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Burning Deck: Introducing an Appreciation

This essay introduces Mathew Timmons’ multi-part appreciation of The Burning Deck Press, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. Over the course of 2012 Timmons will situate TBDP in the literary and cultural landscape of the last half-century by reviewing a large selection of its titles, by detailing its history, and by interviewing its founders and publisher, Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop. The entire series will be archived on its own page—forthcoming—which will include a complete bibliography of the press, with titles to be reviewed by Timmons noted. DS

Most poetry insiders and experimental prose aficionados know The Burning Deck Press, if not by name then at least by the lovely, simple design of their books. In fact, any small press that lasts 50 years tends to generate name recognition beyond the otherwise often insular boundaries of the experimental writing community. Even I had a fair knowledge of the press before beginning research for this project. I knew it was edited by Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop in Providence or Boston, and if hard pressed I would have guessed Providence. I’d have been right, of course, and I really lament the fact that I didn’t know about the Waldrops when I lived there in 1998 – 99. I guessed the press had been around since the early 1970s (wrong! 1961, to be exact) and that the design of their books and their obviously good eye for typography was to be much appreciated. I’d thought that poetry was the main focus of the press, and, maybe, work in translation from the French. (Actually they publish a fair amount of prose and a good amount of work in translation from German as well.) Otherwise, Burning Deck seemed, to me, a real old school small press publisher with a well-focused aesthetic behind their publishing—an aesthetic I deeply appreciate and, in my mind, associate with another great small press, The Figures. The first Burning Deck book I ever owned was given to me by my good friend Harold Abramowitz, Trial Impressions by Harry Mathews (1977), a book which I will talk more about in the next installment of this series.

A selection of Burning Deck chapbooks.

Over the next few months I will be writing a serial essay for Molossus that looks into the 50-year history of Burning Deck, including mini-reviews of more than 60 of their titles, an extended email interview with Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop and a consideration of the development of the aesthetic of the press and how it reflected or differed from the various aesthetics simultaneously developing in the poetry and writing world at large. I hope to make this a highly informative piece for people who are new to the press and for those already familiar with the press. I hope to expose Molossus readers to a variety of interesting and intriguing aspects of the press as well as to writers and books they might not otherwise be familiar with.

Much of the history of the press I will present here has been collected from fairly easy to access online research, which I will attempt to exhaustively cite. I plan to write this piece as what I might call a conceptual writer’s essay, not because I’m necessarily a conceptual writer or that this will be a conceptual essay (for an example of a conceptual essay see my book The New Poetics, from Les Figues Press). Rather I will allow myself, here, to quote extensively from sources that have done a perfectly good job of covering some aspect of the Burning Deck project and which I feel it would be wholly redundant to rewrite. It is my hope that I will be able to present the material in a sensible and engaging manner, and that perhaps this serial piece will add to the body of scholarship on the press by covering a good portion of the Burning Deck catalog while the press is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

As I started researching Burning Deck I learned a lot that has absolutely nothing to do with the press and then, of course, a lot that does. For instance, there’s the burning deck street magic trick, where the magician finds your card by burning a hole through the center of the deck all the way down to your card. More likely related to the actual press is the 1826 poem “Casabianca” by British poet Felicia Dorothea Hemans: “The Boy stood on the burning deck/Whence all but he had fled;/The flame that lit the battle’s wreck/Shone round him o’er the dead.” The poem was written in ballad meter as a memorial to the French ship Orient that went down in 1798 during the Battle of the Nile. From the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, this poem was a staple of elementary school readers in the United States, memorized and recited to such an extent that it lost any meaning and became a topic of innumerable parodies. The poem notably appears in Mark Twain’s unpublished autobiography as part of a story he tells about buying his first typewriter. Astonished at how quickly a type-girl in a store could type (57 wpm), he bought a machine before realizing the typist was turning out and repeating a memorized phrase, “The Boy stood on the burning deck…” I had heard that the original poem was, in fact, the inspiration for the name of the press, but unfortunately, I cannot find that reference anywhere in my research now, so the namesake may remain somewhat of a myth. Most of the rest of the story of Burning Deck on the other hand is fairly straightforward, and it’s the real particulars that make Burning Deck the mythical press it has turned out to be.

