Echoes Without Saying, the Ron Mann video, is still out there somewhere. This is the Sarah Sheard memoir piece.
from the Internet Wayback Machine: http://web.archive.org/web/19990909025257/http://www.chbooks.com/news/articles_echoes_without_saying.html
by Sarah Sheard
(originally published in Toronto Life magazine, April 1997.) I was actively involved with The Coach House Press from 1978 until 1993, a period which spans not only the press's coming of age but pretty much my own, as a writer, a reader and a woman. I was one of very few women who did hang out there, long-term, in that guy-dominant place although I'm not sure exactly what that says about me. I walked into my first real job, as publicist, an ingenue of 25 looking to get closer to writers and when I finally walked out again, I was 40. During those years, I published two novels of my own, edited 13 titles for the press, married David Young, one of the writers in the editorial collective, had a child, separated and turned completely grey.
Staff picture, hand tinted by Rick/Simon
from left: Janet Zweig, Clifford James, James Nienhaus, Stan Bevington, Sarah Sheard, Rick/Simon, Simon Moore, John Ormsby, Diane Scally and Glen Goluska
Coach House, from the very first, sowed with hybrid seed: half words; half images. It drew visual artists and writers into a conspiracy, to seize the means of production and publish some alternatives. Their first press mark was printed in microscopically tiny letters below a beaver logo: Printed by mindless acid freaks. Photographers and artists supplied the images for the first postcards; poets supplied a line or two of text on the reverse. Sometimes the postcards were of book covers. Printed in sheets, cut up and sold in sets, they defrayed the cost of, among other things, the coffee beans which fuelled the workers to create more.
1973. Looking for a job, I climbed those rickety half-painted stairs to the coffee room for the first time to encounter an interior reminiscent of the captain's cabin on the HMS Bounty. A gloomy, book-lined loft with peaked roof, a mossy aquarium in one corner, a Sally-Ann easy chair in another, an ancient gas jet stove tucked under the eaves. When my eyes adjusted to the grunge-concealing low wattage, I saw there were six or seven intense-looking young men, all bearded, hunched around a wooden refectory-style table under a little stained glass lamp, drinking coffee and radiating a powerful silence. One of them slid along the bench to make room for me and I sat down, the only woman in the room, radiating an ingenue-ness I would have tried desperately to conceal had I any idea how. I'd intruded on something that felt like a seance. One of the men eventually broke the silence with a short cryptic utterance that struck several of the others as ironic or funny and there was a round of quiet laughter. After a long Quakerish pause, another of the bearded men added an equally cryptic rejoinder, and then several of the men said "yes!" with the fervent intensity of testifiers and I shivered. They appeared to be sharing references in a kind of shorthand, significant to them alone. Sometimes it was a person's name, Lang or Hutton, sometimes a peculiar, poetic phrase. I recall "echoes without saying" and "All Suffering is For Good". There was a technical term - something random dot - to do, apparently, with film grain on a picture being passed around, that one of them then re-used metaphorically. Next was reference to an optical illusion called weiner finger and then on to "Ceci n'est pas une pipe ". Was it Magritte or drugs or the little wooden Czechoslovakian pipe matchbox on the table they were admiring? One of the men, 19th century-ish in wire spectacles, suspenders and a beard like Brahms's, clearly presided. The men addressed him as Stan and he sat at the head of the table. Someone rose to change the record and for the first time I realised music was playing - cool, cerebral jazz that might have leaked out of the heads of any of the men present. I sipped the wildly strong coffee they'd given me, tried to regulate my heartbeats and when the music was over, slipped unobtrusively back down the stairs, absolutely fascinated by what I'd witnessed. Five years later, post-university, I swung back and did get a job there as the press's first publicist.
