Following Before Your Very Eyes, here’s an excerpt from an interview I conducted with Tom Raworth about his work as a printer, editor, and publisher. Among the little magazines to emerge from London of the early sixties, Outburst is, to me, the most satisfying in form and content, as well as a critical connection between American and British poets of the time. Stephen Fredman, Michael Cross, and Matt Chambers also joined in the discussion in the Poetry Collection at the University of Buffalo.
Download a searchable PDF here: OUTBURST
TR: I don’t think that I’m a good subject for an interview but I’ll certainly answer anything I can.
KS: All the better, since I don’t have any specific questions to ask. [laughter]
MC: Jim Dine? [shuffling books]
KS: Oh, have you seen this one? Welcome Home Lovebirds.
TR: Yeah, that was a great book.
KS: Yeah, it’s a great book. I’m not sure if this is the only book of poems he wrote.
TR: I think it is, yeah.
MC: Pip Benveniste—who’s Pip? [examining the cover of Asa Benveniste’s Poems of the Mouth]
TR: Pip was Asa’s wife from the time of Trigram for many years. She’s still alive, she lives in the West Country where she paints—she’s a painter.
MC: So she did the design for the cover? It looks a little like…
KS: The Immoral Proposition?
MC: Just a touch.
TR: The Divers Press book.
MC: Oh, Weapon-Man [examining the cover of Outburst 2]
TR: Oh god.
MC: I saw that card in the back. I love the Weapon-Man poem.There’s an individual publication, a postcard or maybe a broadside.
TR: That was the first thing we printed, just to try out the press, just a folded sheet.
MC: The poem is about stumbling out of the bushes drunk.
TR: Yeah, could be… could be. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen it—1965, I think.
KS: Well, maybe that’s a good question to ask: How did you get involved in this racket? [laughter]
TR: I read some things that I liked. They weren’t things that were widely available in England, so I thought the way to do it was to do a magazine, and the cheapest way then was actually to ridiculously learn to set type and to print. So I got some type and taught myself how to set it and print.
KS: Did they teach it in high school?
TR: No. I taught myself from books.
KS: Do you remember which ones?
TR: No. I mean, well, the classics. Morison, Stanley Morison. There were books about book design and typography at the time, so I looked through those, but otherwise it was just trial and error. You’d have to figure out to set it backwards…
KS: …backwards and upside down.
TR: Yeah, so you taught yourself how to read backwards and upside down. [laughter]
KS: Not as easy as it appears.
TR: It took a long time because I’d only do two pages at a time. I only had enough type for two pages, so I was always in the process of setting two pages, printing, redistributing, and setting them again.
KS: Did you buy the type new?
TR: Yes, you could still—Stephenson Blake, I think. That was new, but Piero [Heliczer] had a lot of used type. I inherited some from Piero at some point, some big letters. I think Perpetua was just the basic fount, and some Gill for the titles, but those things were still easy to get because the foundries were still making type.
KS: Right. I don’t know if it was the same in London, but at a certain point here, everyone was throwing their letterpress equipment out on the streets.
TR: It got to be like that, yeah, I mean that’s probably how we got the press for Goliard, the bigger press, the bigger treadle press, just from somebody selling out. A little later, they did become junk, and then, like now, they became antiques and we saw wonderful founts of wood letters broken up so you could have your initials stuck on your wall. There’s a guy—do you know La Alameda Press down in Albuquerque? He’s got a little press and did a broadside of Joanne [Kyger]’s. He’s a really nice printer—still finds things on eBay. Perhaps the most difficult thing to get now is type cases because people just use them to put little ornaments in and hang them on the wall.
KS: Knick-knacks! And the stuff on eBay has become expensive because printers have to compete with knick-knack culture.
TR: But there was a great period when everything was going over to offset. Asa’s press was before that time, basically it was a proofing press, a big proofing press.
KS: But Asa started printing before offset was…
TR: Yeah, it was around, but it was still—I mean, letterpress wasn’t peculiar and arty, particularly in those days, it was just another way of printing. It was just about to be equal, but it took a while, and he had a silkscreen shop as well. He had a good print shop for everything, so he could do commercial work at times. It wasn’t just the publishing. I was looking at one of those films of Bob [Creeley] yesterday and there’s one where he’s sitting underneath three big framed Kitaj prints [A Sight]. Those were printed at Asa’s, that was a job where Creeley sent the poem to us for us to raise some money, Kitaj did the design and Asa printed it because he had a fine silkscreen press. So that’s how that came about.
KS: Those were lovely, huge…
TR: Yeah, I’ve got a set somewhere still. In fact, I think there are still some sets out in Maine, Pen said, somewhere. Perhaps rotting in an outhouse in Maine. [laughter]
KS: And where did Asa, was he…
TR: Where did he learn to print? I don’t know exactly. He was in publishing, first of all. I think he worked for Thames & Hudson—art books—at one point in London and he got bored with it. That’s how I remember the story, and then he just wanted to do things for himself. So he had, I think Pip had some money, so they were able to get a proper printshop, and the equipment to deal with it, so…
KS: And he edited Zero before Trigram started?
