Invective Against Swans
Matters of the heart

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Followers of Invective will recall the chapbook Formerly, my first project with designer and photographer Vici MacDonald. The success of Formerly demonstrated to us that there was a niche we might fill, as we discovered there were very few publishers willing to take on poetry/ photography collaborations (although since then there have been a few brilliant ones: I Spy Pinhole Eye by Philip Gross and Simon Denison http://www.cinnamonpress.com/i-spy-pinhole-eye/ and Wordless by George Szirtes and Kevin Reid http://www.knivesforksandspoonspress.co.uk/wordless.html to name two). And so, our press, Hercules Editions was born. 

There was never any doubt what our next project would be. Back in 2010, Vici, me, and our friend, the poet Sue Rose, went on a trip to Paris. During our stay, we visited Personnes, Christian Boltanski’s Momumenta installation at the Grand Palais. I was familiar with Boltanski’s work – so much of it a statement on loss and memory, the great atrocities of the twentieth century, particularly the Holocaust – but this was devastating, overwhelming. The vast halls of the Grand Palais were filled with rectangular plots, like graves, filled with old clothes. Further into the hall, a picker on the end of a crane grabbed more piles of clothes and dropped them on a burgeoning heap, like a burial mound, like the piles of bodies, dead or nearly dead, that were discovered when the Allies liberated the camps (it is particularly poignant that I write this a few days after Alice Herz-Sommer, the last survivor of the camps, died at the age of 110). Laura Cumming summed up the experience in her review at the time:

You were in a necropolis, now you are in purgatory: balanced between heaven and hell, witnessing the hand of God. Except, of course, that you are in a freezing, cacophonous place surrounded by secondhand clothes and probably eager to be gone. That is the exceptional achievement of the piece. All its elements are frankly simple and apparent, you see how they combine, how it all works. Yet none of this stifles its resonant truths, that in the midst of life we are in death, that man’s inhumanity to man continues beyond Auschwitz, Srebrenica, Rwanda.

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And into the huge echoing space came the sound of heartbeats; Boltanski’s other great work, Archives du Coeur, is an attempt to record as many heartbeats as possible, so that they might be eventually stored on an island off the coast of Japan as a permanent record of human existence. At Monumenta, you could have your heartbeat recorded to be part of the installation. Sue immediately queued up.

We were all moved by the work, but it was Sue who carried away not the recording of her heart (you could get a CD, but it was too late in the day by the time she’d had hers recorded) but the seed of an idea that would grow over the next three years, from a few initial poems that drew directly on the installation, to a whole sequence which formed her own ‘heart archives’ – poems about the people she loves. Vici and I watched the sequence grow and develop, out of that incredible experience that Boltanski gave us.

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And so the book, Heart Archives, was launched in London last week. Rather than use images from the installation, Vici commissioned Sue to take her own photographs, on her iPhone (the technology which allows us all to be our own archivists), of things and people who matter to her. The result is a book which is intensely personal, but also very moving – we can all connect with the need to preserve those we love, to keep their flames burning even once they are gone.

I will end with a few words from Sue, from her introduction, on the process of making the images for the book:

It was a strange process, rediscovering and revisiting so many of our family’s valued objects which, despite being within easy reach, had been forgotten and ignored, gathering dust in dark places. I was saddened that many of them had either been damaged by the passage of years and neglect or stripped of their identities and resonances to become once more objects devoid of meaning and history. It reminded me again of the importance of preserving and documenting the artefacts from our own personal archaeology. If we don’t, we risk losing our heritage and, by extension, ourselves.

Heart Archives is now available. You can order it here: http://herculeseditions.wordpress.com/heart-archives/

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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/

Number 13 Hercules Buildings, Lambeth

A few people have asked myself and my co-founder, Vici MacDonald, why we decided to call our new press Hercules Editions. The simple answer is that we both live in Lambeth (although in the last four years I have strayed further South in the Borough, all the way to Stockwell), and that the presiding spirit of our part of the world is William Blake, who moved to Number 13 Hercules Buildings in 1791 (there’s a blue plaque on the side of the 50s council block that stands there now marking the location of his house).

Stanley Gardner writes of Blake’s Lambeth address:

Number 13 Hercules Buildings, Lambeth, was a comfortable two-story house with a garden front and back. The Blakes lived there, at least from the summer of 1791, until they moved to Felpham on the South Coast in September 1800. The first three years in Lambeth redirected Blake’s thinking on the follow-up to ‘Songs of Innocence’, and from here he launched his attack on the broader conspiracies of place and power, which perpetuated oppression and conflict.

The follow-up, as we know, was Songs of Experience, which contained some of Blake’s most famous poems, ‘The Sick Rose’, ‘The Tyger’ and ‘London’. What was it about the ‘exclusive gardens of Lambeth,’ as Gardner calls them, that produced this extraordinary work?

Gardner says:

Lambeth itself, convenient to Westminster Bridge, had long been a place of commercialised charity, tough factories and seedy pleasure. The land downstream from the bridge, between the river and the marsh, was lined with a half mile of timber yards, Lambeth Waterworks, barge makers and a patent shot manufactory. Across and around the marsh, on twenty-nine acres leased from the Prince Regent, were dye-houses, storehouses, cranes, brewhouses, stables, Mr Beaufoy’s vinegar manufactory, and among the ponds and water courses across the marsh, seventy dwelling houses. Sentinel over all, the new shot-tower was dropping into wartime production as Blake pulled together ‘Songs of Experience’.

It was the London of small industry and great poverty, a place of pleasure gardens and hard labour. The old Hercules Hall became the Female Orphan Asylum, and Blake would have been familiar with the charges of that institution when he was writing ‘The Little Girl Lost’. He was down the road from the Palace of Lambeth and the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who himself was downwind from Vauxhall Gardens, the most notorious place to indulge in any imaginable sin.

I wouldn’t dream of comparing ourselves with Blake, but the project Vici and I undertook was all about London’s hidden histories, the tough & tattered cheek by jowl with grand mansions and leafy squares. Much of it is set in SE1, the quarter of town we know well. In addition, Blake was his own poet, his own illustrator, his own printer, his own book designer, and so we wanted to follow his early model of DIY publishing. Our product will be a bit rough and ready compared to Blake’s beautiful books, but we hope it is in keeping with the Lambeth we inhabit today.

Formerly, our first publication, will be hot off the press to coincide with the exhibition of photos and poems from the book at the Poetry Cafe from 18th June to 14th July.

Here’s our website: http://www.herculeseditions.com/