Interview with Dave Haselwood
conducted by: Steve Luttrell on May 15, 2012
Steve: Let’s begin with a few recollections and go from there. In an interview with someone as yourself that’s done so many things and has so many things to recollect, one doesn’t always know where to start, but let’s start with this: how did you come to name your press the Auerhahn Press ?
Dave: When I first got the idea of having a press, a little publishing thing, it was while I was with the army in Germany. I was there for two – and – a – half years in the — oh, I guess the mid ’50s. See, I’m old enough now that I don’t remember. But while I was there, I got a letter from Mike McClure, who was an old friend of mine from college, in those days. He said that he had heard from Jonathan Williams that they did very beautiful printing in Germany, and he had this poem he had written, and Bruce Conner had done a beautiful engraving of the subject of this poem. It was one of the “Hymns to St. Geryon.” So he said, “Why don’t you design something and get it printed in Germany, as a broadside ?” So I began researching it, and sure enough, they do beautiful printing in Germany, and I contacted a very sort of old, traditional, beautiful shop in Würzburg, Germany, on the Main River and was all set to go with it. And then this thing just sort of fell apart, and I don’t really know why it fell apart. I think it was partially because I was getting ready to go back to the States. And so, when I got back to the States, I moved almost immediately to San Francisco and got caught up in the literary scene there — you know, it was through Mike McClure, who was living there at that time, and some other people I knew there, that I got more and more intrigued with the idea of, “Well, why don’t I pursue and persist in pursuing this idea of having a press of my own ?” Actually, I looked at it first as maybe a book design and little publishing firm. Because what I was seeing in San Francisco was all of these manuscripts I thought were really great poetry, and nobody was publishing it or printing it! I thought, “Well, there’s a real need here for that.”
Steve: Absolutely. And your first book was John Wieners’s The Hotel Wentley Poems, right ?
Steve: I understand you found the manuscript for that book in your hotel room at the Hotel Wentley after John had been staying there for a little while.
Dave: Right. I had gone down to San Diego to visit my parents for a week or so, and John was just drifting around the city, so I said, “Why don’t you stay here in my room at the Hotel Wentley while I’m gone ?” And when I got back, here was this manuscript. I was absolutely in love with that group of poems. A number of people were at the time. I know Frank O’Hara went bananas over it. He was saying, “Is this guy as fantastic as I think he is ?” So I designed the book. And again, as you’ll see from our conversation, it went as per how I always operated with my press from that point on, and that was as a collaboration.
Steve: Now, you worked with a lot of well – known poets, obviously, and . . .
Dave: And artists!
Steve: And artists, exactly. Did you find it difficult working with some of the poets; some of the egos of the poets and artists that were working with you ?
Dave: Oh, some of them were unbelievable!
Steve: You’ve described Auerhahn Press somewhere as, and I quote, “the first press on the West Coast seeking to print the words of the younger poets, in cooperation with them.” And I just would wonder how much cooperation you received ?
Dave: Well, with most of ’em, that was what I was doing. Basically, although I’d never really formulated it exactly in my mind, that what I was interested in was collaboration. So most of the poets I worked with, that’s what we did, we collaborated on creating a book of poems. But as time went on, and mainly after I took on a partner, Andrew Hoyem . . . Andy was a little difficult when it came to dealing with people. And so then we began having problems, because we started having poets wanting to come in and Andy not really wanting to be very collaborative, just wanting to sort of go his way.
Steve: I think it’s safe to say that you and Andrew had artistic differences.
Dave: We had some definite differences, but I think Andrew’s a wonderful guy, and he does unbelievably beautiful books with Arion Press. I wasn’t really interested in putting out extremely fine editions that were only bought by collectors and put in their book vaults. I mean, that’s not what I was in there for. I was in love with this poetry, and I wanted to see this poetry presented in the best possible way it could be, but at a price that everyone could afford. And so Andy and I differed on that to the point where we finally ended the partnership.
Steve: Well, you’ve said somewhere, and again I quote, “Publishing is not a gentleman’s profession; it is the profession of a crook or a madman.”
