, the process can interrelate work on one book with others simultaneously in progress. An instance of this came with Ted Enslin's The Weather Within. For some time, I had wanted to do offset editions from the type used by Hamady and his students. This seemed a good way to get some broader circulation for immaculate typography as well as the texts. I later had opportunity to do this with other books, most importantly Charles Alexander's editions of Jackson Mac Low's French Sonnets and Paul Metcalf's Golden Delicious and Firebird. The Weather Within, however, was my first opportunity to produce such an edition, and it did so in a way that probably couldn't be repeated. Funding came from the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Woodland Pattern. W.P. had copies to distribute to friends of the organization. Since the poems acted as a memorial to George Oppen, and Ted had been a mentor to me, the dimensions of interaction extended through a wide range of participants, and helped generate a lot of enthusiasm for Ted, for Karl Gartung and Anne Kingsberry of Woodland Pattern, for Kim Wilson who contributed drawings to the book, and for Walter and me.

Given the circumstances, Walter worked relatively quickly on this book. Still, one of his basic methods shows itself clearly. Walter tells people that books design themselves. One of the basic ideas for the format of this book came from the way Ted types his poems. He is frugal and a conservationist. For paper, he often uses "broke" - scrap from a paper mill. He changes his typewriter ribbon once a decade or so, increasing the pressure setting as the ink runs out. Through a good deal of a ribbon cycle, the print is as much embossed as typed, and towards the end of a ribbon's life, the bowls of such letters as O and B can drop out of the paper in chads. For the text stock, Walter chose a light weight, laid finish Ingres paper. Although the type impression is not overstated, the print interacts with the delicacy of the paper in such a way as to emphasize the character of both. This becomes something like an apotheosis of Ted's typewritten copy. The austerity of the book suggests one dimension of George Oppen's and Ted's personalities; the broad, open, highly legible type face suggests another, balancing dimension. I couldn't repeat anything like the impression in the offset edition, but Walter's typography and press work suggested a means of laying out the book so that the type related well to my recycled paper, and proportion and imposition emphasized the openness and definition of the letters.

There are some similarities in typography between this book and Milestones 1 We talked a fair amount about type faces, and the one Walter decided upon for this book was Eric Gill's Perpetua, an open face with elongated ascenders and descenders. The broad width table and the airiness created around it not only gave it an light and mobile quality, but the straight strokes and broad curves suggest machine parts. Eric Gill had advocated cottage industries such as those Walter and I ran, and went in for some of the Utopian goofiness inherent in mine. Milestones finds a formal base in Anglo-Saxon poetry, and Walter took several medieval ideas for the design of the book. The first letter of each poem is set in Weiss and rubricated, though the initial letters printed in red have the same x height as the rest of the type. To close off each poem, we designed an emblem of two circles and two lines, suggesting wheels on roads and one of the perennial symbols of resurrection, the solar disk above the horizon, as well as the Anarchist Circle A emblem. This worked nicely with the machine parts character of the body type. Printed in gold, these symbols set up dynamic interactions with the red letters at the beginning of each poem. For binding, Walter worked out a variation on models produced by Irish monks: the signature stitches anchor in velum thongs looped through the cover stock and spine panels. This binding needs no adhesives. The book virtually opens itself and lies flat when opened. This is a user- friendly binding that offers up the text without a constriction at the spine fighting the reader's hands. The type is equally effortless in its legibility.

Click here to go to a poem from Milestones, Set 1 as printed in Walter Tisdale's edition.

