Enid Mark, Book Artist

An Appreciation by Daniel Traister

[Note: The following remarks were delivered at the opening of an exhibit of Enid's work at the Swarthmore College Library in 2007. It proved to be her final exhibit. Daniel Traister introduced Enid before she herself spoke. Daniel Traister is a literature professor and rare book curator at the University of Pennsylvania. - Peter]

About eight years ago, Professor Michael Peich, whose Aralia Press has distinguished nearby West Chester University for many years, printed a little poster for Philadelphia’s book collectors’ club, The Philobiblon. On it, Mike printed a very simple message which he attributed, at its bottom, to the poet Kenneth Patchen:

People who say they love poetry and never buy any are a bunch of cheap sons-of-bitches.

That’s a statement that sounds like Patchen (to say nothing of whether it also sounds like Mike Peich). But it also suggests that neither Patchen – nor, for that matter, Mike – ever had to fork over the truckloads of money that buying one of Enid Mark’s ELM Press books requires if you happen to want not to be a cheap son-of-a-bitch and buy one of her books.

However expensive, those of you who have already had a chance to look at the books on display in this exhibition of Enid’s bookmaking will have seen (and others of you are, I hope, about to see) books that are among the most beautiful that have been produced in America during the past quarter of a century or more. I state that as a fact and fairly baldly. The evidence of your own eyes will confirm my flat assertion, even in the context of an exhibition where, displayed behind glass, no book, let alone these, is shown or experienced to best advantage.

Beauty takes talent, but it also takes attention, time, and craft. “Art,” we remember, “is long.” It’s a matter of taking pains, of care – “of putting it together,” as Stephen Sondheim once wrote, in a slightly different connection – and time costs. In any case, if Enid’s prices are considered merely in terms of the time she takes to make her books and the cost of their production, it would become quickly – and brutally – clear that their prices almost surely equal nothing quite so crassly commercial as (ugh!) “profit.” All they do is enable Enid to turn from one project and still afford to begin another.

I could talk about the thought that goes into her choice of papers. Handmade, acid-free, thick or thin, and richly-textured, the papers she uses are not casual acquisitions, just pick-ups of what is there. Or I could speak about her typographical decisions. Typefaces, letter-spacing, the nature of the impression (deep and incised? or just a touch, a kiss?), the colors of the inks used for various texts in her books: these elements and the attention paid to them both in the choosing and during the printing process – these too affect the quality of her books. Their bindings are also far more distinctive – and distinctive even from one another – than the casing that characterizes a book you can pick up at Borders. As for their illustrations, these are works that an artist – a printmaker named Enid Mark – might sell as prints rather than use as illustrations in her books.

But all these physical characteristics and illustrative merits are qualities of the books Enid makes that you have already seen, or will soon see, for yourselves. We’re at Swarthmore, not visiting Inferno, and no Virgil has to guide you through what this exhibition makes gorgeously plain about the sheer physical beauty, and the thoughtful planning that produces it, of ELM Press books.

What Virgil might instead want to speak about, even at Swarthmore, is Enid’s decisions about what to print in the books she makes. These are not simply physical objects designed to be admired as exceptionally fine exemplars of the bookmaker’s art, although they are that too. Any private or fine press can attempt work of similar quality. A few others even achieve it. Yet too many such presses, in my opinion, strive to create a physical product that illuminates the beauties latent within the form of the book with a text that has no particular intellectual significance in its own right. Their editions often reprint classics, works otherwise relatively easily accessible, texts that, no matter how beautiful they may be in these finely-printed edition, most readers can easily buy to – well, to read – for five, ten, or twenty dollars. But their books are not books for readers. They are books for lookers – for people, to be sure, who love the look and feel and smell of a beautiful book beautifully printed, illustrated, and bound, but who are not therefore also compelled to read the beautifully printed, illustrated, and bound copy they have just bought.

Enid’s books, by contrast, are made to be read. If they occasionally reprint poems, more often they print new work, work that Enid has requested, sometimes from several poets for a specific volume whose shape and themes she has begun to think about, and sometimes from a specific poet whose work she admires, poems or other texts that, because they are not already known and familiar, therefore demand to be read in the beautifully printed, illustrated, and bound edition she creates as their container. Enid is particularly concerned to print poets she admires because she has read them herself, wants to collaborate in the bookmaking process with them, and to illustrate them in a context she has herself pondered and designed. Their new works are welcome because they are good. The people who come into contact with her books will want to read them because they can read them nowhere else. Even when, like Susan Stewart’s The Elements, for only one example, a paperback edition is available – The Elements also appears in a volume called Columbarium published by the University of Chicago Press in 2003 – the poem in its paperback incarnation differs both in appearance and text from the ELM Press edition. Take a look at that edition, on display here, and you will see immediately why no reprint could do it justice. And then, if you have a chance, read the two versions side by side and consider the nature and the effects of the differences you will very quickly see.

Enid went from New York City’s High School of Music and Art, where she was part of the art side of things, to Smith. She was an already published poet, and after leaving Smith wrote for many years. But she turned again to art, studying at West Chester University and the Philadelphia College of Art (now part of the University of the Arts), and in 1986 she founded the ELM Press. Her awards include a Pew Fellowship in the Arts, the Leeway Foundation Award for Achievement, and a Carl Hertzog Award for Excellence in Book Design for her edition of Susan Stewart’s The Elements. She’s been exhibiting nationally and internationally since the 1960s.

I’m supposed to stand up, introduce the exhibition, and say a few words about each speaker. I’ve already spoken too much about books that come very close to speaking for themselves as physical objects, and whose texts obviously do speak for themselves. It’s time for me to get out of the way as much as possible.

Daniel Traister