On a sunny afternoon in October, I met with poet Joshua Beckman and Jon Beacham at Beacham’s press, Brother in Elysium, in Williamsburg to discuss their collaboration on Porch Light (lamp and chair), released in July 2012.
Beacham acquired his letterpress from a barn in upstate New York, where he ran a literary community before moving to Brooklyn, and Beckman has written nine books of poetry, including Take It, Shake, and Things Are Happening, and is an editor at Wave Books. By some accounts, their collaboration began years ago, when the two met at an unnamed a bookstore in Manhattan.
Erika Anderson (Rail): Jon, you’ve been called part of the New Old Media. Is that a term that you subscribe to?
Jon Beacham: No, I don’t subscribe to that at all. I have a background in visual art, book handling, and book selling. I also acquired a press and started printing. But the tools that I’m using are modern in the sense that they’re functional. A lot of people are using letterpress, but I’m focused on the actual handling of type and printing. The book that we did here was all hand set, which is uncommon for books that aren’t in a higher realm of fine art, limited edition, very expensive. Josh and I have a shared interest in books, and we wanted to do a laborious book but almost disguise it as a handsome but modest trade edition. The run was 300, and we masked all the labor involved with the printing and hand binding. The idea was not to make something fancy for the sake of making it fancy.
Rail: I understand the desire to work outside of context, but it seems like such a contrast to have all this control versus e-books manufactured in India or Russia.
Beacham: I honestly have no idea how modern books are made.
Joshua Beckman: It’s infrequent for a letterpress printer not to just jam the letterpress down so that everyone who picks up the book sees the indent and knows that a physical thing has happened. There’s a level of subtlety in the kind of work that Jon does, and I hope the kind of work that I do as a poet, that doesn’t need that constant bombardment of what the values are. Y ou don’t have to wave flags for all of that work because it takes away from the actual experience. We’re involved with books in every possible way: we make them, we read them, we buy and sell them, give them, tear them up, and make them into other things; both of us do that. We think the amount of work and energy that goes into books should be, in some way, equivalent to the kind of work and experience you want the reader or the viewer to have. When you were asking about contextualizing, I think one of the problems is that it’s important and valuable to contextualize things, but not always in the present.
Beacham: It’s actually about the context, but not about the context of “the new old.” It doesn’t translate. People mention older ways of working, but people don’t know the history and the scope of American book publishing in the twentieth century. We’re both influenced by New Directions and Grove Press, how they were putting out paperbacks through like the ‘50s, ‘60s, and the ‘70s, of such quality. I think people are impressed by things that aren’t that impressive because [creators] are riding on some, “We have our hand in it” bandwagon. But when have people not ever had their hand in anything? And there’s a fine press tradition that makes really elaborate, beautiful books that are just fluff items that cost $750. Printers think I’m insane for the amount of labor and selling this book for $40, for a hand-printed, hand-bound book. But the idea is to turn people on to a book that to happens to be a real handmade book.
Rail: You once said that people don’t understand that books are aesthetic as well as content, so it’s this equation and maybe those small presses are going in the direction of aesthetic but not content, whereas the majority of books are content but not aesthetic.
Beacham: There’s a little bit of everything. Think of all of the editions of Walden that have ever been printed. And then you have the rugged mimeographs in the ‘60s and ‘70s that are just typed off stencils and side-stapled.
Beckman: Jon sets type letter by letter, I write the poems by hand and then type them on my typewriter, and then I re-type them on my typewriter each time I work with them, and then I move them around on the paper, and I think about spacing, and Jon thinks about spacing. We bound the book upstate.
Beacham: Four days, just sewing.
Rail: By hand?
Beacham: Yes. In an unbound signature. Then every page went through the press 300 times and double-sides, so there were probably over 10,000 passes on the press. I did that for a week and a half.
Beckman: We folded every single sheet of paper in the book. Thousands and thousands of sheets. Very often the discussion of books turns into a discussion of pure commercial values and the thing about not sending it off to India, about making it ourselves in every possible way is that we have the pleasures of the experiences of doing that.
Beacham: A lot of people use a word like D.I.Y., which is more like a ‘80s-‘90s word, but the whole small press thing in the ‘50s and ‘60s was that same spirit, in a much different format— people weren’t printing letterpress.
Rail: What did your collaboration look like?
