Tag Archives: fall 2000


Trimalchio: An Early Version of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott FitzgeraldF. Scott Fitzgerald
Cambridge University Press ($39.95)

by Christopher Fischbach

In the introduction to Trimalchio, the editors of this "early version of The Great Gatsby" repeatedly claim that the publication of this book is "not only for comparison with The Great Gatsby but for interpretation as a separate and distinct work of art." Why they so adamantly make such a case (rather than present Trimalchio as a text primarily of interest to scholars and Gatsby-philes) is baffling, for it could only be legitimate if Fitzgerald consented for this version to be published, or if he was either forced to make revisions to the text or those revisions were made without his permission.

Since neither of these scenarios is in fact true, we are offered two justifications for the editors' highly debatable statement. First, that when Fitzgerald submitted Trimalchio to Scribner's, the text entered the public phase of its existence. He submitted it to the 'publication process,' a loose term for a sequence of mechanical and commercial operations which would, as he knew, transform it from a literary artifact in one copy to a saleable commodity in multiple copies. Naturally he expected to see proofs, and surely he planned to do some revising on them, but there is no evidence that, on 27 October, he contemplated major rewriting or structural revisions. He had completed this version of his novel.

Garbage. What is more likely is that Fitzgerald expected to do revisions on the novel, just as any experienced author would. There is no evidence that Fitzgerald was hostile to Maxwell Perkins's editorial advice; the most significant of which here was to let the details of Gatsby's life unfold to the reader earlier and more gradually throughout the book; the fact that such a structural change was undertaken by Fitzgerald (along with numerous other changes) points to an agreeable working relationship between editor and author. Literary editors do not force or even cajole an author into doing something they don't want to do. I would further argue, contrary to the editor's bizarre claim, that the "public phase" of any novel's existence is not entered until the book is actually published.

The second justification the editors use to present Trimalchio as a distinct work of art is that it "is like listening to a well-known musical composition, but played in a different key and with an alternate bridge passage. . . . To the knowledgeable listener it is like hearing the same work and yet a different work." It's a pretty analogy, but a false one. This may be true for interpretations of previously arranged music (especially jazz, blues, etc.) or for remakes of films, but the musical composition you hear when reading Trimalchio is more like a rough draft that had been thrown away, then stolen from the composer's garbage can and performed as an original piece years after his death.

With all that said, I feel obliged to admit that I enjoyed every second of Trimalchio. It's not really that different from Gatsby, and had it been published as the legitimate text it would probably still be considered a masterpiece. I would even say, if pressed, that I prefer certain sections. For instance, in Trimalchio, the details of Gatsby's life are told directly to Nick by Gatsby in conversation, whereas in Gatsby, Nick relates that conversation to us. Once you've heard Gatsby tell it directly, the revision feels forced—though granted, it shifts more of the emphasis to Nick's voice, and adds to the mystery surrounding Gatsby. Yet for the attentive reader of Trimalchio, much of that mystery is still upheld, since when Gatsby speaks, you can never be sure he's telling the truth. Nick, as we all know, is the only truly honest person he himself knows.

I can only hope, however, that comparisons such as this will be made with tongues in cheeks, and that, as "earlier versions" of great works continue to be published, they will be considered prototypes rather than legitimate, solitary works of art.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000


Pamela: A Novel by Pamela LuPamela Lu
Atelos ($12.95)

by Aaron Benjamin Kunin

According to its mission statement, Atelos publishes "under the sign of poetry" works that are "involved in some way with crossing traditional genre boundaries." But there's nothing in Pamela: A Novel that signals any kind of generic instability or discomfort; if we sense any, it's only because the publisher urges us to look for it. This may be the intended function of the publisher's name: either to alert you to the subterranean presence of "signs of poetry" that you wouldn't otherwise see, or else to create signs of poetry that aren't really there. This is a novel that looks and feels like a novel, and it even calls itself a novel. Its title, in fact, is something that it shares with Samuel Richardson's Pamela, which is often called the first novel in English.

But that may be the only thing it shares with Richardson's Pamela. If we have reached a point in literary history at which both Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded and Pamela: A Novel are unproblematically recognizable as novels, is it still possible to distinguish between something that is a novel and something that isn't? The short answer to this question is "no": the novel as a genre includes such various examples that we can't say that it has any identifying characteristics—which is why both Jane Austen and Gertrude Stein say that the novel is simply "everything."

So I'm tempted to argue that the only possible connection between the two Pamelas must be a subterranean one. On the surface, the two books appear to have nothing in common. Richardson's is a domestic drama enacted mainly in scenes with only two or three characters; Lu's is a portrait of a much larger community and is presented almost exclusively in a summary mode, even when it's dealing with specific actions and events. Richardson wants to bring you as close as possible to the scenes in his novel, even to collapse diegetic action together with acts of writing and reading into a single moment; Lu works very hard to distance herself from any moments of intimacy by refracting them through memory, retelling, contemplation, and various technologies of representation. (Lu's novel takes place almost entirely in conversations, but none of the conversations is represented directly; what you get are reported conversations.) You could even say that the title asserts a connection between the two novels only as a way of confirming that there is no connection, or as a way of saying that we have reached a point in literary history where the original Pamela no longer means anything to us.

Nonetheless, the two novels do share modes of processing information, notably in the way they deal with proper names. "Pamela" is one of the few full names given in Richardson's novel; many of the others (like that of her employer/husband, "Mr. B.") are reduced to their incipit letters, apparently in an effort to protect the identity of the characters who bear them. "Pamela" is pretty much the only full name given in Lu's novel (although there's also a cat called "Kit-Ten"), and it's introduced in a way that calls into question the possibility of its usefulness to any person. Otherwise, the names of the characters are reduced to letters, either to protect their identities (or to suggest that there are identities that need protection) or to suggest their resemblance to variables in mathematical expressions.

This technique has two profound effects. One is to remind you that all novelistic effects, including characters, are alphabetical—that is, they result from various combinations of letters. The second is to make it difficult, at times, to remember whether passages in the novel are written in the first-person or the third. The pronoun "I" is effectively reactivated as an unfamiliar figure with richness and depth. And this is wonderful, as it hardly ever happens. (Many writers, following Rimbaud, have rejected "I" as a medium for personal expression, but this gesture usually doesn't feel at all disruptive. The only other time I can recall having this feeling about the pronoun "I" is in reading certain works by Walter Abish: Alphabetical Africa, in which the first-person can articulate itself only in the space between the chapter where the letter "I" is introduced and the chapter where it vanishes; and "What Else," Abish's collage-autobiography, an arrangement of passages taken from 50 different memoirs and diaries, all of them in the first-person.)

Lu then pushes this effect ever further by commenting on it: "We sometimes wondered who this 'I' really was. . . . 'I' (which expanded during times of war or crisis to 'we') was the most ubiquitous, and therefore elusive, self we could imagine: there was no way to find 'I' without by definition losing it, and therefore losing ourselves." Rejecting "I" because it represents another voice speaking through you, rejecting "we" because of its tendency to absorb whatever it's addressing, finally rejecting the possibility of speaking personally or communally in an inherited language, this passage seems to assume that language is a kind of property, and that it belongs to some speakers more than to others. But at the same time, it serves as a reminder that the basic materials of language don't belong to anyone. "I," a personal pronoun, the word we use to designate ourselves, the word we identify with at the most profound level, accommodates more than one person.

So if one implication of this novel is that "I" and "we," like the name "Pamela," are always fictions (or even specifically novelistic effects), another implication is that a word like "I" can never be a fiction. Reading the word "I" in this novel becomes a mystical experience—an invitation to connect to the "I" in all of us. There even seems to be some attempt here, in all the effort to create distance, to arrive at a point so distant that there's no particularity at all, so that the designations in the novel could apply equally well to anyone. For the most part, Lu writes a prose without accent, inflection, idiom, personal style, local color, or historical specificity (although at times it's faintly archaic)—in short, a prose that isn't based in speech. As we have seen, it defaults on any attempt to represent speech directly, and at one point registers surprise at the possibility that speech could be represented in writing: ". . . a web page containing many of R's quotations from college, a find that amused me and astonished R, since R had never, to her knowledge, recorded her spoken statements, much less posted them on the Internet for all to see." This language that no one speaks is something more than the non-style of the late twentieth century, the style that doesn't see itself as a style; Lu is writing in the unjustly disparaged dialect of English called "translationese," the language of literary translation. This novel reads like a translation; you often get the feeling that there is another text behind the novel you're reading, that Lu is trying to accommodate the effects of one language using the materials of another (and sometimes that's exactly what she says she's doing).

This style has had other practitioners in recent fiction, most significantly Lydia Davis, whose work amply demonstrates that you don't have to have a feeling for spoken language in order to have a feeling for language. (Davis's work is also remarkable for its deployment of the first-person plural; she is also the main translator of Blanchot's novels, in which the names of the characters tend to be reduced to their incipit letters, into English.) Like Davis, Lu doesn't like to furnish unnecessary details or to name names; she eschews the techniques of verisimilitude, the minute operations that novelists have traditionally deemed necessary to create a world that the reader can imagine inhabiting. Unlike Davis, however, Lu allows for certain forms of specificity to enter her vocabulary. She can use place-names (countries, cities, institutions, even specific buildings); she can write about popular culture (which isn't exactly a form of specificity, but never mind); and she can use the word "Internet" (maybe Davis can too, but so far she hasn't). There's also a note of archaism in Lu's sentences, at least on the level of syntax. Partly this is a result of reading Lu alongside her 18th-century predecessor, but her sentences, which are controlled, stately, and vigorous, are closer to Henry Fielding's than to Richardson's, which are breathless and exclamatory. You could almost say that Lu is rewriting both Richardson's novel and Fielding's parodic versions Shamela and Joseph Andrews: here, the false and true Pamelas converge; Shamela is Pamela.

