Why Assembling (1973)

As an unreconstructed anarchist, I still must consider the solution of this issue [proprietary control of the media by the tribe of intermediary bureaucrats] easy, easy in theory, easy in practice; if we do not apply it, it is for moral reasons, sluggishness, timidity, getting involved in what is not one’s business, etc. The way to get rid of dummy intermediaries is by direct action.

—Paul Goodman, “The Chance for Popular Culture” (1949)

Assembling grew out of an oppressive crisis in avant-garde literary communication; for while experiments in writing seemed both possible and necessary, genuinely innovative manuscripts found increasing resistance from both book and periodical publishers. Assembling was established in 1970 by Henry James Korn and myself, two young writers who had known each other since childhood. Five years older than Korn, I was already a full-time freelance, hyperactive mostly as an essayist and anthologist. I discovered that, in contrast to my expository prose, my visual poetry and comparably eccentric fiction encountered considerably more difficulty in getting published. Even the best of these pieces seemed to take at least two years to get into any sort of public print (at which point, curiously, a few would be anthologized with remarkable speed); and I had good reason to suspect that, as often as not, the periodical editors accepting them were implicitly honoring, or flattering, my critical-anthological activities. The problem was scarcely personal, however, because other work in such veins, including much that I critically regarded as excellent, was similarly blocked. Korn, on the other hand, had produced some remarkably witty and inventive fictions, only one of which had ever been publicly published; and his work as a museum administrator made him aware of grave problems in cultural communication. I suppose that my own anthological experience also gave me a compiler’s passion for making available a goodly amount of avant-garde literary material that might otherwise be lost.

It also became clear, at the onset of U.S. publishing’s most severe recent depression, that commercial houses were less and less inclined to take risks with any kind of counter-conventional work and/or unestablished authors. Among the principal reasons are not only editorial ignorance and opacity but a gross rise in the costs of book production and the increasing profit-hunger of even the more “enlightened” publishing firms. The best seller has become their all-engrossing ideal, while interest in commercially more modest work, such as anything avant-garde or unknown, had declined dangerously. Only one one-man collection of visual poetry, for instance, has ever been commercially published in the United States, even though “concrete” is reportedly “faddish”; and since that single book, N. H. Pritchard’s The Matrix (1970), was neither reviewed nor touted, it seemed unlikely that any others would ever appear—another example of how the rule of precedent in literary commerce produces de facto censorship. Established literary periodicals, on the other hand, were dying or retrenching, while few of the new ones were open to experimental work. For several reasons, therefore, the future of avant-garde writing seemed increasingly doubtful.

In the preface to our initial issue, I noted:

As young writers of stylistically “different” poetry and prose, we faced not only the inevitable objections to our youth, but also the equally inevitable resistances to our wayward literary purposes. And so we wanted an institution that would publish alternative work by imaginative artists who genuinely believed in what they did. Since rejections often came with the excuse, particularly from those editors pretending to sympathy, that “our printer can’t handle this,” it seemed best to overcome this obstacle by direct action—by becoming one’s own publisher, which is more practicable in this era of photographic reproduction processes; for the oldest truth is that, when other demands are more pressing, the writer must do more than just write.

Somewhat influenced by a beautiful German book called Omnibus (1969), we hit upon what we think is the most appropriate structure for a cooperative self-publishing channel. In brief, Assembling invites writers and artists whom we know to be doing unusual work, which we broadly characterize as “otherwise unpublishable,” to contribute a thousand copies of up to four 8.5- by 11-inch pages of whatever they want to include. Since each contributor is responsible for arranging, by whatever means and funds available, for the production of his own work, he becomes his own sub-self-publisher, so to speak. There is no doubt that writers should usually be paid for what they do; but just as serious poets often give much of their work away gratis, so there are times when every artist feels it worth a few dollars and/or a little effort to put into public print a work that he likes but could not otherwise place. (Indeed, self-publication at such modest cost could stand as an ultimate test of creative seriousness—not just in Russia but in the United States too.) In practice, self-printing turns out to be less forbidding than it initially seems, for not only do academics have access to photocopy machines (and did one writer call upon a family printing business), but recently developed offset and Itek processes can commercially reproduce one side into a thousand sheets for less than ten dollars and both sides for less than fifteen. We advised our invited collaborators to put their names on their work, as we ran no table of contents, and to center their contributions toward the right, leaving at least an inch on the left-hand margin, because Assembling promised to collate the contents alphabetically and then return three bound books to each contributor. The remaining copies would ideally be sold through bookstores and the mails, hopefully defraying the costs of binding, mailing, etc.

