Brian Teare and Albion Books, a conversation
Emma E Kemp: On your website, you say that Albion Books takes its name from its first home–Albion Street in San Francisco–though the inspiration to use it came from William Blake’s “Visions of the Daughters of Albion.” Albion is also the oldest known name of the island of Great Britain. Today, it is still sometimes used poetically to refer to the island and is a popular Pub name; there were 82 English public houses with this name in 2012! Do you have any ties to the U.K? You can’t hear my voice but I’m actually from London. I just moved here to the States in September and when Jen introduced me to your press, I felt an almost natural kinship because it made me think of home; FISH AND CHIPS! On this note, how has living in California affected your writing / printing / thinking?
Brian Teare: I love your reaction to the name of the press! My only initial reservation about using “Albion” as the moniker was that it might seem nationalist to someone from the UK. But my only tie to the UK is ancestral: my grandfather emigrated to the US from the Isle of Man. And though my father identified strongly with his Manx roots, I’ve never been there and have only the sketchiest notion of what “Manx roots” might actually be.
As for part two of your question—living in the San Francisco Bay Area changed my life almost entirely. Because it’s impossible to summarize how totally my time there affected me as a thinker and writer, I’ll try to address its effect on my practice as a printer and binder.
The Bay Area has a really rich book culture: there are lots of printers and binders in the community, and they’re doing everything from DIY punk publishing projects to fine bindings in limited editions sold only to collectors. The Bay Area also has a really rich literary history in which experimental poetry, bookmaking, and regional identity are intertwined: I think of Graham MackIntosh in particular, who printed Jack Spicer’s early books for White Rabbit Press and helped usher a whole generation of radical Bay Area poets into print as he himself learned the trade.
So on the one hand, the rich book culture means that there’s a San Francisco Center for the Book where the aspiring bookmaker can get trained in everything from typesetting with lead and wood type to binding in leather to making polymer plates. And there are lots of amateur and community bookmakers and collectives generating a lot of print matter: broadsides, zines, chapbooks, and inventive ephemera.
On the other hand, the rich literary history in which poets and printers collaborate and, in doing so, help articulate a regional identity means that many of the community and collective bookmaking endeavors I encountered centered around poetry and politics at the local level. These endeavors became a necessary, radical counterpoint to the formal education I received at the Center for the Book, and it was because of them that I found myself wanting to do something that might bridge fine printing with more DIY practices of scavenging and gifting.
EEK: You taught on the MFA Writing and Consciousness program at the New College of California – can you talk a little about this experience? How did you end up being a teacher? What role does the word ‘consciousness’ play in the title of the program – can one write unconsciously? What is the relationship between writing, or any art form for that matter, and (un)consciousness?
BT: New College had a mission, a vision of education as “just, sacred, and sustainable.” An open enrollment institution, all of its undergraduate and graduate programs combined social justice, spirituality, and ecology. As you might expect, then, the “Consciousness” in Writing and Consciousness was polyvalent. On the one hand, our graduate students studied philosophy and critical thinking from antiquity to the present. On the other hand, “consciousness raising” was definitely a part of the program, with a curricular emphasis on social justice. As for the unconscious, the program made the same assumptions that all writing programs make: there are good kinds of unconscious writing (revelatory and/or inspired), and there are bad kinds of unconscious writing (violent and/or uninspired), and part of the point of training the critical faculties is to help the writer recognize the difference and to know what to do with revelation and violence alike. As for your broader question—“What is the relationship between writing…and (un)consciousness”—I think there is no one relationship, but a thousand thousand ways of relating writing to consciousness, writing to the unconscious.
EEK: How does the creative process of book design begin for you? Does a particular form / vision appear upon reading the manuscript or is it more of a considered, ‘conscious’ design process?
BT: Usually I decide to ask for a manuscript when I hear the poet reading the work. I already have some feel for it then—but when I read it on the page, I begin to get the real ideas about size, shape, color. I have to work within a lot of constraints, I’m constantly adjusting these ideas in relation to material reality—but what I like about this process is that it becomes quite improvisatory, a game of chance, the constraints generating new ideas about book forms and the process of making them. I always formalize my ideas into a design because I have to cut paper, etc., but I’m always surprised at how open the design remains in terms of typesetting and coloration, sometimes quite far into the process of fabrication.
EEK: Can you isolate a particular design aesthetic uniting your printed books?
