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Saturday, November 29, 2014
"The Practitioner of Words" (on Allan Kornblum and his publishing)
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