I don’t remember when I met Barbara Guest. We may have met in the Hamptons. The people from the Hamptons whom I knew before I knew her were Rose Slivka, Larry and Clarice Rivers and Bill and Elaine de Kooning. Maybe I met her through one of them.
Rose Slivka was active on the board at Center for Book Arts, and I also became active on the board. Rose also employed me as a typesetter for her magazine Craft International and for New Work, a publication of a local glassmaking studio. And I met many people through Rose, but I don’t think she was the one who directly introduced me to Barbara. Rose was very close to Elaine and Bill de Kooning and introduced me to them and we made several trips out there to visit them. Sadly one of those trips was for the funeral of her son Mark, who was buried in the Springs. Mark had been working for me, helping out with hand bookbinding. I know we’ve talked about Center for Book Arts, only I may not have talked much about some of the people I got to know in other contexts. We also haven’t talked about Mickey Ruskin’s places – Max’s Kansas City, the Locale, the Lower Manhattan Ocean Club, One University Place (a.k.a. One U and Kipling’s Last Resort) – because I didn’t hang out with many poets there, except Gerard Malanga and Rene Ricard. I knew Larry and Clarice Rivers from Max’s (and, as the years went by, the other places Mickey Ruskin’s other places, places that were all my homes away from home).
I also may have met Barbara when I was living at Kenward Elmslie’s house, on the top floor in the apartment he used to rent out. Lewis Warsh had been a former tenant, and the tenant before me was the literary agent Maxine Groffsky.
I may have met her at a reading she gave, but I can’t be sure.
And maybe I never even met Barbara until I asked her for a manuscript to do a book. When I applied to the National Endowment for the Arts for a grant to produce six books, she was one of the six. Because hers was not the first book I worked on when I received the grant, a couple of years passed before we sat down and chose the manuscript I would publish. We both agreed on Quilts right away. It’s a beautiful poem cycle. I was around Rauschenberg’s place on Lafayette Street frequently and I loved the fact that his combine painting Bed (1955), which is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, figures in the poem cycle. The first time I went there, it was as a Board member of Center for Book Arts and we were looking for a space where we could hold a reception for a Hand Papermakers’ Conference we were hosting. The chapel was great and it might have been available when Rauschenberg was out of town, but we chose the church on Bleecker Street instead, a place where they used to fumigate the Bowery bums who came in to get “cleaned up” – not with showers, but with chemical baths that would kill whatever bugs were living in their hair or on other parts of their bodies. I had also met Rauschenberg and people who worked for him at Mickey Ruskin’s places.
The poems, the poetics, the language of Barbara’s work appealed to me for their dignity, their playfulness and qualities they share with the work, during those years, of other poets of the New York School and with Gertrude Stein’s writings. Like Stein, she’s not fixated on meaning or emotion. Like Ashbery, O’Hara and Schuyler, her work is rooted in everyday vocabulary while taking the reader on flights of invented trajectories into new territory of color, connotation, word combinations and coherent incoherences. I always felt I knew what she was writing about, yet I couldn’t always rationally explain how I knew. Her work was purely in the language yet not deconstructivist nor theoretical.
Barbara and I always felt we had geographical connections as well as literary and art connections. The most important of these was Switzerland, particularly the area around Geneva and Lausanne. During much of the time we worked on Quilts she was working on her biography of H.D. (the poet Hilda Doolittle). This part of Switzerland was a significant location in the life of H.D. and her lover Bryher. I was privileged to have the occasion to meet Perdita, H.D.’s daughter, with Barbara at a gathering in New York. Barbara’s birthday was September 6th, H.D.’s birthday was September 10th, and mine is September 17th, and Barbara found the nearness of these dates to have some significance.
Another geographical connection Barbara and I felt was with Minneapolis. Her book The Countess from Minneapolis was published by Burning Deck books (printed letterpress) in 1976, the year I began publishing Vehicle Editions. I spent many months in Minneapolis and St. Paul, thinking I could create a stimulating urban life in a quiet city and during one of my extended stays there wrote a poem series called Minneapolis Whites, which Barbara was fond of. My first trip there was Douglas Dunn and the Lazy Madge group of dancers. (Vehicle Editions published the Score for Lazy Madge. I took the notes and drawings Douglas made for the dance and categorized them by theme—death, food, movement, for example.) In 1983 I moved to Minneapolis, thinking I would thrive in a city smaller than New York that had a healthy literary community including small presses, small press book distributors and, in St. Paul, the Hungry Mind bookstore. Barbara was one of those who cheered me on, and when I returned, bored by the Twin Cities and missing my friends and the variety of jobs available to me in New York, she was one who acknowledged that I might never be happy in any city besides New York.
