A Conversation with Al Brilliant

by Darin C. Bradley
First published in The Porch 1:1, October 2004. This version was published by Farrago’s Wainscot

Al Brilliant

Al Brilliant (Photo by Jerry Wolford, News and Record)

Alan Brilliant has more than established himself as one of America’s preeminent small press publishers. After rubbing elbows with the New York literati during the 1950s and ’60s, Al Brilliant went on to found not only Cosmep (with Len Fulton and Richard Morris, 1968) but also his own publishing house, Unicorn Press.

He has published works by six Nobel Prize winning poets and, in 1995, was awarded the Benjamin Franklin award by the Small Press Center in New York for “lifetime achievement in American literature.” Many of the writers he has published now fill the pages of contemporary anthologies: Thich Nhat Hanh, Philip Levine, Robert Bly, Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, Gary Snyder, James Tate, Marge Piercy, and Fathers Thomas Merton and Daniel Berrigan. He is a soft-spoken, unprepossessing individual, and his attitudes on publishing and culture quietly resound with the echoes of some of the most revolutionary years of the twentieth century.

DB: Tell me who you are and what business you’re in.

AB: Well, my name is Alan Brilliant, and I like to think of myself as Al. I do have delusions of squalor, but nevertheless, in the context of publishing, I have some credits that make me a more reliable source for an interview. For example, my one claim to fame—one of my few claims to fame—is that the Small Press Center in the Mercantile Library in New York gives an award every year to the outstanding small press person. The first winner of that award was Len Fulton. Len and I, with Richard Morris, founded Cosmep in 1968. Richard Morris was the second recipient of the Benjamin Franklin award—this is for people who have worked twenty five years or more and done what they call lifetime achievement in American literature—and I won the award in 1995. I guess I was the fifth recipient in a list of very distinguished recipients, who are all small press people.

The small press movement began at the turn of the twentieth century. The great American practitioners were Anais Nin, James Laughlin, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Ferlinghetti celebrated his fiftieth anniversary at City Lights Bookshop in 2003. Jonathan Williams, I suppose, should be part of that triumvirate—those were the people that influenced me the most in terms of the creation of Unicorn Press: Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Bookshop, James Laughlin of New Directions, Anais Nin of Gemor Press, and Jonathan Williams of Jargon Press, but really my own personal influence before that was Frances Steloff. Frances Steloff was the founder and proprietor of the Gotham Book Mart. She died at age 100—still at the Gotham. She ran it for 80 years. She was the greatest American bookseller—bookperson—in our history, and I was her manager in 1956. The person who took my place, Phil Lyman, is still the manager, after all these years, of the Gotham Book Mart at 147 West 47th Street—one of the great institutions of American History.

That’s where I learned how to publish; that’s where I learned books; that’s where I learned about writers; that’s where I learned how to conduct myself as a bookperson, from Frances, and I couldn’t have had a greater teacher—it has influenced me to the present time. Consequently, I bring a long tradition going back at least to 1920 to my publishing, so that when I speak to people, like, for example, Jack Shoemaker, who was probably the—I can’t call him a disciple—most successful of all the people I have trained: Jack is probably the vintage book person in America today. I was able to send him to the Gotham Book Mart, to talk to him in the voice of Frances going back to 1920, so Jack, who is only in his forties, was the beneficiary of this hundred-years transmission of love of books.

