Looking back on my letterpress days

In 1989, after I brought KAOS to a close, I became interested in the Private Press movement, a term used to describe enthusiast presses that publish books that are usually hand-set, hand-printed, and hand-bound. So I founded The Herculaneum Press.

I only produced a few slim books, in limited editions, which are collector's items now, although they tend not to be sold openly. Of course, they were intended to have a talismanic quality. I did many things during the production of these works that can be regarded as 'magical' similar to the methods described in 'A discussion on juxtapositional magick' in KAOS 14 (p 58). These books were produced in a small dishevelled room in which I lived, with trays of lead type and inky newspaper all over the place. I went to sleep with the stench of white spirit and sweaty clothes in my nostrils and that was what greeted me when I woke.

Often the curtains would remain drawn all day, with the sun illuminating them outside, and I would carry on printing the sheets one by one, having been up all night, playing loud music like New Model Army and rolling up fags. I lost track of the days, the phone was unplugged, there were black inky fingerprints over lightswitches, over the fridge. When it was hot and sticky I would print naked, sweat pouring off me. Every dozen or so pages I would closely examine a sheet with a banknote engraver's loupe, and if a single serif showed signs of losing its sharpness, wearing down due to the embossing effect of the impression, I would unlock the forme and slip in a brand new letter. Sometimes, after printing a 100 pages I would notice I had a lower-case 's' upside down, which is easy to do when typesetting a mirror image of what would be printed, and I would fly into rage and despair. Sometimes I would re-write a sentence because I thought the spacing needed to justify it was ugly. It was a slow slow process. Yet it seemed a natural progression from my previous phase, where I was invoking demons, becoming possessed, and painting visions. Very much 'Zen in the Art of Printing'.

When I brought The Herculaneum Press to a close in 1996, I sold most of my type to Paul Nash of The Strawberry Press, who has published some very fine editions. Paul is co-editor of The Private Library, the Journal of the Private Libraries Association, he also worked at the Bodleian Library where he catalogued Private Press books. Paul interviewed me for an article he published in the summer 1998 issue of The Private Library, entitled Joel Biroco and The Herculaneum Press. I was gratified by his interest, as I considered my efforts rather modest and often thought about what I might have been able to achieve had I not been so poor and had a bigger press and a place to house it. As it was, I had to rely on the generosity of a friend just to buy type and paper. Still, perhaps there is an enduring interest in the starving artist and what he manages to achieve in spite of it all that lingers long after the work created in bed with corporate art sponsorship, and not out of love, has become stale.

It goes without saying that a web-rendition of these works, though I have tried to make the presentation attractive, falls short of the originals and I did wonder whether I really wanted to put them online as texts. Still, it affords me an opportunity below to reflect on this time and what I was trying to do. (As I haven't put Epoch [1991] on the web, I haven't written about this publication as yet.)


Che Sara Sara (1989)

'What will be, will be.' In this first work from the press I was reflecting on my reasons for not committing suicide. I was coming to the point of accepting deeply the Buddhist notion of 'Existence is suffering', but still railing against it. Though the philosophy I was expressing was heartfelt, it was also rigid, and I knew it even then. I later found a much more natural and elegant solution to existential dissatisfaction in Slow Volcano (1993), and in that work allude to my former views expressed in Che Sara Sara in the paragraph beginning: 'It surprises me on looking back…' I then write off this philosophy as 'clutching at straws'. That said, Che Sara Sara also contains a satire of faith, hope, and charity and a certain joy of parallelism in wordplay and rhythms of speech (there is a sound dimension to most of my serious writing). Secretly, I was laughing despite the sombre mood. And, of course, at the back of my mind was the thought that if I did commit suicide then at least I had gone to a lot of trouble with my suicide note. Being the first publication from the press, I underestimated the effort that goes into setting pages of lead type letter by letter and printing and binding 175 copies by hand. I also made a linocut frontispiece, which I cut spontaneously, having no plan. What emerged seemed to suggest being mentally bound up in myself in a womb of perplexity, and so suited the work.


