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Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

Paul Blackburn, ProensaProensa. By Paul Blackburn. Divers Press, Palma de Mallorca, 1953. Bodoni type. 51 pages.

Proensa, Paul Blackburn’s translations of the Provencal poets, was the first publication realized by Robert and Ann Creeley’s The Divers Press. Earlier in 1953, Creeley abandoned Roebuck Press, a publishing venture with fellow Mallorca expat, Martin Seymour Smith, due to a disagreement in just what writers that Press should give voice to. Smith wanted to publish his mother, which Roebuck in fact did. Creeley wanted to publish his friends. Creeley: “I was just determined to publish Americans of my own interests. I was far more idealistic than Martin.” Poets such as Blackburn spoke in a language that Creeley could understand and enjoy. Creeley felt Blackburn’s work was the ideal choice for Divers Press’s first statement to the world.  

It is somewhat fitting that the first Divers Press book is one of translations. Proensa as an object was an attempt on Creeley’s part to translate a foreign language. Creeley the poet sought to become Creeley the publisher and designer. At the time, Creeley was unsure of his ability to articulate his vision of book design. In fact, Creeley in a later interview wondered if he and Ann even had one. Creeley: “We did the design. That was what was so terrific about these printers, they were so articulate in translating our — neither one of us were really artists, so we would mock up or improvise what we wanted it to look like.” Like all translators, Alcover and his printers possessed the special ability to listen to the material as well as to the Creeleys. Creeley: “Their patience and ability to stay with us through our own sort of inchoate attempts to resolve design work were terrific. And they had such a physically clear sense of what a page could look like and so — their sense of spacing was so graceful — they could do any kind of text and give it that very comfortable feel of words progressing. Just delicious.” They took Creeley’s fumbling and translated it into a strong, coherent sense of design. Just as Creeley himself took such disarticulation and fashioned it into his singular voice as expressed in his poetry of the period.  

It could be argued that Proensa is something of a mistranslation of the classic Divers Press design. The Bodoni type seems a different language (French/Italian) than the standard Futura and Mercedes (Spanish) of the later Divers Press titles. In addition, the text-heavy cover design sorely lacks the illustrator’s touch, which defined the Press’ look. Yet Bodoni is the appropriate typeface for Blackburn’s English translations of the French troubadours. Giambattista Bodoni, the Italian typographer and printer from Parma, infused the designs of Englishman John Baskerville with French designers, such as Pierre Simon Fournier and Firmin Didot. The Bodoni typeface, therefore, enacts and embodies Blackburn’s act of translation. Creeley’s dictum that form is never more than an extension of content comes to mind. Reviewing the Divers Press backlist, nowhere is this more apparent than with Proensa. One wonders if the Divers Press format conflicts with Creeley’s concept of poetic form. For example, does Blackburn’s The Dissolving Fabric extend from the content or out of the development of a house design? Is Proensa or The Dissolving Fabric more true to the material as an object? Or are such questions merely mistranslations of Creeley’s often misunderstood and misapplied statement to Olson.

Translations take time and practice. Strangers, like Alcover and his printers and the Creeleys, born of different countries, speaking different languages, do not understand each other immediately. There is a period of getting acquainted, capturing each other’s rhythms, cadences, expressions, and gestures. Proensa may fail to ring true to the later Divers Press, but it is far from a sour note. It is a solid first effort from a fledgling press and a feeling-out-in-process that suggests the later Divers Press feel.

Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 21 April 2019.

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