Saturday, November 29, 2014
the practitioner of words
by Douglas Messerli
Born in 1949, Allan Kornblum attended New York University before transferring to the University Iowa in 1970. Arriving in Iowa City in July to attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he quickly began publishing his own and others’ works. In August he issued the first volume of the mimeographed Toothpaste Magazine. To further explore design and production, he took a typography course by the renowned teacher Harry Duncan, and, as he put in in a 2012 interview in the St. Paul Star Tribune, “kind of fell in love with the craft, [discovering] that electric moment when you print something that really looks good.” His first book was his own collection of poetry, Famous Americans, which appeared in 1971.
Throughout the first two years of that decade, Kornblum continued to publish the mimeo magazine, but he soon also began publishing small letterpress chapbooks by local poets such as Steve Toth, Dave Morice, Morty Sklar, and Darrell Gray, the last the founder of the Iowa City literary movement “Actualism,” in which Allan and Cinda Wormley, whom he married in 1973, were involved. The group focused on common and everyday objects; hence the “Toothpaste” (based on images of toothbrushes shown at the Whitney Museum by the artist Jim Dine) for his press.
In 1972 the couple bought Duncan’s home in West Branch, Iowa (the birthplace of president Herbert Hoover), complete with a press room, which gave them a place to focus on the letterpress and type composition.
Soon Kornblum was exploring wider literary territory by printing important works by poets teaching in the Writer’s Workshop or visiting the campus, including Anselm Hollo, Steve Levine, and Robert Creeley, By the late 1970’s and early 1980’s Kornblum had expanded his activities to include several major literary figures. Short works by Jonathan Greene, Edward Dorn, Joseph Ceravolo, Helen Adam, Anne Waldman, Dick Gallup, Faye Kicknosway, Tillie Olsen, Philip Whalen, Alison Knowles, Allen Ginsberg, Carl Rakosi, Alice Notley, Tom Clark, Cid Corman, John Taggart, Charles Bukowski, Charles Olson, William S. Burroughs, Amiri Baraka, Diane di Prima, and Donald Barthelme brought his small press into the national limelight, many titles now sought-after by rare book collectors.
I don’t know when I first heard of Allan, certainly not until I had begun my own publishing, which wasn’t until I started my Sun and Moon journal 1976, or, possibly, a year earlier when I was intensely researching small press literature. But I did know Allan while he was still publishing Toothpaste Press out of West Branch, Iowa, because I recall that on one my early trips back to visit my Iowa parents in the Cedar Rapids area I told my companion Howard that a publisher lived nearby.
When Allan and I finally did meet, perhaps at a gathering of publishers attending the Small Press Bookfair at New York University, I already felt that he and I shared a bond. Although I had never used a hand-letter press, and, from the beginning, sought to position Sun and Moon Press as a trade publisher, like Allan, I too had almost single-handedly put together my press’s publications (from typesetting, layout, and design, to all other editorial and promotional efforts); in those days, we both almost single-handedly produced what we published. His comments on his earliest endeavors, “it was fun and informal, and that’s the way I felt about things at first,” were precisely my feelings in those early days.
Both Allan and I had also produced magazines that were of another time, mimeograph publications that grew out of the 1960s commitment to making serious literary work highly available and inexpensive. Even Sun and Moon journal was originally conceived in that manner, and in in the midst of publishing what had instead become a glossy magazine, I took time out to produce, like Allan’s Toothpaste Magazine, a mimeo journal, Là-bas.
Allan’s open-natured commitment to literature, printing books by several figures whom I admired, immediately suggested other links between us. As young men, we both worked as paperboys, and I recall later discussing how the effects of publications during the protests of the 1960s (which he had experienced in New York and Iowa City, and I in Madison, Wisconsin) helped to make us aware of the powers of the printed word. Indeed, along with another midwesterner (although Allan was born in Manhattan, I now think of him as a midwesterner), John O’Brien of Dalkey Archive as well as other publishers (Scott Walker, Sandy Taylor, Judy Doyle, etc.) we represented a generational gathering whose commitment to independent publishing arose from our literary and political commitments developed in our university days. Alan expressed these feelings quite clearly in a talk he presented at Poets House in New York:
I came of age in the Vietnam antiwar era, when the women’s
rights movement, the Black Panthers, La Raza, the rights
movement, and others, were starting to change American for
the better. So lots of literary folk thought of ourselves as part of
a small press movement—without having any clear idea of
what that actually meant.
