Dana Gioia

Dana Gioia

Designing Literature: Creative Collaboration

Poets practice the loneliest art. A poem begins in solitude and silence. Revision by painstaking revision it grows out of private exultation and quiet despair. Lines, phrases, even stanzas drop away as the poem achieves its final shape—which my have little or nothing to do with its initial inspiration. A poem may take months or years to finish, or it may never come to any satisfactory completion. If it is finished, the poet may eventually mail it off to some distant editor whom he will probably never meet. If the poem is accepted for publication, it will usually take months or years to appear. Then years later, the poem may be included in a book which at best will be read and reviewed by strangers and at the not infrequent worst will be virtually ignored. Neither outcome essentially matters to the poet. While every author would rather be widely read and celebrated, and no poet is immune to the pain of failure, the reasons that compel a real poet to write have little to do with public success. Indeed, the contemporary poet has reluctantly learned to expect obscurity and accept isolation—not only from readers but from other artists—as conditions inseparable from his craft.

This isolation, however, is something relatively new. Traditionally a poet's audience was not something scattered and anonymous. It was a tangible, local entity. And poets often reached that audience by collaborating with other artists and performers—actors, musicians, engravers, composers, even sculptors—to create the most effective means of delivering their verse. Ancient Greek epigraphs were brief because the poets knew the words had to be carved laboriously by hand into stone and read quickly by passing strangers. Chinese poets studied calligraphy and music because they recognized that public presentation of their verse—whether as symbols on a page or sounds in the air—depended on more than one artistic skill. For Shakespeare, Jonson, and Dryden, poetry was the center of a dramatic form that required the collaboration of many artists and performers. Even our century has witnessed many creative partnerships between poets and other artists. One thinks of operas of Strauss and Hofmannsthal, the theater of Brecht and Weill, the songs of Britten and Auden, the books which Apollinaire made with various modern artists. There are, of course, many dozens of less famous collaborations in music, film, theater, art, and printing. Each of them demonstrated the poet's desire to speak to a specific audience and enhance the impact of his work by leveraging the power of another art.

For me the great satisfaction in publishing with fine press printers over the last decade has been in collaborating with serious artists to try and create a perfect work of literary art. Of course, the goal is impossible. No book is perfect—either as a text or artifact. But what other task is worth an artist's effort? Working with dedicated, independent printers not only gave me a rare and exhilarating sense of common artistic purpose. It also provided me with a definite sense of audience and occasion. However small the readership for each fine press book was, I understood its audience's devotion to the quality and importance of the printed word. Fine press books gave me the opportunity to speak with these highly discriminating readers under ideal conditions.

Let me give just one example of how fine press books provide poets with freedoms which commercial alternatives do not. In magazines poems are published one at a time or in small groups surrounded by extraneous material. Trade publishers usually dictate that volumes of poetry appear in set formats with between 60 and 80 pages of text as a minimum. I don't think I'm the only reader who finds the average book of verse too long and too random. The ideal collection of new poems—at least to my exalted private notion—should be short enough to be read in one sitting, and the poems should follow some conscious arrangement. I am not even talking here of the ideal design or printing of the book but merely of the text itself. Working with a fine press, a poet truly prizes the freedom to design a book according to an artistic shape rather than to the constraints of commercial publishing.

Philosophers have often pondered over what constitutes a literary text. Is it a particular sequence of words, abstracted from any printed medium, which exists only on some ideal plane? Or does it exist like a painting—or more relevantly a lithograph—in a specific physical object? The question is both provocative and complex. Surely a poem, for example, is intrinsically transferable. It can move with impunity from an edition de luxe to a mimeographed sheet without losing its aesthetic validity. (Sometimes it can even move from language to language without crippling loss as in the epics of Homer or plays of Shakespeare). Yet an entirely platonic notion of a poem's mode of existence ignores the empirical reality that a text can have a greater—or at least different—impact on a reader in a better designed and printed version. While a design cannot change the nature of a literary text, the printer's performance can affect the reader's reception of it.

