These three attractive essays by Robert Creeley presented as Sparrows 6 (March, 1973), 14 (November 1973), and 40 (January 1976) by John Martin's Black Sparrow Press (1966-2002) were among the stacks at Powell's.
SPARROW will appear monthly. It will print poetry, fiction, essays, criticism, commentaries, & reviews. Each issue will present the work of a single author. The poet is prophet.
Or profit? Among the small presses of that era, Martin had one of the most successful business models. It's well known that he was in the office furniture business before he became a publisher, and no doubt his experience there contributed to the economic principles of Black Sparrow. Martin has been charged with allowing the business to overpower the quality of the books, of indulging his authors with too many great big books in too short a time, thereby putting quantity over quality. For years, a black cloud has hung over Black Sparrow, but I'm not ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
It's true that many of the books were poorly designed, but some of them are remarkable. Take Edward Dorn's Gunslinger Book II bound in buckskin, for example. That's an attractive book. And most were printed by Graham Mackintosh or Noel Young, so even when the cover and frontmatter designed by Barbara Martin wasn't so hot, the text was usually typographically sound and carefully printed. Although Martin didn't always get author's best manuscripts, the roster is impressive: Lucia Berlin, Tom Clark, Larry Eigner, Michael McClure, Charles Reznikoff, etc. I've always been especially appreciative of the distribution BS gave to Berlin and Reznikoff, who had to my knowledge only published with much smaller presses previously.
The Sparrows were essentially advertising, but by today's standards, it's the kind of advertising I would welcome anytime. The back of each pamphlet has a list of current publications, and the pamphlets themselves sold for fifty cents. Sure, the 'artificial scarcity' produced by the hierarchy of the edition is a little cheesy, as it would have been more interesting to create greater variation between say, the paperback edition limited to fifteen hundred and the signed hardcover limited to twenty-six, but lots of presses wouldn't modify the book in any way other than having the author sign and letter it and present it as a 'limited edition'
When I was on vacation I read Jeff Weddle's Bohemian New Orleans, about the John Edger and Gypsy Lou Webb's Loujon Press. It's essential reading for small press enthusiasts, and of course, relevant here because of the Bukowski connection. The only thing that got on my nerves about halfway through the book was that on nearly every page the author reminded the reader that the printers were poor. The politics of poverty aside, if the point was to somehow romanticize the image of the starving artist, it came off as rather redundant. There's even a blurb by John Martin on the back that states that the printers lived a "restless life of bohemian hardship" and they "never enjoyed the financial success they deserved." As odd as that blurb may be, I can't fault Martin with attempting to make Black Sparrow financially sound. I'm playing devil's advocate to some degree, but in another senese I don't think there's anything wrong with a sustainable small press, and of course by sustainable, I mean economically, environmentally, politically, and socially.
Reading the great big de Kooning biography last year in Berkeley, I was shocked how late financial success, health, and stability came to the painter, and in my opinion, this was the time in which he produced his greatest works (in the seventies). Would he have been able to paint those beauties had he not endured all of that suffering? Who's to say, but I don't necessarily think suffering makes for better art, and always encourage artists to ask for a fair wage for their labors. Just because you enjoy doing something doesn't mean you shouldn't be paid fairly for it, be it teaching, writing, printing, editing, etc.