The building itself, a semi-converted 19th century coach house off an Annex laneway in Rochdale College's shadow, accounted for much of the masculine funk and fragrance of the place. It radiated a kind of splintery Feng Shui that was heaven to those guys, and I tried, like them, to be indifferent to the fact that it was so drafty the brick dust blew little orange trails across your shoes. The main room on the ground floor was crammed to the ceiling with printing equipment: a Linotype machine, two letter presses, a proof press, rolling carts of lead foundry type, an elephant of a photomechanical typesetting machine, a (then) state-of-the-art computer, and book guts everywhere. The two typographers had each burrowed out little workplaces for themselves sort of inside the equipment. Through a swinging door was the pressroom, home to the Heidelberg, a classic black enamel and chrome offset press that started up with a chuffing whooshica-whooshica , pleasant but compelling, like a threshing machine brought indoors. A second Heidelberg eventually joined it. (The outer wall had to be taken apart to get it in.) When those two babies started up together, you could feel it in your sternum, anywhere in the building.
The heady fumes of ink and cherry-scented plate developer hooked me immediately. Snorting up that 'fresh book' smell while watching the pressman mix colours by hand with a knife was hypnotic, the ink snapping like chewing gum until it was warm enough to spread. The poetic subversiveness in that inky air hooked me too. Legends floated of fake IDs printed up for draft dodgers, and mocked-up Canadian flags, sold to raise cash for equipment.
Through a door marked "Reading Room" was the bathroom - a potting shed with way too many windows, facing onto the co-op parking lot. At night, the swinging headlights of parking cars provided startling moments of illumination. The first winter I worked there, the toilet bowl froze and shattered over the holidays and was crazy-glued back together by Stan. Miraculously, it held, although it rendered those who knew, somewhat tentative users thereafter.
Workers waved me away from equipment everywhere. The Heidelberg could crush your hand; the carbon-arc plate burner, crackling with a blue light as intense as a welder's torch, could give you cataracts. Once, while Stan was repairing it, the arc spit and etched a scorch mark onto his glasses. The mystique of male confidence around heavy machinery that both excluded and impressed me, was elevated into a positive thrill of respectful horror whenever I visited the bindery out back - reserved for machines serving serious time for violence. It brought out the real girl in me to watch the Baumfolder suck up stacks of printed press sheets, pummel them into submission with a racket like a Gatling gun and spit them out the other end, sharply folded into 16-page bundles called signatures. The Perfectbinda was especially popular in winter because of its heat. It seized the collated signatures from your hand, ground their spines off, fluffed them up, dragged them across simmering glue and clamped them into their covers, just like that. Voilà, a book. Voilà, a book. Voilà, another. On to the cutter for trimming. The cutter's big safety feature was that it took two hands to operate it; one on each side of the machine. One steamboat and its blade could trim a block of stacked books as thick as a child. The cuts could be electronically programmed, the hydraulic jogging bed advancing wickedly, cut after cut, towards the operator. I never liked to turn my back on any of the toys in that room, even after years of familiarity.
Upstairs, off the coffee room was the darkroom, where a guy called Rick/Simon, a.k.a. Skip Distance, the darkroom diva, reigned supreme. Then the typesetting room with the computers and light tables for film assembly and past that, Stan's office. On his far wall was a locked door leading to an empty loft space over the warehouse. The workers referred to it in hushed tones as The Christian Space. We ached to expand laterally into the loft but the Christians refused to lease it to us. They'd been traumatised by the un-Christian literature we printed. Some of our printing clients hadn't gone unnoticed either: Hare Krishnas, Buddhists and The Process people (remember them?) in their blue capes and shiny crosses.
Problem was, initially, there was absolutely no decent space inside the building for a publicist so an office had to be rigged up for me outside. Luckily, it was spring. My desk was a door laid across two filing cabinets, under a mulberry tree. Mulberries bounced off my head in due season or were lobbed at me by squirrels, and the problem of rain was ongoing, so a deflecting slab of corrugated fibre glass was propped across a Stonehenge of office dividers. When calls came for me, the phone was passed through the warehouse window by Clifford James, the book shipper, a silent little guy who bit his beard at me, naturally resentful at having to share his most precious office resource, and suspicious of the impact my brand new job would have on his. By October, I was still outside, wearing Dickensian gloves with the fingertips nibbled off, ingratiating myself with the increasingly sweet Clifford or anyone else who might slide down his bench and make room for me indoors. I could see my breath as I talked, which perturbed my friends, and the mulberries had given way to chestnuts, which hurt, although they were easier on the letterhead. Visiting authors would wave at me and then trot inside for hot coffee.