In 1961, the Waldrops bought a secondhand 8 x 12 Chandler and Price platen printing press for $175 and started Burning Deck Magazine, a publication they called a “quinterly.” This was in Ann Arbor, Michigan where Keith and Rosmarie were studying for their respective PhDs in Comparative Literature. Eventually, they would transition to printing a series of pamphlets and chapbooks, and then to publishing books of poetry and short fiction, after their move to Providence, Rhode Island in 1968, but the press was dedicated to “experimental poetry and prose” from the beginning. And by 1981 Burning Deck was printing its one hundredth volume, an anthology celebrating its twentieth year in business.
Rosmarie has said of the early years:

Publishing was Keith Waldrop’s initiative. He wanted a poetry magazine and, as we were penniless graduate students, decided the only way was to print it ourselves. The early 60s happened to be the moment when print shops all over the country dumped their letterpresses… It took a little while to learn to print, but we did. Burning Deck Magazine was slated to come out 5 times a year. Instead it came out 4 times in 5 years. Keeping a fixed publication schedule was clearly too much for us, so we shifted to printing chapbooks of poetry, which would appear whenever we could manage.

Burning Deck developed among a group of writers in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as Steve Evans has documented in his entry on Rosmarie Waldrop for the Dictionary of Literary Biography v.169 (1996):

“James Camp and Don Hope (who along with Keith coedited Burning Deck [M]agazine between 1962 and 1965), Dallas Wiebe, John Heath-Stubbs, X.J. Kennedy, and the Waldrops composed the core of this circle, known playfully as the John Barton Wolgamot Society. Wolgamot was the author of In Sarah, Christ, Mencken, and Beethoven There Were Men and Women (1944), a fascinating if arcane book that Keith had stumbled upon in a used-book shop. Contributing to the aura that this author assumed for the circle was the fact that Wolgamot is a near-homonym of Wohlgemuth, the maiden name of Rosmarie’s mother. Along with [Donald] Hall, W. D. Snodgrass—then teaching at Wayne State University in nearby Detroit—also participated in the circle. Both men were represented (along with Kennedy, Wiebe, Camp, Heath-Stubbs, Keith Waldrop [under the pseudonym 'Bernard Keith'], and Hope) in the first Burning Deck title, a 1961 anthology edited by Hope and entitled The Wolgamot Interstice.”

Burning Deck began as a literary clique, a small sort of salon society of writers who passed their work among each other, a secret literary cabal, and they started like many literary groups as a joke that some members took pretty far down the road. The best source of information about how they came upon the name The John Barton Wolgamot Society can be found in an interview with Keith Waldrop conducted by Peter Gizzi, published in Le Germe #4 by Andrew Maxwell and Macgregor Card in Spring 2000, which I will summarize below and quote from extensively to finish the first installation of this series on Burning Deck’s 50th Anniversary.

To summarize the story, Keith found Wolgamot’s book In Sarah, Christ, Mencken, and Beethoven There Were Men and Women in a bookstore in the summer of 1957 and after contemplating it over the course of a few visits he bought the book for 50 cents and noted that the author’s name was the same as the publisher’s. When the group in Ann Arbor needed a name for their group they went with Keith’s suggestion to name themselves after Wolgamot and its members began to slip references to him in everything they wrote, including into a few of the members’ doctoral theses. Eventually, Keith and the rest of the circle were curious enough to actively seek out Wolgamot using any method they could think of, “including asking the I Ching whether he was still alive—which gave us what seemed to be a perfectly unequivocal reply: that he was still alive, but in decline.” (ibid.) They found a reference to Wolgamot in H. L. Mencken’s literary estate—recall the title of the book: In Sarah, Christ, Mencken, and Beethoven There Were Men and Women)—because Sarah referred to Sarah Haardt who was Mencken’s wife and who was very sick when Wolgamot first published the book. Mencken made a note in one of his books about coming across the volume saying “I called him on the phone [Wolgamot] and I said, ‘Wolgamot, are you crazy?’ And he said, quite unpreturbed [sic], ‘No, I’m not crazy, I just like to write that way.’” (ibid.) Through a friend of a friend of Wolgamot’s nephew they were finally able to track the writer down at a hotel where he was living in New York City. Keith somehow got the phone number and called him one night to invite him to read at the University of Michigan, but apparently Wolgamot didn’t believe in giving readings.