Dave: Well, I was the madman.
Steve: You were the madman ? Okay. Well, having had some experience in this field, I have to chuckle at that, certainly not the experience you had, but it makes me chuckle when I think of it, because one does sometimes feel, in poetry particularly, that one is doing it in a vacuum. You wonder who’s reading and appreciating the work that you’re putting into these beautiful things. Now, when you published The Hotel Wentley Poems, you had a printer print them; you didn’t actually print them yourself.
Dave: Yeah, and that was the problem.
By the way, I think your first question was about why I called it “Auerhahn Press.” That came from the German thing. The “auerhahn” is a pink grouse who lived in the forest in Germany. And so I was always interested in birds, so somehow that stuck with me.
Now we go back to The Hotel Wentley Poems. What happened was that I had no printing press or no knowledge of printing whatsoever, so I designed a book, and I got together with Bob LaVigne, who did the drawing of John Wieners in the book and was the photographer who did the print we used as a cover. And I designed the book, and gave it to this printing house. They were very good printers, but it didn’t look right. There was just something about it, so I said, “Well, I’m gonna have to do this myself.” So then it was a matter of learning how to print. The initial person who collaborated with me at the press was a man named Jay McIlroy, and he was a wonderful printer from Philadelphia. Irish, of course. I don’t know much about Philadelphia, but everybody said he sounded like he was from this really rough end of Philadelphia. And he was a great guy. He just walked into my little shop I was putting together one day and asked me what was going on. He just sort of said, “Oh, I’ll teach you how to print.” And he came in. The initial books we did were all a collaboration with Jay; with much learning on my part.
Steve: Now, there were three different incarnations, so to speak, of Auerhahn Press, and then it evolved to be called the Auerhahn Society. What made that occur ?
Dave: Oh. Well, the Auerhahn Society had to come into existence when a woman gave Robin Blaser a lump of money to see that a book of poems was brought out by . . . See, I go blank on names . . . The Heads of the Town, Up to the Aether.
Steve: Jack Spicer’s book.
Dave: Jack Spicer. Who, again, I would have never thought of asking, because he was in a poetry camp that put down all the poets and all the work that came out of Auerhahn.
Steve: In the early days when you had Auerhahn, and you were competing with White Rabbit Press and Oyez and City Lights — at least, to some degree, I suppose you were competing —
I wonder, if at the same time, there was some collaboration
going on between each other ?
Dave: Well, you know, it was a classic situation. The guy who was doing White Rabbit Press at that time, I loved the guy. He was a very lovable person, and he and I liked each other a lot. But the two different poetry camps we were in were at war with each other. I mean, it was a classic.
Steve: Why do you think that is ? Do you think that the poets were at odds with each other, and you and the publishers were just kind of dragged into that war ?
Dave: Yes. Yes, I think so.
Steve: Well, there was obviously some very strong talent. But there was probably also some strong egos that just bumped up against each other in somewhat cacophonous ways.
Dave: Well, I always thought that Jack Spicer — and I admire him and I admire his poetry — was a very difficult person to get along with. He was very alcoholic and contentious. And I always thought that actually he was doing a very interesting thing. He realized that this sort of war between the poets was creatively very rich, and a lot of good poetry would come out of it, and you know, maybe he was right. But I think he was intentionally difficult to get along with and contentious.
Steve: Interesting. Well, there was a strong degree of communication between the small presses in the Bay Area, it seems.
Dave: Yes, we were all friends! The presses were all friends.
Steve: At one point, Joe Dunn and Bob Hawley at Oyez, and Graham Mackintosh at White Rabbit — and certainly Wallace Berman of Semina were all — there was a big mix going on there. And I wonder — I’ve heard, I guess, that Bob Hawley approached you to do some broadsides for Oyez, and Robert Creeley comes to mind and Denise Levertov. And those were beautifully printed. How did that come about — that Bob had seen your work, and knew you, and came to you with that project ? And how did that seem to you when he proposed it ?
