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Monthly Archives: May 2023

The Purpose of Things: Illuminating the Ordinary Poetry by Peter Serchuk Photographs by Pieter de Koninck (Regal House Publishing)

The Purpose of Things: Illuminating the Ordinary Poetry by Peter Serchuk Photographs by Pieter de Koninck (Regal House Publishing)

            My friend Jane Edberg, who is a writer and visual artist, and I coined the term etymphrastic to describe visual arts that are created in direct reaction to poetry. It’s a counterpoint to ekphrastic, which describes poetry written in reaction to visual arts. I don’t know whether The Purpose of the Things: Illuminating the Ordinary is etymphrastic or ekphrastic because the photography by de Koninck and the poems by Serchuk work playfully together. My guess, however, is that whichever way it went this collection was probably done in a kind of joyful collaboration. I read this collection because of my admiration for Serchuk. I came to know his work through the New Voices Project, which will be publishing a book on April 18th. It is the work of dozens of writers and poets writing new work about the Holocaust. The hope is that we might understand it and keep learning new lessons from it. His work in this collection is painful, so I expected that same kind of thing here. Instead, what I read was joy. The Purpose of the Things: Illuminating the Ordinary is a playful collection that examines what things do for us and how they bring us joy; while I will be quoting the poetry in this article, the poetry is incomplete without the images that go with it, the image and poetry together forming the meaning of the book.

            This book of etymphrastic and ekphrastic work is innovative in its use of this approach, and its use of short measure as a poetic form. Short measure is a form defined by a quatrain of iambic verse using 6, 6, 8, 6 syllables in each line. The result of this is a bouncy, playful meter that is child-like without being childish. Serchuk’s poems stop after only two stanzas, so they are quick as well as being playful. However, it is the white space between poem and image that helps us to form meaning. For example, in The Purpose of Dirt,’ Serchuk writes, 

To bristle every broom.

To bury every war.

To wash the smirk off every face

that wears a righteous smile.

Asylum for the root.

Confetti for the dead.

To know the work in any man

by scouring his hands (45).

The image that accompanies the poem is a bin of dirt sitting in the middle of a cemetery. The seemingly happy and bouncing nature of the poetry, juxtaposed with the image of dirt presumably left over after being displaced by the dead, and also juxtaposed with discussion of war dead, creates a tension that is difficult and uncomfortable to sort out in the reader’s head. After all, the rhythm and the style draws us toward lightness and humor, but there is a level of guilt once we feel this emotion given the discourse of the photographer and poet. This tension is where this book often lives and helps us to get a more complex understanding of the things that inhabit our world.

            The Purpose of the Things: Illuminating the Ordinary is an interesting dive that plays with what poetry can do. I found myself breezing through the first reading because it is a quick read. But it stayed with me. Subsequent readings were slower, and I spent more time thinking about the tension of images and words. The two artists take on so many ideas and explore so many points of view that it’s a little dizzying. Each one though demands attention and reflection. Each one hides a power that can be understood only through some level of meditation.

John Brantingham 27th May 2023

The Small Press Model by Simon Cutts (Uniformbooks)

The Small Press Model by Simon Cutts (Uniformbooks)

One branch of small press publishing is the fine art object, often co-existent with individually designed, sometimes handprinted and/or bound books, often produced in a kind of opposition to the scruffy pamphlet, offset and digital print-on-demand publications, and the ubiquitousness of online texts. In the last decade there has been a renewed interest in crafted books, limited editions, the book as object, not just a container of stories or poems. Simon Cutts, of course, has always been ahead of this curve. Since the mid 1960s he has, often through his Coracle Press imprint, been making beautifully designed and crafted books and objects, but he was also thinking and writing about what he published and how he did so. The Small Press Model gathers up some of his articles and ‘attempts to group together approaches to the physicality of the book’.

I must confess that although I like beautiful books and own some wonderful fine art and poetry volumes, I tend towards the idea that the text should in some ways be tough enough to survive most forms of reproduction and dissemination, especially when price comes in to play. I’m sure I am not alone as a writer in having to decide whether one wants readers or book sales, affordable paperbacks or collector’s editions. I guess I have a foot in several camps, currently enjoying the lo-fi photocopying production of Smallminded Books and Analogue Flashback pamphlets; happy to accept that online publication is publication and offers easy access to large numbers of readers; and pleased with the good-looking trade editions that Shearsman Books produces for their authors, including me. Whilst I am appreciative of the likes of Guillemot Press whose design and production ethos have not pushed the cost of their books out of reach, I dislike preciousness, and have little time for authors who worry about half a millimetre here or there when it is not vital to the work itself. And whilst I am occasionally put off reading a book by the paper used – when it veers towards newsprint or that awful laid paper that was in vogue for a while – if it’s well laid out and readable that’s all I require.