When Milestones 1 came out in 1987, I had stopped writing poetry, and saw this book as a good way to end things: as a printed work of art, it was a book such as I would have liked to have done had I the ability to so - an apotheosis or reincarnation in a better state of the books I had produced. But other factors had begun before this, and would move in curious arcs from it. In 1985, when we did our editions of The Weather Within, I had stopped writing poetry, but continued translating, an activity that had become a habit and at times a form of solace. My main efforts during this period had been with Anglo-Saxon devotional poems. After completing "Advent" and "The Phoenix," I turned to "The Battle of Maldon." I had previously avoided translating this poem since I had used part of it as a personal charm. From there I went on to "The Seafarer." Up to this time, I had seen Ezra Pound's translation of the poem as sacrosanct. Pound's version had gotten me interested in Anglo-Saxon poetry during my teens. The sound properties of the poem - essentially a symphony in miniature: perhaps the most complex piece of sonic magic produced in the evolution of English from its Norse origins to the present - were what mattered then. Pound's prestidigitation in draining the poem of nearly all its original significance while leaving it's sonorities and most of its lexical arcs intact may be one of the strangest bits of verbal alchemy in our or any other time. I decided to do a more or less conventional translation, taking no more than the standard liberties. One of my basic rules in translation is not to publish any translation unless good translations already exist by people with better qualifications than my own. This didn't apply in this case, since everybody and his sister has translated the poem, and one more version wouldn't get in anybody's way. Still, at this time I translated for my personal gratification without publication in mind. Walter, who had since moved to Bangor, Maine, visited me while I was working on "The Seafarer" with dummies of Milestones. I recited the Old English poem to him and read my working of it to that point, and gave him a copy of the draft of my version. He later told me that this was the point at which he started planing to do the poem as a book. It seems important to note that he was in part starting where I had, with sound patterns whose lexical significance he didn't understand, but whose music spoke to him as it had spoken to me.

Producing the book became something of a pilgrimage for Walter. As in any pilgrimage, this one included advice, help, and ideas from many people along the way, accidents and mistakes that turned to advantages, even false starts that became advances. A minimal chronicle would include the following: "The Seafarer" renewed Walter's interest in The Lindisfarne Gospels, which served as a model. Another point of departure was the polymath book art of Tom Phillips, which includes multiple layers of text and image in such works as A Humument, and a holistic approach to classics as in his working of Dante's Divine Comedy, which includes translation as well as design and illumination. This involves some curious arcs in that Phillips' formal education was in Anglo-Saxon lit, and medieval models, from Hiberno-Saxon book design to Dante's poetry formed part of his base. Phillips had been a strong influence on me, and I had published a symposium on his work and that of Ian Tyson and Joe Tilson in Open Letter magazine after Margins, for which it had been commissioned, folded. Despite its shortcomings, this was the first large-scale commentary on Phillips published anywhere. Although my interest in Phillips doesn't make itself apparent in Milestones, it does work its way through the Mexican- based work and Clouds Over Fortjade. Interest in Philips in turn lead Walter to ask Nancy Leavitt to join the project. Nancy usually gets classified as a calligrapher, though her main mode of expression is full illumination of texts, often done as one-of-a-kind books. At the time she joined the project, she had been working for a number of years on one-of-a-kind illuminated books using texts from Milestones. The papers Walter wanted to use lead him to Harry Duncan, one of America's grand masters of fine printing, and Suzanne Moore, a magnificent calligrapher and book artist. Duncan made suggestions on imposition and registration. Moore liked the transparency of one of Walter's papers, which got him thinking about inserting other papers with textures, weights, and degrees of opacity that played against the sturdy Saint Giles stock used in early dummies. Playing with rainbow inked rollers during cleanup suggested the layering in Phillips' prints and similar techniques in Nancy's work. Nancy, too, did her share of dummies: three important ones worked with such concepts as interlinear calligraphy and designs based in Futurist and Constructivist models with letters in all possible vertical and horizontal orientations. The fourth, simpler than its predecessors, more closely resembled Hiberno-Saxon lettering and left more room for Walter to experiment. The first versions of the book were in codex form, but after three or four revisions, Walter decided to go to a screenfold format, which went through several more permutations. This in part reflected my use of screenfolds in Clouds Over Forjade. It also reflected two different approaches to screenfold formats. In recent years, book artists have used this format simply as a means of allowing books to be displayed fully opened in the glass cases in which such artists' books spend much of their public life. Walter wanted this book to be something that could be seen in shows. He had also had to listen to me pontificate on the misfortune of this form being used solely for display purposes. Chinese and Mexican books in this format make use of it to interrelate pages in various ways. The Mexican books, for instance, base themselves in a cyclical conception of time, and the screens allow the reader to fold books up in such a way as to juxtapose multiple historical epochs in changing configurations. In Clouds Over Fortjade, I used the form as a means of accentuating parallelism and antithesis in poems, and as a structural guide to the formal properties of the classic Chinese poetry. In working with "The Seafarer," Walter wanted a book that could be exhibited, but didn't simply take that need to the passive and wasteful cliché that glass cases have imposed on the art. In his book, the folds assist in formal structures that reinforce and reinterpret the dialogues between old and modern text, between calligraphy and type, between the people immediately involved in the creation of the book, even between different types of paper, which comment on each other by their juxtaposition.

