Robert Wood Interviews Alan Loney

By | 28 January 2016

RW: You said earlier that you began adult life as a musician and we know of your collaborations with visual artists – what of your connection to music? What do you listen to and how do you convey a sense of musicality in your work?

AL: I’ve not worked with musicians or composers very much, tho I have often thought I’d like to do more. When composer Lyell Cresswell left New Zealand for Scotland in the 1970s, I wrote a poem for him. We had talked about a poem he would set to music, but the work that eventuated simply used one of the poem’s phrases as title – A feather of the bird. I don’t think it was ever recorded, but it was performed, at least once, a long time ago, but I have not heard it. A few years ago, New York composer David Loeb turned my poem RISE (printed by Claire Van Vliet at her Janus Press in Vermont, USA, 2003) into songs for soprano and bass viola da gamba, but they have never been performed. More recently, I compiled a collage of quotes from the letters of Percy Grainger, titled Grainger Danger, for Melbourne clarinetist and composer Brigid Burke. She took my reading of these texts, improvisations by herself on clarinet & bass clarinet, and Miriam Morris on viola da gamba, and sound-shaped it all into a composition, which was recorded and broadcast on ABC National Radio. The same process was also done with an earlier poem, Lyre Suite. But when it comes to music as a factor in the writing, I am not as aware of that now as much as I was in the 1970s and 1980s. All my writing, prose and poetry, is written to be read aloud. Every word is ‘tested for sound’ in that sense. Overall, I want the work to be quiet – quiet like the later work of Arvo Pärt, or better, the quiet of Morton Feldman. That said, I have listened to a fairly narrow range of music over the last few years. When I do, it is from J S Bach and earlier, including the great viol works of Marin Marais, St. Colombe, and the consort works of Alfonso Ferrabosco, and later, Webern and Stravinsky. Steve Reich (but not Philip Glass), Morton Feldman and Terry Riley remain of real interest, and Arvo Part, always. But I don’t listen to jazz at all now, and have not done so for decades.

RW: Having worked as a printer and publisher as well as a poet in your own right, can you speak a little about the conditions of publishing poetry in the antipodes and also talk about how the material of the book, the field of the book as it informs your writing?

AL: I really don’t know enough about commercial publishing in Australia to comment, and I have been away from New Zealand long enough for the scene there to have altered, perhaps even substantially. But I can say something on the materiality of the book as it affects or informs or shapes my writing. As I mentioned, Charles Olson’s work permitted me to use biographical material in the poems without being obliged to tell either the whole story or even a story at all, as the next thing that might occur to me could be the call of an unseen bird, a sign on a shop window, or a remark by another person. Suddenly, anything could find a place in any act of writing if only I could be equal to the brightness of the thing itself. Another way of putting this would be to say: I began writing typographically, and while all word usage, in speech or writing or reading, is successive, one word or phrase follows after another, I had no interest at all in narrative.

In typesetting metal type by hand, there’s an old term which has almost gone from the vocabulary of modern printing – ‘composition’. To compose type simply meant to set type by hand and arrange the various elements of the text, headings, paragraphs and so on, in a pattern suitable to it. Traditionally, the tradespeople who set type, either by hand or by Monotype or Linotype machines, were known as compositors. Within the whole field of the commercial manufacture of printed matter of all kinds, compositors were not printers, who in turn were not bookbinders, who in turn did not make paper by hand. The division of the various processes involved in making books into different trades was achieved in the very earliest days of what used to be called ‘the art of the printed book’.

One way of understanding a bit of language like ‘the materiality of language’ is to recall, tho most people cannot and never will be able to recall, that, to effect a word-space in letterpress printing is to insert a piece of metal, a shank made of lead, after the end of a word and before the next word starts. That ‘space’ is metal, and one of the heaviest of metals, lead, the stuff that was supposed by the alchemists to be able to turn into gold, the gold, you might say, of meaningful signification. In a page of type, the space at the end of a paragraph is a row of lead spaces from the end of the sentence to the end of the paragraph line. And the irregular spaces at the ends of unjustified lines, as in this document, are all rows of irregular metal spaces. When the type is ‘locked up’ or held together in the press for printing, the overall shape of all the metal, letters, punctuation marks and spaces, has to be a close to perfect rectangle of metal, a shape which might bear little relation to the actual shape of the words as they will appear on the page, like a Charles Olson poem, for instance.

