Guest Post from James Dissette at Chester River Press

I first saw the Qin Guan manuscript in 1986 shortly after I printed my first book, David Young’s remarkable translation of Pablo Neruda’s masterpiece, The Heights of Macchu Picchu. At that time, David had been working with William McNaughton to translate the Chinese poet, and our plan was to publish a limited edition through my first press, Songs Before Zero. I loved the seventeen poems, their condensation, their sharp emotional centers, their sense of exile and lost love, and saw the book clearly in my mind as beautiful and a significant addition to the canon of Chinese literature.

I don’t recall the literary ambiance of the small press resurgence in the late 80s. Everyone was off on their own path, as it should be. Exciting titles were coming out of Copper Canyon, and Greywolf and valuable trade book translations of European poets were arriving from Oberlin’s Field translation series under David’s editorship. Somewhere in the background, Rexroth’s 100 Poems from the Chinese wove in and out of my life, Gary Snyder’s enriching forays into Chinese translation, and Pound of course, but I had no firm intention to set out on a course of publishing poetry in translation. Instead, I was writing to W.S. Merwin who graciously offered the possibility of a limited edition of The Miner’s Pale Children, and at the same time trying to snag Greg Corso during one of his sojourns through Bandon, Oregon.

Then Qin Guan (Chin Kuan) came along as a complete surprise (and it still is 30-some years later), so I cleared my desk, talked with Harold Berliner about monotype fonts (I’d used his Lutetia for The Heights of Macchu Picchu) and Twin Rocker about paper.

But life does not orchestrate around one’s desires. Back to back family tragedies, a divorce and loss of my press forced me into commercial graphic design as the smell of ink on the press grew faint in my memory, but not my longing for it.

Sixteen years later I moved back east to Chestertown, Maryland where I’d gone to Washington College, and which had over the years developed an active letterpress shop under the expertise and care of Mike Kaylor who has dedicated much of his life to teaching students the magic of the printing arts. I was invited as a “guest printer” to print John Barth’s  monograph Browsing and was swept entirely back into the craft I’d missed for so long. But…I was up against a strict deadline—I was moving to Michigan and needed to finish the book. Unfortunately, the Vandercook I was using broke and required work I could not accomplish in time for me to finish. Thinking I might complete the last few pages somewhere near me in Michigan, either through begging or payment, I discovered Chad Pastotnik and Deep Wood Press. Chad, in his always gracious style, saved my ass and invited me to complete the book at his press. More importantly, he and I became fast friends and established a partnership that produced the Chesapeake Voyages of Capt. John Smith (sold out in 3 months), and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness which gleaned the Carl Hertzog Award for Excellence in Book Design. While the press imprint reads Chester River Press, CRP exists as our collaborative effort separate from his own inimitable and gorgeous book production.  More than that, we have fun and work intuitively together on the projects. If you’ve ever worked with another in a small press-room you quickly adjust to a kind of slow dance  to stay out of each other’s way but within arm’s length of any needed assistance. Either it works, or becomes awkward and counter-productive. Designing a book together requires a similar flow of creative movement. It only takes the raising of an eyebrow, a pause in the phone conversation, a smirk, to read the signals from each other.

I showed Chad the Guan mss. sometime around 2007. I’d been haunted by it for 20 years and still hoped that somewhere along the line the project could be revisited. But surely in all this time it had been printed? Additionally, I was a bit ashamed for not having  been in touch with David Young for so long. I bit the bullet and contacted David regarding getting in touch with Franz Wright who had ben a student of his at Oberlin and he told me that although William McNaughton had since passed away the manuscript remained unpublished. So began round two of publishing Moon As Bright As Water and another deep dive into the art of translation, and the wonders this significant manuscript offers.

Next: About Qin

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