In honour of PQL’s upcoming fortieth anniversary, Tim is writing a memoir about his experiences at the press. This is the second chapter. Click on the Still in Business category to read the chapters posted so far. Chapter One is here.
Ludwig Zeller didn’t speak English any better than I spoke French. He was born in Rio Loa, a small village in the middle of the Atacama Desert in the north of Chile. His father was a German engineer who had arrived in 1912 to work in the nitrate industry, at a plant that manufactured explosives. Zeller spoke Spanish, and he became fluent in Latin and Greek in his adolescence when he had resolved to become a saint, and studied under the Jesuits in Santiago where he contracted meningitis, which would seriously circumscribe his innate faculty with languages, and eventually prevent him from learning English. When we met him, he was a political refugee who had arrived in Canada in 1970, shortly after Salvador Allende came to power in Chile.
Zeller’s second wife Susana Wald taught at Sheridan College in Oakville, and knew Howard Aster of Mosaic Press, who published a couple of poetry books by Zeller in the 1970s including When the Animal Rises from the Deep, which we had designed & printed as a contract job for Mosaic in 1976. The first time we visited the Zellers they were living in an apartment on the east side of Trafalgar Road in Oakville, across from the Sheridan campus. One of the few phrases Ludwig could say in English at the time had to do with the ‘possibility’ of ‘making an exhibition’. Living in Oakville was convenient, for Susana’s employment, but it wasn’t a particularly congenial place for an artistic couple to make their home. Subsequently the Zellers moved downtown, to a Victorian row house on Huron Street, just north of Harbord, quite close to Coach House Press. It was there that I saw an abecedary Ludwig had made by cutting engravings out of nineteenth-century illustrated books and pasting them together as collages.
I offered to publish Alphacollage (1979) as a Porcupine’s Quill title because I thought I could lavish on it a more costly production than Howard Aster would likely want to pay for a Mosaic title.
The original edition of the book was limited to two hundred copies printed in two colours throughout in a large format (four-up on the KORD) on Strathmore Grandee and casebound by Elke into green sailcloth with foil stamping on the front and the spine. The main production difficulty encountered with the book was that some of Zeller’s raw material, his collection of nineteenth-century steel engravings, had been printed on coated stock, while others were originally printed on matte paper which had yellowed with age. The challenge (with the encouragement of Stan Bevington of Coach House) would be to colour-separate the two, which of course, could be achieved by no known photo-mechanical process. I spent the better part of three weeks during the summer of 1979, artwork in front of me, hunched over Elke’s negatives at the light table, cutting, with an X-acto knife, elaborate and intricate rubylith overlays.
I am told – though I can’t remember if it was Susana Wald who told me this, if it is in fact true, or if I simply made it up to enliven some speaking engagement – that the name for each of the objects which compose a particular letter alludes in some way to the letter itself, and that actually this book is uproariously funny, but only in Spanish. Ludwig Zeller never did learn to speak English, and emigrated a second time, in 1994, to Oaxaca where he came to enjoy considerable renown rather late in life.
It might have been February of the next year (1980) when we received notice in the mail that the limited edition of Alphacollage was to be awarded a certificate of merit by the Art Directors’ Club of New York. Naturally, we were pleased, but we had utterly no intention of attending an award ceremony in New York City to collect the citation in person.
A secretary, employed by the Art Directors’ Club of New York, who spoke with a distinctive Bronx accent, had her own agenda.
‘Hi, honey. Y’all …’.
The telephone in the shop in Erin Village would ring, almost daily, with a call from NYC prefaced with the identical phrase.
‘Hi, honey …’.
The secretary’s thesis was that we could not fully appreciate the magnitude of the `Honor’ (no ‘u’) about to be bestowed upon us. Nor did we appreciate the August Status of the Art Directors’ Club of New York, or the Grandeur of the Award Ceremony which was scheduled to be held in the Grand Ballroom of the New York Hilton.
Friday, May 9, 1980.
