Hein Elferink

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: http://www.myspace.com/sicutdb, 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: http://herculeseditions.wordpress.com/

Desire paths

Staphorst is a place you can’t quite place. I was expecting it to be rural, and it is, in a way. We travelled on three trains to get there; from London to Brussels, Brussels to Schiphol. And from Schiphol, heading north, through Rotterdam, towards Meppel; the landscape eventually yielding to wide, flat fields separated by irrigation canals and lined by rigid rows of poplars, with the odd farmhouse or windmill suggesting habitation. But once we had alighted from the train, I was surprised by the amount of traffic. While some of the older women still cycle on ancient pushbikes in traditional dress, there are a lot of cars for such a small town, all heading in convoy to low-built strip malls along the main street. In that respect it reminded me of suburban New Jersey. But the long farmhouses with their painted shutters and thatched roofs brought me quickly back to Holland. None of the houses along the main road are particularly old; although they resemble seventeenth-century dwellings, most were built in the early part of the twentieth century, giving the town a feel of a restored village (again, I thought of America, somewhere like Williamsburg, although Staphorst is not a tourist recreation – this is how people live). The farmsteads grew up in a straight line along the bog; a farmer’s son would build his house behind his parent’s house, and his children behind him, so all the houses are regimented along the main road, facing the same way. There are cows and sheep in the yards, milk pails hanging along the wall, thatched sheds in the back. It is considered to be one of the most religious places in Holland. The town falls silent on Sundays.

It is an odd place then to find an exhibition of contemporary art. But just on the outskirts of town, Hein Elferink has built a gallery next to his house. On the Saturday we were there, light was streaming through the large horizontal glass roof, and we could see the brown forms of winter trees crowding the sky. We were gathered for the private view of works by Linda Karshan and Marian Breedveld; Linda’s drawings, as always, stark in the best possible way, like charts to nowhere, next to Marian’s bright swipes of colour. They worked surprising well together, matched in their sense of pattern and motion (Linda and Marian discovered they had a common background in dance which informed both their works).

It was also the launch of Desire Paths, the edition of Linda’s new woodcuts and my corresponding poem. It is a beautiful production; the sheets emerging from an earth-coloured box, Linda’s woodcuts on delicate tissue-thin Japanese paper, but dark, grained, serious. My poem like an inscription carved in stone or on a tomb. Amazing to think that although Linda was in Connecticut, I was in London and Hein was in Staphorst, the finished result of our project is completely, stunningly integrated. Our paths finally came together, making the title of the work more relevant.

But this is what Hein does. He shows us his presses, his cases of metal type: Fournier (which is the font chosen for our edition), Baskerville, Gill Sans, Bembo. Classic faces. The paper he uses is thick and smooth, a creamy off-white. His boxes are covered in linen, the bindings hand-stitched. This is slow, meticulous work. The book as artifact, as artwork.

So maybe not so odd then, to be in Staphorst. The town is famous for its ‘stipwork’, a traditional kind of button embroidery that decorates caps and skirts. It is a place where people make things with their hands, the way they’ve been making things for years. There is devotion and patience in this kind of making, just as there is devotion and patience in making books, and pictures, and poems …