Dave: You know, I cannot remember anything about that. I think that was mainly handled by Andrew Hoyem. I do remember Bob Hawley very well. I liked him. Like I say, there was no real competition between these presses. And by the way, it wasn’t Graham — I knew Graham, but it wasn’t Graham running White Rabbit at the time I was talking about. I can’t think of his name right now. He was from Boston. He was a good friend of John Wieners.
Steve: It seems like San Francisco and the Bay Area has long been a center for fine printing and bookmaking.
Dave: Yes. Yes, it has.
Steve: Why do you think that is ?
Dave: Well, it just had been that way since the 19th century. It was a place where really good printers . . . I don’t know if they were drawn there, or they just came there out of tradition, but at the time I started Auerhahn Press, there were a bunch of fine printing houses there. There was the Grabhorn Press, which was probably the most famous fine press in America at the time. There were a number of others doing beautiful work. Brother Antoninus had his own press that turned out beautiful books. And these were mainly done in old, old, traditional ways, sometimes on hand – cranked letterpresses.
Steve: Brother Antoninus, otherwise known as William Everson, himself a fine printer, is quoted as saying, and I quote, “The Auerhahn reputation for fine craftsmanship was exactly what I was looking for.” So that must have felt reassuring, to have someone with that amount of printing expertise and design experience say that about the Auerhahn Press.
Dave: Oh, well, it was. And Bob Grabhorn was also very lovely to us. And it was nice of him, because most of those fine printers sort of looked at us like we were a couple of nuts who didn’t know anything.
Steve: A renegade outfit, huh ?
Dave: Yeah. [laughs] Bob Grabhorn just became a real friend of us, and of course, he went into a partnership with Andrew after we broke up Auerhahn.
Steve: That house at 1403 Goff Street was a very important address to the early Beats.
Dave: Well, that goes way back. Ginsberg and a bunch of people had a scene going there, and it kind of got passed on, and eventually, a friend of mine, who later became Andrew Hoyem’s chief editor at his press, took over that apartment, and it continued then on through the ’60s into the ’70s as a sort of literary haunt. Then, of course, it got sold out from under everybody when redevelopment took over that part of San Francisco.
Steve: And it passed into literary history.
Dave: Yeah. The building’s still there. I don’t even know who owns it now.
Steve: Now, Auerhahn . . . You had advertisements in most of the well – known poetry magazines at the time — like City Lights, Big Table, Poetry Magazine, and Evergreen Review. How did that work out for
you ? Did you feel that you got a lot of attention because they had seen Auerhahn Press advertised in these publications ?
Dave: No. [laughing] You know, selling books in those days was just the bane of a printer’s and publisher’s life. There was no easy way to get them out.
Steve: I wonder how much that’s changed — probably very little.
Dave: Probably very little.
Steve: In terms of getting them out, that certainly has been made easier. As a publisher of fine books, I should ask you what your opinion is of all this “online only” poetry that we’re seeing now, “the whole book versus the online” question ?
Dave: Well, I think all the poetry that’s now on the Net is an incredibly good thing. But I think . . . There’re two ways that poetry can be presented. One is verbally, the spoken word, which is almost always best in a venue with live people listening to a live person. There’s a kind of thing that happens there. And it doesn’t happen on the Internet.
Steve: Right. Well, poetry is born in the breath, I guess one could say.
Dave: Yeah. And the other way that poetry has always traditionally been presented is in book form — or as broadsides. There has always been a tradition of presenting poetry in a kind of beautiful way. Although, you know, a lot of the editions of poetry going back into the 18th and 19th centuries were not the greatest looking things. But there’s a feel to that book, you know. What I said to Olson one time when we did his book, “you know, there’s a heft to this.” It’s the feel of the book itself and the look of the book itself. But this has to do with my idea of the collaboration; that there’s all this energy coming from different directions and going towards different senses that’s there in a book. And it ain’t there on the Internet, I’m sorry.
Steve: Well, I know that you, in addition to being a publisher of finely printed, beautiful books . . . I know that your love of poetry led you to organize and promote several poetry readings in the Bay Area that have gone on to become legendary events in themselves. And so as an organizer of poetry readings, particularly the ones that you were involved with, you must have got a great sense of gratification from how those were received.