I would finally want to retain Davis as a model for understanding Lu's writing (whether Lu is aware of this model or not), not so much for the formal characteristics they may share, but rather for the example of Davis's experimentalism. It seems to me that the experiments in this work are not formal at all; what you get instead is a spirit of experimentation, a kind of Baconian attitude that takes everything it encounters, including its own rules and machinery of operation, as material for thinking, and pushes each thought as far as it can go. The filmmaker Raul Ruiz would call Pamela a "theoretical fiction"—i.e., a theory that is a fiction, a theory that is internally consistent but fundamentally incoherent when viewed from outside, and that can be maintained, therefore, only in the space of a novel. This is a work of "precision," as Robert Musil would say, "in matters of the soul." It extends the novel's capacity to think.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000


Julius Knipl, Real Estate PhotographerBen Katchor
Pantheon ($22)

by Todd Matthews

One of the treasures inherent in comic strips is a combined sense of familiarity and distance. The characters of a favorite strip may inhabit familiar environments such as city streets, neighborhoods, office towers, or gathering places, but many of these places do not truly document actual locations. The littered streets of Kaz's Underworld strip may resemble New York City during a heated garbage strike, but the characters are much too perverse (even by New York City's standards). This is also true for some of the more mainstream comic strips. Dilbert is set in the modern-day office, but the politics surrounding the workplace make the strip universal (hence, much of the strip's success).

I mention all of this because it is an important item to note when considering the work of Ben Katchor and his popular Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer. Katchor has been drawing the Knipl series since 1988, depicting a New York City seemingly untouched by time. His antiquated settings, combined with his sensitivity to modern urban decay, render a New York City that is decidedly distant and uniquely Katchor-esque. Consider some of the unusual plots and features that have appeared in his comic strip: a midget-race-car track; a tapeworm sanctuary; and the Observatory of the Human Limp. Today's Big Apple may not have something as overtly grotesque as the tapeworm sanctuary, but it does have something as overtly grotesque as the Fashion Caf.

Katchor's most recent offering is a book containing collected Knipl strips, and a new 24-page story entitled, "The Beauty Supply District." Fans of Katchor's work will not be disappointed by this new collection. The book is filled with the same quirks that, after nearly 15 years, remain fresh and funny. There is the Institute for Soup-Nut Research, the Municipal Birthmark Registry, and the Misspent Youth Center. Witness, also, the rather spooky (yet charming) championship grave-digging competition. There is also the Haverpease Collection of Dried Fruit ("pears dried in the form of genital organs"; "apricot halves like the ears of cherubim"; "a shoe made of apricot leather for the daughter of a czar"). Perhaps the funniest and most telling feature of Knipl's landscape is the "oldest continually vacant storefront in America"--an anti-salute of sorts to the modern mega-mall.

Yet, for as much as Knipl's world is funny, it is also strikingly sad and somber. The comic strip, often spare, is strangely lonely, haunting and endearing—the key strengths of Katchor's work. Katchor draws a world filled with schemers and dreamers who gather around café booths to plot their next ingenious, though inherently flawed, plan for the city. In this new collection, a visionary architect named Selladore plans on taking the rubble of unused sidewalks to build a pedestrian bridge to Hawaii. The Normalcy Parfum Company holds evening sales seminars for their prized product: the residue of everyday life, captured in small vials ("the smell of a library book"; "the tang of a brown paper bag"; "the aroma of door-hinge oil"). And a board member at the Museum of Immanent Art (featuring a touring museum of shower caps, an exhibit of an influential 19th-century picture hanger, and an entrance with a turpentine fountain emitting the smell of latent creativity) defends his proposal to rent out certain galleries for use as motel rooms each night after museum hours. Reading of Knipl's seemingly uneventful exploits in the city, one longs to climb inside the simple six-panel strips and follow close on his heels. If only we could hold his camera or take his notes!

The captions in Katchor's strips keep the reader on his toes. The panel often begins in the middle of a story, only to bring the reader up to speed in the final panel—a refreshing ending to a short and sweet snapshot of the city. And Katchor's artistic style is as original and strange as some of his characters. Panels switch from close-up, angled shots of his subjects (many dressed in rumpled suits—shuffling along sidewalks, moving in and out of storefronts), to wide-angle landscapes of buildings draped with large placards or sidewalks flanked by sandwich boards. Notably, each panel is drawn with sharp angles and long shadows. Lonely Knipl stands on a street corner in the middle of the afternoon, and the long, dark shadow he casts adds as much to his character as his fedora and his camera.