We flew to Laguardia late on the Thursday afternoon, then suffered through the trauma of a high-speed Checkered cab ride from Queens County to mid-town Manhattan. The New York Hilton is located on Sixth Avenue between West 53rd and West 54th Streets. The hotel is very large. Our room was on the 54th floor, which prompted me to speculate that fire trucks in NYC likely were not equipped with ladders that would reach the 54th floor. I don’t like heights, or high-speed cab rides just inches from the cutting edge of the concrete lining the walls in the Queens Midtown Tunnel.
We arrived at the hotel rather late Thursday evening. Given, however, that New York prides itself on being the ‘city that never sleeps’, we were surprised to encounter considerable hostility in the dining room when we announced that we wanted to be served dinner, at, perhaps, ten pm. We were also somewhat confused as to why the maitre’d insisted that we sit beside, rather than across, from each other at table, which can’t have made much difference either way, given that the dining room was empty. Presumably we must have been missing something here, and the thing that we were missing must have been something uniquely American.
The award ceremony on Friday afternoon started at 5:00 pm on the mezzanine level of the New York Hilton. We ascended an escalator from the lobby to the second floor where cocktails were served while the laureates and their hosts examined award-winning print entries displayed in museum-quality glass display cases while a ten-piece rock ensemble, complete with brass, warmed the throng.
An hour or so later, all and sundry were ushered into an adjacent movie theatre where we watched video clips of perhaps fifty of the best American television ads from the previous year. Volkswagen figured prominently, Polaroid, Mobil Oil, Federal Express, Levi-Strauss. At the time Elke & I did not own a television, so we had not seen any of the advertisements before. Fifty of the very best of American television ads, back to back, with no intervening narrative, is by itself a unique experience. Seeing them all for the first time was somewhat overwhelming.
Dinner was served in the Grand Ballroom where a 32-piece swing orchestra played dance music from the 1930s and 40s while the guests were seated at large round tables. Assigned seats at the tables distributed the multitude so that each table included one award winner and companion, four men who each owned ad agencies with Madison Avenue addresses, and their spouses. I was seated beside the most senior of the four Madison Avenue executives at our table. He leaned over, conspiratorially, as salad was served, to thank me for taking the trouble of coming ‘all the way’ from Canada to attend their award ceremony, and to inquire as to what my wife and I had thought of their audio-visual presentation.
I was happy to be able to report that both Elke & I had found the audio-visual presentation ‘overwhelming’ because ‘we have not seen any of the advertisements, before’.
The executive put down his salad fork, and turned to face me, straight on.
‘Could you repeat what you just said?’ he asked.
The swing band had launched into a Benny Goodman tune, with some enthusiasm.
I assumed the executive had not heard what I had said.
‘Incredible,’ I repeated, ‘because we have never seen any of those advertisements, before.’ And I took pains to add something particularly complimentary about the Volkswagon spots … ‘because my wife is German’.
‘Where, in Canada, did you say you are from, boy,’ he asked.
‘Erin Village, Sir,’ I replied. ‘It’s a small place about an hour north-west of Toronto.’
‘In this Erin Village,’ he persisted, ‘an hour north-west of Toronto. There are people who live there, who have televisions? They watch M*A*S*H?’
‘They may,’ I agreed. ‘I’ve heard of M*A*S*H.’
The executive was, somewhat, mollified.
‘But you, yourself, and your wife, don’t watch M*A*S*H,’ he couldn’t let this bit go. ‘Because you don’t have a television?’
I thought I detected a bit of a tremour in his voice. I may, quite possibly, be inventing a memory, of part of a conversation that maybe never occurred.
‘Because you chose not to have a television in your home?’
‘Yes, sir,’ I replied, as delicately as possible, under the circumstances.
The thought had really not entered my mind that our modest lifestyle in Erin Village might possibly be misconstrued as an anarchist threat to the American advertising industry based on Madison Avenue.
‘Would you mind?’ he continued. ‘If I shared something of this information with my colleagues around the table?’
