Formerly the launch (and some thoughts on the olfactory properties of books)

A successful event at the Poetry Café always involves a little sweat. In this instance, raised partly through the preparation that went into Thursday’s combined private view, launch and performance, but also induced by the sheer number of people we tried to squeeze through the door and into the intimate space. Through the clever use of a very long cable, we managed to broadcast the reading (accompanied by a soundscape, created by my old pal Douglas Benford:, which meshed sampled urban noises with various children’s toys) from basement performance space to café level above.

Not only has Formerly been launched, but also Hercules Editions, which has gone from being a discussion Vici and I have conducted over many months, to being a proper press – its physical manifestation in one little book. So I guess that makes us publishers (yes, with only one publication to date, but you have to begin somewhere). And I can’t help wondering what my father would have made of our little book, if he was still with us. There is a family story that he produced his first publication (a colour magazine, no less) on a hand-press when he was just 14 years old. He became a newspaper journalist after he graduated from college (there was a stint at The New York Times, where he rather inconceivably used to review ballet); he started publishing books when he was still in his twenties, and continued to do so throughout the whole of his life.

The library of my childhood home was a kind of sacred space, separated from the rest of the house by a glass-covered porch, so it felt somehow removed from the everyday business of eating and sleeping and playing. It had a particular smell: fusty, leathery, which I can still sniff out in certain antiquarian bookshops (particularly ones where the stock doesn’t shift quickly). My father used to smell books, and so I’ve inherited the habit from him. I get off on the whiff of decay from a yellowing Penguin paperback, its orange cover rusty with age, but my father was particularly partial to a fine Moroccan binding (which has a delicate aroma – sweet, like an unlit cigar).

Readers of Invective will remember that I began the year by launching Desire Paths, hand-set by Hein Elferink in the Netherlands in an edition of 10, with woodcuts by Linda Karshan, separately editioned by Mette Ulstrup for Neils Borch Jensen in Copenhagen. The woodcuts are on delicate rice paper that fold in between the sections of my poem like pressed leaves, the sheets folding neatly into a hand-made, linen-covered box. It is too big to sit on a shelf, it is not designed to be read (although I hope the poem has enough integrity to match the materials of its making) so much as admired. My father would have loved it.

Whereas our chapbook (our ‘Herculean’ production) is printed by Risograph on recycled paper. Risograph is the process used by schools to produce high-volume, inexpensive textbooks – if you open our book and stick your nose in, you get the scent of a 70s classroom (it almost feels as if the ink could rub off on your fingers). Vici calls it ‘cheap and dirty’, but that’s really what our book is about – the damp, forgotten corners of London. The form should always match the content, that’s what I tell my students, and so the slightly rubbed-away quality imposed by the Risograph (the words fading into the grain of the paper) echoes the disappearing places we are attempting to record.

My father would have liked our book as well, because he would have recognised it as a statement of intent. I am his daughter, who has inherited this weird obsession with the materiality of books (possibly why I don’t as yet have a Kindle), but I also understand, as he did, that the book is a commercial object which reflects its time. He published grand volumes in his day, but also modest paperbacks. I’d like to think our little book falls somewhere in the middle ground – it is produced simply, not too expensively, so it is democratic, an object of this recession-age, but still signed and numbered. And it smells good too.

Formerly can be ordered here: