Thursday, June 26, 2014

Pamela Colman Smith and The Green Sheaf Press

Pamela Colman Smith (1878-1951) is most famous, perhaps without the general public being aware of it, for the illustrations she did for the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck in 1909. I wrote about her a bit in this post, but at the time I did not have much information about her publishing venture: The Green Sheaf Press. Since I was going to the San Francisco Public Library to do some research and they have a huge collection in the Book Arts and Special Collections Department, I thought I'd look her up. And, yes! They had a slim publication from 1905, a book of "Annuncy Tales" (also known elsewhere as "Anansi") from Jamaica, where Colman Smith lived for a few years. She started The Green Sheaf Press in 1904, and by 1906 she had published ten books. From what I could find, it doesn't appear that she was a letterpress printer, but she did hand color the illustrations. She even taught classes in hand coloring and did hand coloring for hire, as evidenced in a note at the back of the book. More biographic info may be found in a catalogue from a show in 1975 at the Delaware Art Museum and at Princeton, To All Believers: The Art of Pamela Colman Smith. The SFPL library info for it is here. I was able to take some pictures of Chim-Chim: Folk Stories from Jamaica. Each story begins, "Once in a long before time, before Queen Victoria came to reign over we…"

The colors are much brighter than I would have expected.
But it is possible that no one has asked for this book
for a long time and it has certainly been kept in the dark.

The thread is fragile. Well, you would be, too, if you were 109.
Ticky-Picky Boom Boom
Turkle and Pigeon
Annuncy and Death
Gingy Fly
The Five Yam Hill"

In "Toad" we find out how the dashing two-legged Toad
ended up having to hop on four legs.

The book wouldn't stay open to this page so the librarians
gave me a weighted string to help.

The book was printed on a bigger sheet, folded down, sewn, and
then the pages had to be split. You can see the torn top edge near the spine.

"These and other Annancy Stories are told by
the Author at Children's Parties, At Homes,
Receptions, Bazaars, &c. with Toys of the
For terms apply to The Green Sheaf, 3 Park
Mansions Arcade, Knightsbridge, London, S.W.
Orders now taken for Private Christmas and
Greeting Cards. Designs on approval."

In each of the pictures, you might have noticed the mark of her monogram,

One of the librarians asked if Colman Smith's tarot deck was "the one we all loved in the '60s?" Apparently it was.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Star 82 Review Summer Issue 2.2 is LIVE!

The sixth issue of Star 82 Review, the art and literary magazine I started in 2013, is now available online and in print.

Like rivers, rocks, and beaches, the pieces in 2.2 seem to be about surviving, but gradually they become thoughts about how we take care of one another, how we manage ourselves, how we often judge too quickly, how we discover compassion and hope. 

In this issue, some of our visual highlights are a two-part poem about war and peace by book artist Bea Nettles, created from photographs of names and words on gravestones, and photographs transferred to bread by Shervone Neckles that comment on heritage and religion. More wonderful paintings from Shelton Walsmith and a powerful erasure text by Andrea Janelle Dickens are among the strong selection of artworks. We have a short story from Bryan Kring, one of three book artists featured in San Francisco Center for the Book's Small Plates edition this year, and we include and conclude with our first comic-a completely visual narrative by Stewart Moore.

Poet Shareen Knight has woven jeweled miniatures with words. Bill Vernon is back with a humorous and poignant memory. And we have a Surrealistic poetic scene with three people passing time in a plane by Nils Michals, among the other thoughtful writings.

Wes Adamson
Jess L. Bryant
Jeff Burt
Peter Clarke
Howard Richard Debs
Andrea Janelle Dickens
Joachim Frank
Ted Jean
Bonnie S. Kaplan
Shareen Knight 
Bryan Kring
Mary Larsen
Daniel Leach 
Carolyn Martin
Nils Michals 
Stewart Moore
Susan Morehouse
Shervone Neckles
Bea Nettles
Douglas Penick 
Gerard Sarnat 
Merna Dyer Skinner 
Allison Thorpe
Bill Vernon
Shelton Walsmith
Kirby Wright


Get a fine full-color print copy and support Star 82 Review at the same time!  

Links to ordering print issues:
2.2 (Art: what happened and what mattered)—
2.1 (language equality)—

1.4 (a haunting story)—

Monday, June 9, 2014

White Shadows and Online Erasures

On my adventure researching erasure texts, I met a lovely little altered booklet of 42 pages that I noted last post, A Little White Shadow by poet Mary Ruefle. Part of the appeal is certainly the size: 4 1/2"w x 5 3/4"h (11.5cm x 14.5cm) and the vintage look. The paper is tan, the type is an oldstyle. She's whited out the words she didn't need—which are most of them—and this creates a shadowy white page. The words she's chosen make sense and have literary and emotional power as well; the lack of these is often a weakness in erasures.

Ruefle's book felt so much like an artist book, or facsimile of one, that I wondered what else Wave Books published. I felt energized browsing their website. Not only do they publish some very interesting looking texts, they have a project online where you can make your own erasures from copyright free source texts, then save them, email them, or save them to their archives. I tried one out with a passage from Moby Dick. These are screen shots; if you really want to save your erasure, you need to create an account and sign in. You click on words to gray them out, but you can click on them again and bring them back.