If anyone was meant to write the quintessential urban comic strip, it is Ben Katchor. He grew up in New York City and attended Brooklyn College and School of Visual Arts. He contributed to Raw, the avant-garde comics magazine, from its inception in the early 1980s. He later produced the books Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay (1991), Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer (1996), and The Jew of New York (1999). There is also a film about Katchor (Pleasures of Urban Decay) and an opera (The Carbon Copy Building) based on Katchor's work. The highpoint of Katchor's career came earlier this year, when he received the esteemed MacArthur Fellowship. Presently, Katchor's comics appear in a slew of alternative weeklies and other publications across the country.

Katchor has described himself as an "urban cartoonist," and his Knipl series as "a small encyclopedia of the city." These are accurate, if understated, terms for an illustrator who has explored the city landscape with an original, fresh eye. Knipl might be a small, slumped character in a large, often cluttered metropolis, but at the generous and talented stroke of Katchor, Knipl's lens has recorded a slice of city life that is witty, sad and nostalgic.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000

Jack Foley

O Powerful Western Star

Poetry & Art in California
Jack Foley
Pantograph Press ($12)

California Rebels, Beats & Radicals
Jack Foley
Pantograph Press ($12)

by John Olson

Jack Foley sees California as fertile ground for what he terms "living perplexities." Questions regarding human consciousness, alienation, the relationship of our ethnic identities to our American selves, spoken versus written media, and, most importantly, "the despised and neglected art of poetry, which, with its history of confusion between the aural/oral and the visual, is a kind of emblem for a multimedia situation." California is largely myth, but in many ways a very authentic and revelatory myth: Utopian New Age paradise, an archetype for sensuality and violence, political radicalism, good vibrations and joyous anarchy. The Bay Area, in particular, has been the site of a vigorous and legendary literary scene and the psychedelic zeal of the sixties. It is largely free of the literary baggage of the east and, by virtue of its geographic location, represents the final push west toward the satori of the American experience.

There is a delicious extravagance to these two books that is the very essence of the California spirit. Their scope is as large and multivaried as the hills and streets of San Francisco, as aesthetically diverse as Oakland and as lustily anomalous as Venice (not the one with gondolas in the Adriatic but the one with body builders by the Pacific). O Powerful Western Star (the title is taken, appropriately enough, from Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed"), opens with an introduction by Dana Gioia, a name more generally associated with New Formalist poetics, and one apt to invite a superficial appraisal of these books as being compromised, or diluted, by a broad-minded approach that is too global in its accommodation. But they're not. They are committed to poetry and art in general; poetry and art as they have taken root and flowered and cross-pollinated in California's fecund atmosphere. Foley's essays and reviews include a detailed look at work by Michael McClure, Larry Eigner (with whom Jack Foley was an especially close friend), Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Diane di Prima, Brenda Hillman, Philip Lamantia, Sheila E. Murphy and James Broughton. Foley's Books, the companion volume with Oakland's mayor Jerry Brown on the cover, covers a broader range of authors, some of them, such as Yeats, not particularly Californian, while O Powerful Western Star does more to record the granulation and texture of California writing, such as the highly engrossing essay about San Francisco's Batman Gallery. The Batman Gallery (named after its owner, William Jahrmarkt, later known as "Billy Batman;" the nickname was Michael McClure's idea, "you know, battling the forces of evil"), functioned for five years, 1960 to 1965, and featured artwork that was fiercely uncompromising and often disturbing. The gallery was not an isolated enterprise, but grew out of the needs of a community of artists, many of them young bohemians "rebelling against their immediate culture in some way." Ergo, the work was frequently provocative, calculated to raise (as in the case of Bruce Conner's disturbing assemblage Black Dahlia, in essence a magazine image of a nude female with nails driven into it, titled after one of the most grisly murders ever committed in Los Angeles), "issues of violence, fear, repression, pity, rage, sexuality, rape, love; issues of wholeness and disintegration; of voyeurism and reproduced images; of, in Jung's terms, anima and animus."

