THE GREAT RICE PAPER ADVENTURE KATHMANDU, 1972-1977
In 1970 I left New York and the Mylar Chamber where I was photographing archetypal images in bendable mirrors of friends and fellow artists such as Jimi Hendrix, William Burroughs, Jack Smith and Charles Ludlam. Suddenly the sixties were over and I decided to leave on a real journey with India and Nepal as a final destination. After many months of travel (stopping in Morocco, Tunisia, Afghanistan and India) Petra Vogt and I finally made our way to Kathmandu where we were to remain for the better part of a decade. We intended a brief visit, but fell under the spell of this Shangri-La in the Himalayas where it was not difficult to believe that, as long as we remained, we would stay young forever writing poems touched by the magic of high tantric strivings under the blue cloud-filled skies, there at the top of the world.
When we arrived in Kathmandu there was a small group of foreigners who were involved in making Tibetan woodblock prints for sale to tourists. Among them Ian Alsop, Francis Brooks and Simon White were to play an important role in the development of small press publications by myself, my old friend and comrade, poet-calligrapher, Angus MacLise, and other poets who quickly formed a poetry community in the Kathmandu Valley. Angus had always been interested in innovative printing, and working with Piero Heliczer on the Dead Language Press making unique books from treebark or fashioning long horizontal handmade books after the Tibetan or Indian style. It was Angus who, working with local craftsmen and woodblock artists, really began the great rice paper adventure.
By the mid-70's the poetry scene was thriving. The Spiritcatcher Bookstore became a meeting place where weekly readings took place, everyone bringing their newest poems to read and perform with musicians joining in on drums, sitar, flute and violin. Charles Henri Ford, arriving from New York, set up house in Nepal. It was at this time, actually in 1974, that I brought out the first Bardo Matrix Starstreams Poetry Book with the help of John Chick who was always printing little Indo-Surrealist rice paper flyers for his club, The Rose Mushroom, located at the end of Jhocchen Tole, known more popularly as "Freak Street." When When Alan Zion, whose Paris pad was famous for years as a meeting place for travelers (the weekly Sunday parties were legendary) pulled up stakes and arrived in Kathmandu, he handed me a manuscript of Gregory Corso's Way Out, A Poem in Discord, which Gregory had left behind in the early 50's. Man gave me the poem, which came out to ten typeset pages, more play than poem, and we performed it for the first and only time, giving a World Premiere at the Yak & Yeti Crystal Ballroom on October 11, 1974, with me as Ratface, Lie and Law, Bill Barker as Sweetface and Truth, Angus as Ballpoint Sam. There was a packed house made up of hippies, embassy officials, narcs, Russian emigre's, swamis, straight tourists, you name it.
All the Starstreams books were printed at the Sharada Printing Press, Nhusal, Kathmandu, by a most charming and beautiful man, Sakya Man Shrestha, and his brother with many children constantly underfoot and a teenage typesetter who knew no English. Almost all their printing was in Nepali or Hindi, but with his never-say-die attitude, Sakya Man always saved the day and was willing to try any-thing no matter how unusual it seemed. Printing on rice paper required special care on his small handpress, where cheap machine-made paper from India was the norm.
Right from the beginning the Starstreams publications represented a unique series of collaborations. The so-called rice paper, actually made from a bush called Daphne, was a thriving industry in the valley and in certain mountain villages. The paper was typically available in large rolls and varied as to thickness and inclusions (usually accidental) of plant forms, mica or an occasional insect, and Angus was forever proclaiming a great new find. Once when we were trekking on the Mount Everest trail, Angus found in the village of Toshe' a particularly lovely paper which he pronounced "Speckled Toshe" and it became a running joke that Angus wanted to become the exclusive distributor to the "world of "Speckled Toshe." I wanted a black cover for Way Out and managed to convince a local paper-maker to dye a lot of thick paper. The paper came out great, but it took weeks for the Nepalis to clean the black out of their screens and so it was the first and last time they made black paper. I wanted to print in gold on-the black paper but couldn't find gold ink in Kathmandu. Sakya Man solved the problem by printing in red ink and brushing it with gold powder. Though it has, in some instances, become paler with the years, the gold powder has maintained a surprising tenacity. The book was bound by Tibetans working with sewing machines and running a line of marigold thread along the length of the cover. This technique I followed wherever I could and most of the books to follow were bound in this way.
The next book in the series was my own 7 Marvels. One day a Tibetan looking for employment as a woodblock artist came to a printshop where I was living and I gave him certain images from Marvel Comics which I wanted to prepare for printing: the Silver Surfer, Professor X, sleeping Atlanteans from Sub Mariner, etcetera. I began writing poems to accompany each print. After the images were printed in a variety of colors by Nawang Norbu, I paired them with the poems I had written, handstamped them with a set of magical symbols, and placed them in a specially designed folder with a stitched pocket. This edition was published on the occasion of the coronation of King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev in 500 copies which was the rule for most of the Starstreams chapbooks. It also featured Specially designed colophons and emblems as well as other small printing blocks which I found lying around the Sharada printing shop, mandalas, skeletons and stupas.
