The Figures History

The Figures: A True Account of the Origin of a Literary Small Press
by Geoffrey Young

It's easy to set yourself up as a publisher, but it takes good luck to find manuscripts worth printing, and it takes more luck or kind patronage to establish funding, and it helps a lot in the beginning to find yourself in a climate favorable to book production. All these things came together in Berkeley, California in the mid-seventies, as Don Cushman was just then renting space and securing equipment for the NEA sponsored West Coast Print Center which would provide a forum and a workshop for the typesetting and printing of "non-commercial literary" books.

When Laura Chester, our six month old son Clovis and I arrived in Berkeley in the fall of l974, we'd been editing a poetry magazine called Stooge for a few years. But once in the Bay Area, and inundated with submissions for the magazine, we suddenly tired of reading and rejecting. We decided to stop the magazine with issue #l3 (Spring l975), and start publishing books. It began to seem more important to make larger chunks of an individual's work available, in a form, the book, that might endure, have a longer shelf life, and bring greater attention to the poet.

At the same time as we were planning this press, I was recommended by Jack Shoemaker to Don Cushman, who hired me in January l975, to help prepare the Print Center for its March opening. It was here, in an atmosphere saturated with darkroom chemicals, design ideas, light tables, the vacuum suck of the plate burner, typesetting (the cold type revolution was underway--our first leased machine was a Compugraphic), and Van Son's printer's ink, that many of us learned enough book production to make these highly conventional, if initially mysterious, physical objects come out the way we wanted. And what we wanted, for the most part, were handsome but inexpensive trade paperbacks.

The NEA's involvement allowed the production costs to remain low enough for many a young writer/editor to pass through the door of the Print Center and get instruction in the art of the book as well as quality printing.

The list of that time's significant activity looks generationally gargantuan compared to today's scaled down hopes. There were John McBride and Paul Vangelisti's Red Hill Press, George Mattingly's Blue Wind, Johanna Drucker's involvement with Rebis as well as her own Chaste Press, there was Cushman's and Dave Bullen's Cloud Marauder, Ishmael Reed's various imprimiturs including I. Reed Books, there was Alta's Shameless Hussy, Frances Butler and Alastair Johnston's Poltroon, Jerry Ratch and Mari-Anne Hayden's Sombre Reptiles, Bill Berkson's Big Sky, Barry Watten's This, Bob Perelman's Hills; and there were Jack Shoemaker's Sand Dollar, Michael Wolfe's Tombuctou, David Meltzer's Tree, Robert Hawley's Oyez, Donald Allen's Four Seasons, Curtis Faville's L, Richard Grossinger's North Atlantic Books, Bob Callahan's Turtle Island & Stephen Rodefer's PickPocket, to name some, but by no means all, of the press activity.
It was a terrific time socially, because "socially" meant writing, and writing meant readings and readings were beginning to proliferate. Lyn Hejinian and Larry Ochs moved back to Berkeley in l976 from their fastness in the Mendocino hills. Bob Perelman and Francie Shaw left Somerville, MA for a loft on Folsom Street in San Francisco the same year. Steve Benson and Carla Harryman moved north from Los Angeles, Bob Grenier returned to the Bay from his perch in a parkinglot in Cambridge, and together with like-minded writers already there, such as Leslie Scalapino, John Thorpe, Ron Silliman, Kit Robinson, Rae Armantrout, Kathy Fraser, Michael Palmer, Alan Bernheimer, Darrell Gray, Beverly Dahlen, Stan Rice, David Bromige, Andrei Codrescu, Pat Nolan, Kathy Acker, Jean Day, Keith Abbott, Summer Brenner, Erica Hunt, and Tom Raworth (living in Ed Dorn's old apartment on Masonic in SF), the stage was not only set for an explosion of activity, it was already going off. Philip Whalen, Robert Duncan, Robert and Bobbie Creeley, Joanne Kyger and Tom Clark were all visitable in SF or Bolinas, as well.

Bob Perelman opened his loft for talks by writers, reading groups formed to study key texts, Barry Watten started the Grand Piano reading series in the Haight, there were performances in museums, actions in lofts, meetings in living rooms and in the never negligible watering holes that furthered the conversation. Indelible and circuitous meetings of mind were followed by beer, dancing, mating rituals, smoke and endless talk. Lyn and Kit started a radio program on KPFA called "In The American Tree" which featured the hosts interviewing a different poet each week. Nick Robinson and Eileen Corder started Poet's Theatre. I remember coffee. I remember basketbalI. I remember a little club on the Oakland/Berkeley line called Mapenzi, owned and decorated and run by a black man whose name I never got, presenting concerts by Anthony Braxton one weekend, and the very young David Murray playing behind Ntozake Shange, his then wife, the next. I remember New York poets in town to do readings or residencies at San Francisco State, Intersection, 80 Langton Street, the Piano, or Julia Morgan. I don't remember eating a lot of food.