Clifford and I evolved by Christmas into a dream team, co-strategising the marketing of books with editors who brainstormed promotional ideas over beer (etcetera) at monthly board meetings, with serious poetic licence. It was Zen marketing, the illusion of marketing through the energetically imaginative spreading of rumour which was about all we could afford; marketing you needed special X-ray glasses to see, the ones the independent bookstores wore. I think it was bpNichol's suggestion at one of these Bacchanals to take out ads in the Saturday Night Personals as though penned by the books themselves as lonely singles. Stan, I think, encouraged us to crash the Antiquarian Book Fair on a pie wagon - a peddled vehicle we mounted with display racks for mobile curbside importuning. The first books I was given to promote had provocative titles like Orgasms, Peckertracks, and Rat Jelly, or The Strange Odyssey of Howard Pow by the legendary Billy Hutton who escaped from a bughouse in the States and hitchhiked to Coach House holding up a paper bag with his destination written in only the faintest of pencil. A writer like Hutton was tough to promote to Morningside for a Gzowski interview as was Crad Kilodney, whose earlier, self-published Lightning Struck my Dick, cast a lanky shadow across his new book with us.
Having in-house production allowed us to print promotional handbills of book covers, tasty full-colour flyers, glossy posters and inserts, all of which got snapped up by ephemera collectors. Clifford and I peddled the bookcycle around town to stores, distributing posters and orders, organised oddball launches, threw cocktail parties in our yard, the books strung from the trees above like strange fruit. Most falls, we threw a Wayzgoos, the printers' traditional seasonal observance of the commencement of working by candlelight. The Call Clifford Collect campaign featured the Magic Sleeping chair, that Sally-Ann gargantua in the coffee room whose narcotising arms challenged all comers to resist. The Big Sonnet, Coach House's literary rave-up, predating Harbourfront's readings, was a landmark event for the press. Fourteen all-star writers, several flown in from out west, incanted, whispered and howled their best to a packed hall at Innis College, our neighbour down the lane. Michael Snow played piano while Gerry Gilbert, Michael Ondaatje, George Walker, The Four Horsemen, and all the rest, blew the hall away.
By 1979, Coach House was on a roll. With a backlist of 65 titles and a front list of 15, it had outgrown the definition of small press. We began cautiously to celebrate what we were doing and our writers began to get some serious ink in public. Our books were nominated or winning Governor General's Awards almost every year. Like most conspiracies, ours was powered by the strength of an idea inside it. We hoped that our passionately defended foxhole in the subculture might prove itself a landmark some day. Meanwhile, the camaraderie of shared faith was payment for the countless hours of volunteer labour that we sank into the enterprise.
Given the ratio of men to women at The Coach House - about 13 to 3 - the dick talk was rare. The men, whether editors or workers, hid that kind of language, if there was any, under their beards whenever I was around. Language was frank, no question, but never bawdy - although bpNichol did like to share a naughty lyric. Some of the men were gay, most were not. I felt I walked around there as an honorary guy if anything, among fellow guys who made no concessions to my femaleness whatsoever beyond elbowing me gently out of the line of workers chaining the heavy flats of paper off the delivery truck into the press room.
Women did appear at The Coach House but they always left, to my dismay. Someone's theory was that maybe they found it too hard not to start in cleaning. My own flaming fastidiousness had pretty much died down to embers after years of exposure to brown-rimmed coffee cups, mouse droppings in the sink and fine white offset powder everywhere, but some female visitors did find it a bit of an adjustment. The mother of all mothers at Coach House had been Victor Coleman's mom, Margaret. Her time had passed long before mine began but legend still circulated of her fabulous full-course lunches for twelve - souffles even! - whipped up on that improbable little stove which performed no such miracles for anyone thereafter. Lunch in Margaret's day was, on occasion, followed with the sparking up of a hash pipe (The Pipe!) and the afternoon would downshift into a mellower, more Xanadu space.
