The Page: Material & Literature Grad Conference was 3 days. Unfortunately I couldn’t make it to most but caught a little.
A couple speakers remarked on how there’s a thread going through all the talks about the challenges and opportunities where digital culture meet print and how that impacts who we are and who we have been.
There is so much to know about the history of publishing. The talks went back to the middle ages to 20th century Canada recap, in this case, through the study of Ryerson Press’ rise and fall.
Katherine Andrews gave introductions to Bridgette Brown who talked about the Boer War in print and what made the news, by who. The Boer war dominated private and public discourse for 3 years. The context at the time of readers and writers included pre-Confederation lives. They were still hashing out what it is that this new shuffling of nation meant. The Boer war aggravated a rift between English and French Canada since English Canada, or at least Imperialist monies among them, favoured the war and the French were against it, even a prominent politician writing a letter of apology for getting involved.
What was called Canada depended then as now on who was speaking. To the Anglos in Toronto our Canada didn’t include natives, women or French. But may include some continental Europeans who would write as an ex-pat. The presses often came out of urban areas and romanticized rural areas of the undiscovered west.
In 1899 Robert Barr remarked that what hobbled publishing is, despite The Adventures of Jenny Baxter being a best seller with 3000 copies, people would rather spend their money on whisky than books. The more things change…
Ryerson Press has given a wealth of poetry to Canada but it wasn’t poetry that made the money. Like EWC, other titles underwrote the low print run money loser titles. The textbooks could recoup some of the cost of poetry by buying the rights to the 200 chapbooks they put out and thereby having free copy to use in the textbooks for literature courses, a rather symbiotic relationship.
The press overall made a million books a year. For them it was textbooks and (until the bottom fell out of that market in the 60s) religious titles and bible tracts. Ryerson was originally the Methodist Book Room. By 1970 it in was $2.5 million in debt.
But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. First, Ruth Bradley-St-Cyr (on right) spoke about the start of Ryerson Press.
Lorne Pierce (a bio of him (Both Hands was recommended) had let the company through its high times from 1920-1960. It became a sort of birth room for CanLit in that those who started there went on to start M&S and the Canadian branch of Oxford. When McGraw-Hill bought the company, it was interested in expanding their main line of textbooks, not the poetry and literature aspects.
The selling of a key Canadian publisher to a U.S. group spurred some of the formation of The Writers Union of Canada and the Association of Canadian Publishers, a Royal Commission, and some systemic changes to encourage domestic literature competitively through setting up grants. The U.S. considered Canada something of a farm team, and major league would move to the U.S. There was a movement to shift the traction and attraction of heading south.
Jennifer Baker (pictured above) did introductions to the next round of speakers.
Colin Martin has been surveying operators of small presses for a couple years. He still could use more data from native presses and presses run by women. Cameron Anstee has been looking at the life and work of Barbara Caruso.
These covers were done by Barbara Caruso although she also did large scale paintings and poem collaborations such as one with bpNichol. She looked at visual art the way sound poetry, concrete or vispo can look at language, for the material elements. She foregrounded the paint and canvas, the vocabulary of color, rather than making representational images or story. Samples at Cameron Anstee’s blog. She also did poetry. Her poems are in The Cosmic Chef, an anthology of concrete poetry which won the gg for bpNichol. There’s an Open Letter dedicated to her. She ran Seripress that combined letterpress and silkscreen. There she collaborated to make (1972). The adventures of Milt the Morph in colour. That subtitling doesn’t give the sense of playing in humour and boundaries and negative space. I also can’t show you from here “H an Excursion” that she and bp also did. Amazing work. Very few copies were made. And she ran Weed/Flower Press with her husband Nelson Ball. Fabulous creativity. I look forward to more going on accessible record.
Colin Martin has been asking questions of the small press, such as size of print runs, if you register an ISBN, where does the money come from, what reproduction technique do you use, of art, or words or both? How many people are involved? How do you get the word out? How do you distribute it?
From what he’s gather there’s something rhizomic. It’s not about getting wide access or big sales. There’s a prestige to the ephemeral. Most aren’t using any grant system, strictly out of pocket from materials at hand or that can be paid within ones means upfront. Some are deliberately made on non-stable materials to make them disappear more easily. Many avoid tracking of ISBN to stay underground, hand-to-hand. Online is used but mostly for spreading information about micropresses, not to make material available online directly. Of writing, publishing, illustrating, distribution, distributing is always the most expensive part.
There’s a countercultural model of prestige based on inaccessibility. The biggest loser is symbolically the most successful. A sacrifice of time and resources pays it forward to give these for free creating a social contract that encourages others to do the same, to pay back and pay forward, keeping the gift economy system in momentum. A few people remarked on it being like potlatch. Gifting creates a social debt and ideas circulate and replicates itself and ruptures from the commercial model.
Most presses fold within 3 years, although some stick it out for the long run such as Nomados, Broken Jaw and above/ground. BookThug was picked out as a case of micropress in transition to mainstream.
He also showed slides of various examples of small press, including one by Phyllis Webb which was a cross-shape when unfolded and the loose pages inside were printed on onion skin which allowed ideas/words to be transparent to each other.
Small press publications can run from each item unique, such as found materials of junk mail repurposed to objects repurposed such as beer coasters to hand printed to mimeoed. They can be high art to low art, but are aimed to go from hand to hand rather than Make it Big to Everyone.