I did not object.
The other thing, that Elke & I each noticed about the dinner, was the amount of salt poured from shakers onto the slabs of roast beef on the plates. This, too, seemed to be an American thing.
The next morning, Saturday morning, Elke came upon the idea that she should get on the telephone, to see if it might still be possible to acquire last minute tickets to see a play.
This being Saturday, in mid-town Manhattan.
Elke did that. And she managed to get tickets to see a thriller called ‘Hide and Seek’, starring Elizabeth Ashley, at the Belasco Theatre on West 44th Street. A dozen city blocks’ walk, no more.
The theatre was no more crowded than the dining room at the Hilton. Our seats were so close to stage front, centre, that Elke assures me she remembers the colour of the lingerie Elizabeth Ashley wore that afternoon.
The spring of 1980 was memorable for at least two other reasons, other than the colour of Elizabeth Ashley’s panties, and Madison Avenue’s addiction to salt.
We released a new edition of James Reaney’s Boy With an R in His Hand, which has since sold over 9,000 copies through ten printings.
And in April we published a first collection of wood engravings called Wood, Ink and Paper by Gerard Brender a Brandis, which has sold 5,000 copies through nine printings, albeit over thirty years.
For years I have remembered (incorrectly, as it turns out) that we met Ger Brender a Brandis at an early Wayzgoose festival hosted by Bill Poole at the Grimsby Public Library. I remember seeing Ger’s letterpress prints displayed at his sales table in the basement of the library, and I remember suggesting to the artist that the Porcupine’s Quill would like to publish an offset collection of seventy or so prints of his choosing, to make reproductions of his work more widely available, at a popular price, and I remember that Ger was reluctant to commit, because he had a letterpressman’s distrust of twentieth-century technology, and I remember pressing my case over the passage of two, or three, consecutive Wayzgoose festivals … all of which makes perfect sense, in my memory, except that it didn’t happen.
Don McLeod assures me that the first Wayzgoose festival in Grimsby was held in 1979.
Baldoon features a woodcut commissioned from Ger Brender a Brandis on the cover, and Baldoon was published in 1976. So, clearly, we must have had a professional relationship with Gerard at least three years prior to the first Wayzgoose, and I certainly remember that Elke & I did not attend the first Wayzgoose, or the second, or the third. Maybe not even the fourth, because I was pre-occupied, at the time, with my role as Treasurer of the Association of Canadian Publishers, whose Annual Meetings tended to co-incide with Bill Poole’s Wayzgoose festivals, to which we sent an employee, Paul Richardson, as our representative.
Somehow or other, over the course of several years that must have been in the late 1970s, at a location that was not Grimsby, I did manage to convince the reluctant artist of two salient points. First, that there would in fact be a market for offset reproductions of his engravings beyond that of the collectors who prize his original signed prints and handmade books, and second, that offset technology could, very accurately, reproduce his letterpress wood blocks.
In the end, Ger helped as much as an offset printer could hope — by taking the time and pain to create an entirely new set of artist’s proofs pulled (letterpress) on a consistent weight of rather thin stock — which then allowed Elke to contact print press film by transmitting light through the back of the prints, thus capturing not only every line, however fine, be it black or white, but also something of the artist’s own pressmanship. Ger will often slightly underink a block — leaving white pinholes in the dark shadows — which I would not, as a pressman, tend to allow, but these were not my blocks so that became our touchstone of quality — to hold open every pinhole, just as the artist had inked his proofs.
Wood, Ink & Paper was awarded a Certificate of Merit by the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada in 1981.
