08 Dec Press of the Week — Something Else Press
“When asked what one is doing, one can only explain it as ‘something else.’ Now one does something big, now one does something small, now another big thing, now another little thing. Always it is something else. We can talk about a thing, but we cannot talk a thing. It is always something else. One might well emphasize this. It happens, doesn’t it? Actually, everybody might be in on this Something Else, whether he wants it or not. Everyman is.”
— from “A Something Else Manifesto,” Great Bear Pamphlet, 1966
Located in New York’s lower Fifth Avenue, and in the middle of the trade-publishing district, was a mundane commercial building which housed the office of the legendary Something Else Press. Founded by Dick Higgins, a poly-artist of sorts, Something Else Press was an early publisher of concrete poetry and predecessor to other small press movements and later, the artists’ books revolution. Along with his wife, Alison Knowles, Higgins was a founding member of the international Fluxus movement, a network of artists who aspired to merge different artistic forms and disciplines, or what Higgins called intermedia.
For Higgins, intermedia aimed to recognize the dissolution of boundaries between traditional notions of art and the emerging art forms which could no longer be compartmentalized. With Something Else Press, Higgins, thus, intended to redefine how “the book” could participate in that in-between space — between language, art, and structure. It was a radical experiment, meant to undermine the establishment by subverting conventional modes of book production and marketing strategies in order to place unconventional, avant-garde works into the hands of unsuspecting readers.
Higgins’ role in Something Else Press was unique. He was editor, designer, producer, and marketing strategist, making a point to advertise in Publisher’s Weekly, where book-dealers and librarians would be sure to look. Higgins also acted as contributor — writing all of the blurbs and newsletters which, at times, placed him in the uncomfortable position of writing about himself. For this (and in order to make the press seem more populated) he created an alter ego: Camille Gordon. Most importantly, Higgins oversaw all of the finances, making elaborate cost projections that determined, for instance, the cost of Ray Johnson’s The Paper Snake, at exactly $3.47. Finances, however, would later become a major problem.
The bibliography of works published by Something Else Press is extensive and features many influential artists and writers such as Ray Johnson, Allan Kaprow, George Brecht, Daniel Spoerri, Robert Filliou, Al Hansen, John Cage, Emmett Williams, Larry Freifeld, Mary Flanagan, Gertrude Stein, Dieter Roth, Bern Porter, and Ian Hamilton Finlay, among many others. Along with the Something Else newsletter, Higgins also printed the Great Bear Pamphlet Series. Originally published between 1965 and 1967, the Great Bear pamphlets were a combination of essays, theoretical writings, and narrative prose, staple-bound and sixteen pages in length.
“Andy Warhol says my snakes aren’t snakes—they’re worms because they aren’t life-sized. But some of my snakes are imaginary and inarticulate snakes, and what is lifesize about inarticulateness?”
The Paper Snake
Ray Johnson (1927-1995)
New York: Something Else Press, 1965
PS3560 O384 P3 1965
The second publication from Something Else Press was Ray Johnson’s The Paper Snake (1965), printed in an edition of 1,840 copies and considered to be an essential piece in Johnson’s oeuvre. In the description, Higgins remarks that, “the meaning in Ray Johnson’s work is not logical, like an Aristotelian syllogism, but counter-logical, like a psalm. All art represents reality, there is no non-representational art.” An early conception of the artist’s book, The Paper Snake was far ahead of its time in its design — assembled from a collection of Johnson’s letters, notes, and artworks that were given to Higgins over a period of several years.
“Poetry is what poets make…”
Anthology of Concrete Poetry
Emmett Williams (1925-2007)
New York: Something Else Press, 1967
PN6110 C77 W5 1967
Visual experiments, such as those found in Johnson’s The Paper Snake extend to many of the works published by Something Else Press, and feature prominently in the Anthology of Concrete Poetry, edited by Emmett Williams. The introduction asks the reader “What is concrete poetry?” to which Williams replies, “For those who make it, a modified version of the handy definition “poetry is what poets make” would be sufficient: concrete poetry, then is what the poets in this anthology make…” However, this is misleading. Concrete poetry is not simply the opposite of abstract poetry. Quite the contrary, since concrete poetry is often very abstract, bordering on visual arts, and emphasizing the poem as “picture.” This is to say that the poem presents itself as structural, rather than textual, or in William’s words, it is “poetry far beyond paraphrase… poetry that often asked to be completed or activated by the reader, a poetry of direct presentation — the word, not words, words, words, or expressionistic squiggles — using the semantic, visual and phonetic elements of language as raw materials in a way seldom used by the poets of the past.”
From the mid-1960s through the early 1970s, Williams was editor in chief of Something Else Press.
Geography and Plays
Gertrude Stein (1874-1946)
New York: Something Else Press, 1968
PS3537 T323 G4 1968
But it wasn’t just new, avant-garde writers Higgins was interested in publishing. He also reprinted Gertrude Stein’s Geography and Plays, with its original introduction by Sherwood Anderson. First published in 1922, Geography and Plays is a collection of Stein’s writing from about 1908 to 1920. In it, Higgins saw the groundbreaking modernist departure from traditional literary styles that influenced the artistic avant-garde movements of the early 20th century and introduced new directions in experimental writing. Geography and Plays was the second of six books written by Gertrude Stein that was published by Something Else Press.
Shortly thereafter, the press relocated to West Glover, Vermont near the Canadian border, where the “back-to-the-land” movement was in full bloom. Here, Jan Herman succeeded Emmett Williams as editor in chief and inherited Higgin’s financial troubles. Despite the fact that Something Else Press issued or reissued more new titles in Vermont than any other period since the press began, the press never actually operated on a profit. Consequently, Higgins lost much of the funding base by moving to the rural city.
In 1974, the Internal Revenue Service came after Higgins for back taxes, claiming he owed $300,000. Upon declaring bankruptcy, the press eventually folded, but with these rare books its unique history continues to be truly something else.
A book, in its purest form, is a phenomenon of space and time and dimensionality that is unique unto itself. Every time we turn the page, the previous page passes into our past and we are confronted by a new world.
— Dick Higgins, from “A Book,”New Wilderness Letter 11, 1982