Beacham: Everything was really slow, like a dialogue, and in stages, editing, laying stuff out on the floor. I would go home with some of his poems, come back, subtract a couple, keep one, maybe put one back, and then add a couple.
Beckman: Jon has to like the poems enough to want to sit here and work all day. We committed a ton of energy to this, but this book came out faster from conception to completion than any of my other books.
Rail: What did you learn from this process?
Beacham: I’ve only been printing for close to five years, and this book made me really excited about what’s in the future of the Brother in Elysium press. It’s almost like I have to do this now.
Beckman: You have to find the people who are going to care and you have to find the people who are going to really start to notice and engage in the work. All the letters I’ve gotten about our books are physical—they’re describing the book and then I’m like, “ Oh my god, they’re totally talking about the feel of the chair they’re sitting in.”
Beacham: We thought: how do we get people to write about this? It’s not just a poetry book. It’s not just a book of visual art. It’s not just a handmade book. It’s a little bit of all those things, and every one subtly presented. We’ve probably moved 75, 80 copies so far since July, and we’re getting a lot feedback from individuals.
Beckman: Most of the letters we’re talking about are letters. Not emails.
Rail: Right. How did you determine placement of the collages and the poems?
Beacham: Friends of Josh’s said, “ Be careful trying to mix poems with pictures because there’s this natural idea of one illustrates the other,” and that was something that we considered while we were laying it out.
Beckman: It is a rare circumstance that I want to make a book with someone else sharing the space of the page. I’m the most wary. I would be like, “ your poems are going to get fucked if you start putting other things in there that dominate and alter.” You make something and you want it to have its integrity, and putting it next to something in the form of a book is a scary proposition. But I don’t feel any concern about that, probably because of the amount of time we took, the sense of mutual respect. And I don’t think that either of us would be interested in doing the book if we didn’t think that the work would thrive in that shared space. Thriving is all you could ask for.
Rail: Some of the collages include Buddhist text. What was the source?
Beacham: I had this little paperback with a Chinese poetry anthology and I was reading it and the spine cracked and the pages started coming out. I had run some through the press and we printed solid color shapes on them.
Rail: Can you estimate how long it took to put together a single book?
Beacham: I think we started at the very beginning of June. It was so hot in here while we were printing that the humidity on the press was inconsistent. There are rubber rollers underneath these metal form rollers, and they were wearing and printing unevenly. And I had to send them to a place in Maryland and get them re-covered. So there were two weeks where I was losing my mind. Once I got the rollers back, I printed the book in a week. I think the whole production time was about six weeks. We had the book release on the 27th [of July].
Rail: How many hours a week were you working?
Beacham: It was six weeks of “ this needs to happen.” If you say book making is physical, people might chuckle, and say, “ Oh, is it?” But it actually is. You almost have to get in shape. Like when Kerouac used to talk about getting in shape to type books.
Beckman: And also the other side of that is elation. When we were sewing, probably around the time we hit 300 books, we’d be like, “ Oh my god, we could just keep doing this,” absurdly hitting 250 copies and feeling like could’ve done 500 instead of 300, which was definitely not true [Laughs].
Rail: That sounds like a runner’s high.
Beacham: Yeah, it’s an interesting feeling. And the way the book production industry is going, you can’t really call anybody in New York and say, “Hi, I’d like you to sew and bind this book into wrappers, soft covers in the edition of 300.” People would quote you $4,000 or $5,000 to do it by hand. You know, there aren’t many commercial binderies that do more than perfect binding in New York. The thing I remember most about this whole book is, what a great way to spend time with somebody.
Beckman: We talk about how we spend our time, how we want to spend our days, our life. I’m sure you must get it a lot, how fundamentally impractical what you do is—it is incredibly impractical, except for if you take a really big view. We have a single life. We’ve got this life, you’ve got to spend your time some way. You asked how long each book took—too long, too long by whatever standards you can do that, but not for life standards.
Rail: Is it Annie Dillard who says that how we spend our days is how we spend our lives? Is another collaboration on the horizon?
Beckman: Right now, we’re collaborating on this interview [Laughs]. Collaboration is so overvalued that many places will be like, famous artist, famous writer, boom: Collaboration! They don’t even meet each other. [But for us] this is a collaborative life. And I think neither of us would be pleased if that didn’t result in physical things.