Written out without the source, it might look like this. I think the spaces are important if you retype the lines.

Call           Some
        little                                       nothing
     to interest me on shore,      I would
     see the watery                way I have of
         growing grim                whenever it is    damp
                    in my soul;     I find myself
pausing before                       every
hand            it requires a strong  
        --  then,
I can          substitute for        a
philosophical flourish              ; I quietly
very nearly the same feelings toward the ocean         .

It could be edited down even further, I think. Some lines I probably would not have written by myself but find interesting: "I would see the watery way I have of growing grim"  and "damp in my soul" and "pausing before every hand." Working with this erasure was a fun way to stretch.

Exploring erasures can lead you to connections you hadn't made before, can help you write when you can't think of anything to say, and can get you going without much risk. They can be exercises, or can be refined to creative expression you want to share. Take it seriously, make it absurd—whatever your approach, I hope you enjoy it!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Photo-based Erasure Texts

Erasure texts—most often made by taking one source page and striking out words to create a new text—are not new. In 1820, Thomas Jefferson created his own Bible by cutting and pasting the teachings he most liked and leaving out references to divine miracles, among other things. A facsimile of The Jefferson Bible, Smithsonian Edition: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth has been published and you can see a digitized version here. Many more erasures have been created since then, from the 1954-55 1977 book, Radi os by Ronald Johnson taken from the first four books of Milton's Paradise Lost, through A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel (Fifth Edition) by Tom Phillips (see this post), and the more recent: Jen Bervin's Nets from Shakespeare's Sonnets and poet Mary Ruefle's A Little White Shadow.

Each of these was created in a different way: some by cutting and pasting, retyping, collaging and painting and drawing over, setting new text in bold and printing it in black while leaving the rest of the type gray, and whiting out. The visual impact of each varies as well. Some are more interesting to look at that others. Others make more literary sense. In some cases the poetry or text is stronger, in some cases the art is. The third component to erasure texts after verbal and visual, is conceptual. What is the relationship between the words and the images? In Ruefle's A Little White Shadow, to describe the most obvious example, the images are just rough whiteout clouds or shadows. 

Lisa Kokin created some wonderful erasures in her 1999 altered book, That Two-Edged Bliss which gave me an idea. One of her pages uses a fragment of the Mona Lisa with holes cut out that highlight certain words beneath ("a sad little smile / would atone for all. / Beauty covereth"). How would this kind of erasure work done in Photoshop, using a photograph I had taken and a portion of the newspaper?

Here is a recreation of what I did (not as tidy, though), step by step.
1. Choose a photo and photograph or scan a text.

2. Keep the original files and label them "photo-source" and "text-source."
3. Make copies of each (both jpg or both png) and resize so they are the same. I was doing a test for web, so I just made it about 8 x 6" at 72ppi, but if you want to print it out, make it higher resolution at 300ppi.
4. Make a new layer. Look through your text copy and see if you can spot a new poem or sentence. Select a bright color and the pencil tool to circle the words.

5. In the photo copy, make the background a layer, then go to the Layers palette and change the opacity to 83-86%; make the opacity closer to 80% if the photo is very dark or if you want to see more of the words showing through.

6. Make a new layer in the working text (copy) file.
7. Drag the photo (copy) over to the text.

8. Use the dotted rectangle box to frame one of the words you want to show through and hit the delete key. You may need to zoom to 150% -200% to see them.

9. Continue creating new rectangles and deleting these to highlight all of the words.

10. Go to the Layers palette and delete the layer with all of your underdrawing, if you like.

11. Use the pencil tool to add lines that link and show the order of the text.

12. For any mistakes, or any places you would like to be more opaque, go back to your photo-source and make a dotted rectangle over the area you want to use. Copy it.

13. Go back to your working text+photo file and paste it there. Arrange it exactly, or collage with it. Cut out any more of the text you want to show from the photo layer.

Well, that was fun. I think the conversation between the words and the image is conceptually just fine. But it has a little bit of the problem that many erasure texts have: it is weak in one area, doesn't completely have a message in the smaller text. A little more time and thought might have got me an actual poem. This text is absurd. But, then again, so is the image.


One of the categories for my magazine *82 Review is Erasure Text. Read some in past issues. Follow the guidelines and submission requirements and send yours for possible consideration to:

Sunday, June 1, 2014

What I'm [Kinda] Reading

I'm reading three books. Or browsing one, ambivalent about the second, and loving the third. The first was produced by a famous Emmy Award-winning film director. The second won the Pulitzer Prize for 2014. The third is a nonfiction history of a medieval book. Each has been waved in the air with halos and stars. But, in my mind, they are not all equally good.

I got excited when I first read about this much-hyped book: S. is written by Doug Dorst, and produced by the director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek fame, among others). And when I bought and received my copy I was still excited. I slit the paper seal that keeps the thick hardcover book in its slipcase and opened the book. The whole package is lovely: it is meant to look like an old book that has been filled with ephemera and marginalia by a young grad-student man and young undergrad woman who get to know each other and try to solve a mystery. The plot turns a bit, which is nice. What you see or read is not always the truth.

