Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Metaphor taking shape - images for poetry and text

On March 13 & 14th, The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale in New Haven put on a conference called "Metaphor Taking Shape. Incredibly this conference was offered free to participants. The topic was the marriage of image and text, particularly poetic texts. Now here was a true bargain, one I was not able to resist!

The conference gave as fair a glimpse as a day and a half would allow into the way images and text have been married over the years. Various theoretic aspects of combining word and image were discussed. Current practice was touched on through a roster of panelists (imported from California to Ireland) who make/publish (or critique) artist books or art in collaboration with poets. The Beinecke Library fleshed out the subject with a simultaneous exhibit of rare books that fit the bill, both current and historic. Most of the exhibits were on the mezzanine floor of the library - but earlier books were on display in a case on the main floor. I noticed these on a return trip the day after the conference. Some of these early books were truly spectacular both for their artistic merit and weight of the literary history represented. Nearby at the Sterling Library, books by the conference "Round Table" publishers were available for examination and their answers to pertinent questions were available on a conference blog. Also - many of the wonderful images featured in the exhibit, and podcasts of some of the panelists talking about the conference can be viewed or heard on an entry the Beinecke's poetry website

rolling out the program:
The conference began on Thursday afternoon with an address by Johanna Drucker called "The Poetics of Book Space." She viewed each book as an artifact for metaphoric decoding and examined the various design and material decisions that produced it with a theoretical approach. Then poet and McArthur fellow, CD Wright read her work, including some poems from One Big Self her collaboration with photographer Deborah Luster who took hundreds of shots of inmates at three Louisiana prisons. Ms. Wright answered questions afterwards about the process and the poems.

On Friday, a panel of critics and book and art makers also discussed the tricky aspects of collaboration between artists and poets. Panelists said in some cases the poet and the artist knew each other and worked together on a project. Sometimes the artist was in fact the publisher. In other cases, the team was selected by the publisher and never even met nor discussed the work. Some so-called collaborations where broached where one party is dead.... (This seems rather too one-sided to be called a collaboration, though the method has produced some really interesting work... ) There were several presentations, and I am leaving out quite a few interesting and funny items here in the interests of brevity.

Friday afternoon, publishers on the conference round table spoke and answered questions from the audience . The focus at the round table was on some rather expensive books loosely classed as "art books" largely printed with labor intensive, crafted-by-hand technologies of past eras. One of the best features of the roundtable was a blog discussion in which these folks answered questions from their various view points and explained some of their processes.

The conference lacked only two things:
  • - an address to the thousands of small and micro press and self-published desktop chapbooks which might be found at the Poets House collection. Many of these contain images produced by the poet or an artist friend of the poet
  • - and a theoretical address to electronic publication methods -- online chapbooks, poet's personal websites, and web-based literary magazines which offer artwork rendered with light - in luminous electronic page display.
Audience members brought up some of these questions during the many opportunities to address the panelists. It was strange to see that many of the publishers on the panel seemed to actually recoil at the mention of laser printers or websites. It was not so much that they seemed to regard these as "tainted" or suspect methodologies, though some did. It was more that they were utterly in love with the laborious process their hand-made artifacts required.

the varied bookmakers:
Publishers styles and prices differed. Ugly Duckling seems to occasionally use more mechanized methods depending on the poet's wishes for a less expensive book. One of the book makers - Ninjia Press (artist Carolee Cambell)- created an incredible series of books where the artwork was barely contained on the page but seemed to extend it's reach into the room by its vivacity and movement. (As an artist, I really adored this expansive approach.) Another publisher's work featured trim, succinct artwork contained in small square of space opposite the text. Another's featured colorful painted pages, with text printed right on top of the artwork. Though there were obviously some over-arching design principals at work, none of the panelists stated a particular philosophy underpinning their singular layout styles. Several are artists and approach the texts and the book in an intuitive and "investigative" way, with all the many detail decisions an artists makes shaping the result. Some approached their philosophy (or publishing model) in their blog entries so reading the blog was an essential part of the discussion. How odd in a group that seems to distrust electronic methods.

Nonetheless - all of the publisher participants make beautiful books. Expensive as well - ranging from $35 to $1,500 a pop, most in between but $200 and up. There seemed to be a general agreement that if the public could not afford such books, they could always visit library collections to view them. Some in the audience felt this was a less than democratic view. (I have to add that art making is rarely democratic and is never by committee. The artist is a dictator driven by inner visions. )

exhibit samples:
Below are two of the book exhibits for the conference in exhibit cases at the Beinecke which show some of the range of work addressed:

The left hand picture features a book with multiple hands that pop out at the reader, each containing a line of text, and a book in a wood frame where the order of the text can be changed by altering the pull tabs on the right side. The display on the right is CD Wright's book, One Big Self. My photo does not do justice to the depth and beauty of these sepia images which were originally printed on metal plates echoing the tin-type photos of an earlier time. I must note that my photos (above) were taken entirely without a flash on a older Panasonic Lumix, a DMC-FZ7 which has a Leica glass lens and takes marvelously readable pictures in low light conditions..

summing it up:
The event was well-attended. So many people signed up for the conference - that the Library moved the lectures and panel discussions to larger venues nearby at the Whitney Humanities Center and at the Yale Center for British Art.. At the end of each day, reception took place at the Beinecke so conference-goers couldn't miss the exhibits. (The food was incredible too...)

All in all, "Metahor Taking Shape" was time well spent, and gave participants lots to consider as they approach their own work. I haven't done the layout on the April issue of Bent Pin Quarterly and may view BPQ and my other projects with a slightly altered eye. Hmmmm. Thanks to Nancy Kuhl, the Beinecke, Yale and varous sponsors who underwrote the program.

- Mar Walker