Jess and Poltroon Press

Critical Dreams, printed and published by Poltroon Press in 1986, is the only known published book of Jess’s writing. The dreams themselves (from the 1950s and 60s) were previously published in two magazines, as short pieces often are. I spoke to my longtime book arts colleague, Alastair Johnston, co-proprietor (with Frances Butler) of Poltroon Press, who graciously lent me a copy of the book. After I read it, I emailed him my comments and questions.

Q: Did you know Jess? What drew you to this text? What compelled you to want to print it? 

A: I had never met Jess, he was a reclusive artist, but I knew Robert Duncan with whom he lived in a Victorian in the Mission District of San Francisco. I found these dreams in Open Space magazine (a little magazine published at Gino & Carlo's bar in North Beach for a quarter), which also published his cut-up of Dick Tracy called Tricky Cad. When I visited him at home with proofs I was surprised to meet a large affable guy with a military demeanor, kind of an Ed McMahon type (though not necessarily to Duncan's Johnny Carson!).

Q: The dreams reminded me of writing by Bruno Schulz, an artist known more for his book  The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories than for his art. I often wonder about what Bob Glück said to me about the “art brain” of an artist who writes, that it provides a different way of seeing the world. Do you see any connection to Schulz or to an “art brain” in how the text was written?

A: Not to Schulz particularly. Artists who also write are often ignored as writers (Kurt Schwitters, Hans Arp, Paul Klee all wrote poetry) and I thought these pieces were worth preserving. Jess is or was an important figure in the Bay Area literary and art scene, not unlike Bern Porter who was also a nuclear physicist before turning to art in the 1940s.

Q: What kind of risk did you feel when you took on Jess’s dream writing? How closely did you work with him? What was his reaction?

A: No risk since I never made any money, or much money, from publishing poetry. At the time I was teaching at UC Davis (as was Frances) so we had enough income to finance projects such as this one. We mainly communicated by postcard and letter. (Recently I copied them all for someone who is putting together a book of his letters.) Jess was happy and really liked my work on this book.

Q: Regarding the design choices, you mentioned that you chose to honor his original line lengths—which were long—but that a reviewer complained about both that and the ragged right edge, saying it was hard to read. My experience was that it slowed me down, which I appreciated. When lines are too short I think the tendency is to read them too quickly. You were working from typescript, where the letters are monospaced, so of course setting the text in metal type, where each letter has its own width, makes it look different anyway. What was behind your decision to keep the lines as they were?

A: As you say to preserve the original breath, even though it was typewritten. And as you note it is sometimes good to be slowed down in reading. If I had justified it with twelve words to a line it would have read as prose and lost his breaks and pauses which are part of the experience of reading it. Also I chose tightly leaded Ehrhardt to keep a nocturnal feel. "The adytum of the luminous obscure," as Peacock put it.

Q: Because you told me this story about the line-length police, I thought I would read the book with an eye out for poetry, where line breaks really matter for the rhythm and for continuation or disruption of thought. I ended up feeling that the line breaks were necessary as they were, that something surprising came on the next line. I picked two random lines from the first page:

visitation. The scene is late afternoon on a large estate or a revival
meeting camp…

…I’ll lay you across
my checkrd apron…

Any other comments on the line breaks here or in general?

A: They do look bad in places, damn the typewriter! Ehrhardt is also a highly condensed type so it completely altered the lines; I suppose Stymie would have more closely approximated the original but it's not a good reading type. Wise after the fact I suppose I could have put in a note saying why the lines look that way, but I got revenge on Fine Print whose reviewer griped about it. They said something like "with the beautiful paper and superb printing it does not add up to the exquisite book it could be," or words to that effect. So I blurbed it as "beautiful paper … superb printing … exquisite book"—Fine Print.

Q: What about the punctuation—Did Jess use the upside-down question marks? The words in flipped parentheses? How much interpreting did you do when you designed the book? What kinds of choices did you make that might seem invisible to the reader?

A: None as I recall, I carefully followed his work to the letter.

