This is a series of ongoing interviews with women actively engaged with small-press publishing between the 1950s and 1980s. It comes from a desire not only to preserve their accounts but also to draw wider attention to the vital role of women editors and publishers in the mimeograph revolution and beyond. In these decades “poems were bouncing off the sidewalk” (Maureen Owen), and this series traces some of those madcap trajectories.
This interview took place via email between October 2014 and January 2015. It focuses on Jaime Robles’ role as co-editor of Five Trees Press, 1973-78 in San Francisco. The Center for the Book Arts in San Francisco will host a retrospective, “Sisters of Invention: 45 years of Book Art by Sas Colby, Betsy Davids and Jaime Robles,” October 23, 2015-January 10, 2016, which will give a historical overview of the development of the work of women book artists within the SF Bay Area small press scene from the mid ’70s to today.
Stephanie Anderson: A Stanford University Special Collection round-up of “California Printers in the Fine Press Tradition” describes the press in the following: “Three women founded Five Trees Press in a rented storefront in San Francisco’s Noe Valley in 1973. Kathleen Walkup, Jaime Robles, and Cheryl Miller had become acquainted through Clifford Burke’s Cranium Press, where Miller worked as an apprentice, and through Wesley Tanner at Arif Press in Berkeley. Each brought different skills and interests to the partnership, where they taught each other, working both independently and in mutually supportive ways. Most of the press’s energy was devoted to printing, publishing and distributing small chapbooks of poetry written by women writers, some well established, such as H.D. and Denise Levertov, and others whose work would not have been considered for publication by the predominantly male printing establishment. The press also published the work of cowboy poet Gino Clays Sky and the New England poet Paul Metcalf.” Will you talk a little more about how you, Kathy, and Cheryl met? What kinds of “skills and interests” did you each have?
Jaime Robles: Five Trees Press was actually a publishing project within the larger collective of the Sanchez Street Press. We worked out of a corner storefront at Sanchez and 26th streets, San Francisco. The other two members of Sanchez Street Press were Cameron Bunker, who was studying bookbinding, and Eileen Callahan, who was a significant partner in Turtle Island Press and also ran her own imprint Hipparchia Press. We all met at Clifford Burke’s.
Clifford used to welcome people to Cranium Press on the weekends, inviting them to hang out, set type and print broadsides. This was the beginning of the ’70s and the war in Vietnam had reached crisis levels. Many people took to the streets to protest and printing political broadsides was an important part of the small press scene in San Francisco, especially at Cranium Press. Clifford also ran workshops on printing, and his wife Diane (who changed her name later to Fenecia) was a bookbinder. I think that’s how Cheryl, Kathy and Cameron arrived at the press, Cheryl also had an apprenticeship at Clifford’s. Eileen knew Clifford because Turtle Island had hired him to print their Jaime de Angulo series. I had been pointed in Clifford’s direction by a long chain of people that began with Kenneth Rexroth and included Tom Parkinson and Roger Levenson of Tamalpais Press in Berkeley.
It was revolutionary times, the Free Speech Movement, Civil Rights, Feminism and the war had made people, especially youth—and we were all very young at the time, most under thirty—restless and willing to challenge the establishment. The printing industry was primarily male run, just as literary editing was male dominated. So what did five young women want to do? We wanted to create our own books in our own way. Kathy and Cheryl and I had larger ambitions of creating a press—one with a literary identity that created books that emphasized the beauty of the letterpress tradition but were also financially accessible. It was all very idealistic. Kathy had come from a political press in Boston. Boston itself at that time had been the home of the collectives that produced the grassroots version of Our Bodies, Ourselves. Kathy had strong offset printing experience. Cheryl had arrived from the Midwest where she had been an active member in the feminist movement. She was interested in the traditional letterpress book that emphasized the beauty of the book’s tactile qualities. I had studied poetry, English Lit, and fine art, and was interested in making books that addressed both visual and verbal arts. I illustrated most of the books.
SA: Will you describe the “predominantly male printing establishment” of the Bay area in 1973? What was it like to be a woman interested in fine press publishing?