This book is a sort of summary of my work, a summary of Walter's thinking (most of his books are that), a commentary on tenth and twentieth century book art, and a place for Nancy to try new techniques, some of which she incorporated into other projects, including illuminations of Milestones. I had shown Walter facsimiles of Mixtec manuscripts I had painted and Chinese poems I had translated in a manner that fused word and graphic treatment. We had talked about coincidences or synchronicities in medieval English poetry and the roughly contemporary poetry of China, including the use of caesuras in both. Typographic rendering of these pauses make a road, visible or audible, down the middle of the poem. That fit the theme of roads in both my work and Nancy's. Folding the printed codex sheets made an exact break in the pages, through which the caesuras wander. As he proceeded, Walter checked a facsimile of the original Anglo-Saxon manuscript. He expected something like The Lindisfarne Gospels, instead of the crowded, crabbed tenth century insular of The Exeter Book. But this triggered other ideas. In a way, he made what the scribe would have liked to have made, had he the skill, money, and time to do it. Most interesting and gratifying to me is the way this book moves out of individual author mode into several forms of collaboration. I get credited as the author, but my contribution is less important than Walter and Nancy's. In this book, my poem becomes a base for something else for Walter and Nancy, in much the same way as sources from Meso-America and China have served as bases for my some of my poetry.

A measure of the complexity of the decade-long process is that I have seen dummies that Walter doesn't have, and he loaned me one which he had forgotten, and rediscovered while I was writing notes on his edition for a book arts journal. At times the discussion of mock-ups resembled the venerable American classic, Abbot and Costello's "Who's on third?" Another comes from the variations in the 85 copies in the edition and the dozen or so artist's proofs. Virtually no two examples are identical. In putting out the edition, Walter continued to make changes as he went along. Some differences become dramatic, as in the switch to a different kind of wrapper in mid edition. More subtle variations occur in such areas as shifts in paper. This book begins to move into sculpture. Walter's next project moved more fully in that direction.

Click here to go to a detail of the book, showing some of Nacny Leavitt's calligraphy, and Walter Tisdale's printing

The texts for Solar Dreams are of two kinds: poems from Milestones related to the central Mexican solar cycle, and my line drawings from Codex Borgia of mandalas related to the sun's passage through heaven and earth. One text source is alphabetic, the other iconographic. We began by discussing the lexical poems and brought the drawings into the discussion as the project progressed. A dream frames the first poem, which begins with synchronization of sunrise and dreams, the creation of the world and cars on the road, my lady's shoulders in sleep and the way patterns of shifting light define the day. The second poem describes the way male warriors triumphally carry the sun towards noon, singing songs of creation based in knowledge of destruction and playing the music of the underworld on which the sun rises. The third poem tells how Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, the gods of creation and destruction, created the world from the body of the primordial dragon, carving out the path of the sun, and setting the present world age in motion. The fourth poem describes the souls of women who died in childbirth escorting the sun from noon to sunset, chanting spells of endless rebirth and the optimism inherent in the death of one day's sun.

The first iconographic text from Codex Borgia shows the creation of the world and each day's sun through the death of the gods. The second mandala shows the dead sun at midnight, containing larval forms of Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl in the viscera of the earth, surrounded by calendar signs and four manifestations of the rain god. The third iconic text shows the warrior women dancing around the sun as it sets in the mouth of the earth mother.

Walter painted over the drawings in colors not related to those used in Codex Borgia, a kind of syncopation by color creating a different tune. He cut out these colored images and pasted them on deeply dyed handmade papers. The pasting of image sheets on the pages creates a basic bas relief. The nature of the colors painted over the images create the sense of other layers: red and orange forms surrounded by blue and green seem elevated from them: smaller images in these registers inside the icons seem to rise from their backgrounds in different layers of luminosity. The color schemes change in different light, taking on a different character under artificial light than they show in sunlight. In addition to the cut out images, Walter cut patterns in some sheets that suggest a lost script strung along a horizontal line, and punched out the Roman letters of the title and a colophon.

