Arion Lyre

87. I Love My Love by Helen Adam, with prints by Kiki Smith

I Love My Love, a ballad by Helen Adam, with 16 prints of her own hair by Kiki Smith, November 2009.

The Making of an Artist Book

THE PROJECT

A year ago, the artist Kiki Smith approached me with the suggestion that she make prints for an artist book of “I Love My Love”, a ballad by Helen Adam, who would have been 100 years old in December 2009. I knew the poet from shortly after my arrival in San Francisco in 1961. She would have been fifty-two at the time, a marvelously strange woman who dressed in a timeless style and wrote in antique forms. Helen Adam was a prominent member of the literary scene that profoundly altered the course of American poetry in the 1950s and 1960s. In the avant-garde she was an anomaly, seemingly old-fashioned, but regarded as a direct link to an ancient poetic tradition. She was astonishingly effective in her melodramatic recitations. I admired the poem and agreed to pursue the idea.

In mid-November 2008, I sent Kiki a letter with a scheme for a checkerboard wall piece that would fold up into a 14-inch square, presented in a box. Enclosed were a miniature dummy of the layout and proofs of stanzas set in a large size of Scotch Roman type (a reference to the land of Adam’s birth). I advanced the idea of hair moving among the stanzas. Kiki recalled a film she had made of being dragged across a floor that showed only her hair flowing along the wooden floorboards. She thought these images might be found and used.

A few weeks ago Kiki turned up unexpectedly in San Francisco and the project took a fresh direction. She called and we agreed to meet that day, September 24, 2009. When she arrived at Arion Press, Kiki proposed that we make new images from her hair on our photocopy machine. She and I spread her silvery locks on the glass; I lowered the lid and pressed the button. Out came a miraculous flat replica of her hair in black. We did this over and over again until we had more than enough variants to go with each of the fourteen stanzas of the ballad.

We revised the layout I had planned, simplifying it as a concertina format, an accordion-fold of eighteen panels, fourteen for the ballad, with a title page in front, a colophon in the back, and blanks on either end to paste down on the covers. For comparison’s sake Kiki also lay her hair on our scanner. We preferred the photocopy images and printed them lithographically in three colors, alternatively above and below the text, with the hair flowing outward from the left margin of each panel.

I immediately went to work setting type by hand for the poem. The type foundry fired up a casting machine to keep me supplied with enough metal type. Concurrently, the photocopies were scanned and transferred to computer and mocked up for digital layouts by Blake Riley. Arrangements were made with Susan Schaefer for photo-offset lithography. Color proofs went off to Kiki Smith. Gerald Reddan corrected and refined the typesetting and he and Blake Riley started printing the text by letterpress on the sheets of images as soon as they were delivered from the lithographers. The printed sheets were folded and joined to blank backing sheets. Covers were attached and boxes were made by our bookbinders.

The result is an artist book that stretches out flat to over twenty feet. It can be displayed on a shelf or table spread out to twelve feet (or less) in the accordion mode. It can also be viewed two pages at a time as in a conventional codex. The artist’s body has been used to create a graphic parallel to the poetry.

THE ARTIST

This is the second Arion Press collaboration with Kiki Smith. In 2007, she made over 200 prints for Sampler, our selection of 200 poems by Emily Dickinson, and a larger print that was sold with a portion of the edition.

Kiki Smith is one of the most admired American artists working today. She was born January 18, 1954, the daughter of opera singer and actress Jane Smith and architect, painter, and sculptor Tony Smith. The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis organized her major traveling retrospective, “Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980-2005”. It opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2005 and traveled to the Walker Art Center, the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, exhibited a survey of Smith’s printed art in 2003, “Kiki Smith: Prints, Books & Things”. In 2000, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture awarded Smith its medal for sculpture. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2005 and received the Edward MacDowell Medal from the MacDowell Colony in 2009. She is represented by Pace Wildenstein Gallery in New York.

