Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Found Poem No. 9: As Thow Art


Found by Dick Morgan
in St Eadburgha's Church, Broadway, Hereford and Worcester,
and kindly contributed by him.

St Eadburgha was the great granddaughter of King Alfred the Great.
Eadburgha achieved sainthood quite effortlessly: as a child
she was offered the choice of jewels or a Bible.
She chose the Bible and dedicated her life to the service of God.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Poet: 0 Wood Engraver: 3

I can't play tennis. I know nothing about football. And even board games are a challenge ... But since competition is in the air, I thought I'd contribute the evidence of being totally trounced at Scrabble by the American wood engraver Abigail Rorer. Not only can Abbie spot a triple word score in seconds - she's also good at maths.

Monday, 5 July 2010

More Other Mother!

If today's literary periodicals were to take on flesh and attend a cocktail party, McSweeney's would be the guest who turned up late, having just performed a gig, still wearing stage costume, drunk and a little sweaty but unabashed. It would offend the host, tell hilarious anecdotes, stick canapés in its pockets and abscond with someone else's partner. The older journals, wearing uniformly crumpled suits, would turn from their intellectual sparring over warm chardonnay to eye the departing maverick enviously.

In the decade since its inception McSweeney's quarterly has proved that an experimental literary journal can be an uproarious success and has raised the benchmark for publishing design. As it approaches its 30th issue, Tate Publishing has released a celebratory volume: Art of McSweeney's. That this volume about an illustrated literary journal (and its associated publishing ventures) is published by Tate is yet another indication that the art of the book is moving from the library into the art gallery.

I've travelled around Britain with Art of McSweeney's in my suitcase for the last three weeks, and can testify that it is very heavy indeed. The cumbersome nature of books is one of the few sensible reasons given for using e-readers, but Dave Eggers, the novelist and McSweeney's founder, rejects 'rumblings about the dire future of the book'. He reasons that a work of fiction takes three or more years to write, and so it is only fair to spend a little time on the production of the book itself, indeed to produce a real book. In the case of McSweeney's publications, this volume included, every minute and every milligram is worthwhile.

Eggers boasts that 'McSweeney's is a small company dedicated to these physical books that purportedly have no future'. In order to 'keep people mindful of the pleasures of the book-as-object' inspiration is drawn from fine book designs of the past. The McSweeney's look is a modernist collage of styles: 1890s boys' school stories; pulp fiction covers of the 1970s; letterpress circus posters; and cigar boxes. Yet their graphic excitement is far from being blinkered by nostalgia; it extends to such everyday objects as rubber bands, hotel bibles and plain-text emails (an early four-page email manifesto from Eggers mooting a 'journal [...]not a "zine"' is reproduced here).

The journal's name arose from 'The Real Timothy McSweeney', an eccentric who believed himself related to Eggers' mother, and from whom 'long, tortured and increasingly incomprehensible letters' fell onto on the family doormat thoughout Eggers' childhood. The letters offered the young Eggers 'the possibility of a long-obscured and very dark secret.'

There has not yet been an issue of McSweeney's bound in a doormat, but almost every other process has been conscripted in an infectious playfulness with the book form. After the typographic austerity of the earliest cover designs, McSweeney's began to explore colour printing and parodies of traditional binding structures. The production process is fetishized and the designer's secret tricks laid bare: 'Foil Stamp … $0.22/French Flaps … $0.29/Die Cut (Special Shape) … $0.36'. It's no surprise that authors such as David Byrne testify that 'it was the design that lured me into the McSweeney's world.'

Before long, art began to take over the journal, with a whole issue devoted to visual themes (including a feature on the poet Robert Lowell's marginal doodles). The innovative short fiction that was McSweeney's trademark met its match in irreverent illustration. The young editors' enthusiastic folly is reminiscent of the Victorian boys' school stories they so admire: a whiff of derring-do hovers over anecdotes of book-launches in Manhattan dim sum restaurants; and that most mundane of publishing duties, a trip to the printer, becomes an adventure to Iceland in a snow storm. (McSweeney's used Oddi Printing in Iceland, before the dollar "did a tremendous belly flop". While the editors are effusive in praise of Oddi, the latter's director,Bjössi Vídisson says, more cautiously, "McSweeney Issue 7 is without doubt the most memorable book I have printed. This is the issue with the rubber band, the loose booklets, and the wraparound hardcover piece.")

For the present volume, the McSweeney's team have restrained themselves from punching holes in the millboard covers, binding it in fake fur, or inserting cds with songs composed in their honour by rock stars. Limited to merely making every page spread a delight, they have risen to the challenge. But they have been allowed one little joke: since much of this book's interior deals with cover designs, the fiction element of the journal is introduced onto the cover, a dust-wrapper which unfolds to form a poster on which short stories perform typographic acrobatics. The book is well illustrated with artwork and page spreads from the journal; captions promise curiosities such as an 'Excerpt of a short story written and designed in the style of a comic book without pictures' or 'A short story by Adrienne Miller that invites the reader to cut its pages along the dotted lines to reveal new narratives'. For the mathematically-inclined, a pie chart summarizes the contents of each issue according to the categories 'Fiction', 'Art' and the mysterious 'Other'. Needless to say, there's an awful lot of 'Other'.