And then there’s my own personal history: my grandfather was a rabbi, who espoused the whole Jewish connection to the book, both religious texts as well as secular. For example, one of my earliest memories is sitting on my grandfather’s lap. His tradition was to line up all of his grandchildren, and we would come one at a time and sit on his lap. He would give us some scripture to read in Hebrew, and we would recite from his books, and then he would praise our mothers based on how well their children did, so the children were taught to do very well. When I was about three, I remember, the book fell on the floor because it was a huge book, and I was just a little kid. He picked up the book and very reverently kissed it, and I think that was the beginning of my worship of books, my respect for books, my care for books, the way I treat them, the meaning they have for me, the respect and sensibility that I pass on to other people. I think that rabbinic tradition has caused that. That’s the kind of teaching I do—that’s the kind of teaching I had, I benefited by, and passed on. It’s a nonmaterialistic lifestyle; it’s a thoughtful and proactive lifestyle; it’s a life built around books, but not to the exclusion of people. This is not—the Spanish have an expression: raton biblioteca —a library rat. I’m reminded of Joyce’s line in Finnegan’s Wake: ‘Latin me that, my Trinity scholard.’ Pound also had some wonderfully derogatory terms for these scholar rats that hide themselves from life in dustproof rooms and devote themselves to books: ‘No mouse of the scrolls was the Goodly Frere But aye loved the open sea.’ That’s not the kind of books I’m talking about. I’m talking about a living tradition and a commitment to books almost as a social justice issue and not as some dry, scholarly, library rat, dusty, lifeless concern with text but a living tradition—it looks the same, but it’s very different. And the outcome is very different—you can tell the difference from the results. The result is that I’m an activist, a radical. I’m a revolutionary, and all my actions are for justice and peace. That comes from the books with which I engage and from the people of the book with whom I engage, and I think that’s the difference between me, the amateur scholar, and someone else who might be a professional scholar; you can tell by the results, by the actions, and by the consequences where the heart is.

DB: What do you feel, besides the obvious, are the main differences between a high print-run magazine and a smaller one—one that espouses the sort of soul-conscious, zen approach that you take? Most people would think ‘Well, of course, there are many more issues and a much higher budget for a higher print-run magazine,’ but other than that difference, what would you say separates the two types?

AB: Well, of course, the small press by definition is small. With the large press, even the university press, you’re talking about a very different place in our society, especially in our modern world, where the marketplace and the commerciality of every enterprise has become paramount. The small press is in a different tradition. It’s in the artisan’s tradition. It’s in a pre-industrial revolution tradition. It’s the artisan, the craftsperson, the noncommercial, the nonmaterialistic. This isn’t divide-the-world-into-body-and-soul, but modern times have forced on us a refusal to engage in commercialism, in materialism, because our world has become so exclusively secular and commercial. I think that’s the biggest difference between a small press and a large one. For example, I remember somebody calling me from Publishers Weekly and interviewing me about something, and in the middle of the interview, I said to the person ‘Let me ask you a question because it’s something that I don’t understand,” (he was telling me he didn’t understand something). I said, ‘I don’t understand what all this interest in money is—that is not my interest. I have no interest in money. I have an interest in scholarship and knowledge and wisdom and books and paper and design and I have a million interests, but money seems to me to be one of the least of them, and yet all you talk about or all I read about is all this to do with money. Don’t you guys have enough, or is there some starvation out there I don’t know about?’ Well, he just thought I was mocking him—he thought I was joking. There seems to be a chasm between those of us (of whom I think there are many) who live our lives with values that are spiritual and community-minded and people-orientated, even animal-orientated—just life-orientated; let’s call it that—and those of us who seem to have some kind of obsession with this thing called money, which hardly even exists to me. I mean it’s very hard to say hello to it, embrace it. I don’t get it—it’s simply an inability to understand the market economy or the way the world works, even though I consider myself a very practical person. I’m very careful with the little bit of money I have, but I don’t really care about it. I think that’s the small press attitude. That was Len Fulton’s attitude; that was Jonathan Williams’s attitude; that was Frances Steloff’s attitude. None of us ever talked about money. I’m interested in money, in that I’m fascinated by the intelligent, creative person who can make their living from their art, and in order to that they have to be very careful about money, but almost all that has to do with not spending it, not using it inappropriately or improperly. I’m shocked by the fact that college students have credit cards and end their college study thousands of dollars in debt to credit cards, having purchased just nothing with it—they have nothing to show for it. I’m shocked by the tens of thousands of dollars that it costs to go to college. When I went to Columbia, it was two-hundred fifty dollars a semester, and it was nothing to pay your way through college. A friend of mine recently went to Columbia —it was thirty-five thousand dollars for the first year for everything. Well, that’s just obscene—something has gone very wrong in that area of our lives, and small press people, it seems to me, have restored sanity to this relationship.