The women who did work there did book production, assembled pages, stripped film, exposed proofs, typeset reams of copy, working weird hours, day and night. We workers enjoyed a fair amount of freedom. Paid on an hourly basis, we could choose when we came and went to some extent - although book-making was a sequential cooperative task and one person's holiday forced others to take one too. At our best, we flowed like the legs on a centipede, the darkroom keeping the beat for us all. When the film processor broke down (again) or the camera work got backed up, we tangled up fast. There was job-work and there was publishing work. Job-work, which paid salaries, came first. Coach House printed books for numerous other presses, and an Oberon Press title, for instance, might bump ours off the production line temporarily, which made for some fancy mouth-work by me at times around an impatient author whose book hung somewhere between conception and the bookstore.
Promoted to marketing director and editorial coordinator with a desk now in the front window of the press I was usually the one to make first contact with a constant succession of wannabe writers clutching manuscripts, tradespeople waving invoices, suppliers refusing to back their trucks down our narrow lane, the occasional runaway, visitors from out-of-town, photographers and artists with portfolios, people wanting to buy postcards or sell printing supplies, as well as some definition-defying flakeys and once, a profusely tattooed man who spoke in tongues. On truly mad days I thought of myself as receptionist for a halfway house on Mars, a hearth-tender for the creative collective, writing up minutes, setting out the coffee cups, being a sis to the editors, tenderising the reviewers, bolstering the writers, stroking manuscripts through the system, hanging out with the tekkies amidships.
If writers held up half the sky at Coach House and graphic artists held up the other then computer whizzes like David Slocombe slid down the sunbeams in between. The technical innovations crammed under its roof linked the 18th century to the 21st, all harnessed in service to book production through inversion of the medium. Antiquated or dime store technology was inverted to create fancy big effects while state-of-the-art technology was inverted to create antiquated effects. Stan and Slocombe scavenged a dinosaur Teletype machine, detoured its signal through their 21st century computer and back out into their photo typesetting machine, creating a tool that hadn't been invented yet. An old wooden bellows camera Stan picked up in a junk shop was 'misused' as a projector - the film exposed outside the camera to produce the press's very first book, Man in a Window. The grainy texture of the film emulsion itself (Integrated Random Dot!) was exploited to give a rich flannel-like texture to printed images. That technique became a Coach House trademark look. John Ormsby used it on our Big Sonnet poster; Rick/Simon used it on his Ward's Island dance posters. Imagery and the techniques to produce them ran through the place like gossip, to be picked up and run with both by the graphics people and the writers. A darkroom or typesetting innovation triggered a wave of new imagery which, in turn, invited writing to jump in alongside. Rivers of parallel innovation ran through the place: The Pipe matchbox image gave birth to Pipe posters, Pipe postcards, Magritte-esque playfulness, Pipe as safe code for drug talk, Pipe references in the poems.
Slocombe regularly swung by to fine-tune the cutting edge software on which all of us except the pressman depended heavily, by this point. He and Stan, on a moment's notice, might take the whole system down for a day or more while they retooled - and the workers twiddled thumb. When we rebooted it was often to find that a new software era had dawned which really meant that the dear little Unix system command strings I'd laboriously committed to memory no longer worked and for a rote-learner like me, it was a major mind-wipe. Off I'd bashfully trot to Clifford who, with the patience of a Buddhist, showed me how to open my own files again. Clifford addressed his office e-mail answers to my thicker queries to "Dear Fluffy". It could have been worse. No one there ever talked sport.
It was a wonder sometimes that books got made there at all. On a good day, you might find Roy Kiyooka, Daphne Marlatt and George Bowering or maybe Gerry "love is a round corner" Gilbert, swapping news from the West Coast with Michael Ondaatje, Greg Curnoe in from London and David McFadden. Meanwhile, printing clients scurried in and out, asking for Stan, always asking for Stan. On a great day, word of the out-of-towners would have spread by noon and some of the other editors - David Young, Frank Davey, bpNichol, Chris Dewdney, Dennis Reid or Bob Wallace might begin to converge for coffee around four.