Allan, John, and I further had vaguely allied literary tastes, and over the years, we shared a couple of authors, notably Gilbert Sorrentino and Toby Olson.
Although Allan had begun publishing several years before I, by the time he decided to refocus his efforts on larger publications in 1984, moving with his wife Cinda from Iowa to Minneapolis, Dalkey Archive and Sun and Moon had also gained national attention and acclaim, which Allan’s new Coffee House Press quickly garnered as well. It was also a time in which the National Endowment for the Arts, in an attempt to re-energize literary publishing, pressured several us to move into the nonprofit sector.
After years in which it had appeared that publishing houses would not be allowed to define themselves by the IRS as a nonprofit organizations, the quick rise of several independent houses like ours, devoted to serious authors—with significantly smaller sales—helped to change that ruling. A few of us, Allan, John, and I among six or seven others publishers, became the first non-profit literary presses in the United States, which would bring us together in many ways over the years, resulting in grants from various sources and the accompanying meetings that such funding entails.
Several of those meetings took place in Minneapolis, since both the consultants for the short-lived Mellon Foundation grants and several of the receiving presses were located there. On at least one occasion I joined Allan at his home with wife Cinda and two daughters, Annabel and Gwendolyn, for dinner. And several times I dined with him and his staff at restaurants in Minneapolis, New York, and elsewhere. One year, several of the Mellon presses met at the Sun and Moon offices in Los Angeles.
Over these years, I gained more and more admiration for Allan because of his extraordinary dedication to his authors, and his steadfast belief in their literary worth. Allan, like John and I, was not merely interested in publishing books, but was devoted to the writers behind those books and to their careers. Moreover, in his dedication to fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, he shared my broader literary perspective, which helped to contextualize his publishing, particularly when it came to poetry, but which spilled over to his offerings in fiction as well.
That “perspective” meant that as a publisher, Allan was, first of all, focused on U.S. literature. Secondly, he saw his writers as being “members” of his publishing house, a friend for life, so to speak. As he put it, Coffee House offered its writers the opportunity to “become their publisher for life.” Moreover, writers who shared similar poetic styles or had been aesthetically grouped by readers and critics, meant that he would be equally open to their writing. Whether for Allan this was a matter of a personal literary taste, arising from his own reading habits, or, as for a publisher such as J. Laughlin of New Directions, from the friendships and alliances made by the poets themselves, I cannot say. Strangely, in all the years I knew him, we never actually discussed poetics or literary values. Since I made it clear that I admired his writers, and he seemed to find a kinship in my publishing list, we simply felt no need to parse what we also recognized were some differences of literary appreciations.
In one way or another, Allan felt closest to the poets connected with the Objectivists and, in particular, with the New York School. As Allan himself suggested, he published writers described as representing the second generation of that group as well as authors who had continued in that approach in later years. Some of these figures had already been among his Toothpaste authors, others were natural fits within the commitments of his new-titled operation: Kenneth Koch, Anne Waldman, Anselm Hollo, Ron Padgett, Kenward Elmslie, Alice Notley, Paul Violi, Bill Berkson, Marjorie Welish, Ed Sanders, Terence Winch, Eleni Sikelianos, and Elaine Equi.
In fiction, Allan’s press cast a wider net, committing both to established American figures such as Sorrentino and Olson, as well as numerous younger American writers, including Brian Evenson, Laird Hunt, Rikki Ducornet, Ben Lerner, Mary Caponegro, and Thalia Field. Allan also distinguished Coffee House with the publication of several Black and Asian Americans, Quincy Troupe, John A. Williams, William Melvin Kelley, Saeed Jones, Frank Chin, Wang Ping, David Mura and Karen Tei Yamashita among them.
Despite the fact that I had heard that Allan had been diagnosed with a chronic version of leukemia in 2006, I was taken aback by his seemingly sudden death on Sunday, November 23 at the age of 65. Allan had been “there” so long as a literary friend and force, who saw himself, as he expressed it in a lecture, with “a long life ahead,” that I couldn’t register the fact that this kind and gentle man was no longer among us.