Foley's Books

The turmoil and alienation felt most acutely by our nation's artists, and intensified by California's frontier variables, are at the forefront of these two volumes. The robust eclecticism of Foley's essays are united by a sense of urgency, a crisis in literature. That idealized reader every writer has in the back of their mind—a figure rapt, in an armchair, with a book on his or her lap, turning each page sloooowly, with reverential absorption—is disappearing. That reader today is more apt to be sitting in front of a computer screen, surfing the net or browsing an online magazine. Worse yet: readers are disappearing. We are living in an age where intellect is penalized and vapidity is rewarded. In an essay titled "In Praise of Illiteracy," Hans Magnus Enzensberger identifies a class of people he terms the "second-order illiterate," an unlettered individual whose inability to concentrate or digest his or her own experience is better adapted to our electronic environment. This may not be quite how Foley reads the situation, and I am adding some of my own anxieties to the crisis he describes in his two volumes. But Foley both recognizes and addresses the situation with an optimism I find rather baffling. He presents it as an invigorating, ontological question. "Who am—what is—'I' in the midst of e-mail and Internet?"

Part of Foley's solution for the lack of people patient and persevering enough to sit down and spend some time with some written material is enveloped, quite tangibly, in the back of O Powerful Western Star in the form of a CD. Jack and his wife Adelle perform several of the essays contained in these volumes. The essays cease being essays and become something else; what were once words on a page become nerves and breath, the pitch and cadence of the human voice. You can do your housework and respond to Jack's ideas. Fold your clothes and do the dishes while Jack intones sentences such as this one from "Words & Books, Poetry & Writing": "the electronic media have already changed the conditions of writing, though the exact nature of that change is not yet clear. We live, as Father Ong put it in 1977, in an 'opening state of consciousness,' a state in which even the nature of biography—the nature of what we believe it means to be human—may have to be reconsidered." This is heady and provocative stuff. You may, just as I have done, end up forgetting the laundry and sitting down to listen. Foley is a vigorous and compelling speaker, but there is much that I don't agree with. He is far closer to Whitman's democratic vistas than I am. My reaction to growing illiteracy is purely negative; I'm more apt to believe it is encouraged by monopoly capitalism, that as long as intellectual activity is depreciated, as long as the ability to reflect and concentrate are hampered by the ubiquity of TVs at the airport or the necessity to work longer hours in order to afford the new technologies, the population remains docile and yielding and the corporations remain insured of a continuing labor resource and a large body of complacent consumers. Nor do I have much faith that emphasizing the dramatic and performative aspects of poetry poets can increase the size of their audience and thereby heighten its cultural impact. If the popularity of "slams" demonstrate a growing need to perform rather than read poetry, to turn it into an amateur hour replete with judging and communal guffaws, I see poetry decaying into histrionics and sentimentality, not promoting higher levels of consciousness. But the fact that Jack is getting me riled, stirred up, challenging some of my own long established notions about written discourse, testifies to one of the great values of these two books.

Foley's valorization of speech is reflected in his writing. These essays are eminently accessible and free of dry, academic jargon. The language is lively and inquisitive. The information is comprehensive and well organized. Many of the essays and reviews have appeared in venues such as San Francisco's highly popular Poetry Flash or online magazines CitySearch and The Alsop Review. Foley also hosts a radio program on Berkeley's KPFA called Cover to Cover in which he interviews a wide variety of poets; six of those interviews, including one with Foley himself conducted by Sarah Rosenthal, are included in the two volumes. I was especially gladdened by the interview with James Broughton, whose drollery and joy (poet and companion Jonathan Williams dubbed Broughton "Big Joy") and the deep pleasure he continued to find in life until his death at eighty-four was greatly inspiriting. I discovered a great wisdom here.

One of the greater pleasures I enjoyed in these two books (which, incidentally, are physically large; the size of phonebooks, each with a painting of an Oakland street scene by Anthony Holdsworth) is the California timeline at the end of O Powerful and Western Star. Foley's uncannily thorough timeline gives a comprehensive view of the many disparate and clashing schools to emerge, morph, and/or mutate in the heterogeneous Xanadu that is California. It begins with the publication of Kenneth Rexroth's first book of poetry, In What Hour, and ends with the death of James Broughton in 1999. He includes information about some of the more salient events, such as Ginsberg's legendary reading of Howl at the Six Gallery in 1955, as well as some of the lesser known, but equally seminal occurrences, such as Helen Adam's San Francisco Burning, "a combination of music, drama, poetry, and theatrical staging" which premiered at James Broughton's Playhouse in 1961.

In his interview with Sarah Rosenthal, Foley asks an intriguing question: "instead of lamenting the 'passage' of the Beat Generation, we ought to be asking how their energy can be used now. What kind of 'Howl,' what Visions of Cody is possible for us?" Foley's answer to this is even more intriguing, and might be used to encapsulate the energy at the core of both volumes: "the question all these people are asking is how to live. Do we know any more about that subject than they? One wants to say, with Robert Creeley, 'You'll have to tell mother we're still on the road.'"