One takes the notion of performance for granted in many other arts. Both audiences and critics acknowledge that a play or concerto gains force in great rendition. A good play may overcome bad staging. A great concerto may survive a poor soloist. But it is naturally assumed that a more accomplished performance intensifies the impact of the work. The play's text or concerto's score does not change, but the right actors and musicians help realize its full potential. Among contemporary literary critics, however, one never encounters this notion in regard to books and printing. To recognize the sensual contributions of the physical elements of a book is somehow assumed to demean the spiritual purity of the text. To notice the book itself smacks of philistinism, and to make distinctions based on paper, binding, and typography brings accusations of elitism or decadence. As for discussing illustrations, no adult is supposed to enjoy such childish things in serious literature, yet in another period, the renaissance, for example, the actual edition of a book was considered quite naturally as an artistic entity in it sown right. One sees this most clearly in the aesthetic which produced illuminated manuscripts, but it is also evident in virtually all illustrated books.

There is no inherent contradiction between the austere and abstract theories of the literary critic and the sensuously specific practice of the book artisan. The fine printer does not reject the critic's definition of a literary text. Rather he goes beyond it by embodying the abstract, transferable words of the poem into a concrete, tangible, and fixed context. The book artist transforms the poem from the work of an individual into a collaborative venture—not forever in all cases but permanently in this one edition. Within the physical dimensions of the edition, its aesthetic impact grows or diminishes according to the printer's performance. If the printer is initially at the mercy of the chosen text, the poem is ultimately the prisoner of the design created.

I am not gratuitously indulging in philosophical speculation here. I believe there is an important point to be made about the relationship between the poet and the fine press artisan. The poet and printer must both acknowledge that the literary text is the primary element in their collaboration. The poet's role here is no different from his purpose elsewhere. It is to write the best poem possible for the occasion. The printer's role is like that of the producer, director, and actors in a play. It is to create a definitive performance of that poem. Though the medium is the fixed arrangement of the printed word rather than the dynamic medium of the theater, his art form has the advantage of being permanent versus the ephemeral achievements of the stage. Literary printing is also usually a sequential collaboration in which the author presents a finished text to the book artisan who then translates it into the physical artifact. The printer's influence on the text itself is editorial rather than creative. It is limited to the selection, arrangement, and redaction of the text. Likewise the author's direct influence on the design consists only of suggestions and responses, though, of course, the text itself can be said to inspire all aspects of the final book.

The poet therefore needs to work with printers and artists he trusts and respects just as the printer must only choose work to which he genuinely responds as a reader—not writing whose primary appeal is its marketability or publicity value. A fruitful creative collaboration is built on mutual esteem. In this respect I have been very fortunate indeed. It has been my privilege to work with some of the most accomplished fine printers living. Not only has each of these collaborations taught me something professionally about both writing and design; many of these joint ventures have also deepened into friendships which have greatly enriched my personal life.

In 1975 when I left academics for business, I decided to stop sending out poems. I had already published a great deal of verse, but I had found the experience of placing poems in magazines difficult to handle with equanimity. I agonized over both rejections and acceptances. I was simply investing too much psychic energy in submitting and not enough in writing. With a full-time business career to manage, I had to focus my energy to continue writing seriously. For the next seven years I worked on poetry in private. I wrote most evenings after work and practically every weekend. I knew I would publish the best of my work eventually, but I wanted to give the poems time to develop on their own without any external pressure.

When I resumed publishing poetry in late 1981, I was fortunate to see my work appear almost immediately in magazines and fine press editions. I had spent my twenties struggling privately with words—writing and ruthlessly revising poems in an attempt to create a new kind of contemporary verse that combined the music and compression of formal metrics with the speed and fluency of conversational speech. I had no idea whether this long experiment had succeeded—no poet can ever accurately judge his own work—but the time for public trial had come. About this time I sent my first submissions off to Poetry and The Hudson Review, I also sent (on the urging of a friend) a seven-poem sequence entitled "Daily Horoscope" to printer-publisher Kim Merker in Iowa City. I hardly knew Merker's work at this time, but I did own a copy of his first Stone Wall Press book, the magnificent Collected Poems of Weldon Kees, which my wife had given me as a wedding gift. To my delight Merker quickly accepted my manuscript. Kim was also an astute editor. He suggested that one poem seemed superfluous to the sequence. Rereading the manuscript, I saw he was right and eliminated it.

