- Scenes:Chax Press: an interview with Charles Alexander
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Would you briefly describe Chax Press's history?
There are a tantalizing number of possible beginnings. I made a little poem pamphlet about age thirteen. I was enthralled with the physicality of books as I was studying poetry at Stanford University as an undergraduate, finding my way out of my studies to independent readings of Charles Olson, Edward Dorn, Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, and more. But things later began in earnest.
After attending the November 1978 Charles Olson Festival in Iowa City, and coming into contact with Toothpaste Press and Windhover Press and book creations ranging from the beautifully casual and ephemeral to the luxuriously fine, I returned to grad school at UW-Madison determined to learn to make books by hand. I could not have been in a better place, and began to study bookmaking with renowned artist Walter Hamady (of Perishable Press Limited fame). Almost immediately, I founded Black Mesa Press, which morphed into Chax Press when I moved from Madison to Tucson in 1984. In between, studies with Hamady continued, as well as collaborations with Madison book artists Katherine Kuehn, Beth Grabowski, Penny McElroy, and others. We became involved with the magnificent Woodland Pattern Book Center, which included at the time inspiringly creative artists such as Karl Young, Thomas Gaudynski, Karl Gartung, and Anne Kingsbury, and which featured authors we would come to publish, such as bpNichol, Steve McCaffery, Lyn Hejinian, and many more—this was between 1980 and 1984. During this time, I first went to book fairs in New York, and I visited Nichol in Toronto—his sense of passion and play at work in the heart of poetry remains a vital influence at Chax Press.
Chax Press exclusively made books by hand (setting type, printing on a Vandercook Press, and hand-binding books) until 1989, by which time it had become clear that in order to serve authors better and reach more readers, we needed to produce books in trade editions as well. The first were books by bpNichol and, due to the encouragement of Charles Bernstein and Lyn Hejinian, myself. In an important way, I have always seen Chax Press as inseparable from my work as a poet, and indeed, it has extended the range of my poetry and vision. Ever since this multi-streamed beginning, Chax has been mixing the handmade and trade editions, with handmade works increasingly devoted to projects that are artistically challenging and that create an investigative poetics in terms of the nature of visual and verbal collaborations in poetry, particularly in which language itself can be seen as having visual impact and meaning. Along the way, Chax has also sponsored reading series, artists' residencies, workshops, symposia, and more. We have never considered ourselves as a traditional publisher in practically any way, and in fact, relate better to our peer nonprofit organizations in dance, theatre, and the like, than to more traditional publishing operations. We see each book as a creative and critical project, and see the press work as a whole as an engagement in and with contemporary poetry and poetics. I find myself using "we" here, which is both the "house" of Chax, but also the specific people involved over the years, including, most prominently, my wife, Cynthia Miller, visual artist, with whom Chax has almost always shared studio space, ongoing conversation, and more. In addition, over the years, we have enjoyed the help of many volunteers and interns, including a few who have begun presses of their own.
How would you characterize the fiction you publish?
I hope you mean "poetry," as the fiction we publish is almost nonexistent, beyond one short novel by Diane Glancy, one long novel by Hilton Obenzinger, and one short story by Lydia Davis. In poetry, we publish works that challenge our own, and perhaps others' notions, of what constitutes poetry. Generally, the traditions represented hail from modernist, Black Mountain, Objectivist, New York School, Language, and other strains of American poetry (but not limited to American) that do not take the nature of poetry for granted. One look at our books...