Some years later, after the Waldrops moved to Providence, Robert Ashley composed a piece based entirely on the book and as he was touring it around he met a woman in Los Angeles who claimed to be Wolgamot’s “only confidante.” A meeting was arranged through the “confidante,” and Ashley called Keith Waldrop to New York City from Providence, and they went to finally meet Wolgamot in person. Incidentally, Wolgamot refused to listen to Ashley’s piece, but he told them that his book was based on the four movements of the Eroica Symphony by Beethoven.

And as he listened to it, he kept hearing names. And he wrote down the names—he said they were names he didn’t know, that didn’t mean anything to him—but he wrote them down as he heard them. Then he went to a biography of Beethoven—this is what he claimed—he went to a biography of Beethoven, and he said he found all those names…. And he realized, after thinking about this, that rhythm is the basis of everything, and names are the basis of rhythm. He said that’s why, when a woman gets married and changes her name, she loses her character. He said, ‘You know, you can even hear this in the name of fictional characters. For instance, Anna Karenina: listen to that—ann-a-ka-ren-in-a ann-a-ka-ren-in-a—it’s the railroad: that’s why she gets run over by a train.’

When [Wolgamot] realized that names were the basis of everything, he decided that all you’d have to do is write names, and that’d be it. So he wrote a name, and then on another page he wrote another name and so forth (in four movements). He soon realized that wasn’t quite enough—you had to have different names to play off each other, to make a more complex rhythm. So he put together big lists of names, mostly of writers. He said, ‘I didn’t read all these authors, but they’re all good authors.’ And some artists, musicians and so forth. He had big lists, and he claimed that to the one name on a page he’d put these other names up next to it and ‘when there was a real spark between them,’ he would know those names went together. So then he had three names on a page. And then he collected other names around each of these three, and he said that then he knew it really was perfect. It was all it needed to be—each page was perfect—except that there was no reason to turn the page. He knew he had to have a sentence, only one sentence. That one sentence would be on every page. He claimed that’s what took him so long. All the rest he did fairly fast, but it took him ten years to write that one sentence. He said that it was so difficult ‘because, you know, it’s very hard to find a sentence that doesn’t say anything.’

Keith Waldrop “found that a year before [the book he had discovered in Danville] came out, in 1943, Richard R. Smith in New York had published a book by Wolgamot, with a slightly different title, In Sara Powell Haardt Were Men and Women—close, but not the same. … So [he] bought it, and it turned out to be exactly the same book, except for the title page and the size of the margins. [Keith] got to thinking about this and again came up with an outrageous theory: that Wolgamot was working on a trilogy, and these were the first two books. The third would be the same, but with a different title page and he’d have a trilogy of great formal unity.

I said, ‘Are you working on another book?’ And [Wolgamot] said yes, yes, he’d been working on another book since his second book came out. He said, ‘My first book was no good. My second book began to gallop. But you haven’t seen anything yet.’ The third one, he’d been working on … for thirty years. He said, writing took longer now because he had to work. At the time he wrote the first two books, he didn’t have to work and could spend all his time on them. Now his money had run out and he had to work. And I said, Now your next book—the first two books I had, which were, you remember, exactly the same text—I said, ‘Well, the text of the third book—is that going to be…’ And he said, as if it went without saying, ‘Oh, same text, same text.’

Wolgamot’s third book would be the same, of course, except for the title page and the size of the margins. When Wolgamot died, in his will he had appointed Ashley his literary executor.

Ashley was supposed to receive the contents of this famous safety-deposit box, which we assumed would be the plates for the book—because Wolgamot had told us he still had the plates. After some legal folderol, the contents of the box were delivered to Ashley, but all that was in the box was a metal stamp—the kind of thing you stamp a book cover with. It was for the new title, the title for his third book. Its title is Beacons of Ancestorship.

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