Dave: What it was, was that it was an enormous amount of fun, especially in this atmosphere of these contending factions in the poetry scene. It made it really interesting and fun! I’ll never forget — I think it was the first one we had — we looked out and Kenneth Rexroth was in the audience. He had been gone for quite a while, so he had not been involved at all with our press. He was very hostile about it.
Little things like that would go on. But one of the things, too, is that there was a lot of showmanship
there. I remember when we did the Mad Mammoth Monster Poetry Reading, we had a parade through the bohemian area of San Francisco. There were these beautiful masks that were created by Bruce Conner and Bob LaVigne, and again, it was a big kind of collaborative thing. It created a kind of warmth and feeling that I haven’t seen since.
Steve: Those are rare times when the stars align in a way that . . .
Dave: It was! It was a miraculous time.
Steve: And fortunately it’s been recorded by people, particularly like yourself, that have put it in print. Now, I know that you’ve said to me — and others, I’m sure — that you don’t consider yourself a writer. But at the University of Wichita in 1954, you were the first editor of the Sunflower Literary Review.
Dave: Yes. [laughing ]
Steve: And I wonder if you got a little bit of a taste for publishing, even unconsciously, then.
Dave: Well, I probably did. The whole thing was so, sort of disastrous that . . . There was a very lively bohemia at that university, of all places, in Kansas, and some very good teachers in the English department and stuff like that. It was a very small group of people. It was like talking to yourself in a closet.
Steve: Well, I have to admit I did go online and read from a manuscript entitled The Moon Eye and Other Poems, the poems that you were making at that point in time, and I enjoyed them very much. So I think that . . .
Dave: That was real juvenilia, let me tell you.
Steve: But you know, there’s an honesty sometimes in juvenilia that is refreshing — an innocence, I think, would be just as much of a word. But also you’ve done translations, too, haven’t you ? I know you translated some Baudelaire.
Dave: Yeah, I’ve done some. But it’s spotty. See, all of that I’ve always done as a total amateur. Some of it I’m proud of, and some of it I’d just as soon is forgotten. But I think in more recent years, I did just a group of translations of Baudelaire. I’ve always thought Baudelaire is the greatest poet of our time. And I did translations of just six of the shorter poems, the sonnets and that kind of poem. And I’m very proud of those pieces. I think they’re the best translations of those I’ve ever come across. And I’m not a person who likes to, particularly, [laughs ] overestimate my ability, but . . .
Steve: Well, but you used the word amateur just a moment ago. An amateur, by definition, is one that loves something passionately. It’s the love of that activity that brought you to promote poetry readings and to publish poets. So really, I think that the love of poetry that you have is what’s spurred you on.
Dave: Yes, and it still does. As Mike [McClure] probably told you, I’m a Zen teacher, and I have my own group, and then I give some talks at Zen centers occasionally. And so I have to come up with a lot of talks. And I notice that in at least half of my talks, I quote from somebody’s poem or I read a whole poem. And it ranges from everything from Baudelaire to modern poets. I even did, in my sitting group one time, a whole series on American Zen poets that I talked about. I’d read a lot of Whalen and . . .
Steve: Somewhere I read that you consider Philip Whalen your first Zen teacher.
Steve: You actually said, and I quote, “Poetry brought me to Zen.”
Dave: Yes, exactly.
Steve: So I think that’s a great way to be introduced from one to the other.
Steve: Particularly in this instance.
Steve: After the press, in the mid to late ’60s, you embraced a very distinct spiritual path. Did that come about right away ? I know that Philip Whalen was very prominent in the Zen community in the Bay Area. I was wondering if your interest in Zen developed slowly over time, or it was very instantaneous, coming from Phil Whalen ?
Dave: Well, actually, it was . . . It’s really hard to say what got me more and more involved with Zen. But definitely Philip and some of the other poets around at that time, what some people think of as the “Buddhist poets,” were affecting me deeply, and so I became more and more interested in actually practicing Zen. And which I did, because I was fortunate enough to be in San Francisco when Suzuki – Roshi was beginning to teach. So I studied with him from, I think, about 1963 to ’64.