In making books by hand, there’s no escape from the sheer physical weight and texture of everything one has to touch in the process. And many things are touched often – Richard Gabriel Rummonds, printer of Plain Wrapper Press in Verona, Italy, reckoned that every bit of paper that went into one of his books was handled, separately, some 35 times. One’s always handling things: the composing stick in which type gets set, the type itself, and the same types when making corrections, ink cans, inking rollers, some of which can be very heavy, paper, ink knives, cleaning rags, quoins and quoin keys (with which the rectangle of metal is locked up), awls, tweezers, printers’ furniture, etc., etc. – and when binding comes, thread, scissors, beeswax, needles, binding tapes, cover boards and papers – everything has weight and texture, and ways of using them which involve different and often precise movements of the body. The printer learns these movements, digests them, commits them ‘by heart’ as a musician commits certain movements to be played at speed such that the rational, calculating brain could not possibly keep up. It all becomes body-knowledge. And the printer’s thinking becomes a function of the body in the body of the world, where the tools of the craft are limbs of the world’s body which becomes one with one’s own body.

So, when I write, I have been a printer so long, and when I want a space, let’s say a space longer than a word-space, within the line, I always feel that space as a specific, measurable amount of lead. And I write like that, or better perhaps, I write typographically, knowing the weight and texture of what’s to come. It means I write slow. I don’t scribble things down and work out spacing afterwards. The spacing is part of how the words are written down in the first place. I know this is all a bit long-winded, but I have frequently found myself at a complete loss when I realise that some people talk of the ‘materiality of language’ as if a conceptual ‘materiality’ has been dislocated or dissociated from ‘material’ or ‘matter’. As a friend of mine once said, ‘At this point, I just go into outer space …’

RW: As a publisher of limited edition books how has digitisation and the internet changed your work? What is the craft of your publishing enterprise now given the changed technological landscape? How can we think of the future to come in the field of the book?

AL: Digitisation and the internet have not changed my printing work at all. I still work with metal type, and remain firmly within the parameters of what can be handled. I still make books in exactly the same way I did before the computer entered my life. But a number of other printers, particularly in the United States and Germany, have learned well how to add contemporary laser, computer and digital technologies to traditional technologies in the making of specific books. And I do believe it is the conjunction of the traditional and the contemporary that has the greatest chance of preserving the art/craft of the book, acknowledging its 2000-year history as what gives us leave to even think about the word ‘book’ in the first place.

There is a view, expressed at times by both the artist’s book community and the computer industry, that the limited edition handmade book, issued in very small numbers, is somehow ‘the way ahead’ for the preservation of the book as codex, the thing we can hold in our hands. The computer industry of course wants to reach everybody, the millions who now sprawl across the earth, while the limited edition only reaches a tiny number, and cannot possibly be a threat to the apparent take over of the book by the kindle or whatever other electronic contraption by which they hope to embed their unchosen mediation into the species. No, I don’t believe it. The real threat to the computer people is in fact the familiar object that almost nobody talks about in these discussions, the paperback, the one ‘codex+grapheme’ that can be produced in large numbers. My own view is that the survival of the book against the computer depends on a combination of both the handmade book as a work of art and the paperback (buy a paperback today!) together.

RW: For readers who are interested in seeing more of your work, where can it be found? And what do you have coming out soon?

AL: I am delighted to say that Cordite Books in Melbourne has just published my poems, Crankhandle, the first ‘commercial’ publication of my poetry in Australia since 2007. Most of my work is out of print (at least 4 titles had their remainders pulped), but some are available second-hand on Crankhandle continues my Notebooks, the first of which was Sidetracks (AUP 1998). The Notebooks between these titles is a larger unpublished MS, Melbourne Journal. Two limited editions, Vestige, a poem accompanying wood engravings by American Richard Wagener (Mixolydian Editions, California) and In Autumn, issued by Sabine Golde at Carivari in Leipzig have so far appeared this year. Another limited edition is a collection of ‘broadsides to chapbooks to folded folios’ titled Alchimie du Verbe (from a poem by Rimbaud), published by The Codex Foundation in California. Some twenty-five book printers from all over the world were invited to participate, and for me it is tremendous to be in such company. For the rest, I up date my blog regularly at Electio Editions.

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