by Alexis Almeida
When I think of Burning Deck, a few words come to mind: visionary, understated, incisive, mythic, innovative. Though I think these are all fitting terms in a way, what makes Burning Deck unique is that it could never be confined to any of them – open-minded as it is specialized, Burning Deck has created a unique name for itself without being easily definable or simple to pin-down.
Aside from having carved its own valuable space in the publishing world, Burning Deck is the collaboration of two brilliant poets: Rosmarie and Keith Waldop. The two met in Wurtzberg, Germany in 1954 and immediately wanted to work together — their first project was translating a Nietzsche poem. Soon after, in 1961, Burning Deck started as a small literary magazine. In the time between now and then the press has grown immensely. Rosmarie and Keith have published around 235 titles, and recently celebrated their 50th anniversary as a press in 2011.
I was able to speak to Keith briefly about Burning Deck, but before addressing it here, I’d like to run through a brief timeline:
1961 – Burning Deck Press is founded. Though it called itself a quinterly magazine, it only published four editions before it turned to publishing chapbooks. Later, with the help of NEA grants, it was able to start publishing books of poetry, and occasionally some fiction.
1984 – They merge with ANYART Contemporary Arts Center, becoming the literature program of the not for profit organization from Providence.
1985 – Letterpress printing is discontinued, as developments in automatic bookbinding makes it more cost effective to go in that direction.
1992 – The French translation series, “Série d’ Escriture,” is founded.
1994 – The German translation series, “Dichten,” is also founded.
AA: I really appreciate your taking the time to answer a few questions! What led to the decision to start the press? Can you talk a bit about some of your original plans/hopes for it?
KW: We realized simply that there was no press doing what seemed a necessary function, keeping some track of these things.
AA: Who were some of the first authors you published? What were some of the criteria for deciding who to publish at that time?
KW: The first we thought of printing was Creeley. He and some of the San Francisco poets were virtually unknown in the rest of the country.
AA: I know Burning Deck was originally a magazine – did its aesthetic focus shift at all when you started exclusively publishing books? When did translation become an important part of the press?
KW: There was no shift in focus at that time. We went to books because that made it easier to move around. We simply printed what we thought was important and was not yet available.
AA: I know Burning Deck is dedicated to innovative and experimental poetry – Michael Palmer has even said that without its presence “we experimental poets would, simply, not exist.” Can you talk a bit about how you might define innovative or experimental poetry? Are there any poets writing today whose work seems particularly innovative?
KW: I can only say that I have read much poetry of all kinds. I look for work that surprises me against this background.
AA: Can you talk a bit about the transition from letterpress to offset printing?
KW: It was purely a matter of what was financially possible.
AA: Do you have any advice for people hoping to start a small press?
KW: At this point the easiest seems to be web-publishing, which I know nothing about. For print books, the most difficult thing is distribution. Getting in touch with Small Press Distribution early would get you valuable advice.
A Few Things About the Press:
Beginnings: In 1961, the poetry world was somewhat divided between supposed “beat” poets and “academic” poets. Burning Deck did not play into this split, and started publishing a good swath of poets – from Zukofsky to Creeley to Snodgrass – though sometimes the poets themselves would complain for having been published alongside others with starkly different aesthetics. Among those published in “Burning Deck Magazine”: Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Donald Finkel, Kathleen Fraser, Barbara Guest, Heath-Stubbs, LeRoi Jones [Amiri Baraka], Robert Kelly, X.J. Kennedy, Denise Levertov, Philip Levine, W.S. Merwin, Christopher Middleton, Natalie Robins, Louis Zukofsky.
Authors: As stated above, Burning Deck was not solely concerned with “literary schools,” – however, according to Rosmarie, the shift from publishing the magazine to publishing exclusively books led to an increased focus on“work that foregrounds form and structure in innovative ways.” Although they do print well-known authors, they have remained dedicated to lesser-known writers, writers that other publishers wouldn’t necessarily take a chance on. They have have published the first books of Mei Mei Berssenbrugge, Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman, John Taggart, and Anthony Barnett – all who were virtually unknown before their books were published with Burning Deck. Some other poets they are especially proud to have published are Alison Bundy, Ray Ragosta, Michael Gizzi, Cyrus Console, Catherine Imbriglio, Jane Unrue, Craig Watson, and Dallas Wiebe, and more recently Elizabeth Willis (Turneresque), and Peter Gizzi’s Artificial Heart.
Translation: This is a large feature of the press. Though Rosmarie is German, and the two met in Germany, they were both also on fellowships in Europe from 1970-171, spending the majority of this time in Paris. This is when they were introduced to many French avant-garde writers, including Edmond Jabes, who Rosmarie would both translate and write about later. Burning Deck became an important for introducing French & German avant-garde writers to an English-language readership. Recent from Serie: Jean Daive’s “Walks With Paul Celan,” translated by Rosmarie, and from Dichten, Gerhard Ruhm’s “I My Feet,” also translated by Rosmarie.
Printing: In 1961, letterpress was beginning to be replaced by offset printing, and many people were getting rid of their letterpresses. Because of this, the Waldops found it affordable to use one while they were in grad school, but by 1985, it became more feasible and affordable to use offset. They remain committed to smyth-sewn, acid-free paper to ensure good quality but low process. On the topic of design, Rosmarie offered: “In the early days of Burning Deck, when we were handsetting and handprinting we tried to make the cover design simply out of letters, lines and print ornaments (i.e. lead ornaments we could stick in the letterpress). Keith did most of the covers. When we went to offset this changed. Keith still did most of the covers, but if the author wanted a particular image, design, or designer we went along as long as it did not cause unaffordable expense.” She has also said that “…it is printing, even more than editing, that has affected my own writing. Printing letterpress (especially setting poems by hand, as we did in the beginning) is so slow a process that I became extremely aware of any unnecessary ‘fat.’ It has helped me make my poems leaner.” They currently use SPD distribution.
– In 1984, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s The Heat Bird received the American Book Award of the Before Columbus Foundation
– In 1985, Ron Silliman’s Paradise received the San Francisco Poetry Center Award
– In 1991, Burning Deck was the focus of a weekend-symposium at Foundation Royaumont, in France.
– In 1996, Cole Swensen’s Numen was finalist for the PEN West Award
– In 2001, Brown University’s Writing Program held a 3-day Festival for Burning Deck’s 40th anniversary
– In 2008, Catherine Imbriglio’s Parts of the Mass received the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America
– In 2008, Rosmarie Waldrop’s translation of LINGOS I-IX by Ulf Stolterfoht received the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation
– In 2010, “L’Aventure ‘Burning Deck'” was a feature of the “Lettres sur cour” Poetry Festival at Vienne, France
Exhibitions of Burning Deck books have been held at Wesleyan, Brown, and Long Island Universities, at Woodland Patterns in Milwaukee, various libraries, the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the Centre Internationale de Poésie Marseille and, most recently the Poetry Foundation. Single books have been included in exhibitions at the American Institute of Graphic Arts, Stedelijk Museum, and Kensington Art Association, Toronto.