I had consciously constructed "Daily Horoscope" as a self-contained linguistic world in which each poem interlocked—both openly and secretly—with all the others. A small chapbook was the ideal form of publication, giving the sequence an intimacy and independence lost when the poems were reprinted four years later as part of a larger trade collection. Likewise Kim's compact design clearly highlighted the dense texture of these particular forms. This treatment would have seemed claustrophobic in a book which included other poems. Seeing the chapbook for the first time, I was initially surprised at its tight format but gradually felt the special joy of a collaborator who sees how his partner has unexpectedly complemented his work.

While Kim was designing Daily Horoscope at Windhover Press, I received a request from two strangers named Steve Miller and Ken Botnick to use two poems of mine which had just appeared in The Hudson Review for a class project at the Center for Book Arts, which was then located in a particularly seedy corner of the Bowery. Steve and Ken moved so quickly that their small edition of Two Poems became my first published book. Only a few weeks after Steve's first phone call I found myself driving to the Bowery one cold night after work to sign the sheets. A poet has few joys greater than seeing the pages of his first book roll off the press, but how many young writers have actually witnessed this moment? A fine press allows the author to see the physical production of his own book—an experience which will truly strengthen any beginning poet's notion of himself as a writer. The short-lived Bowery Press only printed seventy copies of Two Poems, but nonetheless I felt I had in some odd sense arrived as a poet. A few months later when the Windhover edition of Daily Horoscope appeared, I felt veritably established in the writer's trade.

In the summer of 1982, the poet Ronald Perry died suddenly at the age of fifty in Nassau. I had never met Perry, but I had enjoyed a warm and lively correspondence with him for several years. His, long chatty letters bedecked in colorful Bahamian stamps had brightened my mail nearly every week. The editor of Cumberland Poetry Review, who was about to publish a group of Perry's poems, asked if I could quickly write a memorial essay to run in the issue just going to press. Having to travel on business that week, I worked each evening in my hotel room, eventually finishing both an essay and a short poem about Ronald. I sent a copy of the manuscript to Harry Duncan from Abattoir Editions, and to my astonishment he wrote back immediately telling me that he had known Perry almost thirty years earlier in Iowa City. Harry also wrote that he wanted to reprint my two pieces as a book. "I've always been interested in mixtures of prose and poetry, Dante's A New Life or Yeats' A Vision, and puzzled that so few today experiment with them. And now you provide a poem and prose that clearly belong together, and summon the typographer to work that's more than mere decoration." He suggested using the poem's title, "A Letter to the Bahamas," for the whole book.


He did not even wait for my reply. Within a few days of his letter the first page proof of the Perry book arrived—a large folio sheet in which one stanza of the poem was printed in the center surrounded by blocks of prose in a manner which recalled an annotated text from some lavish incunabulum. Seeing Harry's startling juxtaposition of my poetry and prose I realized how the right format can actually serve as a critical gloss on the text it presents. When the first copy of Letter to the Bahamas arrived within weeks of the proofs, I not only marveled at Harry's speed but also at how a design so striking in purely graphic terms could also so pointedly underscore the emotional implications of the text. Harry's personal grief at Ronald's death had exactly matched my own, and these separate lyric notes of loss and sorrow mysteriously combined into one elegiac chord. Letter to the Bahamas was an imaginative collaboration in the deepest sense.


In 1982 I was also approached by Michael Peich, who after several years of studying and planning had decided to start up Aralia Press. Mike phoned to ask me for some poems to use for Aralia's first official publication. As we began discussing possible manuscripts, we also talked about the role of fine presses in literary culture. Both of us lamented the sterile and opportunistic example of presses which issued constant collectibles and artificial rarities by established authors. Our role models were printers like Duncan and Merker whose informed taste and independent judgment produced books that made a genuine contribution to American literature. That rambling long-distance conversation initiated the longest, most fruitful relationship I have had with any press. The next year my chapbook, Summer, appeared from Aralia, and Mike asked for another manuscript. I declined sending him something of my own, but did pass on two experimental prose sketches by Weldon Kees, for which I eventually wrote a short introduction. In supplying Mike with the Kees manuscript I somehow became Aralia's unofficial literary editor, a role in which I have continued ever since.