DB: Along those lines then, in regards to your fascination with money and what it does to people, what would you think are the right reasons to start a small press or a small magazine and what are the wrong reasons?

AB: Well I can tell you the wrong reason right away because I just feel a stab in the heart. You see, there was a talented young woman who once came and worked at Unicorn Press—I forget what it was we were doing together—but suddenly she said ‘Oh, that will look so good in my dossier,’ and I just felt this pain, this wound, which I still feel, and this is a story from twenty yeas ago. I have never forgotten it. The idea of using poetry and books to establish some kind of reference point in an academic dossier that one then uses to get a better job or a better-paying job or some title or something like that disgusts me. I understand it’s extremely common, so I hate that kind of harsh judgment even as it comes out of my lips, but it’s true. I just feel an innate repulsion to using what, to me, are sacred things for careerism. No career would ever be important enough to me to misuse my god-given talents for that kind of trash. I guess I don’t have much respect for careers.

On the other hand, I’m a person whose ego, whose ambition, is nonexistent. I was just born that way, and I’m blessed I—I just don’t get it. I just don’t have that kind of testosterone, and I don’t like it when I see it. I don’t think it makes people happy. I don’t think it’s healthy for our community or our society. I think it’s been a horror in our history; it’s killed people. I mean, millions and millions of people have died as a result of this kind of—what I think of as patriarchal —behavior. I don’t know where it comes from, I don’t understand it, and I don’t like it. To some extent, I’ve fought against it all my life. I’m glad that I found a niche in my working life where that is practically nonexistent; nevertheless, it’s true that poets, of all people, compete with each other for limited resources, for space, badmouth each other. You know, there’s all that stuff because it’s in our culture; we’re an addictive society, and our addictions are killing people.

DB: What pearl of wisdom do you have now that you wish you’d had when you first became involved in small press publishing?

AB: Well, that’s a very good question. Another way to ask that question would be ‘what are the most significant things I can pass on to someone else?’ I’m going to have to think about that.

DB: We’ll come back to that if you like.

AB: No, don’t come back to it. Just let me think about it because that’s an important question. [pause] You know Socrates said ‘Know thyself,’ and Jung talks about individuation. I suppose the answer has to be along those lines: be thyself, be yourself. I would say the most valuable piece of information I ever received was not to allow myself to be self-censoring. Insofar as I have been censorious, especially self-censoring, I have failed. It’s very tempting. We are all brought up to be very aware of what other people think of us, so to say it more positively, the more I have acted on my own impulses, odd as I fear they may appear, the better results I have had. When I have been afraid or embarrassed or feared humiliation—so therefore diminished my actions in response to that kind of fear—I have been a loser, and, of course, everyone around me has lost as well. I think it’s very common; I think it’s one of the saddest yet most common aspects of our culture: that sort of self-depreciation. I’m afraid that not many of us act out of our genuine deepest convictions for fear of humiliation, embarrassment, ridicule, low self esteem, or wherever those sad things come from.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten braver—also, I’m in a twelve-step program, which helps me a lot, the Al-Anon program. My wife is a minister and a very direct, forthright person—she’s been a good model for me. Being wise enough to seek out other people like Tasha, my friends Tasha and Jessica, for example, has helped—they’re very direct, very outspoken people. I think feminism in general has been a great boon to me as I’ve watched women gain courage and speak out and take control of their lives even though they’re oppressed people. I think those are good models for me, and the advice I would pass on would be, insofar as you are able, be brave. What is it, the serenity prayer? ‘Have the courage to change, and if you don’t, forgive yourself quickly then move on.’

DB: Let’s focus on magazines for a moment. Ideally, how many people should be involved in a magazine during its formative stages? Can you have too many cooks in the kitchen?

