Tuesday, May 28, 2013
KIM MERKER R.I.P.
My old friend, poet Bob Berner sent me this NY Times obit for Kim Merker, the fine book printer who used the 19th century methods. It has a photo of him before he had a stroke in the late 1990s, but I couldn't find any from the era when I worked for him and was friends with him. I was surprised to see he was only 81, ten years older than me. Back when I first met him, when I was a student at he University of Iowa's Writers Workshop in the late 1960s and in my mid-twenties, Kim seemed like he was of a much older generation.
That was partly attributable to the enormous difference between the generation of the 1950s and that of the 1960s. Kim still wore his hair 1950s crew cut style and dressed and drove a little sports car much like the swinging bachelors in Playboy of the late 1950s and very early 1960s. I hadn't had a haircut since I'd left the service and was doing my version of the developing "sixties" style the younger kids in my classes were experimenting with (younger because I arrived in Iowa after over four years in the military and already married).
But I respected him enormously. I first studied the art of fine printing and handmade books from Kim's original teacher when he arrived at Iowa a decade before me, Harry Duncan. But eventually I was hired by Kim to work for both his Stonewall and Windhover Presses. Several of the most famous books he produced I did much of the manual labor on, often working alone at night, the only spare time I could spare (I got the school to let me take extra credit and allow me to work on an undergraduate degree and MFA at the same time, and they didn't even know I had other part time jobs as well as the printing one because my first wife was pregnant and in those days couldn't work when she reached a certain size and didn't work again for years after giving birth and then getting pregnant again soon after).
But I also worked side by side with him at times, and though he seemed much older and more formal than me, he was genuine and honorable, even when drunk (I had to help him home a few times, driving whatever that little sports car was). One of the books I set the type, worked the old Washington hand press to print the pages and folded them for (Kim had a polished bone, shaped almost like a big knife, that I used to secure the fold permanently and loved handling), was Gary Snyder's REGARDING WAVE.
If you have The New Directions paperback copy of that book, it was photocopied from my handset type in the original Windhover Press edition. That was the press the University officially supported, and Stonewall Press was Kim's personal project, which I also worked on—the former for school credit, the latter for money. I spent hours with Snyder when he came to do a reading for the publication of REGARDING WAVE. We sat at a table in Kim's basement workshop in one of the university buildings and I cut the title page open and held it down for Snyder to sign.
I was a fan of Snyder's poetry and felt a connection between us and our work, due to both of us having grown up doing manual labor and being willing to write about that as no poets I had ever read at that time did except for Snyder (and Philip Levine who had just come out with his first book NOT THIS PIG, but the work he wrote of was in factories, Snyder's was on farms and forests and mine was home repair in the houses of the wealthy back in Jersey).
Unfortunately in person Snyder and I didn't have as much in common as I thought. He kept trying to convince me to move out West where he had built a home and wanted others to join him in what sounded to me like isolated mountain wilderness. I was planning on moving back to Manhattan and would counter his descriptions of amazing sunsets in his country to the way sunsets created every hue of blue in the sky above a crosstown street in Manhattan, or the ways the red and green in traffic lights glowed at dusk.
Then at the party after Snyder's reading, at which Ted Berrigan and Snyder got into a friendly (on Ted's part at least) discussion about their differences over Kerouac I think (I don't remember exactly) I tried to get in on the conversation, which Ted was happy about but Snyder wasn't. As Snyder kept ignoring me Kim, by then a little drunk, addressed Snyder forcefully about how this young man he was ignoring was the one who slaved over his manuscript, trying to match the varied spacing from his typewriter with almost impossible to duplicate hand-type spacing, and how he ought to be bowing to me with gratitude.
That was the first time I knew I loved this dude, Kim Merker, and continued to long after I left Iowa. I am ashamed that I didn't stay in closer touch with him over the decades as my life became more and more complicated. I did at first, especially since he chose to publish one of my early collections of poetry, DUES, through his Stonewall Press. I was already getting jive for my work and didn't want him to feel any repercussions from that, but he insisted he had published a lot of the best newer poets over the years and he felt I deserved to be a part of that group. I was and am deeply grateful for that and for all the other things he taught me through those few years of our working together so closely.
I have to add that one of the projects I worked on for Kim was Ezra Pound's last book, DRAFTS AND FRAGMENTS (of his Cantos), which I think I also handset and hand printed and folded etc. (though Kim may have had more of a hand in this then I'm remembering, it would make sense it seems to me) and which Kim then carried to Italy for Pound to sign before the pages were bound into the hard covers. It was an oversized book and originally sold for something like a hundred or a hundred and fifty dollars, which was out of my range at the time unfortunately. I do still have my copy of REGARDING WAVE though and still dig Snyder's poetry. And I still love Kim Merker and remember him as always genuine and honorable.