We were almost never without a house guest. The curator of a prestigious photographic museum once bunked in with David and me for a few days while working on a book with the press. A bit of a time traveller from the 19th century, he was a teetotaller who wore long johns and leather suspenders, baked his own bread, holding it under one arm to cut it. Alone at our place one evening, he got hungry and, foraging about in the fridge, came upon a baggie of what looked to him like golf balls of home-made fudge. He had eaten two of these and was starting in on a third when we walked in the door. I poured him some chamomile tea and broke the news as gently as I could. Too late. Already, he was flying, his arms literally rising and falling, lazily riding hashish thermals that lasted until dawn. He complained only of a slight headache the next morning.
In 1983, Ron Mann approached us to make a documentary film about The Coach House. He urged us to play ourselves on camera and chat about the press. The place turned into a week-long, live Goon Show. We lounged outside by the giant book we'd had made of Rat Jelly while artist Robert Fones obligingly trimmed up a copy of Animal Spirits on the picnic bench with his circular saw. bpNichol cocked a sober eye at the camera, explaining that Coach House intended to 'violate the reader's sense of book as precious object' while at the kitchen sink upstairs, Michael Ondaatje, in tuxedo, rinsed a load of sudsy books and stacked them in the dish rack. Yet clearly, producing these objects was precious work to us. Watching the film again recently, I was shocked and warmed to see us all again. Michael's hair as black as his tux, typographer Nelson Adams, grounding us in Gutenberg, bp, alive, alive-O, the Davids Young, McFadden and Slocombe, Stan looking timeless, all of us so much younger about the eyes. We take turns speaking eloquently on coming together to expand the page as visual field, taking advantage of the formal possibilities of print, creating books as hunks of ephemeral sculpture, apprenticing ourselves in service to print, that "frozen record of sound". True, true, but none of us testify to the most obvious: the acute and enduring pleasure our company gave one another. That was the unsaid point of our coming together. Reminiscing with me about all those monthly editorial evenings, Stan figured we mostly kept meeting for more of the talk. It was this that warmed all of us, participation in a conversation that was to span decades, not only among ourselves but among other writers and artists, printing and computer techies, photographers, publishers, typographers and everyone else who caressed well-written, well-designed books. Their shared sensibilities and artistic quirkiness were vitally tied to the place itself.
A palpable vibe of nostalgia animated even the most envelope-pushing of printed experiments there, which is only an approximate description I can draw of the aesthetic - an ongoing homage to the histories and traditions attached to printing, writing, photography and publishing, and accompanying that, an absolute abhorrence of sentimentality, sweetened by an understated playfulness that in its most successful expression communicated worlds. Echoes without Saying.
The press did eventually outgrow its crib. The editors and Margaret McClintock struck out on their own and by the time I left the collective, Coach House Publishing was putting out around 20 titles a year, much more professionally now in snazzy new upscale digs with terminals on every desk and broadloom and a water cooler and voice mail and a sales force but it wasn't as much fun. bpNichol and Greg Curnoe had died, Roy Kiyooka and Daphne Marlatt had split up. David Young had defected to stage and screen. Michael Ondaatje was famous now and travelling a lot. We editors were entering middle-age, wrestling with mortgages, kids, intermittent pay cheques and mid-life careers. Coffee interfered too much with sleep, and volunteer editorial work robbed us of our own increasingly precious creative hours. In a way, it was over before it was over. In that respect, the story's ending follows along lines familiar to anyone acquainted with collectives.
This salon - of Stan's, really, although he wouldn't like me singling him out - may possibly turn out to have been of greater singularity than the work of any of its individual artists - not to disparage for an instant the careers of those involved but the phenomenon that regularly took place there and the sensibilities contributing to it, were absolutely beyond anything any of us had ever experienced, or expect to, ever again.
At the end of Mann's film, David Young, when asked what he thought was meant by the film's title, said, "things that operate on the subliminal are magic because they're never made explicit - in the same way that this film could never make the Coach House explicit." The film's last word was a picture, a portrait of us all, standing against the wall outside, looking straight out and into the light.
- Sarah Sheard