Elke & I met Michael McCurdy at the New York Small Press Book Fair in the fall of 1981. The event was held at NYU, in Greenwich Village, immediately south of Washington Square, not far from the Bitter End on Bleecker Street where the young Bob Dylan first caught the eye of Joan Baez. McCurdy was mightily impressed to learn that Elke & I were staying the weekend at the Plaza Hotel, so much so that he offered to pay the cab fare if we would agree to let him see our room. I think the reason we were booked into the Plaza might have been because we thought it would be similar to the Windsor Arms in Toronto, or possibly because Elke was a huge Beatles fan, and the Beatles had stayed at the Plaza on their first American tour in 1964. Also, the Plaza did not have fifty-four floors. We ate lunch one day in the Oak Room on the ground floor, and were surprised to learn that hamburgers could cost fifty dollars, each. The cab fare McCurdy offered to cover – from the foot of Fifth Avenue to Central Park South – would likely have cost him a similar sum.
And I imagine he must have been disappointed, because the room at the Plaza was not particularly grand, or even heated, because the radiators seemed not to be in working order. And it was cold.
I was impressed, of course, with the letterpress quality of McCurdy’s own Penmaen Press productions, and more so with the exuberant irreverence of his wood engravings. As I write, I am holding a copy of Rosebud by the poet Gerard Malanga (Penmaen, 1975). I am still impressed.
Wood, Ink and Paper (April, 1980) by Ger Brender a Brandis had been well received in Canada, but McCurdy’s graphic universe was rather different altogether. A seedy flat in Haight-Ashbury, nudes on a California beach, drunken bookbinders watching a rat at a gluepot, and a printer who is blind seeking alms from his clients.
Talk led to drinks at the Centre for the Book Arts on Bleecker Street, and thence to a spaghetti dinner somewhere in Greenwich Village and it was there a plot was concocted for the Porcupine’s Quill to publish Toward the Light (1982). A costly Checkered cab ride to the Plaza and more drinks in the Oyster Bar in the basement of the hotel secured the deal.
McCurdy already enjoyed a significant reputation in New England, partially for early collaborations with David R. Godine of Boston, but he was unknown in Canada, though his grandmother was from Stratford, where Brender a Brandis would eventually establish a studio. The Porcupine’s Quill was, of course, unknown in the United States. The notion, therefore, was that McCurdy’s reputation would help to introduce our brand to the States, and Toward the Light would sell in Canada based on the early success of Wood, Ink & Paper.
Neither speculation proved correct. We did, in the end, sell out a first printing of 1,200 copies, but it took us thirteen years to do it.
In 1985 Chelsea Green in Vermont published a new edition of Jean Giono’s 1953 novel The Man Who Planted Trees, illustrated with wood engravings by Michael McCurdy, which has since sold a quarter of a million copies. I remember McCurdy once suggested that I might try to acquire Canadian rights. Maybe I should have done just that. In October of 2001 Martha Stewart recommended the title on American network television, about the time she also commissioned McCurdy to design her a bookplate for her personal use.
Needless to say, I have never met Martha Stewart, or appeared on American network television. Through an odd set of circumstances I did meet (once) the radio broadcaster Andy Barrie who visited the shop in Erin Village. Mr Barrie asked if I knew David Godine, which I did, a little, but I was surprised to learn that Andy Barrie and David Godine had both attended Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, which seems like an unlikely co-incidence.
Toward the Light won a bronze medal for design (1984) in Leipzig, East Germany, at a time when the government of Canada did not recognize East Germany. The medal, and elegantly casebound citation, were passed to the American embassy in Leipzig, thence to the American embassy in Moscow, to the Canadian embassy in Moscow, and eventually via diplomatic pouch to Erin Village, apparently at the intercession of Joe Clark, who served as Foreign Minister under Brian Mulroney after he lost the election of 1980 to Pierre Trudeau.
Toward the Light includes a small engraving of a barn in Brookline, Massachusetts, on the grounds of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, where the young David Godine had set up shop in 1970.
In 1985, likely as a result of the Leipzig medal, I received an invitation to address the Society of Printers of Boston.
The Society of Printers of Boston was founded in 1905 by such typographic luminaries as Bruce Rogers, who designed a typeface called Centaur, and Daniel Berkeley Updike, who wrote the seminal two-volume Printing Types: Their History, Form & Use. The Society’s membership over the years has included the likes of William A. Dwiggins (who in 1922 coined the term ‘graphic design’), Hermann Zapf, who designed Palatino and Optima, and Leonard Baskin, who illustrated his friend Ted Hughes’ most famous long poem, Crow.