JR: The letterpress community was different from the offset printing community, and I’ll only describe the former because that’s what we worked in. There was only one real fine arts letterpress company, though—that is to say, a press printing letterpress editions for bibliophiles and art collectors; the others were small presses using letterpress to create a variety of radical and literary works. The Grabhorns, a pair of brothers, had run the fine press, along with the much younger Andrew Hoyem, who took over the Grabhorn Press when the brothers died. Hoyem still runs this press under the imprint of Arion Press. Jane Grabhorn, Robert’s wife who died in 1973, ran the Colt and Jumbo presses, a very witty and satiric fine press. She wrote and designed her pieces, but did not print them. The Grabhorn Press was in the tradition of the great San Francisco printers like John Henry Nash. They printed for major publishing houses and did many of the books for The Book Club of California. Supporting organizations such as the Book Club of California and the Roxburghe Club did not allow women to be members, or even come to functions except for once or twice a year. They were just snooty men’s clubs, like old British gentlemen’s clubs. Needless to say, book club organisations like that really got up our noses. Now, however, they accept women members.
Much of the avant-garde poetry that came out of the San Francisco Renaissance and beyond were printed letterpress, and the publisher/printers included Auerhahn Press (Dave Haselwood), White Rabbit Press (Graham Mackintosh), Cranium Press (Clifford Burke), Zephyrus Image and Hermes Free Press (Holbrook Teter and Michael Myers), Tamalpais Press (Roger Levenson), Arif Press (Wesley Tanner and Alastair Johnston, who later started Poltroon Press with Frances Butler). These presses printed everyone from Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer to Ed Dorn. Though the men our age were more or less gracious about our interest in printing, there remained in our minds a barrier to be crossed. There still is. And I believe there was a barrier to be crossed in the minds of the men. It was with some heat that Cheryl would refer to Holbrook Teter’s title for us: he called us “The Ladies.” No one was entirely comfortable with us.
Though to be fair, the barriers had to do also with our being young and trying to secure our identities as artists and craftspersons. The misogyny that existed was the standard cultural one: that of being ignored or discounted as less than serious. A problem women continue to suffer from. And of course we were not being paid or recognized adequately; the latter though was something we all suffered from, male and female.
SA: Your Eva Awakening is very nicely done, and in a small-ish edition of 150. Was this one of the first Five Trees books? Who did the beautiful flower prints throughout the text?
JR: Thanks. Eva was our second book and my first book. The first press book was Crocus/Sprouting. Except for pasting the book blocks into the cover, which was done by Cheryl’s boyfriend Richie Berman, I did all the work for Eva Awakening, including the drawings. The drawings were done in pen and ink, converted into zinc plates for letterpress, and tinted with linocuts. There were actually closer to 120 made when all was sewn and pasted.
SA: I was recently able to look at a copy of Crocus/Sprouting in Special Collections. The cover is absolutely gorgeous—perfectly printed, with I think three colors/letterpress plates and then tinted? Your cover drawing is very elegant. What sparked your interest in, as you put it above, “books that addressed both visual and verbal arts?”
JR: That interest is part of my mission in life. Both my parents were visual artists, and there are a number of artists on my father’s side of the family. So I grew up with lots of visual arts skills, which have served me well in keeping me employed. But along with that visual arts in the family came a lot of ambivalence. My mother especially struggled with recognition and being validated as an artist. When I went to college, I became an English Lit major. I loved poetry and have done so from an early age. I also wrote a fair amount of poetry as a kid. I would stay home, playing hookey from school with a feigned illness and write poetry. So by the time I was a young adult, I had two skills that both rocked me: one, poetry, because I loved it, and two, art, because it was second nature to me. It was at university that the possibility of combining the two was presented to me, in an exhibition of the work from a letterpress printing class run by art teacher Gary Brown and poet/translator Peter Whigham. I wasn’t able to take the class, but I got a friend of mine to show me how to use the class’ Vandercook press.
SA: How many books did the press do, total?
JR: Not that many really, maybe ten or so. The press only lasted a few years, and you have to remember, we were learning on the job and none of us had any money. We all needed to make a living, and the press wasn’t doing it. Also, I traveled to Europe and stayed there over two years, which was great for me. It changed my life. But by the time I got back, the press was defunct.
SA: In 1975, Five Trees printed HD’s The Poet & The Dancer. I’m intrigued by this little book—I think (am I right?) that this is the press’s one publication by an earlier modernist. Do you remember how that project came about? Were poetic lineage and women writer predecessors much discussed?