Q: Color seems important in the dreams. I went through the text to see how his artist brain depicted color and to see if we could get an idea of his writing style.

checkered   glittering crystal   blackred cana   opalwhite cala   black seaweeds   streetlamp’s yellow circle   rich autumn brocades…ochres…browns, puce, mossgreen   silver hammer   pearlsilk robes   black hair   black squares   wet red footsteps   white cat   spidery black   milky opal eyes   green pastilles   wine-dark   fire opal   grey, rough, stone buttress   satiny silver   black furnace   amber   charcoalviolet sky   deep peacock   pitchblack   marsred   purpleindigo   mercurious silver   sulphurous gold

How did these inspire you when choosing materials and colors?

A: "Winedark" of course is Homer. There's a richness in his vocabulary which suggested the imperial purple I used as a second color (for the hieroglyphic "Aunty I"). Frances, who has a keen color sense, most likely came up with the cover material combinations, I don't remember now.

Q: In 1986, photopolymer plates weren’t a viable option, although we could send away for zinc or magnesium plates. What do you think is the best use for photopolymer plates now? Anything you’d like to try or that you might have done with this book?

A: I used a zinc for the frontispiece. I think of text printed from photopolymer as "Faux letterpress"— there's really no point unless you are too lazy to handset something, or a "graphic designer" comes to you with their cruddy widely letterspaced 6-point Copperplate Gothic caps saying things like they love the "kiss of letterpress" (when what they want is deep throat). Once it's set (on a computer) you cannot really do any fine tuning, and I always like to see what I am doing on the press, then go in and make tiny changes to the spacing. 

Q: I know that you love type, teach typography, and have an amazing collection of type, but have you ever been interested in printing text from handwriting?

A: I have printed three or more books by photopolymer, but as I said it's a sign of laziness: they were jobs and it was a cost-cutting move, I prefer Linotype where possible if handset is not possible. I printed some calligraphic drawings of Brion Gysin by zinc (in the Auerhahn bibliography) & a book cover by Arne Wolf that was also calligraphed. I planned to do a collab with Arne (I studied calligraphy with him, as did Frances) but like so many other projects, it never happened.

Q: According to a recent exhibition catalogue, the 1962-64 title image was originally used to illustrate Robert Duncan’s 1951-52 poem “An Imaginary War Elegy” in their Book of Resemblances: Poems 1950 -1953. How did it become the frontispiece for Critical Dreams? Where did the image on the prospectus come from? 

A: The artwork was owned by a collector named Stephen Burton: someone told me about him and I wrote and asked if I could use the drawings. I didn't know about the "War Elegy" appearance. Book of Resemblances was supposed to be Auerhahn but Robert hated the printing of the prospectus by Hoyem and withdrew it. So of course I knew I had to have a solid black without overinking the blocks!

Q: I was struck by how many landscapes and architectural structures were described: arbors, towers, stairs, abysses, black and white tiles. I like to think that a book is both like a room and like a film and I began wondering what would happen if one of the dreams were made into a multicolored tunnel book, for example. But then I realized that structure and visual depiction of what was already in the words would detract from the text rather than enhance it. Comment on this?

A: I always feel that overthought formats detract from the content of the book. Most of my work is in a straightforward sewn and cased format. If I play around it's on my own projects. We've used orihon and Coptic structures where the project seemed to require it. Frances has made pop-up books. I couldn't envision this as a tunnel book, or on clearprint or anything else like that. Now if Jess had given me collages or offered to illustrate the book with collages I would have completely rethought the format, I am sure. But I like the tall page with the dense clumps of type mostly at the top.

Q: Any closing comments?

A: I asked Jess about reprinting Tricky Cad and he said that Chester Gould's [creator of Dick Tracy, from which the work is derived—yet, radically changed] lawyers would pounce on it (Copyright laws are different now). What I really hoped was to collaborate with him as an illustrator and we talked about doing something from Joyce (whom we both love) like The Mime of Mick, Nick and the Maggies, but he was always too busy and I didn't push him. Also, it would be very uncharacteristic for Poltroon to do a literary reprint like that. Kind of a cop-out.

Thanks to Alastair for a cup of tea and talk, answering my questions, and loaning me Critical Dreams so I could really appreciate it.