Utterly humbled that I had been asked to address such a storied assembly, I spared no expense and bought myself a brand-new burgundy leather sports jacket, probably from Danier Leather, for the occasion.
The Society of Printers of Boston has a ‘clubhouse’, as they call it, on Beacon Hill in the gaslamp-lit historic district of Back Bay just a few short blocks up a steep cobble-stoned street from the Boston Common where the Quaker, Mary Dyer, swung by the neck from an oak tree in 1660.
As it turned out, the Society of Printers’ monthly meetings, at their Clubhouse on Beacon Hill, were black-tie, exclusively, which my hosts, Michael McCurdy and David Godine, had not thought to mention. McCurdy, greeting me at the entrance to the Society’s clubhouse, inquired ‘Do you have no clothes, Inkster?’
I excused my fashion faux-pas on the grounds that I was ‘from Canada’ which garnered much sympathy, all around. Then I launched into a presentation by extracting a long red stocking from a tooled wooden box & spilling a variety of 19th century wood type letters onto the podium which I then arranged so as to inform all & sundry that the Toronto Blue Jay baseball team was, at the time, leading the Boston Red Sox by two games in the American League East.
This news was not popular, locally. But it did capture the attention of the audience. In 1985 I would have waxed poetic about the computerization project Stan Bevington had just recently finessed past David Silcox at the Department of Communications in Ottawa.
I am sure my audience that night in Boston would have been mightily confused to learn the Canadian government had presented $100,000 worth of computers to three aging hippies with Heidelbergs. In 1985 Ronald Reagan was just into his second term as President of the United States. It is unlikely that Reagan’s ‘supply-side economics’ would have funded American literary presses, in anywhere near a comparable largesse. It is possible, of course, that most of the members of The Society of Printers in attendance that night were letterpressmen who would have had little interest in Unix-language microcomputers. I do remember sitting beside the President of the Society at dinner, who assured me that there was not one person in the room who had voted for Reagan.
When dinner was done, McCurdy & Godine accompanied me down the gaslit cobble-stoned street towards the Boston Common to what I expected might just possibly be a lynching, but then the procession veered suddenly down half a flight of steps from street level and into a subterranean public house.
‘Do you know where you are?’ the very famous publisher David R Godine leaned, expectantly, into one ear.
‘No,’ I replied.
‘Cheers!’ Godine exclaimed.
I was puzzled. ‘Cheers’, as it turned out, was an enormously successful American network sitcom that was modelled on the Bull and Finch Pub on Beacon Street. That we were sitting in. But I didn’t know that. In 1985, Elke and I still didn’t have a television.
Flush with the excitement of the evening, I was walking by myself back to the Marriott Copley Place (very swish, the Society had spared no expense) when I chanced upon a lively-sounding nightclub and decided a nightcap might be in order. In retrospect I probably should have been suspicious when the doorman insisted on a ‘cover charge’ that seemed a bit steep, but I thought nothing of it, at first, then relatively quickly came to the realization that I had just paid admission to a gay pick-up bar. I was reminded of the poem ‘The Blue Guitar’ by Wallace Stevens in which ‘Things as they are / are changed upon the blue guitar.’
Some months later Michael McCurdy was mightily relieved to learn that I had received in the mail an inscribed copy of In Retrospect: The Riverside Press, 1952-1971 by Charles Rheault, which was customarily given to speakers the Society wished to thank.
In the end, apparently, and against considerable odds, I had in fact passed muster in Boston.
The paperback reprint of Alphacollage won an Honourable Mention (Ehrendiplom) at Leipzig in 1988, and then, completely unexpectedly, a Silver Medal at a Fifty-Year Retrospective in 1989.