Since all copyrights, which are the literary form of “property,” were returned to the contributors, Assembling could make no money from subsequent reprints; and once the thousand copies were gone, it would be impossible to “reprint” the entire issue.

Since both Korn and I were inclined to transcend the boundaries of writing, we opened the book to artists of all sorts. Our form letter invited “poetry, fiction, graphic art, designs, architectural proposals, or any other ideas adaptable to print.” As we were also trying to abolish the restricting prerogatives of editorial authority, we agreed to accept everything contributed by those invited. (Our invitation mentioned our “reserving the right to exclude a contribution for reasons unforeseen or in case of libel.” I was thinking of egregious slander when I wrote that, but it remains an option we have never considered exercising.) We abrogated editorial authority not because we were lazy but because we wanted a structural contrast to the “restrictive, self-serving nature of traditional editorial processes.” Since we are collators rather than true publishers, we customarily refuse requests to handle the printing, for necessity demands that counter-conventional writers learn some essential points about reproduction, such as discovering the method(s) most conducive to their particular work. As a result, each entry ideally represents the best that each contributor can do untouched (or unretouched) by grubby editorial hands. As “compilers” rather than true publishers, we also avoided the editorial pains (or pleasures) of rejecting anything, along with the anxiety of needing to fulfill a predetermined concept; and given the elasticity of our production methods, we never faced the predicament of accepting more material than could be “accommodated by our precious space.”

The only editorial control left to us was the invitation itself, so that just as unfamiliar would-be collaborators were asked to contribute examples of their work (before receiving an invitation), so a few contributors to one Assembling were not invited to the next. The almost paradoxical reason was not that we thought their work “no good,” whatever that might be, or that we wanted to impose a particular style or taste, but that we were obliged, in principle, to keep the medium committed to alternate, otherwise unpublishable imaginative work—a domain that was, to be sure, elastically defined. (None of these unreinvited people ever asked to contribute again, perhaps because of awe or disgust with the rest of the book; and none, to my knowledge, have founded their own collaborative periodicals.) “Don’t hesitate to send material that has made the editorial rounds,” our initial invitation said, “but remember that there’s a difference between manuscripts that are just too freaky to get published elsewhere and those that are simply not one’s own best work.” It continued: “The long-range goal of Assembling is opening the editorial/industrial complex to alternatives and possibilities. The short-range goal is providing the means for unpublished and unpublishable work to see print light, partly to see what kindred spirits and spooks are doing.” We also promised to type and print, at house expense, biographical notes, in part to introduce the contributors to each other.

Large cartons poured into our homes and post-office box during the summer, as our one hundred fifty invitations produced forty responses. Late in August, two months after our announced deadline, Korn and I rented a small panel truck and lugged a half ton of paper to a commercial collator (whose services cost us three hundred dollars). The bound books came back a few weeks later, and contributors’ copies were immediately put into the mail. (The post office remains an innocent collaborator in the development of experimental writing, for it is largely by posted print that most of its creators know each other’s work.) We sent possible reviewers a query, since available copies were so few; and though we honored all requests received, only four reviews appeared, three of them positive—in a Belgian new-poetry journal, a New York undergraduate newspaper, and a Detroit rock magazine. (The single negative notice rather dumbly criticized the absence of editorial authority!)