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000

Counting the New Age: An Interview with Simone Fattal of the Post-Apollo Press

by Karl Roeseler

I first became aware of the Post-Apollo Press in that most primal of ways: I was browsing in a bookstore and saw a book on the shelf that looked interesting. I bought that book (Sitt Marie Rose by Etel Adnan), and five years later I solicited a story from Etel for an anthology of short stories (2000andWhat?) that I co-edited with David Gilbert for my own Trip Street Press. During the interim, I read many of the Post-Apollo Press's books. I was struck by the austerity and sureness of the publisher's choices, and by how quickly the press established an identity that set it apart from other small presses.

I eventually met the person behind the press through Etel (her longtime companion, friend and lover), but, in a very real way, I felt that I already knew her. Simone Fattal is shy yet gregarious, gentle yet assertive. She has a husky smoker's voice that retains the accents of the places she has lived: Beirut, Paris, Northern California. Curious to find out why she became a small press publisher—whether it was a conscious decision, a series of accidents, or a force of nature—I decided simply to ask. The result is this interview.

Simone and Etel divide their time between Sausalito and Paris. The house in Sausalito is modest, simple, and beautiful—the sort of house that needs an artist and a writer living in it. The basement has been converted into an office (the heart of the Post-Apollo Press), and the garage houses not cars but boxes of books stacked on pallets. Upstairs, the living room features a picture window overlooking the bay. The walls are filled with paintings and drawings without ever seeming crowded. The floors are covered by overlapping carpets and rugs. It is a cozy place that invites one to work—one feels both nurtured and inspired.

What follows is edited from a series of three interviews that we held over a period of two years, all in the living room of the house in Sausalito. The first interview was taped. Subsequent interviews were simply recorded by pen on paper (I played the role of scribe). The final editing was done at the dining room table, with each of us reading our parts aloud. There was something intimate, organic, and perhaps flirtatious about this process.

Karl Roeseler: How did you start publishing?

Simone Fattal: I started publishing in 1982 and I really just wanted to do one chapbook: that poem of Etel Adnan's, From A to Z. She wrote it during the time of Three Mile Island. A press in New York wanted to publish a book of her poems, and she showed From A to Z to them, but they wanted something else.

I thought it was a beautiful poem and I had met a young guy who had self-published his book—which gave me the idea that one could actually produce a book. And he helped me. He took me around to the typesetters, to the printer, showed me how it was done. And I liked it. I learned how to make a book.

And then we had to chose a name for the press, an ISBN, all of that. At the same time, a friend of mine said she wanted to translate Etel's Sitt Marie Rose. So I said, well, if you do, I will publish it. So that's how I became a publisher, by chance.

KR: It seems like there's a story behind the name.

SF: Yes, I thought a lot about it. Etel told me I should use my own name, but I was shy of doing that. Somehow the Apollo program, that took man to the moon, was extremely important to me—it was like the new age starting. The fact that man had left the earth and gone beyond, and that we would be counting the new age from Before Apollo and Post Apollo like we did Before Christ and After Christ. [Laughter]

So, I said, Post-Apollo, and then the logo is the moon, the crescent moon.

KR: Oh!

SF: That's the story. When I first started I didn't have any distribution, and a lot of feminist presses discovered Sitt Marie Rose and helped me by distributing the book with their publications. The first one was a magazine called Connections. And so I was equated with feminist publishing—everybody thought that Post-Apollo was post, in the sense of after, Apollo, the Greek god.

KR: Right. That's funny.

SF: And, of course, I said, well, there are many meanings . . .

KR: Having run the press for nearly two decades, do you have a conception of where you want to go in the future?

SF: What I would like to do is to go on doing what I've been doing. I've been fortunate to have some very good writers coming my way and to be able to publish them. I've been allowed to follow chance. But I also wanted to do literature. I didn't want to do issues, like a lot of my colleagues started doing—it helped their sales, but literature was what I was interested in, and I still am. I don't want to change that.

KR: Is the process different for choosing each book?

SF: Yes, there's a different process each time. Some writers come to me and some I ask. But I'm adamant about publishing new work each time. Even so, there's a lot of chance involved. I mean, I published Anne-Marie Albiach because I went to a reading in Paris and I met her husband who told me about the book. I read the book and chose to publish it. Barbara Guest—she called me and wanted me to publish her book, which was a big chance.

KR: That's interesting that people have specifically sought out the press.

SF: Yes, I think a lot of people are attracted to the beauty of the books. They feel comfortable being published here. I also like to give some writers a first chance, like Georgina Kleege, who translated Sitt Marie Rose. She had a first novel that she couldn't find a home for, so I took it on. And it's a very good book. Now, I would like to find good books that sell a little more so the whole thing can, you know, fly.

KR: You've published both poetry and fiction, and even some plays. What will you concentrate on in the future?