Unlike my own press, which has purposely made no attempts to continue its existence after my death, Allan had not only mentored Chris Fishbach, but turned over the editorial operation of the press to him years ago. My feelings—that a good press represents such a specific vision of its founder-publisher that it is wrong to attempt to impose that ideology (along with its financial and perceptual limitations) on anyone else—were issues with which we disagreed. Although I would argue that both Toothpaste and Coffee House represented very personal and remarkable visions, Allan, I suspect, might not have seen it that way. In his open, often humble view of his accomplishments, he might rather have perceived himself as at service to the literary community as opposed to employing that community to draw attention to himself or his press. He was, after all, a printer, first and foremost—and throughout the years at American Bookseller meetings and other literary gatherings, Allan continued to don his printer’s visor and cranked out broadsides—he was a practitioner (one who practices a profession) rather than a shaper of literary tastes. That he did, in the end, help to shape the literary tastes of our time speaks to his commitment rather than an expression of what drove him. For Allan, I would argue, how something looked on the page was just as important to him as what it said. Of course, he sought meaning through those words, but, at heart, the enjoyment of the experience while reading—yes, particularly with a good cup of coffee—the allure of the eye to the page mattered more to him than any intellectualized result. Literature meant pleasure for Allan, a product made by hand rather than a construct of the mind. For him a book was a real thing—and so too was Allan.
Los Angeles, November 28, 2014
Sunday, November 16, 2014
But it was while I was visiting that apartment with that boy that represented a near miraculous coincidence occurred. The telephone rang, and he answered it, handing it over quickly and rather confusedly to me. It was my mother. Apparently they had tracked down my Wisconsin friends, who, presumably suggested they contact their relatives, since it was there where they had last seen me. Let us even ignore the illogicalness of that suggestion—why would they expect their relative to have kept tabs on my peregrinations? And why might the telephone number they obviously provided to my parents still be the same number as it had been for their now absent relatives? The possibility that I might be back in that same space after having, in a city in 1968 of seven million, eight thousand ninety four, eight hundred and sixty-two people just met the one person who lived in that apartment where I was again visiting for just a few hours was less likely, surely, than winning almost any lottery. It is certainly difficult to explain something like that.
Perhaps the real issue is that I see this as a coincidence. Webster’s New World Dictionary defines coincidence as: “1. the fact or condition of coinciding. 2. an accidental and remarkable occurrence of events, ideas, etc. at the same time, in a way that sometimes suggests a casual relationship.” One can truly define my experience described above and many of the other incidents I describe, accordingly, as coincidences. It may be, however, that I am according this “accidental” occurrence with too much significance, that I am imbuing it with more of the qualities of a casual or real relationship than it deserves. Perhaps I am simply cursed or blessed—depending upon your reaction to chance-like incidents—than are other people, or perhaps I simply notice them more often than others do. Certainly that’s what my friend Paul Vangelisti argued when, after having experienced an evening of such coincidental and rather odd events occurring to me and hearing of others I experienced.
Let me admit from the very beginning that I do not believe in a higher power or agency who or which lies behind these events. I would describe myself as an atheist who, although committed to the logic of science, does not particularly demand an order in the universe, although scientists have probably proven there is one. If there is a knowable or even unknowable order to all earthly events, let me just argue that I am often more interested in the chaos that most others seem to fear. I guess I might summarize my emotions by saying I am more intrigued by what appears to be chaos than by what most people describe as order.
But then I find chaos a very transient thing. I have, apparently, a very connective mind. Or at least a very narrative one (and, in staying this, I am not suggesting that “narrative” is chronologically-based or that my thinking is necessarily structured in that manner). I have often argued that if you were to send me random poems by 20 different poets I could immediately link them through their language, images, and their meanings to create a fairly coherent story—although I suppose such a story might appear to be coherent only in my mind! Let us just say, I have a mind that tends to link things up. The very act of writing an annual memoir centered around abstract words that I have titled the volume makes this quite apparent. And that is why I describe my annual volumes of essays as fictions based on what I believe to be fact.