I don’t know much about Coracle books beyond the name. I own a copy of Jonathan Williams’ Portrait Photographs, mainly because I like some of the writers pictured (including Thomas Merton, Basil Bunting, Guy Davenport and Charles Olsen), and I briefly spoke to Cutts at the last Small Press fair I attended, pre-pandemic, at the Conway Hall in London. In my mind he is part of a small group that includes Thomas A. Clark and Ian Hamilton Finlay. As publishers that group containing Coracle and Moschatel might perhaps also include Five Seasons Press and their design and printing work for Alan Halsey at West House Books and many others. I’m sure there are other kindred fugitive presses I don’t know about. In Cutts’ work at Victor Miro Gallery and his own Coracle Gallery, Thomas A and Laurie Clark’s Cairn Gallery activities and Hamilton Finlay’s sculpture garden we are offered another way to consider that group, as curators and artists. Hamilton Finlay’s Garden is of course sculptural, very present as object, whilst Miro and Cairn often veer towards conceptual and minimal work. Cairn showed early wax and wood wall sculptures by Andrew Bick, Cutts has been involved with Roger Ackling, who marked found wood with light, burning lines into them, evidencing the passage of time as well as the artist’s intervention. The Cairn Gallery website today positions itself via a quote as an oasis; its small quiet white space is often home to one or two small works of art or interventions.

There is an inclination towards focus and simplicity here. Even artist Andy Goldsworthy went conceptual for a show at Coracle Gallery, cutting a hole in the floor rather than constructing a piece from or in the landscape as is his usual practice. However, all too often with this kind of work (I mean in general, not just Goldsworthy), I come up against one of two problems: either that work has to be explained, which often negates the work itself; or that the work is too simple, with not enough to hold my attention. When repetition and simplicity works, in art or text, then fantastic. But sometimes art or writing is reduced to mind games, verbal or visual tricks, or the simple fact that something fascinates somebody else in a way it doesn’t others. I’m afraid Simon Cutts is clearly someone I don’t seem to share many interests with. My favourite piece in the book is also reproduced on a postcard that was included in my parcel: Les Coleman’s 1975 sculpture ‘Three Jam Jars’, which consists of two smashed jam jars placed in the undamaged third. But there’s not much more to say about it, and it’s not particularly original or profound; in fact it’s easy to associate it with the last book I reviewed, Katie Treggiden’s Broken, an exploration of artists’, curators’ and makers’ resistance to our throwaway world. 

Part of the problem with this book is, of course, that I don’t know the work being discussed and written about. Whilst both Andrew Bick’s work (from back in the 1980s up to and including the present) and Roger Ackling’s work (throughout his career) are complex and interesting enough for prolonged engagement, much here isn’t. Richard Long’s ‘Stone Field’ may have been fantastic to visit at the time but it is mostly of interest here – via a small black & white photograph – in relation to his much wider practice, his walks, documentation, exhibitions and catalogues. However, most of Cutts’ book remains focussed on publishing or small press activities, although sometimes he is prone to stating the obvious: 

     Coracle books remain almost clandestine, shelved in our barn in
     rural Tipperary. They circulate via the occasional book fair, general
     travel and demonstration, the intermittent website listing, but
     mostly see the light through prepared lists for particular libraries
     and individuals.

Substitute any small press name for ‘Coracle books’ and that press’ stock location for ‘our barn in rural Tipperary’ and you have the small press world summarised in two sentences.

So what else makes small press different, now that more than a few mainstream publishers use print-on-demand and no longer require warehouse space or huge London offices? I certainly enjoyed my last few years of running Stride Books because print-on-demand meant it was easy to survive without arts council grants, there was no gambling on short or large print runs, and instead of warehousing and shipping bills, the printers and online bookstores dealt with most of it and transferred sales money each month. Of course, none of this changed the fact that marketing and publicity are what most small presses aren’t much good at. Or the fact that even when one took that on, producing advance information sheets and cover designs, quotes and biographies for reps and catalogues, as well as organizing book launches and promotional material, the mainstream book industry still wasn’t very interested. But the likes of the aforementioned Guillemot and the very different Broken Sleep Books are examples of current presses who are able to successfully use social media and online events to market their publications, even as the old bookshop and independent bookfair models become more and more outdated.

I bought this book because there was talk at work of me having to teach a hands-on publishing module to our student first years, following on from a theoretical one they take in the first semester. It is not what I expected it to be, and it turns out I am not teaching that module after all. Neither does it seem, to me, to discuss ‘the physicality of the book’ in anything other than terms of artists’ books, and whilst it may question some of ‘the wider ideas surrounding publishing and publication’ it remains aloof from over two decades worth of discussion about publishing in the age of the internet, the global marketplace, and print-on-demand technologies, not to mention each individual’s ability to create their own outlet, platform or space to disseminate their own work, be that performance, text, film, visual art or some hybrid practice. What it does offer is a personal and reflective history of Simon Cutts’ work as curator, publisher, promoter and thinker. That, rather than ‘The form of a book as a metaphorical structure for the poem’ is reason enough to buy this intriguing, sometimes rather insular, book.