I remember meeting Ron Silliman early in l977 when he walked up to me at a reception for Larry Eigner at Tom Mandel's apartment in SF, introduced himself with a compliment for a little chapbook, The Relativity of Spring (translations from the French of Vicente Huidobro), that Michael Palmer and I had done, published by Jack Shoemaker, then in his wild-eyed enthusiastic way turned the conversation to his current passionate readings in Jacobson, Shklovsky, and the Russian Constructivists. In short, this multifarious, polyglot new free-for-all was what I'd always wanted, a scene worthy of the name.

I aimed the press at the heart of this scene, which was the new writing being done by these men and women then in their 30s. The most famous small press in San Francisco at the time, City Lights, the publisher of Ginsberg's Howl and of O'Hara's Lunch Poems, was never even mentioned. It belonged to an earlier time, along with the potent memories of magical small presses like White Rabbit, Auerhahn, Enkidu Surrogate, and Totem/Corinth.

But it's early l975 still, and our future press still needs a name. One thing was certain: we were not going to continue with the word "Stooge," a name we'd inherited from the magazine's founder, Allen Schiller, when we took it over from him in l970. Poet and critic David Lehman wrote me some years back and asked where The Figures, as press name, came from. We used to make lists, constantly, but naming something that doesn't exist yet can be difficult, and nothing leapt forth and claimed our unequivocal attention. Some possibles recently unearthed in an old notebook may indicate why. Picture Press, Language Press [no kidding], Golden Section, Bridge, Fin du Monde Books, Out & Out Press, Point Press, Walking Around, Sailing After Lunch (a title of a Wallace Stevens poem which functioned in our household as a euphemism for making love in the afternoon), Round Midnight, All In Books, Starry Night, Jelly Roll House, Oleo, etc. (jazz tunes were an endless temptation).

Nothing really jelled, however, until a few months later when Barry Watten handed me a copy of a book he'd just published by Clark Coolidge, called The Maintains. Never had I heard the definite article so isolated, so physicalized; the title stuck in my ear like an enigma. It wasn't The Mountains, The Maintenance, or The Main Tunes. It was The Maintains, a procedure that instantly replaced The Wasteland as memorable title. Also activated was an echo from graduate school of a little read and all but forgotten prose comedy, the first in English, by George Gascoigne in l566, called The Supposes, but you can bet your stake that Clark had no knowledge of it.

But we still didn't have a name, though by now we had a book to publish, Stan Rice's Some Lamb. The opening of Charles Olson's Maximus poems provided another suggestion, however.


Off shore, by islands hidden in the blood
jewels & miracles, I, Maximus
a metal hot from boiling water, tell you
what is a lance, who obeys the figures
of the present dance.

There it was, the phrase "the figures of the present dance." It could have been written by either William Carlos Williams or Robert Duncan, as well, or been spotted possibly in an essay by Creeley, so much was the idea of dance one of the times' presiding metaphors of mind. Out of curiosity I looked up the word "figure" in Webster's third, and was hit by a swarm of definitions.

1. a number symbol, a digit
2. a written or printed character
3. a body, apparent chiefly in outline, or an object significant or noticeable
only in its form
4. the representation of a form
5. a person, thing, or action conceived of as analogous to another person,
thing, or action of which it is the type, or representative. Adam was the
type of him who was to come, namely Jesus, as typologists tell us.
6. diagram made to represent any combination of geometric elements
7. an imagined form, a phantasm
8. a figure of speech
9. a scheme representing the heavens at a given moment
10. pattern or design (figures in the glass vase)
11. a series of movements that form one unit of the dance
12. prominent personality, personages
13. a short coherent group of notes, or tones, or chords, which may grow into a musical phrase

What I liked about The Figures was that it wasn't cute and it wasn't poetic. It had no red dust, or blue wind, or black sparrow, or gray fox in it. Its weight was evenly distributed over a wide range of meanings, happily including rhetoric's tropes, and I liked the Olson, and I liked the "the."

It was two or three years before anyone, and I think it was Stephen Rodefer, actually told me that he liked the name of the press. But by that time what was being liked were the books, which is as it should be. Only the growing child's actions define its name.

Geoffrey Young
The Figures

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