Behind this rather mad endeavor, however, lies a gut feeling that events do, in fact, connect, that reality can only be perceived through how we inter-link the vast range of our experiences, public and private, that each moment, hour, day, year and through a life-time we encounter. My mind inherently seems to make great sense of these seemingly random events. I see connections often where my acquaintances, the media, and the general public (if my acquaintances and the media effectively express the responses of the “general public”) see none. It is almost as if I were a born Jamesian, determined to “only connect,” which James (and others like E. M. Forster) argued for throughout his writing. Accordingly, even if I like what I describe as chaos, it doesn’t ever remain as chaos very long after I encounter it. And that is probably why I am so attracted to it, to chance, improbability, fragmentation, interruption, dissociation, and radical realignment of meaning(s). These gems of improbability all too quickly get swallowed up through my perception into coherency.
Strangely, I do not at all think of myself as having a necessarily logical mind and would hardly describe my life as what most people might express as orderly. While I do achieve a great deal every day—if you define reading, writing, observing, publishing, and communicating as kinds of achievement (many don’t)—I do not consciously organize these activities outside of marking down dates when I have tickets to the opera or plays or noting the show times of nearby movies. I write because I love to write, when I have time to. And on many days there is simply not enough time to write, read, or even watch a television movie, let alone meet a friend over lunch in order to catch up with their lives. I am fortunate that these same activities mostly define my “profession,” although I am equally unfortunate that my profession results in little if any money to be used for my food, lodging, and clothing. I am lucky to have a companion who offers me those things basically in exchange for my often imperfect love.
Yet, I must have a logical mind since, when I write, I usually create from the first sentence to the last in one fell swoop, only adding in a few interlinking phrases and a great deal of word changes and editorial corrections at a later point. But I don’t see it as logic. It is once again, simply a matter of connection, of putting one thing in relationship to another, followed by another, etc. In short, no matter what I am doing I tend to make meaning through my acts. I think most people do; perhaps they are just not as aware of it as I am.
That tendency to see connections, sometimes when there are really none, is what I have described throughout my writing as coincidence. And by describing so many events in that manner, many of which are surely just everyday happenings, I do seem to prioritize them or, at least, infer that they represent something of great importance to me. I’d like to immediately deny this, since as I said, I do not believe in a God or even a god-like universe. But yes, these moments I describe as coincidence do somehow give me pleasure.
Indeed perhaps it is because I do not believe in God or that I am not a scientist or even a particularly logical-thinking being that I find coincidence so interesting. As Lisa Belkin reported in a fascinating essay on this subject in The New York Times Magazine of August 11, 2002, “The Odds of That,” “…Unexpected connections [that appear as coincidence] are both riveting and rattling. Much of religious faith is based on the idea that almost nothing is coincidence; science is an exercise in eliminating the taint of coincidence; police work is often a feint and parry between those trying to prove coincidence and those trying to prove complicity. Without coincidence, there would be few movies worth watching (“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine”), and literary plots would come grinding to a disappointing halt. (What if Oedipus had not happened to marry his mother?....)
But sometimes, as the article quotes John Allen Paulos, a professor of mathematics at Temple University—coincidentally the university at which I used to teach—coincidence is just something that happens, without any particular significance. “Believing in fate, or even conspiracy, can sometimes be more comforting,” he argues, “than facing the fact that sometimes things just happen.” And often the coincidental facts which seem most stunning to us, like my mother calling me to discover where I was, “aren’t even there.”
For instance, although the numbers 9/11 (9 plus 1 plus 1) equal 1l, an
American Airlines Flight 11 was the first to hit the twin towers, and
were 92 people on board (9 plus 2), and September 11 is the 254th day
of the year (2 plus 5 plus 4), and there are 11 letters in “Afghanistan,”
“New York City” and “the Pentagon” (and while we’re counting, in
George W. Bush), and the World Trade towers themselves took the
form of the number 11, this seeming numerical message is not actually
a pattern that exists but merely a pattern we have found.
“Of course the next plane to hit the towers was United Airlines Flight 175, and the one that hit the Pentagon was American Airlines Flight 77….and the Pentagon is shaped, well, like a pentagon,” the article continues. The coincidences may be simply stunning, but they mean absolutely nothing!
