BOOKS AND THE LIVING HAND
Daisy Aldan is a Poet, Publisher, and Teacher. Her books include: Seven:Seven, Destruction of Cathedrals and Other Poems, Breakthrough, Love Poems by Daisy Aldan. She has published the works of poets, artists, and musicians in her many Folder Editions and translated the work of poets, such as Stephen Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés and Albert Steffen’s Selected Poems.
In stature she is small and sturdy, possessed of dignity and energy. She wears an elegant velvet vest with silk appliqué, which she bought from one of the weekenders, Sas Colby. She stands before us near a table overflowing with books that she had brought out, the scope of which suddenly seems to surprise her as her talk unfolds. She has two voices, one of practicality, the other of poetic drama. As she speaks, she fairly dances!
DAISY ALDAN: One of my aims is to encourage and teach people to work with imagination through the living hand, because there is something pretty wonderful that emanates from the work that the living hand has touched. Often IBM machines are being used to reproduce mass quantities of books and I know that I for one can always tell when an IBM machine has set the type. I’m not against the machine. I don’t feel we should go backwards to the ancient methods, but we have to control the machine and use it when it is appropriate. When you want distribution in wide circles, use an IBM machine. But creative work is a different matter. So it is one of my missions to do as much as possible to bring back hand quality to the work.
For eighteen years I’ve been involved with designing, publishing, distributing, writing invoices, reading, walking into bookstores with books and so forth. I began as editor of my literary magazine in college. After college in 1946, when I was teaching and had a girl in my class who was good with calligraphy, I thought it would be nice to put my poems in calligraphy. Frances Steloff was the first one to take this book. (She demonstrates how it was made from wallpaper and pasted laundry cardboard sheets. Throughout her talk she shows samples of her books.) I did about 500 of these. You must always remember that the more copies you do, the cheaper it becomes. A few years ago I had all the extras in a friend’s attic and she said, “What shall I do with them?”
I said, “Throw them out.”
That week I received a telephone call from Boston from a book dealer, Henry Wenning, who asked, “Where can I get a few copies of your first book? There are some people who are collecting your books.”
And I thought, “My God, I’ve just thrown away thousands of dollars.” You never know. Big business, disgusting as it is, is now commercializing manuscripts.
As I look back, I can see that at that particular time a literary life began which changed the course of my life. I was working on a doctorate thesis on The Influence of French Surrealism on American Literature. I didn’t know destiny would bring me here with three people that affected my life then. One is Frances Steloff, who encouraged my first book, the other is Anna Balakian who agreed to be on my doctorate committee at NYU when I was told by other people at the school that it was too early to write about Surrealism. And here is Anaïs. Three people who really, at certain turning points in my life appeared. They are all here. I can’t believe that this is coincidence!
I came into contact with many poets through that dissertation topic. You know, you ray out something that starts moving things in your direction which weren’t moving before. I found that continuously. I came into contact with young unknown poets who since became major poets in America and painters who were unable to get their work exhibited. One was Grace Hartigan, who was at the time calling herself George Hartigan so she could get her work exhibited. She ultimately became one of the most important Abstract Expressionist painters. Others were Frank O’Hara, Cohn Ashbery, Kenneth Koch. These were all young unpublished poets. The so-called academic poets were in the saddle, and if you had written anything that was different in style or form, you could not get your work published. At the time there were 40 literary magazines in America and now there must be 400,000 from what I see in the Gotham Book Mart. And View, which had been publishing the older surrealist poets, was discontinued, so I said to myself, that I’d like to publish a magazine for the works of these friends of mine.
I also was writing in that style. In fact, at the time I didn’t know that people would call my work ‘surrealist’ because I was not influenced by the Surrealists. I thought, ‘Well, I’ll steal paper from school and make a little magazine.’ When I got to work, I found that my taste in paper was too fine. I chose the most expensive laid paper that you could find, because I loved the way it felt. The visual is part of the poetic experience and a beautiful book is just as important as the contents. To hold a book, to see it – the paper it is on – the way the type is arranged on the page – is really a total experience.
I perhaps was influenced by Mallaré who also thought the visual aspect of a poem was important. I had translated the Coup de Dés, because I was terribly interested in avant garde poetry. I found out later that Gide had called this the most untranslatable poem in any language! One of Mallarmé’s precepts was that the appearance of the poem on the pages was an integral part of the experience because there is the heard poem and there is the written poem. When you see the written poem and hear it with an inner ear, these are two different experiences. The heard poem is not the written poem. I felt that way too and wanted the whole book to be a beautiful artistic work.
That was my downfall. I had paper but when I searched for a cheap printer, I did not realize that the printer’s union pays high school graduates $350 a week.
I said, “Oh, my God, that’s too much for me.” My teaching salary was quite low. Yet, I ended up paying for this and subsequent books myself. Somebody asked yesterday (this morning seems like days ago!) — if Bill Claire had an income? He said, “No,” and I had to smile because I’m often asked that question, and I never have either. I’m a slave of the classroom because I’ve never had an independent income. But I’ve used the money the same way people buy fur coats. But I want to urge you not to feel that you are depriving yourself of other things because it will bring you back untold wealth in other ways.
I found that I could not afford to have my work done by a professional printer, so as Anaïs did, I looked through a catalogue that sold presses and ordered a press to be sent to me through the mail with type. I never took a course in book production but through necessity I learned. I looked through books of type and decided on Vogue type because of its new quality. I have since become more traditional in the type I use. But this I wanted to be avant garde, you know, sans serif type. It was interesting that later when I sent Anaïs Folder 1 she wrote back and said that because I was using the same type she had, she wondered if I had bought her type. It was one of those strange coincidences!
I had a big case of letters, which I started putting together in a chase. I made many errors and I went through a lot of pain – everything was filthy with printer’s ink. Folder 1 is now a collector’s item which I can’t afford to buy back because every one in it is well known and it was done by hand.
So in the process of making the Folders, first I had to get manuscripts, then I had to figure out how it was going to be bound. Bindings are much more expensive than printers. I couldn’t afford it, so I started designing how to do it so the pages wouldn’t fall out, and I conceived, after many trials and errors, a folder form. And then I thought, “How wonderful! Now I can give each poet four pages for him/herself.” I tried to think of a title. The first was going to be, “Any Minute Now, Somebody’s Going to Do It.” That was too long and pretentious. So were the names of other magazines, like “Kaleidoscope”, “Spectrum”, “Rainbow”, “Prism”. I said, “No, if I’m going to do it this way, let’s simply call it Folder.” And that’s how we got the name.
I spent hours cutting out the forms, scoring and folding, because I didn’t know that you could go to somebody who could make a mold and chop all the sheets into shape in one operation. Then there was the printing, after which the poets and I collated everything on a big table. At the same time I had been puttering around with making a silk screened Christmas card, which technique I eventually used in my crowning glory of publishing. My idea was to include painters’ work in the Folders too. I always really wanted to bring the whole media together — painting, poetry, and music. I had musicians like Ned Rorem and Ben Weber, who took poems of people like Frank O’Hara’s and put them to music. I was very ambitious without being commercially ambitious.
I got a little loft known as The Studio, where I brought my printing press and papers, which became the center for all these young poets and painters. These avant gardists were starting what was later to become the Abstract Expressionist school. At that time DeKooning was selling paintings for $50, which today are worth $50,000. I really intended to buy one but didn’t find the time. If I had, I probably now could retire and publish books!
Adele: How many were in your first editions?
DAISY: Five hundred in Folder 1. They are hard to find now but at that time I had a hard time selling them for 50c.
Things find their way into the world. The quality of the writers received attention from the literary world. If you publish a book or a magazine, the first thing to do is to bring a bunch to the Gotham Book Mart, of course! There were reviews in “The New York Times” and so forth. Once a book is started — if it has any worth — it will find its way. Don’t ever be afraid to start something. Don’t think that it’s vanity publishing. Anaïs, Edgar Allen Poe, Virginia Woolf, Proust, Rimbaud, all published their work first. If it’s good, it’s not vanity. It’s only vanity publishing if it’s bad. Besides, commercial publishers do terrible things to your work.
When I came to doing Folder II, I knew that I could not possibly set type again, letter by letter, so I learned about Linotype. Linotype is arranging lines of type on a page instead of words. You still create by putting lines and spaces where you want them. Someone warned me not to let anyone know I was doing this because women were not allowed in the Printers’ Union and I could get a fine. I think I was the only female Linotype setter in New York at the time. I secretly put my Folder together.
I used photography and serigraphs by painters. In Folder III I used a more elaborate cover done by Grace Hartigan. I published translations from different poets. I think I was the first one to publish George Seferis in this country. I had a whole group of Greek, Haitian and Italian poets. I was the first one to publish Peir Paolo Pasolini here, who has subsequently become known as a filmmaker also. The Folder’s name was spreading out I got to know Alice B. Toklas and Princess Marguerite Caetani. One day I visited Anaïs and there was Caresse Crosby. I considered her Black Sun Press fantastic. Here was a woman who blished beautiful books by writers no one ever heard of. I’m sure Anna Balakian had known about these people long before I did. But, do you see how one person inspires another? That’s why we have to work together and inspire each other. It is very important for the world today that we do this.