From the December 1997 issue of Rain Taxi:
By Jack Granath
In 1974, according to publisher Bruce McPherson, small press publishing changed radically. Technological advances ("the mimeo revolution" becoming "the offset revolution") enabled publishers to make books of higher quality less expensively; small presses, until then concentrating on poetry, began to publish extended fiction; the first New York Book Fair took place; and the NEA took notice. At the same time, a "nexus for small-press publishing" materialized in Providence, Rhode Island, where McPherson was a student at Brown. This nexus comprised half a dozen innovative presses, including Hellcoal, where he honed his editing skills, and Keith and Rosemary Waldrop's "exemplary" Burning Deck, along with several magazines. On a conversational tour of this little-illuminated corner of publishing, McPherson emphasizes the role circumstance has played in his career. Too humble, perhaps, to call his many talents "talents," he chooses the phrase "multiple areas of interest" to describe the various impulses pushing him toward his life in publishing. He describes the mechanism of this progress as a continual attempt to surprise himself. "The way I surprise myself," he adds, "is by letting things happen."
What wasn't happening was the publication of a manuscript McPherson greatly admired, Jaimy Gordon's Shamp of the City-Solo. As a result, McPherson decided to form the "single-shot" Treacle Press and publish it. Critical success (being "bloodied by the Library Journal was also a badge of honor," he beams) and quick sales led to a few more "shots": a suite of poems by Clayton Eshleman and a long poem by Keith Waldrop, then the establishment of the Treacle Story Series, which published slim volumes by writers such as Tom Ahern and Kelly Cherry.
McPherson's genius for "letting things happen" was balanced by a drive toward "putting them together...finding connections" where no connections seemed to exist. His various interests huddled under two umbrellas—a literary one and a graphic one—which he sought to bring together in his first books by combining text with drawings. He wanted the two modes to function on a level beyond illustration—"complementarity;" he calls it—and his next project gave him the opportunity to define this relationship. Originally intended as a collection of essays on art and feminism, performance artist Carolee Schneermann's More Than Meat Joy became a three-year involvement, "a full-time occupation," and the laboratory in which McPherson worked out an "innovative documentation methodology" involving photographs, performance scores, text, and "a Festschrift of tributes from notable artists, poets, and critics." This experience carved out the contours of Documentext, McPherson's graphic art imprint, from which books by Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, Gianfranco Baruchello, and Henry Martin are still available. Schneemann's More Than Meat Joy has just been reissued in an expanded paperback edition.
In 1983, by then living in New York City, McPherson decided he had to "consolidate this somewhat schizophrenic operation under a single rubric." The current McPherson & Company is a press with four engines: contemporary literature, including Robert Kelly's imaginative fictions, Ursule Molinaro's mythical works, and literary criticism by writers such as Paul West and Clayton Eshleman; "Recovered Classics," which presents lost writings like the Russian travelogue Dersu the Trapper and the works of the little-known modernist Mary Butts; the Documentext titles; and a series of translations from contemporary Italian authors, including Premio Strega winner Anna Maria Ortese. Many of the Treacle Press titles, including a book of aesthetic philosophy by the recently deceased Gerald Burns, are still available as well. A few years down the road, no doubt, the present four-pronged structure will seem like a snapshot in a photo album. It will be interesting to see what circumstance has done to the line-up by then.
The books McPherson makes reflect the life he lives. There is something very personal about his list, something way beyond the quest for profit. A deep commitment to his authors is evident throughout the catalogue, many of them represented with several titles. Videos for some of the film- related books are also available through McPherson & Company, among them Kurosawa's Derzu Uzala, Maya Deren's Divine Horseman, and Carolee Schneemann's Fuses. According to McPherson, the larger presses "have abandoned any sentimental sense of editorial continuity"— a polite way of referring to what is happening as Viacom, Time Warner, and the six other media conglomerates gulp down America's major publishers.
But McPherson doesn't see the small presses in competition with the larger ones. Instead, he thinks, "we should do what the large presses can't or won't do." This belief manifests itself in "an aversion to institutionalizing small-press publishing," with the surprising corollary of suspicion for NEA funding and its "grants-writing syndrome," its bureaucracies and its boards. Though grateful for some income from the New York State Council on the Arts, McPherson has largely "weaned himself" off of the public dollar, a remarkable achievement in the current reading climate.
How does McPherson fashion these high principles into a workable press? Running his business outside the grooves means rethinking the standard procedures at every step. It is a way of publishing that extends beyond selection of titles and into other aspects of the process, such as the care he takes in the design and manufacture of his books. McPherson is especially interested in alternative methods of distribution. Though not exactly hostile to the retail superstores (he calls Borders "a class act"), McPherson sees the implications of this new phenomenon very clearly He recognizes that these book-selling titans are locked in "a competition to the death" and that, when one of them eventually falls, it will take all its dependents with it. As a result, McPherson now focuses his efforts on catalogue and internet sales (www.mcphersonco.com), distribution from small jobbers, and especially hand-selling to independent bookstores. Another danger of superstore dependency is that since books are typically sold to stores on a returnable basis, a giant chain has the might to buy up an entire print run and then return it. In opposition to the industry standard, McPherson sells his books (except for those used in college courses) on a non-returnable basis. He knows that this policy will limit the number of books he can get out, but as he says, "Fewer books published better should be the goal."
McPherson's unconventional approach to publishing has allowed him to do what the larger presses can't — develop according to "the peculiarities and eccentricities" of the individual who got the ball rolling in the first place. One must understand, however, that these eccentricities lead to a well-shaped list in a roundabout way. When I noted a thread of progressive politics running through his catalogue, McPherson declared that he "never thought about [publishing] as a political commitment," and that "propaganda is the easiest way to kill art." He simply uses his own experiences in the sculpting of his press. "The function of art." he says, "is to enlarge vision in every sense." That would make McPherson himself, who has been busy enlarging vision for some twenty- three years, a very fine artist and his press a remarkable work in progress.
© 1997 RainTaxi,Inc. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. Rain Taxi Review of Books is published quarterly by Rain Taxi, Inc. P.0. Box 3840 Minneapolis, MN 55403. Subscriptions are $10 domestic, $20 international. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org Website: www.raintaxi.com