Getting The Word Out: The Small Press Revolution

by Sean Barlow
November 4, 1981

John Brandi met Johnny Lovewisdom in Ecuador. Brandi was working there as a Peace Corps volunteer in the mid-1960s and Lovewisdom, a 47-year-old Californian, partially paralyzed by pesticides from working in apple orchards, had come to Ecuador to seek a healthy environment in which to recover. Lovewisdom claimed the valley he chose near the Peruvian border was the most radioactive-free area on earth.

In his rock-cell hermitage, the Californian had an old mimeograph machine he used to print his "universal newsletters," personal offerings of philosophy, spiritual discipline and general observations that he sent all around the world. Since printing supplies were scarce in that remote corner of Ecuador, Lovewisdom would regularly hobble several miles to the nearest village to pick up used crankcase oil, which a sympathetic bus driver collected for him. He would then haul the oil back to his cell to use as makeshift printer's ink.

When Brandi once visited the hermit and expressed his writing frustrations, Lovewisdom cut in, "Quit complaining if you can't get things published. Do with what's immediately available. Do it yourself. Don't wait for others to get the word out."

The expatriate's advice was obviously taken to heart, for getting the word out—his and others—is what John Brandi does.

Brandi, who describes himself as a poet, painter and wanderer, is also the publisher of Tooth of Time Books. Under the Tooth of Time imprint, Brandi emphasizes fine-quality, limited-edition printings of original works by unrecognized writers. Brandi created Tooth of Time Books, like other small-press entrepreneurs, as a conscious alternative to the commercial publishing world dominated by New York.

Brandi's diaries, drawings and books were recently displayed in an exhibit entitled "The Author's Role: From Concept to Book" as part of the Second Annual Book Arts Festival at the Palace of the Governors Museum in Santa Fe. One part of the Exhibit contained his diaries, crammed with long-hand scrawl, fanciful drawings and watercolors, giving witness to his active eye and ear. Another section showed the finished product—attractively bound books documenting his wanderings in South and Central America and Asia.

After finishing his stint with the Peace Corps and dodging the draft for two and a half years between the Chilean Archipelago and Alaska, he took the diaries from his wanderings and worked over the "chaotic impressions"—which were originally recorded in smoky rooms by hearthlight, on train rides through the Andes and at drunken sprees at Indian festivals—and had three books about Latin America published by Christopher's Books in California.

Christopher's Books, and other small presses, like Tree, Cranium and Maya, Brandi said, "all spoiled me in the early '70s with incredible craftsmanship and care. They were letterpress editions on handmade paper using vintage type."

Brandi talked about the sensuous look and feel of letterpress printed books. Letterpress printing, a painstaking technique of handsetting individual raised-surface type bits, makes for a "real marriage" between type and ink and paper, he explained. He contrasted that with the more usual offset printing technique, which transfers coldset type to a photograph to a plate to a rubber blanket to paper. "It becomes distant," he commented.

Brandi's own publishing was primitive at first. A friend picked up an ancient mimeograph machine, the 1903 Rotary Neostyle mimeograph machine displayed at the Book Arts exhibit, and brought it to Brandi's home in the foothills of the California Sierra Nevada. "That became the cornerstone of Tooth of Time Books," he said, smiling at the contraption.

Tooth of Time Books got its name from a bare outcropping of rock called Tooth of Time, located in the wilderness behind Brandi's cabin near Guadalupita, the place he first settled when he came to New Mexico ten years ago. There, with a wood stove, kerosene lamps, and his tiny mimeograph, he began cranking out books and stapling them together or sewing them with a treadle sewing machine.

At this point he was publishing his own work, mostly poetry, exclusively. He left his prose work to the better-equipped small presses on the West Coast. Then, people began finding out about Tooth of Time Books and making inquiries. He gave them the same advice he got from Johnny Lovewisdom.

"You can make your own book," he told them. "It's not hard. Come on out and visit for the summer and we'll put something together. You can actually design your book, type up the stencils, and we'll print it and bind it here."

"And that's what started to happen," he said. "The book was a totally organic process then. Many of these writers never had the slightest notion of how a book came into existence. It had always been a matter of handing it over to a publisher and then waiting to receive the finished product in the mail. Luckily, this process drew only the right kind of people. It eliminated the writers who didn't want to know how books were made or go through the process."

Such a do-it-yourself attitude is typical of the spirit that carried the "small press revolution" into existence in the late mid-'60s. According to Brandi, authors, especially poets, began to wonder why they should go to New York to find a publisher when they could publish their work themselves.

And they did, in any way possible. Using mimeographs, small offset presses or other methods, these writer/publishers took to the streets, handing out their work. In short, a radical decentralization of the publishing world was taking place.

"The small-press idea was, first of all, to get the word out," Brandi said. In 1955, in San Francisco, a group of poets, including Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, got together and decided to read their poems publicly at an art gallery—a new idea back then. Surprisingly enough, many people came. (Anyone familiar with Jack Kerouac's novels can recall his descriptions of the exuberant jazz-wine-and-poetry scene at those now famous readings.)

