I’ve recently had some in-studio or across-the-wires conversations with poets and artists — as with poet Hoa Nguyen, and painter Jeremy Okai Davis — to breeze about everything from recipes to music videos. Last week, I got to catch up with my friend, the poet, professor, collaborator, editor, and publisher Kyle Schlesinger about the history of his Cuneiform Press, which publishes a variety of poetry and artist’s books. Schlesinger is always a robust, delightful conversationalist; our interview lasted just a few breathless back-and-forths. His imagination, friendly wit, passion, and breadth of knowledge are sampled a little here.
PAUL MAZIAR: Take us back to Buffalo in 2001 when Cuneiform Press began. As I understand it Robert Creeley, a key influence on your work, was there.
KYLE SCHLESINGER: Wow, that’s a blast from the past. Bob was and continues to be a huge influence on me on so many levels: the art of collaboration, poetry, poetics, grace, generosity, and a general ease of movement and insistent curiosity towards the world that is absolutely singular. He was the busiest guy in town, but when you sat down to talk he didn’t miss a beat, remembered everything, which taught me a lot about presence, giving your attention to whatever’s happening on a particular occasion.
Just before I left for Buffalo I had a stint teaching high school English in a mill town in northern Rhode Island. I was fine with the work, but a terrible disciplinarian; he suggested that I come up to Buffalo, get an advanced degree, and try teaching college, which is exactly what I’m doing now, 15 years later and a little bit grayer.
I started Cuneiform with the intention of publishing experimental work by emerging poets — very simple chapbooks by people like Patrick Durgin, whose Color Music (2002) has, to my mind, totally held up over the years. His wife’s brother made some punk collages on a photocopier and we printed the images on a Print Gocco, a little silkscreen kit that was briefly big in Japan. I’d throw a proof in Patrick’s mailbox at night, he’d make any corrections after dinner, then I’d go back to the press, make changes, and repeat for the next page.
I love the low-fi action that comes out of your printshop. The punk show posters you recently did look great. I’ve also seen Cuneiform’s phenomenal book by Okkervil River’s Will Sheff, your call for musicians’ manuscripts for Cuneiform, and heard that you’re moving into a camper on a California beach, to surf and write a book about Bill Callahan.
The Sheff book is definitely the strangest thing I’ve done with Cuneiform. I emailed him, saying that I think his essays on music are the best since Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus, and that I’d like to collect them as a book.
He was very busy, but it occurred to me that books don’t always have to be published in large editions, that, as with book artists, sometimes just a copy or two can do the trick, that sometimes you make a book just because you want it to exist. So I tracked down every essay I could find, started copy-editing and fact-checking just like I would any other Cuneiform book, designed it, got it printed and bound by hand, the whole nine yards, sent him a copy and kept one for myself. Took about a year, a ridiculous amount of work, but it turned out perfect since many Okkervil River songs are about keeping it real, and the virtues of failing in a world with a conservative notion of success. That’s the first in this music series and others will follow, though they’ll be printed in standard editions, distributed properly, etc.
This failure virtue is part of what charms me about poets like Alfred Starr Hamilton. It seems to be something that we don’t find so often these days, do you agree? For instance, you took me to that Katherine Bradford exhibition in Portland, at Adams and Ollman; we were both pretty tickled by the show.
Every artist I talk to is in the same boat: how to make a living and make the art they want to make. Not just in the United States, but Canada, Mexico, Australia, Europe, and so on. Everyone’s wondering, maybe even a little nervous, how life can be more meaningful, but no one can say why… Or can they? The MFA and the National Endowment for the Arts killed art in America, which is why I can say that I feel a strong sense of connection to various artists of the last 40 years or so.
Lou Reed said something like, “There’s a door, and behind that door, is everyone you’ve ever wanted to meet. Then the door opens, and you stand there wondering, knowing that once the door closes, you can’t get out again.” And that’s the danger of monetary success, to my mind. Once you write a “Paul Maziar poem” you can’t write that poem again. Goodbye, Paul. The surplus of art versus the demand for art is at an all-time low, which leads us to an interesting question: Why do you want to do what you do when there’s really no social need or viable economic gain to be had? Is it personal happiness? I’m on board with that; I want everyone to do exactly what they want to do every day, all the time, but I also think that’s the real question we all must ask of ourselves, not specifically related to the day-in/day-out fact of our lives, but taking ourselves, as such, out of the equation.
I know that could sound pessimistic or jaded, but I don’t mean it to come across that way at all; it’s actually quite the opposite. The artist George Herms said, in a recent lecture I attended, “The single most important fact of my existence is that the population of the Earth has doubled since my birth.” I take the sentiment seriously, or as William Carlos Williams once remarked, “An empty space is the sign of a poor economy.” We’ve got a revolution going on, one with more talent and underutilized artistic resources than ever before. So let’s storm the fucking gates and build a world we want to live in, with history close to the heart.
I was charmed by that Creeley anecdote in The Art of Collaboration (Cuneiform, 2015), where he, having seen your letterpress printshop digs, asks why you haven’t gone all-digital, adding “If we had the internet in the fifties when we were editing the Black Mountain Review, we would never have done things this way.” It’s worth pointing out that you’re no extreme model-acolyte (you didn’t follow his line of thinking comme ça). Do you view art online or strictly in museums and galleries?
I keep a foot in both worlds. I teach classes on New Media Theory for a living, so I’m always reading up on the latest advances in technology. I think it’s something artists need to be aware of on multiple levels, but in terms of my personal practice, the more unplugged I am, the happier I am. It would never occur to me to look at art that has been reproduced digitally, nor am I partial to computer-generated art. On a recent trip to New York, I was happy to see a return to painting in the galleries I visited; no more projectors and flat-screen installations, and that’s something of a relief to me. I feel fortunate to have grown up with a typewriter and records, moved to CDs and word processors, and now I have a computer I use as strategically as possible. Mostly you’ll find me reading books, listening to records, and visiting as many artists in their studios and galleries as possible. The all-consuming pendulum of the digital age has hit its apex, at least in the art world, and for people younger than myself in particular: The tangible, sensual, real-time experience of creation is making a major comeback. The desire to get one’s hands dirty is an inexplicable fact of being.
How does your digital music listening experience stack up to your vinyl collection?
Being very much aware of the havoc corporations like Spotify have inflicted on the music industry, I’m adamant about the listener’s responsibility to support musicians because their livelihood is at risk. Needless to say, were so many musicians any less committed to their practice, we would live in a world of silence, barring only the most mainstream pop celebrities.
That said, I have a Spotify account and use it regularly to hear sounds I’ve never heard before; in that sense, it’s a practical tool to have. But if I like something, I’ll buy a ticket to the show, a record or two at my local shop or directly from the musician. It’s actually rather shocking, and saddening, to realize how popular one has to be to make a sustainable wage as a musician. If everyone at a concert threw in $10 into a tip jar, then that musician who just entertained you for a few hours might not have to get up the next morning to mow someone’s lawn or mop the floor of a brewery.
In 2006, Bill Berkson and Bernadette Mayer published What’s Your Idea of a Good Time?: Letters & Interviews 1977-1985. What’s your idea of a good time?