Kelsey St. Press's Collaboration Series

by Rena Rosenwasser


(Notes From a Panel Discussion at the San Francisco Center for the Book celebrating the 25th anniversary of Kelsey St. Press)

In the 1980s several things coalesced in the San Francisco Bay Area that helped us redefine Kelsey St. Press. It signaled the end of our using Patricia Dienstfrey’s basement as our letterpress print shop. This was a time marked by literary foment where notions about voice, culture and linguistic authority were being challenged. Kathleen Fraser and a number of other Bay Area writers, among them Susan Gevirtz and Frances Jaffer began the magazine How(ever). How(ever) was in the forefront of featuring this new writing. In fact in 1982 we were in constant conversation with Kathleen because we were in the midst of producing her book Something (even human voices) in the foreground, a lake.

Many of us were reading each other's writing and reading the theory of the French feminists.  As a result our notions about poetry, language, space and the body changed. We were intrigued by practices that challenged traditional boundaries of identity and form. Collaboration by its very nature negotiated this treacherous territory.  An inevitable leap takes place into the unknown.

Serendipity in all its idiosyncratic manifestations seemed to be pushing the Press to new engagements between text and image.  Contemporary art has always been one of my passions.   In 1984 the painter Kate Delos invited me to collaborate with her. When Kate and I began we weren’t thinking about bookmaking. We were perusing texts and images of the ancient Romans.  As our collaboration took shape a book seemed the perfect form.

When our book, Simulacra, with its monoprint portraits and narrative voices was published we had no idea the book would act as a spring board—a catalyst to a series of Kelsey St. collaborations.  Later that same year Barbara Guest approached us with her own idea for a collaboration. Doing collaborative books was new to Kelsey Street Press but not to Barbara. She had been closely aligned with the painters and writers of the New York School.  She collaborated with numerous members of that group to produce poem-paintings as well as books.

Barbara proposed that she do a book with the Bay Area landscape and figurative painter, June Felter. Musicality, Barbara’s poem engaged the space and rhythm of movements through June’s landscapes. My brother Robert Rosenwasser (the designer), June Felter and I spent hours looking at watercolors and drawings before we chose and laid out the drawings that would form the book. We imagined the book as if turning the pages were akin to meandering through the landscape.

By the time Musicality was completed the Press realized it was on to a new thing. Suddenly we had a collaboration series. From there it was just a small leap to Peculiar Motions, (Rosmarie Waldrop and Jennifer Macdonald); Just Whistle, (CD Wright and Deborah Luster); Arcade, (Erica Hunt and Alison Saar): Isle, (Rena Rosenwasser and Kate Delos) and Stripped Tales, Barbara Guest and Anne Dunn.

We’ve produced three collaborative projects with the author Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. Four Year Old Girl and Sphericity involved the artist Richard Tuttle, and Endocrinology involved the artist Kiki Smith. Endocrinology was actually one of the most complicated and difficult of productions. Our offset book in a format of 9 x 9 was actually a facsimile of a 18" square book produced by Universal Limited Art Editions. The ULAE book sells for thousands of dollars. Our book costs $17.

Because of the immense consideration and care and thoughtfulness of both Keith Whittaker and Marian O’Brian at West Coast Print Center we have been able to work out complicated design and production solutions. Without their assistance we could not produce any of these collaborations. They work hand in hand with me on each project.  Robert Rosenwasser has designed all of our collaborations with the exception of Arcade, designed by Lory Poulson.

The collaborative process involves more than just the artist and the writer. By the time the Press gets to the stage where a book is on the press, innumerable hours of meetings with the book designer, the artist, the author and the printers—all essential parts of the collaboration—have taken place.

Our most recent publication is Barbara Guest and Laurie Reid’s Symbiosis; this is collaboration in its most ideal form.

— 9/9/01

Kelsey St. Press
50 Northgate Ave.
Berkeley, CA 94708

Telephone: (510) 845-2260
Fax: (510) 548-9185

Bio: Rena Rosenwasser co-founded Kelsey St. Press with Patricia Dienstfrey in 1974. Since 1985 she has produced a series of poet/artist collaborations for Kelsey St. Her most recent books of poetry include: Isle (Kelsey St. Press); Unplace/Place (Leave Books); Aviary, with artist Kate Delos (Limestone Press); and Simulacra, with artist Kate Delos (Kelsey St. Press).