In 1984 I was approached by two trade publishers who wanted to bring out my first collection. I knew I was not ready for a full-length book. I needed more perspective on my work. I realized that literary success—even one so modest as mine—brings with it the temptation to publish too much too quickly. My years of silent work had taught me that I wrote poetry slowly and with great difficulty. After some consideration I turned down these premature offers for a first trade book. But I don't think I would have had the good sense to decline the flattering offers had it not been for the fine press books which had already appeared. They gave me the satisfaction of seeing my work in print without tempting me to overexpose myself too early. Curiously, when I finally brought out a full-length collection several years later my trade publisher was Scott Walker whose Graywolf Press had begun as a letterpress operation. Old habits are hard to shake, and in Scott I had a trade publisher whose commitment to literary excellence I could trust.

My next three books owed their inception to Gabriel Rummonds, a consummate printer who has recently left the fine press world for a career in script writing. A few years before I met him, Gabriel had very enthusiastically reviewed several of my press books for the now defunct American Book Collector. Consequently when he started his new imprint, Ex Ophidia, he asked me for a manuscript. We decided on assembling a group of poems inspired by Italy, and Gabriel had the inspiration to commission three etchings to illustrate the volume from the Veronese artist Fulvio Testa. Not knowing Testa's work, I was awestruck to see the actual etchings. Their meditative beauty created by the rich but simple detail were a perfect accompaniment to the poems. The resulting volume, Journeys in Sunlight, was an edition de luxe which truly enhanced rather than overpowered the text.


Surely one reason why the sumptuous production of Journeys in Sunlight complemented the text so well was Gabriel's meticulous attention to every editorial and literary detail. Several of the poems in this sequence were complex and demanding. Gabriel studied the poems with immense care. He also went through the typescript line by line with a professional copy editor's eye and suggested several small changes in punctuation which I immediately adopted. During the planning and printing of the book he phoned me at least twice a month to discuss details of design or production. He asked me, for instance, about using calligraphy for the book's title as he had on John Cheever's Atlantic Crossing. I expressed my preference for straight type. (As it turned out, Gabriel wonderfully mixed the two techniques with a colored calligraphic initial J followed by type for the rest of the title). Likewise he discussed with me whether to put Testa's etchings on separate pages or to incorporate them into the text. I told him I was intrigued by the notion of having them on the same page as long as they didn't interrupt the text of a poem, and that was exactly how Gabriel eventually placed two of them. Gabriel is a printer with strong opinions, and there is no doubt that he controlled every detail in making the actual book, but he always wanted to hear my opinions before making his decisions.

Meanwhile Gabriel and his students at the University of Alabama had begun another book, a collection of my rhymed lyrics, entitled Words for Music which was issued in 1987 by the appropriately named Parallel Editions. These short poems needed the intimacy of a fine press format to work well; I would not have issued them in a larger trade book where they would have been crowded out by longer, more ambitious pieces. Here, too, Gabriel took immense editorial pains before production began—which set an excellent example to his students. Through Gabriel I also met Linda Samson-Talleur who was then studying in Alabama. After moving to Italy in 1986 Linda decided to issue two of my poems in a bilingual edition. Working in Verona with Gabriel's former partner, Alessandro Zanella at the Stamperia Ampersand, she published in late 1987 Two Poems/Due Poesia strikingly illustrated with her own color woodcuts.

Getting to know these printers over the past ten years, I have been struck again and again by their openness and generosity. I learned the extent of their kindness when my first son died suddenly a few days before Christmas in 1987. Devastated by our grief, my wife and I resolved to leave some positive legacy for our little boy, and so we helped to create a children's book fund in his memory at the local library. When I asked Gabriel for advice on how to get a bookplate printed, he simply took the project over. Fulvio provided the drawing. Gabriel designed the bookplate. And Bradley Hutchinson, whom I have never met, graciously printed them all. Meanwhile, the words I spoke at my son's funeral were published by Mike Peich in a private edition for our families and a few friends.

I cannot imagine how my literary career would have developed without fine presses. It would have been both less satisfying and more impersonal. Working with fine presses allowed me to publish early under nearly ideal conditions without rushing too much poetry into print, and gave me a sense of myself as an author which only comes from seeing one's writing in book form. It reminded me that what mattered most was not the size of the audience but the quality of the work. In this commercial age, how fortunate I was to be invited into the special world of book arts.