SF: I have a few poetry books lined up already. I am doing this series of small books, I have nine of them so far—one of them is yours, Last Decade.

KR: It's a wonderful series to be part of—it seems to be popular with other writers.

SF: Some poets want to be part of this series—they go out of the way to give me something that will fit the size of the books.

KR: How did the series evolve?

SF: The idea for the series came from Claude Royet-Journoud, a French poet. When he saw the first book, which was The Sea On Its Side, by Ámbar Past, he liked the drawing I had done for the cover so much, he had the idea of making a series—keeping the same drawing but changing the colors each time. So immediately I said, give me a poem and you will be the next one in the series!

And, in fact, he was the first man to be published by Post-Apollo Press.

He had the eye.

KR: Are you interested in publishing anything else?

SF: I would like to find a good work of fiction. Fiction has become, you know, forlorn—it's not at the front. I mean literary fiction.

KR: That's one of the reasons that I began Trip Street, to publish a certain type of literary fiction that just wasn't being published elsewhere. It seemed to me that poetry had its forum, whereas literary fiction didn't.

SF: I think fiction will be coming into its own soon because it has to come. I mean, they are looking for a new fiction form. You write yourself, good fiction. Are you writing now?

KR: Yes. . . the functioning of the press and my own writing don't ever seem to conflict.

SF: That's great.

KR: I don't know why. I think it's because the publishing part is a social activity where I interact with other people and the production of a book is almost a super-added event. Whereas my own work is very isolated.

SF: You need time to isolate yourself and you need time during which you can work.

KR: I know that your background was as a painter. How did your publishing activity and your painting co-exist?

SF: Well, they did not. My painting stopped completely when I started publishing. In fact, it had stopped before I started publishing, so it's not that I stopped because I was publishing. It stopped because I left Lebanon, and put my studio in boxes, and that was a very traumatic experience. My painting did not survive that.

And there is another reason: I worked for ten years and I made a statement and that body of work was done. It was as if I had written a book that was finished. Before I packed my studio I was already doing assemblage, I wanted to branch out . . . maybe if I had gone on I would have done installations, what they call installations today. I don't know. But my painting had arrived at a finishing point.

I had a whole year of transition, a kind of barzakh, as it would be called in Arabic, between Lebanon and California, during which I did a big work of embroidery. And I started publishing in 1982. So I never did both, painting and publishing together. But a few years ago I started going to the College of Marin and doing sculpture. So, maybe those two will co-exist.

KR: I'm curious about your painting—how did you know you had completed the last body of work?

SF: I was working on a mountain I could look at from my studio. This mountain was pink before sunset and white after sunset. Very white. And so I was very much obsessed with those transformations. Pink and white. And I worked with that for a long time. And then, one day, I knew it was the last mountain, I put the final line with a red stick of chalk—I knew it was the final line—I had seen all the whites, all the pinks I could see. I had said pretty much everything I had to say about it.

KR: The books that you publish have a very distinctive look and feel about them. It's a relationship between the books themselves—a relationship that's not dissimilar to the different paintings in a body of work.

SF: I use drawings that are made for each particular book—I don't use any existing paintings or drawings. It's a very intimate relationship between each book and its cover.

I try to have an equivalent to the text for the cover.

I also want them to have a similar look so that the press can be recognized.

KR: Tell me about the cover to Barbara Guest's book, Quill, Solitary Apparition.

SF: That was a particular problem. Barbara wanted a similar cover to one we used for Anne-Marie Albiach's book, Mezza Voce, which was the image of an ink pot done in brush and black ink on white paper. I asked Etel to do some drawings of pots. One of the drawings was perfect—it was the only drawing that was going to be the cover. But it was at the same time massive—if we had printed that image in black and white it would have been too heavy.

So I had to solve the problem. It took days, I don't know how long, maybe a week or more. Suddenly I had the answer--the pot was to be printed light on dark. So we got a clear, light grey. So that it would shine.

KR: Almost as if the image were being erased? It has a glowing effect . . . almost haunting, like an after-image.

SF: I wanted that. I had that in my painting. Something that reverberates off the surface to make it alive. And in that book we absolutely made it. For Mezza Voce, it had been the same. We had to use that particular image. Somehow the ink pot has all the dramatic effect of her writing—you know, the ink well, like something you just fall into.

KR: It's a very effective cover—there's a sense of movement in it, too, which is odd since the image is of a stationary object.

SF: We kept the image of the ink pot exactly the same size as it was done. That's why we kept the cover white behind the ink pot and used pale green on top for the name—cutting the cover at one third and two thirds, which I had not seen done before.

KR: That's true, you have published a number of books where you have used the size of the page and the size of the book itself as a plastic element that can change.