Our copyright line read: “(c) 1970 for automatic assignment with the printing of this notice to the individual contributors.” However, we subsequently discovered that this was invalid. Since copyrights must be connected to a particular name, it should have said: “(c) 1970 by Assembling Press. All rights reassigned to their respective authors upon request.” We also made the mistake of incorporating (which cost us another hundred), in part to protect against personal liabilities; but we later discovered that this precaution was unnecessary, as long as we published an editorial disclaimer (for “the views expressed herein”) on the title page. Indeed, since we eschewed editorial authority, responsibility for all material definitely belonged to the individual sub-publishers. We disincorporated simply by letting Gnilbmessa, Inc., which is assembling spelled backwards, die of bankruptcy. We also opened a checking account, which was both needlessly expensive and, in practice, rarely used.

The results of such self-publishing license not only confirmed our initial polemical point—both Assembling itself and most of its contents were unlike anything seen before—but the book also showed the possibilities and productivity available to society if artists were granted absolute creative freedom. Some pieces were poetry or fiction, while others were visual graphics or words mixed with pictures. Some contributors resorted to commercial reproductive processes (of varying quality), while a few used handpresses. Scott Hyde contributed an especially elegant multicolored photograph. Ed Ruscha’s contribution must have been individually hand-stained, as the shape of each brown blot was different. The well-known rock critic Richard Meltzer sent us, as he explained, “a thousand pages of all different shit (including the only copy of the only novel I ever wrote) so each one-page thing is gonna be a whole different show-stopper.” Some contributors exploited such anti-editorial opportunity to surpass their earlier work, such as the novelist Nancy Weber, whose handwritten story, “Dear Mother and Dad,” was subsequently anthologized. Others, like the poet David Ignatow, introduced work (an excerpt from his journals) that would later appear in a book. The stipulated page size became an inadvertent constraint, as one writer offered a thousand artistically doctored baseball cards, “each with a literary move.” We were embarrassed to tell him that the available collating machines could not handle such work.

What was most impressive about Assembling was the sheer variety of counter-conventional alternatives, as individual contributions could be roughly characterized as visual poetry, verbal poetry, abstract photography, playlets, minimal poetry, verbal collage, stream-of-consciousness narrative, representational graphics, picture-accompanied words, scenarios for happenings, sculptural documentation, personal journal, esthetic manifesto, etc.; for the hundred flowers blooming here were really different. A few pieces could best be termed “other”; and the only signature on one poem, its face suspiciously turned backwards, read “Richard M. Nixon.” The overall constraint of alphabetical order generated some peculiar juxtapositions that, in turn, made the whole book resemble a loony montage. It struck me afterwards that very few contributors portrayed sexual experience, partly because the liberties that artists now want to take and that are blocked by established channels, deal not with content but concept and form.

The contributions were uneven, to be sure, in both artistry and technology (printing quality), but such discrepancies epitomize Assembling’s characteristic style and integrity, as well as perhaps its charm. “If you don’t turn on to something,” one contributor noted, “all you have to do is turn the page.” Such blatant chaos marked Assembling as a counter-book or anti-book (though not a “non-book”) which nonetheless gains its cohering definition (which is approximately repeatable) from its unprecedented diversity. In my admittedly biased opinion, more than half of the material has been uncommonly interesting, while a few contributions are awesomely extraordinary. It is more important to judge that very few pieces, if any, would have otherwise gotten beyond private musing into public print. (Korn and I also awarded, in total secrecy, a booby prize to “that contribution most likely to have appeared elsewhere” and thus needing Assembling least—a rather fine story by a sometime contributor to the slicks.) Collaborators in the first Assembling included such eminences as the painters Edward Ruscha and Arakawa; the poets Robert Lax, Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop, Vito Acconci, and Bernadette Mayer; the playwright Lee Baxandall; the novelists Marvin Cohen, George Chambers, Arno Karlen, and Raymond Federman; the composer Arthur Layzer; the polyartists Liam O’Gallagher, Dan Graham, and Alan Sondheim; along with a few artist-writers making their initial public appearances.