Rupert Loydell 14th May 2023

An Interview with Sara Lippmann

An Interview with Sara Lippmann

I discovered Sara Lippmann’s work when I attended a reading for the New Voices Project online. The New Voices Project includes a book (New Voices from Vallentine and Mitchell) and a series of events where current writers and poets write ekphrasis to images from the Holocaust. The idea is that it is important that we not only hear what the thinkers of the past wrote about the Holocaust but that we keep learning from it and update our understanding of it as we progress as a civilization.

         Lippmann certainly does that in her story ‘Good Girls,’ which is about two Jewish children being rounded up in Vichy France at the Velodrome by nationalistic governmental agents, so they can be sent to the concentration camps. She’s also the author of the recently released novel, Lech, which focuses on people in the Catskills. It is not about the pandemic, but it seems to me that this is a book inspired by it, as it talks about ideas of the dehumanizing effects of isolation. This dehumanization also figures highly in her discussion of the Holocaust, how separating people can lead to the kinds of horrors witnessed there.

John Brantingham: ‘Good Girls,’ the title of the story in New Voices, seems to me to have some level of irony. I was wondering if what you meant was that there is some level of danger in training young girls to be good in a traditional sense?

It’s loaded. What does it mean to be a good girl? Keep her mouth shut. Do as she’s told. Never step out of line, never beat to her own drummer, never resist. It’s self-erasure. Whenever an authority figure levies such an expectation, we better run. In the case of the story, however, it is precisely that self-erasure that is desired. If they keep quiet. If they don’t make a fuss. If they put up with every indignity, every act of violence, if if if – they might squeak through to survival. They might go undetected. 

John Brantingham: That’s interesting then. So the narrative given to us by authority figures is a bluff. If we keep quiet, then we will survive, but that convention is really just a way of causing harm to those who would be obedient. And it seems to me that the potential dangers of following convention is one of the themes that is often in your work. Were you discussing that in Lech in any way?

Not to wade too deeply into politics, or thorny cultural critique, but we can see this pattern manifest, play out and backfire time and again throughout Jewish history: Jews trying to align themselves with the dominant power, as if that might enable them to ‘pass,’ only to be outed and othered, anyway. I touch this gently in the flash piece, but certainly, we saw this with the nationalism of German Jews and the push for assimilation, the cultural antagonism between those who “fit” in vs. those (eastern European) who stand out. And of course, we also see this with the Kushner Jews aligning themselves with evangelical politics and the right wing agenda as if that might somehow “save” them, ignoring the rampant anti-semitisim within their own party.

I agree that one of the common themes of all my work – short stories, the novel – is the false comfort of convention. I look a lot at illusions of safety – whether it’s all the disturbing crap that springs from the suburbs, the truth behind every staged picture, and so on. It’s almost become knee jerk for me to confront the box, the container, the convention, whatever the purported package is – and more, the person/power/system that is trying to fit us into that package.   

John Brantingham:          So then convention is a trap, or maybe a place from where someone or some group might hide to spring a trap. I think in Lech perhaps my favorite character is Tzvi, who seems so human and at the same time seems like a cluster of contradictions. He isn’t contradictory at all, but he doesn’t conform to societal norms. I’m wondering if I’m getting this right about him, if this is what you meant.

The cloak of conformity may have its uses, but not when it suffocates the soul. So yes, this becomes Tzvi’s struggle. I’m so happy to hear you connected with him, as he is such a tender, wounded character — perhaps the only character that doesn’t use humor as a coping or defense mechanism, because he’s been sheltered by the insular Satmar community for so long he hasn’t built up any skin. Born into a world where everything is preordained, where laws dictate, from what you study to what you wear, how you eat, who you marry, how you love, etc, his whole self has been erased by the collective, by ritual. His “going forth” is one of self discovery and acceptance, which takes great courage and inward looking. Who doesn’t want to belong? And yet, at what individual price such belonging?

John Brantingham: The communities represented, both the Jewish community from the city and the non-Jewish residents seem to be insular to some degree. Of course, that’s the nature of community. What strikes me though is that many of those people who have moved from the city for this time seem to have little desire for connection with their neighbors and many of the people from the Catskills don’t especially want to mingle with those from the city. This tendency seems like the danger you are warning us of, and Tsvi seems in some ways to be the character who grows the most and finds what he needs the most. I don’t think you mean to be lecturing the reader on the dangers of this kind of attitude. I think you have just drawn a realistic portrayal of cause and effect in the same way as there is a cause and effect to the girls’ relationship to the community in ‘Good Girls.’ Would you agree with that?

I never write with any set agenda, and I’m certainly not here to proselytize. But I would agree that my characters are looking for connection. And sure, isolationism of any kind breeds distrust and suspicion. We see this playing out in our political arena, in the news, where people seek out echo chambers and surround themselves with like-minded people. And of course, we see this throughout history, religious, cultural, racial and otherwise. Maybe I’m being naive to hope for greater fluidity. As social beings, humans naturally form communities. But the ugly underbelly can be exclusion. If we don’t sit at the table together, we’ll never break down those prejudices and begin to understand each other.

John Brantingham 13th May 2023

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