Steve: Oh, wow! What a wonderful experience!
Dave: Yeah. Because he was a really interesting teacher.
Steve: And, at that time, Alan Watts was pretty active in the Bay Area ?
Dave: And I met him just once only. He was an interesting guy. He was one of those people who was sort of a polymath. I think it was Ginsberg and myself and a couple of other people went over to visit him on his houseboat in Sausalito, and we sat there a big chunk of the day, getting tipsy. What I noticed about him was that you could bring up anything. Out of the blue, you could say “tulips,” you could say “poetry,” you could say “meditation.” Anything! And he could take that and run with it. [laughs ] He had an enormous font of knowledge and interest in everything. I think that’s what impressed me about him. I didn’t care for his books.
Steve: In retrospect, did you feel that you had to do a lot of hand holding with some of these poets and artists ? By that I mean, did they come to you and depend upon you for some sort of emotional gratification coming from you as the publisher of their work ?
Dave: [hesitantly ] Yeah, I . . . Yes. [ pauses ] I guess, occasionally. But you know, because of the way that I operated, it would tend to be more of a mutual . . . maybe weeping on each other’s shoulder, or laughing together, or something like that, rather than . . . I think, with some publishers, they become more like father figures to the people they publish. But I always saw it as just friends. I didn’t really see it as that. But we would have . . . I remember, with people like Philip Lamantia, we would sit up all night talking and reading poetry and stuff like that. And this would be while I was working on his book. We’d get into this sort of intense communication around doing the book. And I think that happened with a number of the poets.
Steve: In addition to the very well known poets that you worked with and published, some of the aforementioned, there were also poets that possibly were less well known. Because you did take on some commission printing, so to speak.
Dave: Yes, to try to make a little money.
Steve: Did that actually end up helping the press in terms of finances ?
Dave: Uh, no. I don’t think it really did. Like I say, the exception — although it turned out to be a mess — was our doing The Heads of the Town, Up to the Aether for which we were paid some money that Robin Blaser had gotten from some woman. But you know, I had almost nothing to do with that book; Andrew almost entirely dealt with that, and he got into a tremendous squabble over that book. And I don’t blame him for that. This guy was hard to get along with. So Andrew did take it and dealt with him. Spicer, you know, was capable of enormously moving things, too, because when the book was finally printed and we were distributing it — and like I say, we always had trouble with distribution — at some point, he sent one of his minions over and said, “We want to distribute the rest of the books.” So I kept a number and gave him the rest for them to distribute. And I got a call from somebody that said that Jack was so pleased that he wanted to do a reading — you know, a private reading for us. And so we went over to his place, and he asked, “What book of mine are you most interested in?” I said, “Oh, I love After Lorca.” And he proceeded to read it to us.
Steve: Yeah, I’ve heard that story. That must have been wonderful for you.
Dave: It was. It just showed that he was . . . That was one of the reasons I thought that his contentiousness was deliberate, in order to stir up a lot of creative energy.
Steve: Well, it would seem that is an unfortunate byproduct sometimes of great literary endeavors. The waters can sometimes get muddied around that. One of the things you just mentioned I’m quite aware of presently, with The Café Review, and that is that distribution, especially for really small presses . . . I don’t know how many copies you did of any one book — I’m sure it varied — but unless you’re doing thousands, distributors don’t really want to talk to you. If you’re doing hundreds of something and it’s very well put together, distribution, to this day, is sort of difficult.
Dave: Well, I would imagine it’s even worse, because of all the disappearing bookstores.
Steve: That’s true.
Dave: I mean, there weren’t a lot of bookstores that were interested in what Auerhahn did, but they were good ones. Usually every city, big city, would have one that was really good, like in Chicago and New York and San Francisco. There wasn’t in L.A. We never, I don’t think, found a good outlet for our books in L.A. — well, there was one they had down on Seal Beach. That was a problem. At least there were a lot of bookstores then. Nowadays, my god, it’s hard to find a bookstore.