JR: Yes, we were all very aware of our lineage, not only that of the book world, but of literature and women writers. The first few books we did were more or less spontaneous acquisitions. Then we began to think we needed a publishing policy, something that would direct our choices beyond making attractive and affordable books. We decided to publish in threes: one known woman writer, one unknown woman writer, one historically relevant woman writer. I’m not sure how we shoehorned in our first few books into that concept, but the HD was part of that policy. The acquisition of the text itself was interesting. It came from Eileen Callahan who was part of the larger Sanchez Street collective. Eileen and her husband Bob Callahan ran Turtle Island Press and were very politically active and historically savvy. They had contacted HD’s executor Norman Holmes Pearson for a manuscript by HD, and he had released that piece for publication. Pearson was known to be a difficult executor to deal with. Turtle Island decided not to do the book. I’m not certain why, but I think because it wasn’t long enough for their publishing format. The poem itself had not been republished since its earlier magazine publication in the 1930s. At that time, early ’70s, HD had not quite undergone the validation that she has now; she was fairly unknown, lost in a way, and definitely not as secure within the literary canon as she currently is. I had studied her in college because I took a 20th-century poetry class with an English poet and translator, Peter Whigham. He was rather grudging about her as a poet. Rather grudging about women writers in general. In any event, we were all thrilled to be publishing the manuscript. Kathy Walkup did the design; I did the illustration and the hardcover binding; and I think Kathy and Cheryl did the printing. It was hand set, though I can’t remember which of us did that; perhaps it was a joint effort. That was also part of our method: that we would all shift around design, typesetting, printing and binding responsibilities.
SA: More generally, how did the press acquire manuscripts?
JR: That was easy. You open any kind of press and you are immediately swamped with manuscripts. But most of the manuscripts came to us via friends. I think that remains the model for most presses: you print your friends. And there is some validity to that. After all, you know them and their work better than anyone else.
SA: Would you say that a community formed around the press? Was it always the five of you doing production, or did others occasionally help? Were there release parties for the books?
JR: The entire small press community was quite close knit at the time. It was just the three of us, really, doing production. The only times that others joined in were the ones I’ve mentioned. We did “consult” with other printers. We would go over to Clifford’s or Andy Hoyem’s or Wesley’s and ask how to do this or that. And a group of people helped us move the equipment when it needed to be moved, which is a huge job. And there were lots of parties, lots of release parties. Great parties to which everyone would bring ephemera, broadsides and booklets to be shared. When Five Trees moved to the York Street studio with Cranium Press and Jungle Press, there was a huge party—over 300 people showed up. Everyone in the small press community and many from the writing community showed up. We had a dance floor, a fabulous music tape, lots of food and drink, and everyone had a terrific time. I’m not sure what happened but in the ’80s, a lot of that communal closeness faded away. People moved out of the area, got jobs, found other interests, whatever.
SA: What was, for you, the press’ most memorable project?
JR: Well, there was no one project that was most memorable. I suppose, for me, Eva Awakening because it was the first book in its entirety that I did. But the Denise Levertov book, Modulations for Solo Voice, was probably the most significant. I’m not even sure that the poetry that was in that book was published elsewhere. It was something she wanted published privately and in a limited edition. Surely by now, it’s been republished.
SA: You mentioned, in opening, the “revolutionary times” of the early ’70s and the protests against and broadsides about the war in Vietnam. How do you think that climate influenced your artistic development?
JR: I’m not sure it influenced my artistic development as much as my personality. I’ve been in Berkeley for the past two nights and there have been ongoing demonstrations about the murders of African-Americans by the police around the country, not just in Ferguson. Hordes of people out on the streets, helicopters overhead, police everywhere. The huge injustices of the world have not gone away. We have been at war for the past twenty years. We are engaged in conflicts in over 68 countries around the globe. I don’t go out and demonstrate any more, but I do write about it. I just finished a long poem about war this past year. I’ve published a few sections from it, but I need a publisher if I want to publish the whole thing.
SA: Have you had difficulty finding a publisher? What do you think of the contemporary small press publishing scene?
JR: Well, I’ve been rather lazy in looking for a publisher for the war poem. I found myself so exhausted after my PhD work—the exhaustion was about changing countries so often in the past four years, even more than doing the degree—that I haven’t really wanted to publish or seek publication. I might never look for publication again. That would be kind of refreshing.