Yip-i-addy-i-ay! (1989)

Yip-i-addy-i-ay! I wrote on a bottle of whisky a day in the autumn of 1989. This text was originally much longer, but I cut it down into a prose poem to distil the powerful feelings I had at the time and discarded the rest. KAOS 14 explains some of the background to this work, what came immediately prior to it, such that what it alludes to may become clearer for those who are interested. It was my slamming the door on the world I had created, and presages my living like a tramp, which came later. I was moving to reject everything I had known, I was in the pits but in turning away I was stronger than I had ever been. This piece of writing captures my thoughts and feelings at the very moment I embarked upon what turned out to be a 13-year withdrawal. The 'telegraphic' style was influenced by a recent reading of Céline's superb novel Guignol's Band. The original was hand-set in lead and hand-printed in an edition of just 75 copies, each with a marbled dustjacket and hand-coloured linocut (a semi-abstract representation of tinder catching alight).


Old Sourpuss (1992)

Old Sourpuss was an exercise in listening to tramps and other people who talk aloud in the street. I often found that in amongst the detritus of mental deterioration given voice to in their ramblings there would be sentences of sheer beauty hinting at an enormous depth beneath the surface, of a life they once had, and sometimes these fragments would have personal meaning for me as I passed by. After I had written and printed Old Sourpuss, myself and a friend passed a tramp in the street. This tramp had such life in his bright blue eyes, such strength of character and strange charisma. My friend, who had just read the book, turned to me and said: 'That was Old Sourpuss wasn't it?' We both turned to watch him walk away, 'Absolutely,' I said.

A week later I was sitting on the Tube and there was an old drunkard nursing a can of strong lager in the seat opposite me. He was rambling aloud, sunken into himself and eyes glazed over, but I couldn't catch anything that made sense, he was slurring his words too much. Then he seemed to notice me, in the way mentally unhinged people sometimes look at you as if they've seen angel wings on you or horns sticking out your head. The drunk, looking me directly in the eye, his eyes also bright blue and now alert, said: 'Take my word for it. Sky's the limit.' Which hit me because this is a fragment from Old Sourpuss. Whereupon he sank back into his stupor and I couldn't understand anything more of his speech.

I also listen to people who stop me in the street and want to say something to me, my poem It is Divine, for instance, was virtually given to me by an old man who stopped me in a park. Often such people are lonely and just want to talk to someone that day, and it is compassionate to stop and talk even if you don't really want to (especially if you don't really want to), but in acting compassionately like this I often find that in listening to the person they will tell you something extraordinary. Someone once asked me what I intended by writing Old Sourpuss, and I said it was quite simple I wanted to encourage people to listen to tramps and not write them off because you never knew who they were, what they'd done, and what they may have to offer you. As if to prove the point, I virtually became a tramp myself later, and wrote Slow Volcano.


Slow Volcano (1993)

This work was written on scraps of paper I found in the street, with a stubby pencil, which were then shoved into the pocket of my great coat and forgotten about. I was more or less living as a tramp at this time. Mostly it started as fragments of thought that came to me while sitting under trees and on park benches watching the world go by. I had for about ten years previously been practising Zen Buddhism but found reading books on the subject ultimately frustrating. I liked the simplicity of few ties though. Only later when I had discarded most of my possessions and began wandering the streets and parks did I realise it was all about something after all.

I didn't intend to write Slow Volcano at all. I found it on these scraps of paper in the ripped lining of my dirty old coat. After only a slight arrangement the fragments I had quickly pencilled down formed a surprisingly connected narrative. The work doesn't mention Buddhism, although when I first published it I printed also a linocut I had made of the nembutsu, six Chinese characters that form a sort of prayer to Amida Buddha. (Based on similar nembutsu slips printed and distributed by the Japanese monk Ippen [1239–1289], whose 'motto' was 'Just discard!')

I only printed 99 copies of Slow Volcano, which I gave to friends and people I met. Lionel Snell told me he thought it was 'beautiful', which greatly pleased me. Tundra Wind, an American Zen master, praised it highly and told me it did what he thought was impossible, namely it described the enlightenment experience. As I sit now in the garden in the sun, the scent of lilac brought to me momentarily on the breeze, shadows of butterflies on the crazy paving and the occasional zirr of a bandsaw, I like to think that the peace I often enjoy is a result of something that happened to me while I was writing Slow Volcano.


Joel Biroco (2003)