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Aram Saroyan: "Contretemps"


The first title in Lita Hornick's Kulchur Press book series was Screen Tests by Andy Warhol and Gerard Malanga: images from Warhol's screen tests of high and low eminences, each one accompanied on the opposite page by a Malanga poem. Next came Bean Spasms, collaborations by Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett, with drawings, and a color cover and back-cover featuring a big daffodil and a little Elsie the Cow, by Joe Brainard. Both books now fetch in the neighborhood of $1,000 or more from booksellers. My wrapped ream of tying paper was third in the series, but this work has had a different sort of history. For one thing, I've never seen or heard of one for sale at any price.

When it was first published, in the spring of 1968, I remember seeing it behind the front counter at the Eighth Street Bookstore, where some wit had opened it, the 500 sheets now available for scrap-paper purposes. So much for my literary minimalist sculpture in the only bookstore likely to order copies. Recently I learned that Lita was having a hard time during this period, believing that I was part of a larger conspiracy to discredit her as a publisher and editor at the cutting edge.

In fact the work was developed in good faith over the course of several lunches I had with Lita in the dining room of her Park Avenue apartment. Our meal was served by a member of her household staff, and periodically Lita asked me to press with my shoe a buzzer under the dining room table to summon our server from the kitchen. I was in my mid-twenties, and Lita, I would guess, around forty, a classic Park Avenue blond, the stereotype belied by her attention and dedication to the arts.

My initial idea for the book was that it should be entirely, wordlessly, red--red cover, back-cover, endpapers, and all pages, with a copyright notation the only printed content. When this proved technically impossible according to Lita's printer, we discussed alternatives and eventually arrived at the wrapped ream of typing paper, including a commercial label, with a copyright notice and the price--$2.00--stamped on the front.

I was a little uneasy about this object. I also knew that it represented an aesthetic hurdle for Lita. While professionally cordial with me throughout our lunches, she never betrayed more than the mildest engagement in the project. Knowing now of her troubled state, I see that I must have been her worst nightmare. Still, the result of our collaboration is one of the better remembered of my minimalist works, and even the fact that it disappeared seems almost apt, since it can be evoked easily enough in its absence.

The final hurdle involved money, $500, which was Lita's standard payment in the series. I received ten complementary copies by mail and wondered whether she would balk at the payment itself. It was the same amount I'd received for the book of 30 minimal poems, Aram Saroyan, published that same spring by Random House, a book, it turned out, often read in its entirety in the bookstore and then replaced on the shelf. (It could be read from cover to cover in a minute or two, and copies grew increasingly soiled while remaining for sale). After a week or two the check arrived, without any accompanying letter from Lita--and, as I learned, she eventually destroyed all but a few of the 1,000 copies produced.