Most of the contributors were pleased, not only with the collaborative concept but with individual works, so that we decided to do the book again in 1971. Second Assembling, as we called it, materialized out of nothing in response, like its predecessor, to a summer’s correspondence. Many of the same artists and writers joined us a second time—Elizabeth Ginsberg, Tom Ahern, Gay Beste, Jan Herman, Rosalie Frank, and Roni Hoffman; but more than half of the fifty-two contributors were new, including such eminences as the film-maker Stan VanDer Beek (who neglected, however, to send enough copies); the poets Robin Magowan, C. P. Graham, Tom Ockerse, and Ruth Krauss; the fictionists Russell Edson and M. D. Elevitch; and the polyartists Ken Friedman and Bern Porter. Michael Metz, a process-documenting artist who contributed to the first book, took charge of production for the second, not only designing a stunning cover (which, this time, wrapped around the spine), but also joining Korn and me as a “co-compiler.” And its preface became yet more assertive, if not strident, in part because the closure crisis had become more severe, but also because I had spent most of the previous year drafting The End of Intelligent Writing (1973). In the second preface, I said:

Anyone who gets [experimental] writing frequently into print is bombarded with requests for advice: Where can one publish? Who? Why not?

And while one could give specific suggestions before [in the sixties], now the answer is invariably “nowhere,” accompanied by a brief and inevitably bitter analysis of the current predicament .... The terrible point is not that “one can’t get published,” but that nobody is publishing anymore. The fresh fruits we bear are turning into sour grapes, while the only money falling from those trees of dollar bills is counterfeit and/or confederate; and terror of a kind rules the roost. As writers largely lead isolated lives and have excessively sensitive egos, they tend to take rejections as strictly personal; but when nearly everything in certain veins is kept unpublished, the problems are not individual but collective—and, thus, amenable to political, or more specifically literary-political, solutions. Since it would be naïve to solicit help from elsewhere, the initiative in introducing any New Art to the reading public must first of all come from the artists themselves. Our guiding rule in an acclimating task comparable to that confronting Ezra Pound and his allies sixty years ago must be this: WHATEVER NEEDS TO BE DONE, WE, AS WRITERS, SHALL PROBABLY HAVE TO DO OURSELVES.

After years of courting established publishers on behalf of experimental writing—not only my own but that by others—I am reluctantly coming to the conclusion that more than half of the consequential literature produced in this country today remains unpublished. The more closely one examines the situation, the clearer it becomes that only temporary idiosyncrasy or lapse can explain the commercial release of such genuinely innovative works as Pritchard’s The Matrix and Eecchhooeess (1971) , Richard Horn’s Encyclopedia (1969), Madeline Gins’s Word Rain (1969), Kenneth Gangemi’s Olt (1969), Raymond Federman’s Double or Nothing (1971), G. S. Gravenson’s The Sweetmeat Saga (1971). Indicatively, most of these consequential novels came from smaller commercial publishers. But it is a more telling fact that some of the past decade’s most important American avant-garde texts were self-published: Edward Ruscha’s widely admired picture books (especially Thirty-Four Parking Lots [1967]), Dick Higgins’ Jefferson’s Birthday/Postface (1964) and Foew&ombwhnw (1969), Russell Edson’s The Brain Kitchen (1965), John Giorno’s Raspberry (1967), Charles Henri Ford’s Spare Parts (1968), Dan Graham’s End Moments (1969), Wally Depew’s Once (1971), Vito Acconci’s Book Four (1968), among others .

“Ahead of us, especially if the censorship presently implicit in the editorial/industrial complex becomes complete,” my second preface concludes, “is a writing situation comparable to that current in Soviet Russia, where nearly everything consequential is Samizdat, which means ‘self-published,’ and circulated from hand to hand. The practice of experimental writing in America is thus coming to resemble private research, like that in science, where new discoveries are first announced on stapled photocopies mailed to one’s professional friends rather than trying to generate a demand for his product.” We did a Third Assembling in 1972 with over ninety contributors, most of whom, once again, had not contributed before; and we expect to do a fourth in 1973.