I know this very well when I proudly note the numerous coincidental events of my life, which happen, so it seems, very, very often to me. All right, let me chalk it up to my inherent necessity of linking things up. I don’t demand or even suggest that these coincidences have any other meaning, that they hint of a greater force at work in the universe. And perhaps they have no meaning to anyone except me. So why do I mention them then? Pablo is right to query this eccentricity. What is the point? Or to express it from my point of view, why do these coincidences seem worthy of noting? Why do I find pleasure in them?
I admit that there is a sort of quality about such coincidences—in the idea, for example, that by attending a party in Brooklyn (a New York borough in which I’d never previously set foot) at the wrong address I would fall into a gay orgy involving a former acquaintance from years before (also recounted in My Year 2005)—that is somehow reassuring, bringing one a bit of luck like a rabbit’s foot. I might even grant that I see such events as talismans, proof that my life is still on the right track—or perhaps the wrong track, but a track, nonetheless, familiar to me. Even if life seems to be made up of a series of random events, it is reassuring, after all, that so many people and events in my life eventually link up. Even if I wasn’t particularly fond of the person in the past, the fact that I suddenly encounter him again seems to suggest that there might be a purpose to my having met him in the first place, since, after all, we have coincided once more. The fact that I know it means nothing of the kind doesn’t take away that pleasure. I still feel, at some level, that such things were “meant to be,” even though I don’t know by whom or what, since God and fate are out the question. Perhaps it is only because I mean them to be; I mean them to be meaningful, which leaves me with a kind of tautology.
But then I do believe that what some describe as “fate” has far more to do with human will, or desire, or just empathy—an unconscious ability to predict or foretell the behavior or actions of others—than with some larger metaphysical force. We all have heard of twins who have the uncanny ability to read one another’s minds or who, even having been raised apart, end up working at similar jobs with husbands or wives with similar names or dispositions.
Belkin indeed tells the story of the coincidental deaths of two elderly Finnish twins who both died on the same day, March 5, just two hours apart in accidents as they were traveling by bicycle on the same highway. Some in their small town of Raahe were convinced that the second brother died of suicide, having heard of his brother’s death; but, later it was revealed that the second brother was cheerfully getting his haircut before driving on to be killed so similarly to his brother. The nephew described it as just “their destiny,” sharing the opinion that his uncles shared a psychic bond, one becoming ill always shortly after the other had fallen ill, one developing a pain in his leg at the same moment the other was injured in the leg by an automobile.
I’m not a twin, but I have been described by at least one employee as being somewhat psychic. Time and again I seemed, she argued, to read her mind, suggesting, for example that she take the rest of the day off at the very moment when she was about to announce that she didn’t feel well, or my asking her to do something just before she was about to suggest she undertake the same task. I’m not arguing that between us there was a magical meeting of the minds or a “hocus-pocus” quality about my abilities to sense what she was thinking. Perhaps she simply expressed herself through subtle facial expressions or gestures or…well any number of things. If I feel a deep empathy with an individual I can very often make out, at moments, what they may be thinking about. Haven’t we all, particularly with long-time friends, had a name cross our mind at the very moment that the telephone rang with that very same person at the other end of the line? In fact it just this instant happened to me, except on e-mail instead of the phone. Of course today you can text somebody to tell them you about to telephone them! So perhaps it’s not even such an odd-seeming coincidence any longer. In short, it’s just another way of making what I have been described as links between people and events, a linking up of knowledge (which includes our emotional sensibilities) and experience. Although I am sure I shall never win the lottery, strange coincidences happen quite naturally to me, and I seek them out.
Finally, I enjoy coincidence the way some people—such as the Surrealists for example—love déjà vu. Strangely, I’ve never experienced déjà vu, although I’m pretty certain I comprehend what the experience is like. Perhaps the sense of something happening all over again, as if time has momentarily rushed back to repeat itself, is what I experience in all my coincidences. It is my way of momentarily misconnecting a synapse to another synapse so that time seems almost stand still.