"For poets, reading the work is the first way of transmitting it and publishing it," Brandi added. "Just getting out there with your voice and body is important. It becomes a kind of collective or tribal event, too, because the more you read your poetry, whether you're reading it in front of a bunch of apple trees in an orchard, or giving a public reading, you're able to hear your words. If there's an audience, they're giving you feedback—so in the process you're editing or deleting poems from a manuscript in process, or reworking them so that the message you want to speak can be better received by an audience."

Reading aloud is the first step, then, according to Brandi, and the second step is actually publishing something. Brandi cites the example of the Pocket Poets Series, otherwise known as City Lights Publications, put out by Lawrence Ferlinghetti in the 1950s. He made available the works of the so-called Beat poets in limited, offset editions for between 75 cents and $1.50.

Ferlinghetti's own work was picked up by an intermediate-sized publisher, New Directions, which published a 90-page book of his poems, "A Coney Island of the Mind." Now in its 18th or 19th printing, it has sold over 350,000 copies, Brandi pointed out.

While Brandi admitted that this trajectory of going from public readings to small-press publication to a larger publisher is "always in the back of my head," he added, "I don't have to have my book published by New York for any kind of personal fulfillment."

For example, of the poems he is currently working on he said, "I won't go to New York with this book. New York sets and follows trends, and often what we write about in the Southwest isn't picked up by New York. It's regarded as provincial. "Out here," he laughs, "we know that stones really do talk." He then explained that he would rather publish his book himself, or find a regional publisher to put it out in a small edition, and then see what demand follows for further publication. "Small presses, in most cases, are able to present quality work in a well-designed format that supercedes what New York can do or has time to do—especially with poetry."

Brandi's opinions are backed up by experience. Once he sent a prose manuscript to a major publisher in New York. He says that after overediting it, changing its focus and not allowing him to include his illustrations—which was "quite a blow"—he could not recognize it as his own. Writers and editors frequently don't see eye to eye on a piece of writing, and Brandi, rather than let them remake his book into a product that would sell, withdrew it. He said he would prefer to make a book in a "Renaissance way," with people who appreciate bookmaking as an art and craft.

Another bad publishing experience, he cited, concerned a friend who wrote a book about the Ecuadorian tropics. It later came out with a picture of the Andes on the cover. "There was an artist in one department and an editor in another," Brandi said, possibly explaining the snafu.

The question arises, however, of how writers or publishers survive if they follow this go-it-alone principle? For Brandi, the answer has been grants. In the mid-'70s, the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines funded him with some small grants to help with his publishing. "This allowed me to not have to dig up money elsewhere, setting fenceposts, baling hay or doing odd jobs in town. I could devote all my time to writing and publishing."

Then, in the spring of 1981, he received a sizeable grant from the National Endowment for the Arts through their Assistance to Small Presses program. With that grant he was able to completely revamp Tooth of Time Books and design a new 6-inch-by-9-inch format. The actual printing—in editions between 600 and 1000 copies—is done on the West Coast, he said.

The first book published in this new format was Arthur Sze's "Willow Wind," a bi-lingual collection of poems translated from the Chinese. Also included are poems written by Sze himself.

Forthcoming from Tooth of Time Books is "Real Play," poems and a drama by Nanao Sakaki, whom Brandi describes as a poet, wanderer and rebel whose life and work have influenced such American poets as Ginsberg and Snyder. Sakaki bases his wanderings from the mountains north of Taos. Brandi also hopes to bring out the work of Harold Littlebird, a New Mexican poet, singer and potter.

Brandi looks for potential writers who "feel very strongly about the land where they live, who have a mythological sense of history as well as a real sense of place. So it's only natural that these books should grow organically from the place they occupy," he said. "These people have a strong feeling about how a book should be produced. They want to bring a book into the world intimately," said Brandi of the authors with whom he works on everything from layout and graphics to the color of the endsheets.

When asked if there's a danger of becoming too provincial in material and vision, since Tooth of Time Books, like most small presses, speaks of and from a distinct geographic region, Brandi distinguished between regionalism and provincialism: "Too much adobe and turquoise in local poetry gets old very fast; it's old the first time you pick it up. That's provincial. Poets who are stuck with particular stereotypes, and perform their poetry occasionally in the region, where it's safe, might be classified as provincial writers.

"But regional writers—writers who base themselves in a certain geography, yet have their eyes alert in all directions—those are writers who explore universal symbols, personal archetypes and who take leaps in their craft. They are the regional writers who are exposing not just a geographical region but a spirit which is universal to us all and identifiable to varied audiences internationally."

John Brandi with his 1903 Rotary Neostyle mimeo machine in his Sangre de Cristo mountain cabin, mid 1970s.
"I'm proud that Tooth of Time Books represents a region and writers working within traditions of that particular region, who are able to express themselves and find their audiences in many different places throughout the world," said Brandi.

Asked what advice he would give to writers and publishers in the Southwest—or anywhere—he immediately said, "Just begin! And begin right where you are. In other words, don't wait for someone else to come and do it for you."

Johnny Lovewisdom would approve of Brandi's motto.