Thursday, June 5, 2008

On Producing a Broadside including and involving a Poem by Charles Bernstein

The last several weeks have left me little time for posting, as I have been preoccupied with a string of overlapping events and projects. I've spent most of my time working on a broadside to be presented tomorrow night as part of the Center for Book Arts Broadside Reading Series. 

One of my primary occupations over the last few years has been developing a more collaborative process for producing broadsides. Broadsides, within poetry communities, are generally understood to be commemorative posters of a single poem or excerpt, often appearing as a larger-scale portrayal of the page, frequently balanced by a corresponding image adjacent the text. They are almost always printed using a letterpress method, generally on a Vandercook press. The technology has evolved, but not so significantly as to prevent even Gutenberg from being able to acquaint himself with the updated equipment and be printing in no time, producing the same results he had with his own movable type.

Where once the practitioners of this technology were the vanguard of the democratic multiple, they are now mostly craftspeople, fascinated by the esoteric and sometimes trendy products the technology is capable of producing. Because of the time and patience (& $) involved in the process, combined with the visual & textural effects of debossed type & images, the product is endowed with (the suggestion of) a strong material value. 

There is nothing utilitarian left about this practice. For practical purposes, there is nothing it can provide that a $50 ink jet printer couldn't handle in a fraction of the time, and at almost no cost. That said, its "use" is now relegated to commemorative status: wedding invitations, birth announcements, high-end corporate mailers, business cards for the higher-ups at fashion magazines and design firms. Bold colors pressed deeply into triple-thick heavy stock continues to be a mark of status among the ephemera analyzers of the upper crust

I am employed as a commercial printer. I work in a warehouse in Soho, were no less than 23 Vandercook Universal I presses are set up to print this kind of prized ephemera seven days a week, all year round. My coworkers are all artists and musicians, each of them with their own aesthetic sensibilities. We never seem to grow tired of commenting upon the excessive nature of the products we are paid to produce. In our little factory, we do not discriminate between one job and the next: each must be made to meet a list of criteria, to pass inspection, and stay consistent, whether its 100 "save the dates," or 4000 envelopes with return address for a Chelsea art gallery. I think I can speak for most of us when I say that we could care less about the client or what the client does with what we make, but we do care about the quality of what we print; we care about the process.

And it is the process that keeps drawing me back to producing broadsides. Poetry broadsides, produced as I have described, are as excessive as corporate mailers. In fact, as they are sold for almost nothing and often given away, they aren't even capable of living up to being good product$. So they risk becoming a pure aesthetic object: a horrible thing to be in our waining economy of excess and regret. 

I have a great deal of time to think as I print, standing for 8 hours, repeating the same motions with my arms, directing the repeated motions of the machine. In a kind of trance, I try to understand my allegiance to this method, this superannuation of art practice. I will tell you what I have discovered, and why I have spent over a month producing my most recent broadside, almost emptying my bank account:

It's the process. The formalism. The phenomenology of having to literally and physically handle text, realizing along the way that shapes occupy letters, letters occupy words, words occupy phrases occupying sentences, all of which occupy space if they are to be seen and read. Whether it is the time spent taking lead type from drawers full of 50lb alphabets, or the money spent on producing a polymer plate of an image or text block, the process produces a weight (& a wait), a burden, AN EVENT. Composition is an event, and this process makes that realization sustainable and inevitable. 

For this broadside, I worked with a poem by Charles Bernstein. I prefer to collaborate as intimately as possible with the poets whose work I print, but sometimes, as in this case, collaboration is as simple as consent. I asked Charles for a poem, requiring that it be relatively short. I described to him what I have come to call an Annotated Broadside. With his consent, I sent the poem to 5 poets familiar with Bernstein's work. I deliberately chose people I knew would have identifiably different perspectives on the work and on Bernstein as a figure in the world of poetry. I also recognized that these poets would be drawn toward different aspects of his work, regardless of the poem at hand. I asked them all to annotate the poem, adding that I understood and welcomed the possibility that most of them would take significantly unconventional approaches to the practice of annotation in this instance. After collecting their annotations, I then went to work collaborating with their texts, trying to fit the puzzle together, with the end result being a 12x14 page of their annotations, each cast in its own vibrant color, surrounding and subduing the poem, colored a pale grey. I sent out the digital drafts, and soon received Bernstein's reply "Love the Midrashic layout." Two others, unrelated to the project, have referred to it as Talmudic. I should add that the poem is entitled "Every True Religion is Bound To Fail." 

Nearly a month after the approval of the draft, the broadside is complete. An edition of 150.
As soon as I can have it scanned, I'll post it. 

To conclude with my earlier remarks, this broadside, even more than my previous productions, emphasized the practice of practice. The broadside is attractive and complex in appearance, but it is primarily an artifact, whereas the art is found in the act of its production, wherein no distinction is made between the collaborative concept, designing, and the literal act of cranking the handle while printing. I hope, as I have with my previous broadsides, that the reader/viewer experience relays this story, that the artifact is desired as a key on a map, as well as the map itself, a segue into the poet's work as a composition, and as something experienced and responded to by others. There is a dialogue occurring on the page, and I want that dialogue to continue through its being read, even as it hangs decoratively on someone's wall. 

If you are in New York, please feel free to come by the reading tomorrow night 6/6 at 6:30.
Charles Bernstein and Rachel Levitsky will be reading.
It will be held at the Center for Book Arts in Midtown Manhattan. For the address and more information, go here.



most excellent post. it made me want to try typography. invites a whole new understanding of words and why. can't wait to see the result. hot pink

Jeremy James Thompson said...


I would pay to see what would happen if your prose poetix collided with a typographic structure. Your text is already especially intricate, so finding an appropriate structure would be a delicate matter. I think many of your longer pieces would work well when stretched into books, minimizing the amount of words on each page, and pairing complementing or antagonizing spreads. Maybe other visuals. FILMIC. or FILMISH. Maybe.

I'll be collecting everyone's address and sending off the broadsides in shipping tubes next week.

George Washington said...

WTF does the thing look like!

Colin said...

I just wanted to say thanks for this excellent broadside... I was lucky enough to be at the reading in new york when i was on a trip in June; it was lovingly protected through all weathers to buffalo, toronto, boston, philly, lancaster pa and it is now framed and hanging back home above my toilet in Edinburgh Scotland... It is brilliant, and this was a fascinating post about it.

Jeremy James Thompson said...


I'm glad you enjoy both the broadside & the post. I'm curious, what brought your particular route through the good ol' USofA?


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