BT: I never quite feel qualified to answer this question. By which I mean I think it might be easier for readers familiar with the press to say whether or not there’s a coherent design aesthetic. I’m not being evasive—I know that I have an aesthetic. It’s just very hard for me to parse it into qualities. If I had to list three aspects of design that characterize my practice it would be these:
1) I respect constraint and accident, both, and work with them constantly. I print on a Kelsey tabletop, 6 x 10, so by virtue of its platen, the press itself makes demands I have to accommodate within the design. Because I do not make polymer plates, and only own three fonts and a limited amount of ornaments, the typesetting has to be as inventive as possible within certain limits. And when designing the book, I also often start with scavenged paper stock of odd sizes or colors, and I try to match the right paper with the right book so that the material constraint acts as a frame for the book and not a cage. All of this is an ethic as well as an aesthetic—letterpress printing can be precious, and such preciousness usually costs a lot of money in terms of fine paper and/or polymer plate making. I print as cheaply as possible while printing as beautifully as possible.
2) I really love color—it’s a vocabulary that the interior text largely doesn’t get to use, so whenever possible I try to employ that language in ways that excite the eye and rhyme with the book’s contents.
3) I respect the poems—the entire book, from trim size to binding style, is designed to hold the poems, even if that means I end up having to do a lot of work to make a book that holds the poems accurately.
EEK: To what extent do the writers dictate the graphic decisions of the book? IE, page layout, font, spacing, etc…?
BT: When I approach a poet with the desire to do a book with them, I let them know that these decisions can be made in a variety of ways: with a lot of input from them, with no input from them, or with an ongoing dialogue between us. Most poets choose to forgo input or to participate in some form of dialogue, largely on the minimal side. And though I encourage their input, I also let them know up front what the constraints are going to be: what kind of paper I have to work with, what kinds of fonts we have to choose from, etc. Because the constraints can be quite severe and are also part of the point of the press, most poets respect that, and have been quite happy to have me do the design work and consult with them at crucial junctures.
EEK: Albion Press began in 2008 – have you noticed much change in the small press world over the last five years?
BT: It seems to me that the micropress focusing on the chapbook has become as prevalent a national trend among young poets as has a return to fine binding and letterpress printing, to the book as craft. In 2008, that wasn’t so much the case, though there were such things happening in Portland and Minneapolis and New York, among other places with large poetry and book arts communities. I think the recently founded dual MFA in book arts and poetry at Mills College and the CUNY Chapbook Fest are good examples of how crucial micropress and fine press work have become to young poets in particular, but outside of the poetry world, there’s also also a huge surge of interest in book arts. The thing that excites me most about this renaissance is that a lot of young book people are thinking about the ecology of the book—utilizing soy-based inks and non-toxic biodegradable cleaning solvents for their presses, and finding new sustainable sources for the raw materials for their books.
EEK: How has the rise of web 2.0 impacted your practice?
BT: I am by nature a Luddite and have been slow to adapt to the digital world. I find the material, phenomenal world interesting and challenging and valuable and mysterious enough in and of itself—and our time here is short. So I don’t twitter or tumblr; I’m not on facebook. I have deep reservations about how the web has infiltrated our lives so quickly and so thoroughly, and because of that, I am careful around it. It so easily turns leisure activities into unpaid labor for major corporations (which is something you don’t often say about taking a walk). Though many users are hooked by the promise of payment for said labor in the form of cultural capital, I have reservations about the cultural capital gained in this manner as well. For all of these reasons and many more, I’m not sure that the web itself has had any impact on my practice qua practice, though it has certainly meant that I’ve been able to continue printing in Philly, a community with such scant letterpress resources I’ve resorted to ordering supplies online.
EEK: How much value do you place on your website in so far as it being (or not being) a webular extension of your printing practice? Do you consider them two completely singular, separate spaces or do they work together in some way?
BT: Ideally, the website would be an archive of all the books and ephemera I’ve made and the texts of the authors I’ve published as well as a way of distributing and selling copies to the public. But because I have only so much time in which to work, and given my ambivalence about the internet, I pretty much use the website for distribution and sales. I admire sites like Ugly Duckling’s, which has converted its out of print chapbooks into digital artifacts you can read online, and I think that’s probably the best way to go with limited editions. However, there’s value in the constraint a limited editions places upon an object: there are only so many, and then there are no more. If free market capitalism is all about the illusion of endless resources, why not insist on limitation? And why not insist that limitation is not precious (i.e. pricey), but rather the most common and endless resource around? I suppose I’m dedicated to preserving the limitations inherent in the limited edition without fetishizing the books through inflated pricing.
EEK: On a scale of 0-10, how hard is it to run a one-man press? How do you measure success?