I remember having the feeling that wherever I visited Barbara was not really her home. She had not spent her childhood in one home for a long time and, like me, she had an alcoholic parent. So perhaps it’s not surprising that I don’t remember what place she called home because she may not have called any of her residences home. I don’t remember whether this was actually or just figuratively true. Barbara and her husband, Trumbull Higgins, were living in a classic grand prewar apartment on Fifth Avenue during some of the time we worked on Quilts. It was a homey place, lots of art, overstuffed chairs upholstered in elegant silks and English manor house prints. My favorite thing was the Joseph Cornell box on the mantelpiece: twigs, mirrors, a fairy tale castle—it represented for me something of what Barbara Guest was to me: a kind of royalty—she was the only woman among the poets of the original New York School, with John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch, Edwin Denby and Kenward Elmslie the others. She had a noble carriage, artistocratic, in that literary sense, in my eyes. She had literally been an aristocratic because her second husband, her daughter Hadley’s father, Stephen Haden Haden-Guest, was a Baron of the British peerage, from whom she took her pen name. Her third husband Trumbull was most definitely patrician. There was also a fragility about her. Later I remember visiting her at her apartment on Mercer Street near West 4th Street. And I think it was the first time I visited her she was staying temporarily at an apartment on the Upper East Side that she was borrowing from a woman painter friend of hers; however I forget who that was. It was an important visit, though, because I remember that we had a big talk about my mother and about my important relationships with other women, including Deborah Freedman, who created the covers for Quilts, and Tony Zwicker, a woman who was handling sales of some of my books, to important collectors (like Marvin and Ruth Sackner who have the world’s largest private collection of art, poetry and artist books, and certain library collections) and my best friend, Julia Sachon, a German woman whom I’d met through her husband, a former colleague of mine at a publishing house I’d worked at as Managing Editor. In our conversations I learned about people she’d known whom I had not met including Frank O’Hara, John Bernard Myers, Anne and Fairfield Porter, Grace Hartigan, Helen Frankenthaler and Nell Blaine. We shared stories about people we both knew, whom I had gotten to know before I met her including Tibor de Nagy, David Kermani, John Ashbery, Jimmy Schuyler, Larry and Clarice Rivers, Kenward Elsmlie, Joe Brainard, Morris Golde, Kenneth Koch, Bill Berkson, Joe LeSueur and Elaine and Bill de Koonings. We talked about many other people Barbara was close to in her life whom we spent time with together including Sheila Isham, Jane Freilicher and Joe Hazan, Yvonne Hagen, Fay Lansner, Anne Dunn, and Mary Abbott. I met many wonderful women artists through Barbara and spent time with some of them in the Hamptons. And then, of course, there was Barbara’s place in Water Mill on the South Fork. And we were to have many wonderful experiences there and in other places in the Hamptons.
Barbara was close to my mother’s age. We talked about writing and writers and personal matters. I told her about my childhood and she was very compassionate. She also represented some of the best of my mother’s background – my mother was well-educated, read widely and was raised High Church Episcopalian. Barbara related to this Wasp side of my family, which I identified with more than my father’s Russian/Brooklyn/Jewish side. We talked about art exhibits we went to, together and separately. She was an art critic for Art News and encouraged me to write about the art I saw, yet I never did that. Our favorite restaurant was Il Gran Ticino on Thompson Street in Greenwich Village, a decades old institution: good food, waiters with an air of professionalism and slight haughtiness, the benefit of being Swiss rather than Italian. We were each regulars at the restaurant and there were waiters who recognized us.
Although I met Barbara’s daughter Hadley many times over the years, I don’t remember ever meeting her son Jonathan. Her husband Trumbull was pretty great. He was a military historian with a decidedly patrician manner and he and I liked each other a lot. Tall and imposing, he spoke with an accent that my father used to call the Lattingtown lockjaw, named for a hamlet on the North Shore of Long Island, east of Gatsby’s West Egg and East Egg, spoken by the same moneyed crowd. Trumbull looked the part of the well-bred, well-dressed Wasp. My greatest adventure with him was going to hear the Dalai Lama speak. It was the Dalai Lama’s first visit to New York City and his talk was given at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, introduced by Mayor Koch and Cardinal Cooke. We sat very close in and I felt very privileged to be there. I was particularly interested because for a couple of summers I’d attended many teachings given by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche at Naropa. Trumbull appreciated my company at this event because I was so enthusiastic about going.
The artist Deborah Freedman, and I were experimenting with color photocopies at Jamie Canvas, the art supply store (and artists’ hangout) on Spring Street in Soho (these were the early days of Soho when the neighborhood was mostly populated by artists living in A.I.R.–Artist in Residence–lofts). There was a color copier operator there named Todd Jorgenson who was helpful in this new technology and as a result the 50 covers of the book that are different from each other explore many effects that were possible through moving the images while they were being scanned and making color adjustments. We used cover stock in the machines, which sadly may have damaged one of those copiers – in those days all photocopying was done on lightweight “copier paper” with a smooth finish. We had jams all the time due to the weight and slightly rougher finish of the paper we chose.