At Water’s Edge, by Gerard Brender a Brandis also took an Honourable Mention in 1989. My recollection is that the University of Toronto Press garnered a couple of citations in the same exhibition, all of which combined to persuade the ambassador of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) posted in Washington to travel by motorcade the next spring in a limousine from his residence in Virginia to Toronto to host a cocktail party in Toronto at the Westbury Hotel, on Yonge just north of College. Ludwig Zeller, and Ger Brender a Brandis, both attended, as did my parents, Rita & Walt, and the entire staff of the Porcupine’s Quill.
Lorelai Ridgway helped in the bindery, and wasn’t with us for more than a couple of months. The suspicion was that there were underlying issues with drugs, though we never knew, for sure. ‘Lori’ did telephone Elke, once, about a year later, to apologize for having been an idiot. We never saw her again. Ginette Brady came to us from an equally troubled background, from a mill town north of Manitoulin, but Ginette was a fighter, both for herself & for her son ‘Enri’. Ginette, apparently, named her first-born after an inscription she saw at the top of a crucifix in a Catholic church. The inscription ‘INRI’ is an acronym for the Latin which translates as ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’. Ginette quickly became ‘first hand’ in the bindery, and was for nine long years both the heart, and the soul, of the Porcupine’s Quill. Pierre Brianceau was the pressman from May of 1986 to January of 1993. Pierre was very bright, but easily slighted, and went on to a successful career in investment planning though I can’t help but thinking that he would really have preferred politics. Ann Reatherford was the office manager from January of 1985 to July of 1990, which just about coincided with the beginnings of automation. I do recall, when we hired Ann, that we felt obliged to buy her a used IBM Selectric typewriter, to replace the ancient Underwood upright we had been using, but computerization came upon us more quickly than any of us expected, and I think Ann found the pace of the change threatening. And then Ann’s older brother died, unexpectedly, young, and left her a significant amount of money. Ann moved back to her childhood home in Sarnia and assumed the life of an heiress, which is not, I think, what any of us had expected either.
My father, Walt, got on particularly well with the ambassador, who subsequently sent my father a carton of exquisitely-printed postage stamps from Soviet-bloc countries to add to the stamp collection my father’s father had started in 1897, engaged in the clipper ship trade to the Orient. I read somewhere, probably on-line, that care of the family stamp collection passed to Tim Inkster after Walt’s passing in 2008.
Needless to say, I do still feel an obligation to retain possession of the collection, which still includes a disportionate representation of Soviet-bloc satellite states as they existed shortly before the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
John Metcalf joined PQL in 1989 full of enthusiasm and ideas about strategies for increasing the firm’s sales & profitability.
One such idea was to launch an imprint of reprints of important Canadian literary texts and market them to academics with a view to enhancing course adoptions.
Cape Breton is the Thought-Control Centre of Canada (1989) by Ray Smith was one such title. The Improved Binoculars (1989) by Irving Layton was another. The series was called Sherbrooke Street, partially because John and I shared a distant relationship with Loyola College, which was located close to the extreme west end of Sherbrooke Street, but also because Sherbrooke used to represent the grandeur of Montreal as it was, at one time. Lunar Attractions by Clark Blaise followed in 1990, and Europe by Louis Dudek in 1991. We also reprinted Norman Levine’s Canada Made Me and From a Seaside Town (1993). The Porcupine’s Quill funded display tables and John Metcalf’s expenses to attend Learned Societies conferences in Prince Edward Island, Kingston and Ottawa over the course of a couple of years in which we both discovered that Canadian academics were not necessarily interested, in any way, in Canadian literary history.
Another of John’s marketing ideas was to pursue what he called a ‘strategic alliance’ with a prominent American small press. Any prominent American small press. I suspect John may have been encouraged, in this quest, by his good friend Clark Blaise, who had also taught at Loyola in Montreal, briefly, and also perhaps by Leon Rooke who was originally from North Carolina. Both Rooke and Blaise had enjoyed considerable success publishing fiction in the States early in their careers, but that early promise had not then proceeded to the expected trajectory.