Now I have read six pages (plus 14 pages of preface) and know I will not finish. The old book, meant to be written in a style from 1949, seems a bit purply. A few sentences in: "A man in a dark gray overcoat walks the Quarter's streets, a tangle of cobblestone passages that spin from the harbor and thread themselves through neighborhoods where the smells of cooking spices vary but the sad decrepitude is shared." Next page: "She sighs and turns her thoughts to that miserably thin brown soup bubbling in the kitchen, and how she can make it last for an entire week" (6). The prose was so melodramatic that I decided instead to read all the exchanged notes in the margins to see what that story was like. Boy meets girl, they work together, trust is involved, something is revealed, love wins in the end. This is too silly for me. But it would work for light summer reading if you have a good place to prop it up. It's hefty at 456 pages. 

The postcards and charts and letters tucked into the book are put in the same place in every copy and they relate to the pages where they are placed, so don't drop the book! There are no page numbers to tell you where they go. I'd have to rate this two stars, primarily for the intriguing visual impact.

The Goldfinch: A Novel (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction), by Donna Tartt has gotten mostly glowing reviews, although no one I know (except the reviewers) has ever finished all 771 pages. I asked my local librarian and a friend who works in a bookstore. No one they know has read it all, either. I have, at this writing, read 160 pages: that is 20%. First, I must say I am in awe of someone who can write 771 pages, with a plot, get it published, and win the Pulitzer Prize. But that is rather irrelevant to whether I will continue to read it. 

It is written as a flashback; in the opening section, the narrator is about 24, but the story actually begins when he is 13. Tartt paints the scenes in vivid, sometimes microscopic detail, just as she describes visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the characters (down to "narrow lace-up shoes as shiny as glass" [26]). The characters, for me, are more like caricatures out of Dickens or Harry Potter ("His eyes were close-set, and his nose beaky and birdlike; he walked with a limp" [26]), which are fun to read in a fantasy or nineteenth century setting, but unbelievable when contrasted with the real depictions of New York City (my crush). The words "unnerved" and "punch-drunk" come up fairly often in the beginning. I read on page 51: "many people held cell phones aloft." I don't think I've ever heard the word "aloft" unless ships were mentioned. And, I'm sorry, I don't know people in this century, even the end of the last one, who talk like her characters talk. Does anyone else find this creepy? "'My. You're just a cub, aren't you?'" (127). Hobie, the character who says it, is actually a likable guy. 

That the work revolves around a painting interests me. Except the painting is a MacGuffin, the means to push the plot along, which is a coming-of-age story of a boy who is grieving. Those who have experienced intense grief may not feel it on these pages. Or maybe they will. But I didn't. The people and their feelings are held at a bit of a remove. I did feel that her description of the accident was well-written and compelling, though. Tartt has created her own world, which is fair, which is what fiction writers do, but I just am not sure I want to walk around in this one. Ultimately, I had to turn to the last page to see where it was all going and found a rather quick and trite ending: life is short. Really? I'd give it somewhere between three and four stars.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt, is a terrific book. Greenblatt writes history the way it is meant to be as hiSTORY. I'm only on page 46 of 263 pages of main text (the rest is notes), and I am captivated. Here is a world that draws me in. Just because the text is about a book doesn't mean I will automatically like it; I just showed that a book about a painting didn't quite work for me. 

Greenblatt is an engaging writer, he connects to the work and to the reader emotionally, and the story feels rooted and immediate, like you are there with him and his story of the real guy Poggio Bracciolini, although it is the year 1417. The book that has been rediscovered and that apparently changed how people thought in a big way was a poem On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, written in 50 BCE. Coincidentally, one of the things Lucretius wrote about was death, that we shouldn't fear it, that we are made up of atoms like everything else in the universe, and that there are no miracles, but there are clinamen (Latin for "swerve") an "unexpected, unpredictable movement of matter" (7). 

I remembered that I'd seen this word clinamen before, in connection with OuLiPo, writers who create restraint-based work. In fact, Lucretius and clinamen are mentioned in Daniel Levin Becker's book, Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature. He writes that the OuLiPo see the clinamen as "a voluntary breaking of a self-imposed rule" (87). So, it seems, everything is connected. And here is proof that Lucretius had an impact even today.

Back to The Swerve. I'm very interested in Poggio: he is a book hunter and a scribe. I'm curious what happens next, how this one poem in this one book affected a culture. That's part of it, too. Unlike the other two books, I want to know what happens next in this one. Thank you to Marie Dern for recommending it! Five stars. 

So, those are my opinions, for what they are worth. For those who live near me, The Goldfinch is currently in the Alameda County Library, Albany branch in a section of "no holds and no renewals," and there were a couple copies. Me? I've got two more weeks to decide what to do with it…

Prior to these books, I finally finished Moby-Dick: or, The Whale. I think it deserves the hype.