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The Beginning of Granary Books: An Interview with Steve Clay

February 1, 2016 | by

A page from John Cage’s Nods, published by Granary Books in 1991.

Last September, Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library opened “The Book Undone: Thirty Years of Granary Books,” an exhibition celebrating Columbia’s purchase of the Granary Books archive. “It’s difficult to fully describe the range and impact of Steve Clay’s Granary Books,” wrote Mark Dimunation, chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress. “Beginning in 1985 he has concocted a mix of poets, artists, printers and craftspeople whose work defines an era and fundamentally shapes our understanding of the artists’ book.”

Granary Books began in Minneapolis, but when Clay first visited New York in 1986, he was quick to see an opportunity. “I came to do a one-week summer class in Columbia’s Rare Book School,” he remembered when we spoke in his Manhattan loft, “my first time in New York. Just coming to the city, getting off the bus at Port Authority, that was it.” Three years later, Clay arrived in New York to stay. After looking for a space on the Lower East Side and Soho to start a bookstore, he joined forces with the poet and bookseller David Abel. I asked him to talk about those first years of Granary Books.

We found 636 Broadway, doing it together with no formal plan. On the tenth floor you could display books, artist’s books, that you couldn’t on the ground floor. I lived there on the couch for months, took showers at David’s on Thompson Street. Milk carton on the window ledge. No kitchen. David knew a lot of people, perfect for a shy guy like me. Dick Higgins of Something Else Press came into the store and so did the poet Jerome Rothenberg, who became and remains essential to Granary. We put on a retrospective show of Something Else Books. Higgins gave me great advice on how to deal with the projects people who came to the store suggested—You’re going to have to find a really nice way to say no.

Granary had published a few broadsides and items in envelopes in Minneapolis, and while we had books by Jane Brakhage, Jonathan Williams, and Paul Metcalf well under way before New York, we didn’t think of ourselves as book publishers. We displayed and sold fine press and artists’ books and mounted shows of books and book art. The books we published happened as if in a dream. In the fall of 1989, I went to the Frankfurt Book Fair looking to meet people and buy books. I met the German artist Barbara Fahrner, who had a booth at the Fair, and I was blown away by her work and attitude and invited her to do a show in our gallery space. She came to New York, stayed on the couch and put up a show of her drawings. One day walking down Prince Street, just talking, Barbara said, Wouldn’t it be great to do a book with John Cage? We immediately ran into Stephen Lowy, who worked with Cage.

Funny to meet you right now, I said to him, we’re thinking of doing a book with John Cage.

I’m seeing him tomorrow, Lowy said, and two days later he called with Cage’s number. Barbara and I met with Cage who said, I’m too old to write anything new for you. You can take anything I’ve written and do anything you want with it. So we got out all my Cage books, found bits of his writing. Barbara performed chance operations to determine which texts we’d use. She also did the drawings. Philip Gallo printed the book, Nods. We published forty-five copies on a shoestring budget of twenty-five thousand dollars. Copies sold for twelve hundred dollars. We had no standing orders, but I said to myself, I am going to sell this book. Cage didn’t want money. He said it would just go in taxes for weapons and war. We gave him copies of the book and sold the rest.

This has been my way. No plan. Casual. Don’t know what the book is going to be until it is done. I don’t like to work with someone else’s project. Mostly I propose the project—I’m not usually open to suggestions. If someone proposes something to me, I almost don’t want to do it. If I can talk to someone, I’ll know pretty soon whether or not I can work with them. I was going to do a book with a local printer. She said, What’s your budget? I don’t have a budget. What’s it going to cost me? Friends are the only people I know to work with. I trust that once something is set in motion, everything will come in on time. Trust in the unknown is better than forcing things.

A page from Lewis Warsh’s Alien Abduction, 2012.

I hadn’t thought of being an archive dealer. Then by accident, just like with John Cage, here comes the poet Lewis Warsh. I met him in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and he immediately asked if I could do anything with books and artifacts he wanted to sell. It was a major cache, broadsides, posters, signed paper tablecloth from an Ear Inn reading. I took the material to 568 Broadway. Lewis led me to Clark Coolidge and others, Bernadette Mayer and Anne Waldman. By this time I knew Rodney Philips of the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection. He began to buy nearly everything, bought Lewis’s archive without looking at it. He had stepped down from a major position at the NYPL so that he could do exhibitions at the Berg. Our work on A Secret Location began with his visits. We were perfect together. Our knowledge overlapped but each of us knew things the other didn’t. Word got out and more and more material, mimeos, small magazines, and small presses came our way. I really loved doing this, because my skill set includes identifying materials that hang together, organizing and cataloging them, writing about the material—and I loved being part of a community, the community of poets and artists that took its inspiration from The New American Poetry. The exhibition went up and Holland Cotter gave it a good review in the Times. The book’s title, A Secret Location on the Lower East Side: Adventures in Writing, 1960–1980, comes from Ed Sanders, whose Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts was published from ‘a secret location on the Lower East Side,’ and from Larry Fagin’s Adventures in Poetry.

This was one of my two favorite projects. Working with Jerry Rothenberg on A Book of the Book: Some Works & Projections About the Book & Writing was the other.”

Steve Clay, the publisher of Granary Books, is an editor, curator and archivist specializing in the poetry and art of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. He lives and works in New York City.

William Corbett is a poet and memoirist who has written books on the painters Philip Guston and Albert York and edited the letters of the poet James Schuyler. He directs the small press Pressed Wafer and lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.