John Metcalf wrote a number of letters of inquiry, by hand, to small presses in New England, the Mid-west and California, then informed me early one spring that Scott Walker of Graywolf in Minneapolis was ‘very’ interested in our catalogue and ‘anxious’ to meet with us some weeks hence when Mr Walker was scheduled to be in Manhattan anyway for a sales conference.
I should have been suspicious, but I wasn’t.
I should also have insisted on due diligence, but I didn’t do that either. And it cost me, some.
I guess my thinking, at the time, was that my job was to run the production end of the Porcupine’s Quill, which included the design side, and the financing. I was certainly completely ready to admit that editorial was not my strong suit, and John Metcalf already had established editorial acumen that I could never hope to match. I was more than happy to follow John’s lead, on editorial. And so I did, just that. I bought the plane tickets, and two nights at a hotel on the west side of Central Park. The total outlay, including my time away from the shop in Erin, might have cost the company $2,500. Which was not insignificant, in the early 1990s.
The first indication I had that the weekend might be set to go awry came on the Friday afternoon when the bus from Laguardia deposited us on a street corner somewhere in Lower Mid-town. I suggested public transit, north, in the direction of our hotel. Metcalf was not so confident.
‘How can you be certain,’ he asked, ‘of the direction in which to proceed?’
‘North,’ I replied. ‘Then west a half a dozen blocks because at the moment we are on the east side of Central Park. And our hotel, is on the west side of Central Park. I know this. I booked the hotel.’
‘You will get us lost,’ Metcalf countered. ‘We will hail a cab.’
I wasn’t wildly enthusiastic about the prospects of hailing a cab in Mid-town Manhattan on a Friday afternoon in rush hour, that would likely go nowhere, slowly, with the meter running, occasionally changing lanes to no great effect. And I also could not fathom how anyone could possibly conceive of getting lost in a city in which the Avenues run north-south, more or less, the Streets run east-west, and everything is numbered, starting at one.
‘We will hail a cab,’ Metcalf insisted. ‘The cabbie will know where it is that we will want to go.’
‘I thought you said you lived in Manhattan,’ I was confused. ‘With your first wife.’
‘I did,’ he replied. ‘Cab?’
The meeting with Scott Walker of Graywolf took place on a park bench on the west side of Central Park, a bit north of Columbus Circle.
It was early spring. The Saturday morning was sunny, and almost painfully bright with the lack of foliage. Also distinctly crisp.
It didn’t take more than ten minutes before I realized that Scott Walker was nowhere near as ‘familiar’ with our catalogue as I had been led to believe. Partly because Walker seemed to think that we owned the rights to Margaret Atwood, which we most certainly did not. And I was surprised that Scott Walker seemed also to be blissfully unaware that Margaret
Atwood was published in the States by Random House. This was some years before Random House was bought by Bertelsmann, but still, Random House was huge, and Graywolf, was not.
Scott Walker was also unclear as to what we were ‘doing’ in New York, which came as a surprise, to me, because I had spent $2,500 specifically on this meeting on a park bench that was obviously going nowhere at considerable speed.
John Metcalf mumbled something incomprehensible about the Guggenheim, and tried rather desperately to steer the conversation in the direction of the short story, which was his primary editorial interest, whereupon Scott Walker informed us that ‘Americans do not read short stories,’ which must have been as disappointing a bit of a revelation to Metcalf as it certainly was to me.
I was on the brink of facing up to the realization that I had likely wasted $2,500 on a lost weekend in Manhattan when I noticed a pair of sizeable rats emerge from a thicket and take up opposing positions on either side of a teeter-totter in a child’s playground.
‘What kind of creatures are they?’ Metcalf inquired, though it was completely clear that the creatures were not squirrels.
‘Rats,’ Walker replied, and pointed to a sign posted to a lamppost beside the park bench which exhorted passers-by to refrain from ‘feeding the rats’.
The meeting with Scott Walker ended not long after it had begun.