Assembling has set an initial stone in the implicit edifice of International Cooperative Self-Publishing—a growing, unorganized, artistic movement that includes Dana Atchley’s comparably pioneering Space Atlas (1970,1971), which was done with the help of art students at the University of Victoria, British Columbia; Ely Raman’s 8 x 10 Art Portfolio, which began in lower Manhattan in 1971; and Jerry Bowles’ Art Work, No Commercial Value (Grossman, 1972). Notwithstanding similar concepts in editorial production, these media differ in several crucial respects. Atchley collates his hundred-plus contributions into two hundred fifty loose-leaf clipbooks and sends two apiece back to the contributors, thus having nothing left to sell; and he has recently taken to traveling the country, collecting spare work in one place (usually academic) and then, like Johnny Appleseed, distributing it gratis elsewhere. This extraordinary service implicitly extends his earlier aim of open-ended, unfettered artist-to-artist communication with a different kind of inseminating activity.

Raman’s periodical, which appears sporadically, asks for only two hundred copies of one’s text, returning two cardboard folders apiece to the thirty-or-so contributors and then selling off the rest to subscribers, who are asked to pay what they can. Bowles’ one-shot resembles Raman’s and Atchley’s in favoring graphics over literary (or post-literary) work, and its large loose-leaf binding was issued, to much publicity and after a gallery-sponsored collating party, by a commercial publisher that, even though it minimally reimbursed its paper-producing contributors, expected to make a profit. Thus, Assembling has three clear distinctions: its literary emphasis (in response to an initially literary predicament); its ideological underpinnings (elaborated in the prefaces—a feature indicatively lacking in the others); and its stapled binding, which we feel creates the sense of a fortuitous community united in process, though disparate in style.

What is most important about all these media, in spite of difference, is their common anti-authoritarian structure—quite literally, a participatory democracy that successfully redistributes both initiative and responsibility. In addition to epitomizing the humanist theme of ultimate self-determination, this collaborative concept represents, in my opinion, an important development in literary communication, precisely because it transcends “dummy intermediaries,” and it has a further advantage of easy imitation. (Its commercialization also signals a certain, perhaps dubious success that probably explains why Bowles’ enterprise rejected a duly submitted contribution, albeit an outrageous one, that went instead into Third Assembling.) In the mail recently came Clone, which is comparably produced by students at the Rhode Island School of Design, and another pile of unbound pages from British art students, along with independent invitations to send self-published packets to Holland, Germany, and Italy.

Unless the crisis in literary communications is radically solved, it seems likely that self-publishing, both individually and collaboratively, will continue to be necessary and respectable, and xerography paper may at times become more honorific than letterpress printing. Especially since the means of production have become more accessible, the pressing problem now, for all alternative publishing, is how to distribute the results beyond one’s immediate acquaintances (or mailing list). The best solution is so obvious it remains visionary: a national network of art-conscious wholesalers and retailers capable of handling small, probably slow-moving quantities. At last count, the enterprise has cost us several hundred dollars that we can theoretically recoup.

We were pleased to discover that Assembling has been read, not only by fellow contributors (who comprise a most ideal audience) but by its purchasers; and even those who browse in literary bookstores. The last tell me that they were intrigued by a subtitle that reads, “A Collection of Otherwise Unpublishable Creative Work” and they quickly discovered that the book’s contents are, at minimum, clearly unlike anything they had read/seen before. There are good reasons to believe, as I wrote elsewhere, “that the magazine’s distinctiveness caused it to be enthusiastically possessed, if not securely lodged within the imaginative memories of many readers; for as the anthropologist Edmund Carpenter observed, “It is one of the curiosities of a new medium, a new format, that at the moment it first appears, it’s never valued; but it is believed.’” Most important, in our judgment, is Assembling’s realization, simply by existing, of our initial threefold commitment to individual opportunity, unhindered communication, and creative adventurousness, for both the contents and its structure finally reflect values intended by, and hopefully intrinsic to, the process. Behind such a cordial gathering of genuine idiosyncrasy is a freedom and anarchy I personally find exemplary. “Assembled we stand,” runs our reiterated motto, “disassembled we fall,” and for the Third Assembling I added: “POWER TO THE PEOPLE WHO DO THE WORK.”