Click here to go to a page opening from Solar Dreams

Walter juxtaposed these elements in such a way as to create complex polyrhythms and syncopations, perhaps related to the Renaissance madrigals and west coast jazz he listens to in his studio. The dawn poem appears across from the mandala showing the warriors raising the sun toward noon. The poem dealing with the warrior women escorting the sun to the earth mother faces the mandala delineating the process. These make a frame for the poem dealing with the creation of the world and the carving of the paths of the sun. This appears in a small fold stitched into the center of the mandala of the larval forms of the gods in the dead sun. Thus these two texts form a tight knot in the center of the book, with morning and sunset radiating out from them. The book moves from the center out. The dawn poem appears to the left of morning, and the orientation of the poem runs at a ninety degree angle to the central text: To read it, you have turn the book what may seem to be sideways. The mouth of the earth mother to the right of the center appears at what might initially seem the top of the page, but simply indicates the turning motion of solar orientation. Moving further to the right, the colophon suggests that the book could be read down from what might seem to be the end of the book. Shifts of this sort, like the shifts in color, suggest the rotating nature of the earth and the solar cycle. The round designs of the mandalas play against the linear nature of the type, seeming to push it toward rotation. The turning book can act as a codex, held in the hands and read by turning its involuted folds, at times juxtaposing them in different orders. The book can also be fully extended as a screen fold, to be exhibited under glass or read extended from the hands in full radiance.

Click here to go to the central opening of Solar Dreams

It's easy enough to slight or overlook the work of the bookbinder. For Milestones 1, Walter did his own binding, though he took suggestions from several friends. Dan Kelm's work on The Seafarer moves binding away from spines into a type of sculpture not completely dissimilar from carpentry. Walter worked closely on the binding with Claire Van Vliet, who was then one of his students. Their discussions on binding procedures led to new ideas, improvised as binding progressed. The box for this book is impeccable. But more than that, the binding of this book speaks as loudly as anything else in it. It functions as a commentary on book forms past and present, and the dynamics it creates further the poems, the images, and every other aspect of the book.

I began making books out of unusual materials according to unusual designs in the 1970s. At that time, there were only a dozen people working this way in North America. At the time, artisans such as Walter were my primary advocates, talking curators into including my work in shows. At the present time, you can find book arts classes in any town large than a gas station and a tavern, and many of the curators and book dealers who used to be puzzled by my books now specialize in such productions. I noticed early on that people like Walter can do stranger things with books than those who simply write a few clichés on toilet seats and caps, using their hinges as rationalization for calling the works books. Traditional artisans can do more simply because they know how. In the three books of mine produced by Walter, he has moved from what some would see as a conventional fine printing to a book which could be considered more radical than some that I have made out of bars of soap or human hair. Some contemporary theorists would argue that a book like Milestones 1 should be excluded from consideration as book art because it's not sufficiently "transgressive" or because they don't see it "interrogating" the nature of "the book." This misses the point as thoroughly as do those who insist that unusual forms or materials disqualify books from serious consideration. Solar Dreams explores book forms in different ways, and this exploration is an inherent virtue; but when all is said and done, the exploration does not make it a better book or more of a work of art. Thomas Aquinas's conception of art as manifestation of "wholeness, harmony, and radiance" applies equally to the three books.

To me, Walter's profound understanding of book art comes out in his conversation about whatever he happens to be reading at the time. He will talk about what the text has to say, and this takes central position, but he seldom talks about a book without talking about - the book. Part of the conversation invariably includes comment on the paper, type, and binding. Although it does not rub off on his appreciation of the text, he does not like to read books that are not well made. At a time when all sorts of fops gibber about "the material text," the real book artist is someone who never forgets what he's got in his hands. This awareness of what it means to read can engender and encourage a sense of respect for those who will read the books he produces. Collaborations can take many forms. I've been extremely lucky to have been able to take part in them with a wide spectrum of poets, artists, and artisans. Working with Walter has had benefits for me that have moved through many different artistic areas. Perhaps the most important, and the one that gets the least attention, occurs between the producers and readers. In this regard, Walter, as dedicated reader as well as committed printer, shows a salutary respect for those who read his books.

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