SF: Yes, the cover usually decides the shape of the book. For Georgina's book, Home For The Summer, for instance, the cover drawing was really also an abstract interpretation of the story. I also remember that only one typeface went with that text.

KR: Yes.

SF: I tried many types, and only California was the one. We had to go to another typesetter because she had that type. So, it is so interesting . . . all these details. I don't think we ever used the same type twice.

KR: Is there a certain number of books you like to do each year, or does that matter?

SF: I try to do at least two books a year. And now we are doing more. Including the small series, we did four last year, and four this year.

KR: Do you know how long you are going to continue publishing?

SF: I have a commitment to these books and they have to stay alive. And so . . . I will go on.

KR: I have to admit, distribution is probably the one aspect of publishing that I find the hardest to do.

SF: I agree with that.

KR: The advertising, the pushing. We've both had a lot of experience with Small Press Distribution, a very nice place to have our books.

SF: Our books definitely have to be there because the audience for our books is there. But I would love the books to be in all kinds of bookstores, because in my life I encountered a lot of important books just by browsing in a bookstore . . . I think real readers still browse, and that's so important.

KR: I agree. It's very important.

SF: Another thing I believe in is word-of-mouth, because that is also one of the best ways for people to learn about books. It takes a long time, but it works.

KR: Actually, you know, just having somebody read a book on the subway is the best advertising. I think if we could afford it, we should hire an actor to ride the subway every day and read one of our books.

SF: Let's do that! [Laughter] It could be a performance.

KR: Tell me about the cover for The Journey To Mount Tamalpais.

SF: Etel had done a drawing of the mountain on an envelope and I wanted to use that drawing in its exact size for the cover. But I had to crop both sides in order to make it fit. Then I used the whole drawing for the back cover, in a reduced version, so it gave the impression that you had a close-up image on the front and a faraway image on the back. This aesthetic device could only be done at the expense of having no blurbs on the back. So I took a risk, and the book was published without blurbs.

KR: It's funny because I did the same thing with my first book, David Gilbert's Five Happiness. In fact, it was almost a political point not to have a blurb—it felt very subversive.

SF: Of course, I didn't know how much it would hurt sales. It hurt because bookstores didn't know where to put it. In which section. How about you, what was the response?

KR: Same thing. Exactly the same thing.

SF: Claude Royet-Journoud says that he would like to publish a book of blurbs. He says that there is a whole literature of the outside, a literature of blurbs.

KR: Will you always publish?

SF: Yes. That's why you have to be careful before you start anything. [Laughter] Because then you are stuck. I've discussed it with Rosmarie Waldrop, and she feels the same. Our responsibility to the books. And to the readers!

KR: There is a sort of communication that happens between a reader and a book that is becoming more important. But I also feel very optimistic; I think there are a lot of quality books being made now.

SF: Oh yes. And writers, writing.

KR: What has been your best experience as a publisher?

SF: Success-wise, sales-wise—the publishing of Sitt Marie Rose. It was an important book that was also timely. It came out as a response to a major event, the Civil War in Lebanon, and so the very necessity of what it was saying carried the book along—and still carries it.

You know, Sitt Marie Rose is still being reviewed, even after all these years. It came out in 1982. And I never put out a single ad for it. It moved on its own, by word of mouth. And it's taught at many universities every year—its academic success I had not foreseen at all. We still continue to receive letters from students addressed to Sitt Marie Rose, as if she were an actual person.

The book we did on Rûmî, RÛMÎ and Sufism, did well, too, which was nice, personally, since I had done the translation.

Barbara Guest's book, Quill, Solitary Apparition, won an Americas Award in 1996.

And every time one of our books gets a good review, that's like winning a prize!

KR: How does your relationship with Etel Adnan affect what you do as a publisher?

SF: The relationship helps in many ways, in the fact that she helps me with the process, with blurbs, with reading proofs. And we work together on the covers. Many of the drawings are hers. And the strength of her images is the most important part of the beauty of the covers. Her brushwork has reached a perfection that only great calligraphers have.

She's also very good counsel.

KR: Do you think that your publishing has affected her writing?

SF: I don't know. When a writer has a publisher right there for her, who really likes her work, it can make her work more freely. On the other hand, during the war in Lebanon, Etel had to stop her work as a journalist and teacher because she had received death threats for having written Sitt Marie Rose. She lost her job, and she had to leave the country—it was natural that she would devote all her energies to writing.

KR: What has been your worst experience as a publisher?

SF: I don't want to say, since the people involved might be reading this. [Laughter] What was your worst experience?

KR: I'm not sure. Probably the discovery of a typographic error. I have nightmares about those.

SF: Do you have a lot in your books?

KR: I don't want to say. [Laughter]

SF: Well, I don't want to say that I have none—because then I'll be sending myself the evil eye and I'll start making some.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000