I packed up those covers, bought a grid paper that we all – Barbara, Deborah and I – liked and flew to Switzerland.
During those years I was attending the Frankfurt Buchmesse (Book Fair) every year in October – some years on my own and some years representing a company I worked for. For example, there was a year when I was working for a consortium of Dutch printers, binders and paper suppliers called Comproject and another year I was working for an Italian printer. I attended the Buchmesse with my colleagues and spoke with American publishers about books they were planning to produce for which they had not made printing arrangements yet. When I attended the Buchmesse my books, Vehicle Editions, were displayed in a booth my friend John Armleder, an artist from Geneva, generously allowed me to share on the art hall.
I made Quilts during one of those Frankfurt trips, in the fall of 1980. Much of the making of Quilts took place in Switzerland. In Basel I made a barter arrangement with a small press publisher, Matthias Jenny, whose press, Nachtmaschine, published poetry and fiction by young Swiss poets. He had an IBM magnetic card composer, the same machine I as using to set type at the office of Craft International, in New York, where I worked for Rose Slivka.
From Basel I went to Geneva. At John Armleder’s bookstore/gallery/publishing office for his press, Ecart, I handbound the 100-copy edition of Quilts. I sewed the signatures of text pages with the grid-patterned endsheet into one signature. Then to attach the signature to the wrappers, I glued the endsheets into the covers, which I’d brought from New York, already printed with their collages of quilts.
Out of 100 copies in the edition, 50 were signed and numbered. I really said it best on the colophon of each book. Of the 50 signed, “each of these has a different cover, and each page of each of these copies is an original typeset specimen (via computer memory of composer). Each cover of the entire edition is an original Xerox color photocopy, designed and produced by Deborah S. Freedman at Jamie Canvas, New York. Composition done by the publisher on an IBM 82 Composer at Nachtmaschine Verlag, Basel. Binding done by hand by the publisher at Ecart, Geneva.” As I described earlier, all 100 copies were hand sewn and hand bound into the “wrappers,” which were the original images, having used the Xerox machine to collage elements together.
There were three exhibitions and celebrations of the book. The first was March 1st, 1981, a Sunday afternoon event and exhibit of books at my storefront on Mott Street near the corner of Prince Street, which was called Lackawanna.
The second exhibit opened a few days later. On March 4th, Deborah Freedman and I created a window installation in a street-viewing-only exhibit space called Windows on White, on White Street in lower Manhattan, between Broadway and Church. Each book in the exhibit was in a clear plastic bag and each was hung with clothespins from clotheslines crisscrossing the two display windows. It was like quilts on a line, except each cover was a collage of quilts and for most of them the color was exaggerated or movement on the platen of the Xerox was recorded in the reproduction of the quilts. The exhibit was on view 24 hours a day from March 7th through the 31st. David Stock, an actor and writer and bartender at Smokestacks Lightning, a bar located on the southeast corner of Canal and West Broadway, was also a bartender at Mickey Ruskin’s place. He published a magazine called The New Time and included some of my work in it. We got to talking about the planned Windows on White exhibit, right around the corner from Smokestacks Lightning. On March 7th we held a reception there and lots of people showed up.
The following summer was the big event, the third and last show of a large group of Quilts books: A show at Elaine Benson Gallery on Montauk Highway in Bridgehampton. Barbara and I had already spent a lot of time out in the Hamptons previous summers. Elaine Benson got so excited about the book that she devoted the largest portion of her gallery to not only Quilts, but to all Vehicle Editions. There were about 70 items on exhibit, many for sale. I had broadsides framed and hung up. I had books on shallow shelves, covers out. I had Joe Brainard’s original artwork for the cover of Ted Berrigan’s Train Ride, as well as the metal plate used to print the cover letterpress. And there were lots of copies of Quilts, although we had had a hard time holding on to them. We had to ask people who bought the book in Manhattan at Smokestacks Lightning if we could borrow their copies back to fill out the Elaine Benson show. By the time the Elaine Benson show was over the edition was basically sold out.
The last time I saw Barbara, in 2005, was very sad. She was in a nursing home in Oakland, California, very close to the end of her life. Her daughter Hadley appreciated my visit very much and we three spent an afternoon together. Hadley was losing her mother before Barbara was gone and Hadley was bearing up under the weight of that pain quite well. The previous visit to Barbara some years earlier was much brighter. At that time she and Hadley were living in a sweet house on Milvia Street in Berkeley, not very far from the UC Berkeley campus. There they lived a peaceful existence, surrounded by her inspiring collections of books and artwork. She met my daughter Irene, who was then in middle school, and celebrated my good fortune in motherhood and surviving divorce and bringing up my daughter in the country in upstate New York. Barbara was very pleased with the way my life was turning out and the fact that I was still writing poetry.