Following soon thereafter were Charles Henri Ford's 7 Poems and Angus MacLise's Subliminal Report along with Angus' Cloud Doctrine published separately by Angus under the Dreamweapon imprint. Ford's book featured a photograph tipped in on the cover which I took in Kathmandu and which was printed by the Raj Photo Shop - Charles wearing goat horns tied to his head with a chiffon scarf and looking every hit the Surrealist High Priest of Kathmandu. Charles also designed a skeleton template printed as a frontispiece which together with small lingam page designs and a double dragon on the title page fit perfectly in a crosscultural synthesis of surreal intent. Most of the poems printed in this book were part of a poem exchange between Charles and myself, a kind of call and response based on our crosstown visits.
Angus' Subliminal Report was a poem which I had always greatly admired (as I had watched it grow in NYC before we went East) and I illustrated it with a woodblock profile of Angus made from a high contrast photo, placed within a lunar circle. The Subliminal Report included two photos printed in silver ink on white machine made paper, one a mylar portrait of Angus taken in New York, the other a stone garuda sinking into the ground in Dhoka Tole just in front of the Raj Photo Shop where the negatives were developed and first printed. There was a very special collaboration going on here between the artists and artisans, Nepalis and foreigners, which was mutually inspiring and gives the books their unique quality. The Subliminal Report was the first book to utilize Bhutanese silk paper as cover stock.
In 1976 Paul Bowles sent me his poem, Next to Nothing, written specially for Bardo Matrix. Although I knew that Paul expressed a preference for an unadorned presentation of the text with little or no graphics, I ended up using six different design elements by six different artists. Beginning with a verifax collage on the cover by Maya who assembled a glove, razor blade, hairpin, emblematic patches including in eagle, several stars and a butterfly rising on the horizon and ending with a Kufic design supplied by Paul on the back cover, there was also a skull colophon drawn by Lee Baarslag from a human skull I had found in Kathmandu, a collage by Dana Young tipped in as a photographic print, an elegant geometric design by Sydney Hushhour, who was visiting from San Francisco and Petra Vogt's rapidograph drawing, Bone Ship Passing.
Among other books published around the same time was Dana Young's Opium Elementals in a large horizontal format with an original alphabet dcsigi~cd by the artist who, at my urging, turned one drawing into a series of seven based on traditional Nepali printing blocks intended for textile use. Dana extended the already existing animal figures and other shamanic shapes through his own imagination and created a floating dream world around the central Cocteau-like image of the opium smoker complete with a retinue of skeletons, pumpkins and ghostly tigers. I wrote two poems to accompany the drawings. An edition of 350 was bound in beige silk paper made in Bhutan or Sikkim.
Another Starstreams Special Edition was my own Gilded Splinters which featured the rapidograph drawings of Jimmy Thapa, a Nepali artist whose talent grew with his appreciation of the books we were printing. Several of the drawings were double printed, in black and red, on successive pages. The drawings were too fine for woodblock printing and metal plates were made for the hand press on which everything was printed. A small number of these books were covered in boards wrapped in red, purple or black velvet and glued by hand. I presented one with a red velvet cover to Mme. Nabokov in Montreux shortly after the death of her husband, Vladimir Nabokov, my former teacher at Cornell.
By this time our collaborative efforts had reached their peak in a flurry of broadsides and independent publications by poets like Roberto Valenza (The Clearing Stage and Lost Contact), Adrian Brooks (Limbo Palace) and Jane Falk (The Witch Speaks). One poem of mine (La Malinche) featured a cover illustration by Dana Young who altered a block that had been used as a cover for a Nepali mystery magazine. My Poems from the Cosmic Crypt, published in collaboration with Ian Alsop's Kali Press, utilized a laid paper made in India which allowed for printing both sides of a page in a hard covered book of some ninety pages. The book also contained a group of white on black drawings made by Petra Vogt. Some poems were printed in the poet's own handwriting from woodblocks cut by Tibetans who did not even know the English alphabet. One of the last Starstreams publications was CKROWW a group of poems about crows by Jane Falk in a bilingual edition which also appeared in a Nepali literary journal with translations by Chaitanya Upadhya who followed our activities from the very beginning and introduced us to such outstanding Nepali poets as Ishwar Vallabh, author of Land of My Mother's Suicide. Other books published at this time Were Iris Gaynor's Exits and a long brilliant poem called The Long March about Mao Tse Tung's great exploit by Jim Goodman.
In 1979 Angus MacLise died on the Summer Solstice and the cycle seemed to be over. The great rice paper adventure drew to a close as most of us left Nepal and moved on. It became more difficult to continue on limited funds, the emphasis on "bona fide" tourists increased, and the valley was filled with all the worst signs of twentieth century commodification. For a few years we were privileged to help turn the prayer wheels of this Himalayan kingdom which gave us a sense of being Akashic Agents, dedicated to preserving the records of our time, there in Shangri-La. It was there that I was handed a piece of paper with these words by one Katie McDonald, words I can never forget:
on dreamers waken or die only the sky
is open to you now
or you may
Photo by John Bigelow Taylor, design by Dianne Dubler.
[Originally publish in New Observations, Issue 106, May/June 1995. Reprinted from Big Bridge, Issue 5, http://www.bigbridge.org/issue5/art_ira.htm.]