Finally, I have realized, in retrospect, that coincidences seem to me a bit like the possibility of seeing around a corner, the ability to experience something that isn’t ahead in linearity, but might be spotted out of the corner of one’s eye, a reality that many simply cannot see because they’re too busy looking ahead, while I am clumsily looking down, across, away, and apart from the direction in which I am traveling—a voyage which, accordingly, often results in an occasional stumble for not paying attention to the road ahead. And, in that sense, I often connect with something askew, accidental, a bit dissociated from everyday life. My coincidences occur in a world of slight dissociation, in a kind of odd waking/dreaming reality in which things come together in ways in which they normally might not. It’s rather akin to the feeling in writing when you suddenly know that you’ve created a reality—something different and apart of from your ordinary experiences—that is absolutely right, that you have touched upon something “other” than yourself in a way that you appear to be living outside of your own body, in someone else’s imagination. Perhaps it is nothing more than the rubbing up against someone else’s life in a way you never might have before expected, a kind of psychological frottage. Suddenly—bang!—another human being who you never even noticed is standing there, demanding you accept his or her reality as strongly as your own. And, amazingly, you have no choice but to embrace it.
“Submitted for your consideration”—as writer-producer Rod Serling used to portentously begin many of his The Twilight Zone television shows—is the following scenario, a true story which I also related in My Year 2005. In that piece, not so coincidentally titled “Coincidence,” I describe how I arrived at Kennedy International Airport outside of New York to be whisked away on a bus that got lost in Jackson Heights in the Queens on its way into the city, nearly causing a mutiny among its passengers. Finally arriving in Manhattan two hours later, I caught a taxi. The narrative continues:
I quickly took a taxi to my hotel, the Summit, now
Loew’s Midtown. I must have appeared a bit haggard
after my adventures on the bus, for the man at the
desk asked if I might like an executive suite at the
same price as a regular room. I assured him that that
would be fine.
I showered, redressed, and went downstairs to seek out
a good restaurant. Since I knew the West Side better, I
waited for taxi. The doorman asked if I wouldn’t mind
riding in a limousine for the same price as a taxi ride
across town. No, I didn’t mind. The limo, which
could easily have seated five or six individuals, was a
gleaming black machine which the driver had evidently
just purchased and for which he was eager to develop a
Along the way, I decided to stop by J and B’s, a rather
seedy venue across from what used to be called “Needle
Park” on Broadway. My limo pulled up to the door
of this dilapidated drinking establishment and I grandly
exited. It must have looked surreal. The driver handed
me his card, which read “Doug’s limousine.” Would I
have any further need of it while I was in town? he queried.
Today at J and B’s they demand “cash only,” obviously
distrusting even their own customers. I like the place, however,
because it’s one of the few city locations where, as long
as you buy a drink, you can stay for hours writing
at a table. At the time I was working on my fiction,
Letters from Hanusse, a book that took me over twenty-five
years to complete.
I was concentrating on a scene which was to appear early
in the book. The narrator, living in New York (a native
Hanussean who spends much of the fiction in Paris) was
expressing his fears of the city:
I have always feared the unimaginable. That the
building in which I lay myself down each evening
might one night just crumble into pieces upon my
sleeping head. It’s possible, the building is old,
badly in need of repairs. It’s not an
earthquake I imagine, it’s simply my building and
its inevitable collapse.
I looked up for further inspiration, and across the way from
my table noticed two young women deep in conversation. While
pausing with pen in air, I overheard one of these women say,
“This may seem strange, but you know what I most fear?”
“What?” the other asked. “That someday—and this
will sound silly—my building will just fall down, that it will
Had I spoken aloud what I’d just written? I wondered in alarm.
No, I realized, I wasn’t even whispering, which I sometimes do
when I write. Could they have read my writing from their position
at the neighboring table?
No, we were several feet apart; I couldn’t even read the title of
a book that sat before one of the young women. Had they read my
mind? I didn’t stay to find out, and I later cut that passage from
the final manuscript.
When one’s creations come crashing into the real world, you have to simply give them over to life itself so that the two worlds will not collide. Indeed, since that occasion, I have read of apartment buildings actually throughout the city.
I usually never tell Howard about my writing until after the fact, and have very seldom discussed my ideas with him since I generally come about my ideas through the process of writing itself. But this morning, as I began this piece, I mentioned that I was about to write an essay about my encounters with coincidence. Howard seemed disinterested, leaving the room soon after. A few minutes later, however, he came back with The New York Times Magazine essay I quote above. He, who hasn’t taught a course in over ten years, reported I sometimes used this essay in my teaching. Not a very big coincidence, I grant you, but a most fortuitous one!
Los Angeles, February 3, 2014