The great thing about the contemporary small press scene is that there is so much of it and it takes so many shapes; the current technology allows for a variety of publication, from books to online sites, and the publication can be done by anyone with the desire and energy to get texts and images out in the world. I think that’s great. Everyone should be able to express his or herself; there will always be an audience somewhere. I’m not a big fan of the presses who won’t publish the people they know, who are their friends, believing that that makes the press somehow more democratic or more objective and therefore somehow more politically correct or aesthetically true or fairer in some grand sense. That’s like believing that the larger corporate publishing world is not run by connections, or has some more accurate authority about whose work merits publication. Having worked in corporate publishing, I can assure you that’s not true. Art is always intensely subjective; that’s what gives it its value, not the opposite. If you are going to take on the burden of publishing, and it is a burden because it’s deeply detail oriented, requires a fairly sophisticated understanding of technology, and is costly, I recommend publishing the work you love by the people you love. Who else knows your work better than those who know you and what moves you? Make it a gift, or an act of love. And if someone likes your work well enough to publish it, then be nice to them. Respond to their generosity.
SA: What was your doctoral research on?
JR: My doctorate is in English Literature, Creative Writing, from the University of Exeter, Exeter UK. My critical theory part of the dissertation was titled: Dark Lyrics: Studying the Subterranean Impulses of Contemporary Poetry. The creative part was the book Hoard (Shearsman 2013) along with the long poem on war, “Decorations.” What I was looking at was the idea that poetry is generated from darker emotional states within the poet. This was tied into the idea that was the basis for the poems, which used the buried treasure found in the UK as a metaphor for how we treat our most precious emotions: how we bury them in the body and use them as our subconsciously fuelled inspiration.
SA: What are some of your career highlights in the time since you worked on Five Trees, and what are you currently working on?
JR: My work since then has been diverse but also more divided, one skill from the other. I continue working as an editor, publisher and book designer, but I’ve taken more care with my writing. The past two books I did—Anime, Animus, Anima and Hoard—were published in the UK by the excellent poetry house Shearsman Books; I really admire Tony Fraser’s poetic expertise, so that’s an honor. The books are kind of cross-cultural studies, really. The first about the world of Japanese anime, especially that which deals with the body, AI, and what it means to be conscious. The Shinto religion enables the culture to look at the material world as endowed with spirit: rocks, trees, the wind. And there is a lot of looking at the East looking at the West looking at the East in the book. And Hoard takes its inspiration from a hoard of Anglo-Roman jewelry buried in the English countryside.
As far as putting text into material form, though I continue to make booklets, I’m currently enjoying doing large installations that mix poetry and imagery. Two of them used a beautiful Victorian masonry wall on the University of Exeter campus—one, titled Autumn Leaving, is a selection of dried leaves that had been printed with fragments of poems from a series called “White Swan” and the other poems and images that were responses to the Tractatus of Ludwig Wittgenstein. The latter I did with Mike Rose-Steel and Suzanne Steele in our collaborative identity as Exegesis.
The other “jumping off the page” has been writing librettos for chamber operas and art song. Currently, I’m working with Ann Callaway, who is a wonderful composer. We are working on an opera titled Spirit of the Moth, which is a companion piece to our last chamber opera, Vladimir in Butterfly Country. It’s an homage to flying insects!
SA: What was your favorite aspect of working for the press?
JR: I like making things. That’s my favorite thing of all things. It was then and it is now.
Jaime Robles has two poetry collections with Shearsman Books, Anime, Animus, Anima (2010) and Hoard (2013). Her poetry has been published in numerous magazines, among them Agenda, Conjunctions, New American Writing, Shadowtrain, Stride and Volt! A professional graphic artist, she often uses her texts for artist’s books, and her bookworks are in collections at the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley; The Beinecke Library, Yale University; and the Oulipo Archive in Paris, among others. She has written librettos for song cycles and two one-act operas: Inferno (Peter Josheff, composer), staged by San Francisco Cabaret Opera (2009), and Vladimir in Butterfly Country (Ann Callaway, composer), staged in 2012. She reviews dance and opera for bachtrack.com (UK), San Francisco Classical Voice, and the Piedmont Post. She has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Exeter, UK.