Steve: Which I think is making a big impact on the publishers and book designers and printers. Because I think that the book as a means of transmitting content is — I don’t want to use the word “replace,” — but certainly threatened by online. If you want your work seen by a worldwide audience, then that’s the way to go. But, then again, there is the book in terms of how Mallarmé, for example, saw it, as a beautiful little world unto itself.
Dave: That’s right!
Steve: And that concept of presenting poetry especially is rare, and I think that we’ll see more of those books that are getting back to the collaboration of beautiful design, beautiful art and poetry in a very limited run of issues.
Dave: Yes. And I think that’s probably the way it has to go. But the books themselves tend to be pretty ephemeral, but they’re almost eternal compared to what’s on the Internet. I mean, all anybody has to do is stop a site and there it goes forever. If that’s the only form that that poem ever exists in, is on the Internet, it may be gone pretty quick.
Steve: Yeah. Well, there is that ephemerality effect these days, with so much being published and printed online. I remember speaking about that at least ten or twelve years ago with Charles
Henri Ford, the poet and publisher of View magazine. I remember Charles Henri Ford saying to me then — in the early 1990s — that never was it so easy to get books produced, but that the audience was not any larger than it ever was, as far as buying them.
Dave: You know, I think that’s always been true. We look back at the 19th century and think, “Oh, my god, these poets were getting through to a lot of people.” Were they ?
Steve: Well, yeah. Maybe in retrospect we think they were, but not so much.
Dave: I don’t think that they were. For one thing, the sophisticated audience that read poetry was probably very small; very, very small.
Steve: Yeah. And I think probably it still is. It’s just that we don’t really know how to gauge that. It certainly can’t be done by looking at the numbers of book sales of poetry.
Dave: Right. Right.
Steve: And the inevitable last question. If you had to do it all over again, would you, and how, if at all, would you do it differently, and what would you change about your involvement with poetry and publishing and what Auerhahn Press eventually did ?
Dave: Well, I think I would’ve liked to have done a lot more books. And I think that the . . . I’m a financial know – nothing, and in those days, I sort of gladly lived in poverty, and I didn’t think anything about it. So I wasn’t out there trying like Jonathan Williams who was very good at getting money from donors to publish books. I never gave that much of a try at all. I think if I’d paid a little more attention to trying to get people to finance the press so that we could have done more, I would’ve done more of what I really wanted to accomplish. However, saying that, I think I ended publishing at the right time; after about ten years of publishing. Because at that point, other publishing houses were getting interested in these people and it was no longer hard for them to get published. So this was a good time to end it. What else I could have done, I don’t know. I was a product of, and the press was a product of, a lot of conditions that existed in a certain place at a certain time, and I just threw myself into it, and did what came up, and then got out. I don’t know that anything could have been different. [laughs ]
Steve: Yeah, or should have been, even.
Dave: That was probably it!
Steve: I know that the Wichita Vortex, as it’s been called, all that great creative energy coming from Kansas — you and Bruce Conner, Michael McClure, Charles Plymell, Roxie Powell, all of those people came west and just added to that huge block of creative energy; added to what was already there in the Bay Area, going back to probably the days of Robinson Jeffers, even. It made a tremendous impact. It truly was a perfect storm as far as creative energies around poetry and the visual arts went. It was a very explosive event at a particular place in time and certainly you and the Auerhahn Press were a big part of that.
Dave: Yes, and a big product of that, too. Like I said, again, I look at all of these things as collaborations, or that you are a part of the conditions, and the conditions are affecting you, so it’s a big stew. I was just lucky enough to be there in a certain place at a certain time when a very, like you say, explosive, rich environment occurred.
Steve: Absolutely, Dave. Thank you for your time. It’s been a great conversation, and I hope to talk with you more in the future.
Dave: Okay, Steve. It’s been great talking with you, and I really look forward to when that issue comes out.
Steve: Absolutely, and you’ll get the first copy.
Dave: And by the way, I was just, this morning, looking at that issue that has the Branaman cover on it. That’s a wonderful issue of The Café Review. I really enjoyed it. Anyway, I’m looking forward to when this issue comes out. Good – bye.
transcribed by Ruth Elkins