We shook hands. And parted.
Metcalf and I wandered disconsolately through Central Park in a vaguely north-easterly direction, then spent the afternoon in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and later, the Guggenheim. I remember, in particular, the spiral staircase in the Guggenheim.
And I think I remember correctly that the Metropolitan Museum was the setting for the Pierce Brosnan / Rene Russo remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, which is one of the few movies Elke & I have watched together, many times. We have also seen the 1968 Steve McQueen / Faye Dunaway original directed by Norman Jewison, but we prefer the 1999 remake which was also directed by Pierce Brosnan.
After an early dinner, Metcalf & I found ourselves in the vicinity of West 59th Street. I suggested a nightcap in the Oyster Bar, in the basement of the Plaza Hotel which, much to my surprise, Metcalf professed never to have heard of.
‘I thought you said you lived in Manhattan,’ I asked, once again. ‘With your first wife.’
‘I did,’ he replied. ‘But not here.’
The evening can’t have been far spent. The Oyster Bar was largely deserted save for a small knot of acolytes at one end who were lavishing considerable attention on an admittedly leggy lounge lizard in a tight sequin dress that was tailored provocatively.
Metcalf would have ordered a double Scotch, probably naming a specific distillery in the Highlands. At the Oyster Bar, he likely got what he ordered. I would have ordered a beer. Maybe, if it was later in the evening than I remember, a cognac, but Scotch is one of the few bad habits that I have never acquired.
The creature in the dress did what such creatures do, with a hemline, heels and a barstool, and was making a pretty good show of it for the better part of half an hour when it suddenly occurred to me that ‘she’ was a transvestite.
Metcalf was horrified.
The temptation, of course, will be to end this chapter with the image of the lizard in the Oyster Bar, but that wouldn’t be completely fair to John Metcalf.
There were other, earlier, equally ill-considered and eventually equally disastrous forays into the American literary marketplace that had nothing to do with John Metcalf. And everything to do with Tim Inkster.
A decade earlier, in the early eighties, Elke & I had attended the New York Small Press Fair at least twice. The first time, we met Michael McCurdy. Another time, perhaps the next year, we went to New York, again, with Jack & Sharon David, and we stayed at the storied Algonquin on West 44th Street, which was a disappointment although it did still have a cramped, archaic elevator with a full-time attendant, which was charming. But the famous Blue Bar seated, maybe, a dozen, if there were seats to be had which, typically, there were not. That was the year we saw a young Patti LuPone star in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita at the Broadway Theatre. And after the show the four of us returned to the Algonquin for a midnight meal in the dining room that was not memorable. That was also the year that I recognized a significant differential in the relative value of the Canadian and American dollars and approached Allan Kornblum at Coffee House Press with an idea that we might be able to print his publications for cheap, in Erin, and ship to Minneapolis.
It was an idea. Kornblum was interested.
We agreed on a trial contract, to print & bind 2,000 copies of a novella called One Small Saga by Bobbie Louise Hawkins, in which the narrator struggles to reconcile her idealization of marriage with the painful reality of life with a philandering husband, some of which may have been based on Ms Hawkins’ relationship with the poet Robert Creeley, which ended in divorce.
There were issues on the production side as well.
One issue was that my pressman, Alan Ufkes, got himself involved in a car accident and broke his ankle. He was a gamer, Alan Ufkes, so he continued to come to work on crutches, but slipped one day on a patch of oil on the floor and put a crutch into the ink train of the Heidelberg, to ill effect. We bought a new oscillating roller from Heidelberg, for $1,700, and then discovered that installation of the replacement part required splitting the press down the middle, which would have cost about as much as we had paid for the machine when we bought it. And there was a problem with the laminate on the coated cover, which was not my fault, but it was my responsibility.
And then in the end there was the one really sticky wicket when I learned that I didn’t know anything about the logistics of long-distance trucking, across international borders. Which is considerably more complicated than I might have imagined. And Minneapolis is 900 miles from Erin Village.