An ever so slightly revised version of this appeared in the St. Louis Literary Supplement in 1976.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Singing Bone Press in Webster Groves, Missouri, was asked by the Literary Supplement to write a small autobiography of itself: why and how it came into being, How it is different from other publishing houses, how it survives. The manuscript that arrived answered none of these questions, at least not with any I of the usual formulas of journalism, But the idiosyncrasy of the reply nevertheless seemed to be the very definition of a “singing bone,” which, as the parable below suggests, is the medium of the unexpected.
Singing Bone Press
A short distance from the generated power on Highway 44 in St. Louis County a few people with hands that seem too large and fleshy for type-setting are dedicated to piecing words, images, and materials together.
The press has three conspirators: Tom Lang, Jerred Metz, and Phil Sultz. Their decision to construct personal objects established an initial direction and an enduring rapport. The letter press would give the object its basic ingredient while the physical aspects would embrace the material without weighing it down with artistic fat.
While most private presses produce books printed by offset lithography, this letter-press operation produces objects made by hand. With the speed of a turtle, the press is led by a multitude of chores inevitably towards an independent solution.
Singing Bone Press hasn’t been a smooth operation in a professional sense, printing limited editions. The only conceivable prospect was to wear the pants inside out and show the seams. Someone likened the press to a moonshining operation, equipment of the same vintage, penny-ante process, but damn good booze for homemade. The press didn’t have to search for words and images, but looked for a corporeal solution, a way to unload what they carried inside them.
From 1974 to 1984 Singing Bone released ten letter-press editions. When we began we decided to publish the absurd work of Afroyim LoigzuItz: Scenes and Stories. The format was just right for all the stumbling we had expected. We found the paper we wanted in a lumberyard laying in an open shed. The effects of age and atmosphere altered the paper’s color. Having been rolled, it required weeks of heavy flat-pressing. The old typeface we decided touse turned out to be short of vowels. The work seemed to have been written with all our shortcomings in mind. Sixty-eight copies of Scenes and Stories were printed.
After that the press preferred to make one hundred one copies of each book. This quantity characterized the vision the group was projecting, allowing the literature to establish a feeling, an ambience, and the form we hoped it might take.
Less a period of introspection, the next summer became a time for papermaking, a time for making drawings to fit the Jerred Metz riddle book–Three Legs Up, Cold as Stone: Six Legs Down, Blood and Bone and a time to improve and reflect on the future of Singing Bone.
Concurrently with the riddle book, Singing Bone published Seneca Journal: The Serpent by the poet Jerome Rothenberg. Our collaboration began when Sultz met Rothenberg on the Alleghany Reservation in western New York. We decided to print Seneca Journal: Mid-Winter, a series of thirty short poems written in the poet’s notebook during the Mid-Winter Ceremonies of 1973 and 1974. The poems begin:
A man who was a crow was traveling.
He didn’t know where he had come from
or which way he was going.
As he moved along he kept on thinking:
How did I come to be alive?
Where did I come from?
Where am I going?
and they end, in a free paraphrase of the old Seneca formula with:
it was all I could do
it was all I had learned
it was all that there was.
An attempt, then, to record with a minimum of comment the idea of the collaboration by extending the nature of the poems as memento. To make a small box of poems and other objects as a kind of personal “medicine bundle” and a gift for friends on the reservation and off. The result was a printing of 101 copies, signed by the author.
Then, Seneca Journal: Mid-Winter, a book accompanied by antiquity or primitive uncouthness and some aspirations.
Seven more books followed over the years.
There’s little doubt that Singing Bone derives energy and renewal from the forms it conceives and eventually produces, but there’s an ocean of events between conception and completion. Ordinarily what often appears to be a day’s work is really nothing more than that, plain work that hasn’t been glamorized by any stretch of the imagination; the rewards at the end of the chain still appear to be great.
There’s a Sung bowl around the shop that leads the hands by its shape into an exquisite but simple act of coordination. There’s a concern here as well for the effect touching has on the mind. How the book is held, as much as what is seen, is part of the pattern of formulation.
Materials are altered or cut or creased or stacked or rolled or wrapped or tied or bundled as a way of conveying possible formats for unpublished manuscripts. Serious concern for leftovers as another way of starting has sometimes overshadowed an original format.
Perhaps the only view held necessary is the use of multiple pages or separate areas to express a total idea. While packing words inform a semi-protective matrix can be challenging in an aesthetic sense, overlooked we feel are the effects old social systems have had using indigenous simple solutions in the process of general construction.
The spirit and necessity of making do with limited materials brings about a distinct personal solution, and so quite significant is the equality of hand-making to support the quality of the written work.
While there is no true plane of self-sufficiency here, there is a tendency to feel that the rejection of almost everything available is an advantage. And so what occurs often is total rejection and a variety of exercises that may appear stagnant or futile but which must nevertheless occur.
Once in a while you have to sit around the little red press as if it were a pot-bellied stove and wait. It’s a time when simple nomenclature of raw materials can produce levels of refinement, a feeling of selective brevity and a form of refreshment unlike the corporate bookstore fare which continues to appear more like the packaged solutions for fast feeding we all experience in the supermarkets.
There is no illusion about the nature of material resources being sacrosanct, nor is there the tendency to lean on nature as if it were an armature. Yet it is always a question of context and degrees of emphasis. There is little use bemoaning the fact that paper is mashed and pulverized beyond recognition if you can use it.
And then again the continuous flow of industrial stuff, useful and otherwise, has increased our dependency on outside forces that would otherwise demand personal solutions to problems. But the need to find relationships forces us to activate muscles almost never flexed.
The press has a guaranteed obstacle course and problem solving is more the rule than the exception. Work sessions provide a lot of time to discuss folkways, poets, painters, and mostly the nitty-gritty that carries people through a day. Everyone around here writes and a fortuitous understanding has strengthened the group’s ability to appreciate the interests we each have in primitive holistic and post-dada work. It has allowed us to find a basic level of continuity.
The style and humor from all this helps everyone relax, a vital component, and to draw upon some inner fresh energy. We were not looking for a familiar pattern but rather a spirit of openness, of rawness and, as is expressed through Zen, a spirit of wabi or poverty.
After the first two years Singing Bones was feeding itself with type and paper courtesy of book payments that appeared now and then. There weren’t any aspirations to work towards a profit-making status. It just never became a serious subject for discussion.
A major nemesis in those days was sorting and cleaning type. It’salways a problem, but at the start we were inundated with mounds of stuff that seemed to have arrived in old shopping bags mixed and mucky. The special talents of Tom Lang have eliminated problems of that nature, problems Virginia Wolff often complained about.
Unlike a commercial publisher whose operations leave the author out from the construction of his work, a small press like Singing Bone can be sensitive to an author’s feelings and is directly influenced by the personality of the work and the personality of its creator. A close collaboration is a luxury we can afford.
Our hope, as the story of the singing bone goes, is to make songs from bones, to make books from trash. Beyond this, to use our own acquisitive today’s waste to shape our own way and to offer our accent on pleasure.
Since the publication of the original article Singing Bone Press published several more books, bringing the total to seven before the three went on to other endeavors. The press is reviving itself with the same artists, having been at rest the lifetime of two generations of seventeen year locusts.
THE SINGING BONE PRESS