TR: Yeah, yeah. That was in Paris as I remember. I saw one copy of Zero magazine a long time ago. I didn’t even see copies at that time, it seems to have pretty much vanished by the time we became friends.
KS: So when you started, did you have a press at your house, or…
TR: Yeah, I had a very small press, in fact one of the first things I did was on a little 5” x 4” press, and that was the platen size.
KS: A little Kelsey tabletop or something like that?
TR: They were called Adana, they were for people to be hobbyists and print their own visiting cards and things like that, so it was that size. I did a couple of small things like that. Then I got sort of a late wedding present of about £100 from Val’s father and found a treadle press that was probably about 11” x 8” so you could do two pages pretty much, and I did things on that, and then I had to put that somewhere because it was too big to be in the two rooms we were living in, with children, so I had a friend who had a printer for a brother down in North Soho and we put it there. We used to go down after work and print the pages with whatever color ink was left on the press because there was no time, so that’s why the magazine was printed with different-color pages. Took too much time to clean the press just to do it, so we just put the type in to do it quickly. [laughter]
KS: And which magazine was this?
TR: This is Outburst, there’s some copies sitting right over there. [points at a stack of books]
KS: And you were working on Outburst before you started publishing books?
TR: Ah, yeah. I did a few really small things at that time. Let’s see, I did a small book of Ed Dorn’s, you know that one poem, From Gloucester Out, a little book of Anselm [Hollo]’s called History, some things by David Ball, just two poems with illustrations, but that was before Goliard, that was Matrix—which expanded when I met Barry Hall and we realized we could work together without much problem.
KS: Those must have been pretty early publications for Ed and Anselm.
TR: Yeah, it was about 1960 or ’61, pretty much, maybe ’61 or ’62. Hands Up! was out of Ed’s and maybe one other thing, but there wasn’t much around. Just added to it.
MC: This is kind of related—how did you find people? What was the communication system like?
TR: There were some people I read that I liked. I mean, I was thinking about that because I came to Bob through Ed. Ed and I corresponded in December 1960, and the first letter from Bob was January of ’61, so I’m sure Ed gave me Bob’s address and then Bob gave me various other people to get in touch with. There were people I read but didn’t have addresses for then. That’s how Fielding Dawson came into it and so on—eventually Charles Olson. And Allen Ginsberg I was in touch with. I can’t remember how I got in touch with people, but there they were, and they all were happy to be published. And then it becomes too much doing a magazine, as you may also know. You begin to wonder if your taste is gone: can it all be as bad as this? [laughter]
MC: The audience of Outburst, how many copies would you produce?
TR: I figure, probably, of Outburst, I figure… the books we used to produce about 750, and there were probably fewer of the magazine at the time. Some shops would take them, and at that point in London there was a shop called Better Books that would take things like that. There are many more now than would take things then.
KS: That’s where you got the news?
TR: I think word-of-mouth, I mean people telling other people. It was impressive to me that the 750 books we did for Goliard would go, and I think it’s still about the same market, 750 people buy books of poetry in the world. I don’t think it’s gotten much larger.
KS: It just grows organically, I think. Person A introduces you to Person B, and you tell them about Person C.
TR: Oh yeah, exactly. The same way you do if you have a group of friends and you tell each other what you like, what films you like, what you’ve read, and it just spreads out from there—which assumes a basic interest in it, as intrinsically verse.
KS: Same with music.
TR: It’s all marketing. [checks price of Outburst] That was cheap enough then. Let’s see, it was two shillings and sixpence—that’d be, what? About 40 or 50 cents? Still seems reasonable to me. [laughter]
MC: In terms of funding it, were you jobbing?
TR: No, I was working, working full-time regular work.
KS: What did you do?
TR: At that time I was working in the telephone exchange I guess, most of the time, and for Goliard. So before that and when I was doing Outburst I was working for a manufacturing pharmacist in London, stealing Methedrine, which enabled you to do two pages a night. But that was it, you know, just sit on the carpet, on the mat, and set two pages and occasionally kick over the type which is very irritating. The other thing is you get to wonder why some people write very long lines when you’re setting it by hand, and that’s how I probably got to like Bob’s work.I mean, I liked reading it, but I did appreciate the fact that you could set it then just slide in spacers all the way to the end.
KS: Really, when you look at all the people who were doing handprinting, he had so many books, beautiful handset books.
TR: It’s a good theory!Who is this Allen Ginsberg?! [gestures as if he is frantically setting very long lines of type in a compositor’s stick]
I’m trying to remember, I thought there was something by Amiri [Baraka] in one of these or maybe we just corresponded. [leafs through Outburst 2] Ah, here it is, that’s right. Ah, that’s the thing I remembered: “As if drunkenness / was something / with a back door.” I was trying to think of that yesterday.