THE POET

The poet Helen Adam was born in Glasgow, Scotland, December 2, 1909. She was educated in Nairnshire and at the University of Edinburgh, then worked as a journalist in Edinburgh and London. In 1939, she came to America with her mother and sister. They lived in Hartford, Connecticut, then moved to New York City. During the war she worked summers in the agricultural “land army” and in various business jobs. The three women moved west in 1949, living in Reno and Oakland, and then, in 1953, settling in San Francisco.

Helen and her sister Pat never married and lived together throughout their lives. The household included their mother Isabella until her death in 1963. Isabella was widowed when an errant golf ball struck the head of the Reverend Douglas Adam. Another Scottish golfer, the stockbroker Gilbert Watson, a member of the St. Andrews club and an older friend of the family, fell in love with Helen. They corresponded over twenty years, from when Helen was still a child until the early 1940s. Whether the relationship was a shared fantasy remains unknown.

In 1954, Adam joined the literary circle of the poet Robert Duncan and became associated with the San Francisco Renaissance. Her fellow poets included James Broughton, Josephine Miles, Madeline Gleason, and Jack Spicer. To support herself she worked as a file clerk and bicycle messenger. She wrote primarily in the English and Scottish ballad tradition, using rhyme and meter, which put her at odds with her avant-garde literary milieu. Surrounded by writers and artists who rebelled against established forms, Helen would quote Thoreau to herself: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” Her dramatic readings endeared her to audiences, and the leading poets, particularly Duncan and Spicer, found her writings inspiring and in league with their own explorations of the mysterious.

Adam created twelve books of poetry, a collection of short stories, a film, a staged musical, and hundreds of collages. She began writing early. A forty-page ballad, “The Witch’s Daughter”, was composed when she was between eight and ten. Her first book of poetry was published when she was fourteen. She enjoyed considerable success with American publication of her youthful poems in 1925 and another collection from a Scottish publisher in 1929. She later disavowed this early work as “dreadful doggerel” and stopped writing until she was about thirty. Helen was forty-five when she took Duncan’s workshop at the Poetry Center at San Francisco State College in 1954.

Helen and Pat collaborated on a ballad opera, San Francisco’s Burning, set in the Barbary Coast in the years leading up to the 1906 earthquake and fire. On Hallowe’en night, 1960, Helen, with the help of Pat, performed the two-hour play to an ecstatic audience of poets at the home of Ebbe Borregaard. With music by Warner Jepson, San Francisco’s Burning opened in December 1961 at the Playhouse in San Francisco and had a six-month sold-out run. But Helen Adam was not pleased with the music and directorial changes to the original, so she rejected an opportunity to take the show to an off-Broadway venue. In 1965 Helen and Pat moved to New York. With new music by Al Carmines, the opera was performed at Judson Church in January 1967. It was a success with audiences, but received a bad review in The Village Voice and went nowhere thereafter. In 1977, a radio version was broadcast on WBAI, with Philip Glass and Robert Wilson among the performers.

In New York, Adam was well known among the pioneers of performance poetry, and the small dinner parties she and Pat hosted in their cluttered apartment, full of books and art, were legendary. After Pat died in 1986, Helen became a recluse. She died at the age of eighty-three on September 19, 1993.

“I Love My Love” was written in 1958 and published in the journal Extantis in the summer of 1959. The story has affinities with the Medusa legend and shares the beginning of its opening line with a classic English ballad, in which, however, the beloved’s hair is black. In Adam’s unsettling version, the bridegroom is first embraced, then ensnared, by his bride’s lavish golden tresses. After he murders her, the hair continues to grow and avenges itself upon the guilty bride-groom, who tried to free himself from the constrictive bonds of love.

The ballad was included in The New American Poetry, edited by Donald M. Allen for Grove Press, New York, 1960. Adam was one of only four women contributors to that landmark anthology, along with Denise Levertov, Madeline Gleason, and Barbara Guest. “I Love My Love” is the best known of Adam’s ballads. She sings it on the DVD included with A Helen Adam Reader, edited with notes and an introduction by Kristin Prevalet, published by The National Poetry Foundation, Orono, Maine, 2007. The poem is reprinted with the cooperation of  the Family of Helen Adam and the Helen Adam Archives at the Poetry Collection, University at Buffalo.

Andrew Hoyem, Publisher

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