BT: Given that I haven’t run any other kind of press, I can’t say where on this scale my labors fall. Probably it varies. Right now it feels like an 8, but I am behind in assembling an edition and I am low on cash. It is certainly very hard. And I have a lot of doubts. And I get tired. And I run out of money. And it seems thankless. But that is true of all art. It is also effortless. And I have deep faith in the process and the end result. And I feel energized and deeply rewarded.
I measure success by the fact that I feel more rewarded than abjected, the books and their authors more treasured than neglected. I measure success by the relationships I have with the writers I publish, and their pleasure in the objects I’ve made to hold their work. I measure success by selling out of a chapbook. I measure success by seeing the books in places I don’t expect, being read by people I don’t know. I measure success by answering questions like this one, by being in dialogue with readers and makers such as yourself.
EEK: Through your printing endeavors and indie press communities, have you uncovered any writers by whom you’ve been totally awed / gone on to work with? Is this a common happening?
BT: Many of the poets whose work I’ve published I met in other ways, mostly at reading or through friends. But I’ve certainly encountered presses that publish work I’ve been awed by. Erin Morrill’s Trafficker Press has published a ton of flawless work, including early chaps by Esther Lee and Jared Stanley. Both of Michael Cross’s presses—first Atticus/Finch and now Compline—have introduced me to fabulous writers like Julian Brolaski and CJ Martin. And the list could go on for pages. Given the renaissance of micro- and small poetry presses, being wowed by what others publish is definitely a common occurrence.
EEK: What’s your relation to the visual arts?
BT: That’s a good question. I did not grow up in a family that went to museums or appreciated visual art (though my parents did appreciate classical music), so I did not begin learning the many ways to look at or think about visual art until I was in my late twenties. In fact, my lack of education in visual art kept me from pursuing book arts until I was in my thirties; despite great interest, I thought I was not someone who could do this kind of work, that I was somehow unfit or “too late.” A hands-on education in the printing and binding studios gave me ways of thinking about visual art not just as something you look at, but also as something that is made, and whose manner of making has everything to do with what is seen. That was a way in. Now I have a strong interest in the histories of the book and of photography, late 20th century and contemporary drawing and sculpture, and feminist and queer performance art, but I can’t say how these interests have informed my practice as a book artist.
EEK: How do you think of‘ THE BOOK’ in 2013?
BT: Of course the most prominent discourse around THE BOOK is around the perceived BATTLE between print and digital books. Of course there is no single BOOK and there is no one BATTLE. This is a discourse about capitalism and technology and its relationship to our private lives, a discourse that, frankly, the book has long been involved with. You could say that, since the 1800s, the printed book has in fact been at the center of this discourse. The Industrial Revolution upped the number of impressions per hour a printing press could make—from 240 to 2,400!—and it also enabled presses to print on both sides of the page at once. Both facts greatly increased the number of books available to the public, and lowered the price of printed matter; these facts led, eventually, to a steady rise in the number of literate citizens, which in turn changed the body politic. Given the class politics of digital technology, it is less clear what kinds of changes will occur as books move onto digital platforms. It is especially less clear with regards to poetry. I confess that these questions do not worry me much, though I remain curious as to the outcomes.
Other questions are interesting to me. At the recent Ecopoetics Conference at UC-Berkeley, I moderated a panel called “The Book as Ecopoetic Instrument.” Why was I surprised that none of the panelists actually talked about books? Why was I surprised that they all talked about bringing reading out of the boundaries of binding and print and into spaces and among people and things? I was so wrapped up in the book as a made thing that I wasn’t thinking about the book as a technology that individuates the reader and temporarily separates them from others. So the panel gave me new ways of thinking about reading and its relationship to the book: what would happen if we shifted our horizon from the page (or screen) to the site or bioregion?
EEK: Do you accept submissions? How does that process work for you?
BT: No. I ask for work by a poet whose work I love; I ask for text that I’ve heard the poet read. Publishing for me is a response to the poet’s work, a desire to be further engaged in it as a critical and artisanal thinker.
One chapbook did come out of an interaction that was not even really a submission. I guess in advertising they’d call it a pitch. The poet approached me and said: here’s the work I have and here’s the kind of book I’m envisioning. I already liked his work, and I liked his idea and so I said yes.
EEK: What, if anything, keeps you up at night?
BT: Given the range of concerns I’ve covered in this interview, you can probably guess. I try to meditate regularly so that I can stay lucid, awake and engaged, rather than sleeplessly worrying and raging over endless grievances against unjust global political and economic systems.
Emma E. Kemp is a writer-artist from London, UK, currently studying for her MFA at California Institute of the Arts. Find her at: www.eekemp.com.