AB: I think the old fashioned way of looking at this was that art needs a czar—one person. I’ve never seen it that way. To me, it’s like—what is it somebody said, the U.S. isn’t a melting pot, it’s a stew; it’s a giant stew, a salad. I like the stew metaphor. I think that a magazine can’t have enough people. For example, when I see a magazine, a good literary magazine, I’m thinking of the readers as being part of the stew. I’m thinking of course of the writers and the publisher and the editor and the printer and the bookbinder and the bookseller, the poetry reading that’s going on, the whole world. I think what characterizes me as person—and, certainly, as a publisher—is interconnectedness. I see five billion people involved in the publication of a magazine. I don’t see differences; I don’t see separations. For me, the more interrelatedness, the more thread—let me put it this way: if you’ve heard of Indira’s Web, the world is a vast web, everything. It is interconnected, and at every interstice, there is a bell, and if I tug here, well, the bells are going to ring all over the world. That’s how I see publishing. I see it all interconnected, all a meaningful One, and I think we do ourselves harm—and we don’t tell the truth—when we try to separate things. I don’t think separation is true. We do it for convenience and to think more clearly (or say we do), but I think the more of that kind of thing we do, the more trouble and confusion we get into. I prefer to see things the way I feel them, which is that everything inter-is. So, when it comes to the creation of a magazine, why not mix everything together? The more mixture, the more true; the more true, the better.

DB: Which types of magazines would you like to see more of?

AB: My favorite magazine my whole life has been The Catholic Worker. The Catholic Worker comes out every month; it sells for a penny a copy; it is filled fused with social justice issues. It’s beautiful typography—simplicity. The language in it is simple; it is straightforward; it is courageous; it speaks from the heart to other people’s hearts; it has included magnificent writers like Thomas Merton and Daniel Berrigan—Dorothy Day herself. It’s connected to Houses of Hospitality, where the poor are treated with dignity, which I think shows up in the typography; in the penny for the paper; in the very paper that they use, the newsprint; the devotion: you never see typos in that magazine. I think that is a model of magnificence. There has been nothing like it in my lifetime—it stands completely by itself. Most people don’t think of it as a literary paper, but in fact, it’s well written. There are book reviews; there are poems; there are magnificent artworks: Sister Meinrad, and Rita Corbin, and, well, just any number of people have placed art in The Catholic Worker. That’s the outstanding magazine.

I love Cyril Connolly’s Horizon—I think of all the literary magazines of a conventional type in the last hundred years, Horizon is number one. I think Furioso—you know, there’s a Ruth Stephan Poetry Center in Tucson, Arizona. I knew Ruth Stephan in New York when she used to come into the Gotham Book Mart, and her magazine was Furioso—magnificent. Oh, Dorothy Norman’s Twice a Year, as well. I guess the magazine that has influenced me the most is Dorothy Norman’s Twice a Year. Oh an incredible magazine in the ’30s and ’40s was the daily newspaper PM—it has certainly been a great influence on me. Izzy Stone’s Weekly was also a great influence on me. I think those have been the formative magazines of my lifetime. Now, none of them are alive today, with the exception of The Catholic Worker. Of Magazines today, I think Revenel is right up there. I think these new webzines like Two River are excellent—peerless. I loved Unicorn Journal that I published, that we published at Unicorn—that was modeled after Twice a Year.

DB: Actually, that leads me into my final question: what’s the future of Unicorn Press?

AB: Well, Unicorn has been going 38 years—I’m 68 years old. I think coming to Bryan, Texas, meeting Shelby and Jessica and Tasha Metcalf and Chuck Taylor and Sam Pittman, meeting these people—and even the recent interest Ashley Bender has shown in my work—I think that has meant a great deal to me. I’ve been kind of isolated. Academia has always kept as far away from me as it could get, regardless of my overtures to it, but something happened when I came to the College Station area: I’ve been treated very generously at Texas A&M. Dr. Steve Smith and Dr. Parrish, the head of the English Department at the university—I’ve been made to feel welcome here as part of the academic community, so for the first time in my life, I find myself getting along with academia, and the students have been very friendly—it’s just a very friendly place, and I’ve responded to that. It’s been a good marriage, I think, and because of that, Unicorn will probably be doing a lot of work that it otherwise wouldn’t because I’m a gardener, and I’m happy doing nothing. I’m kind of a lazy guy. I have a daughter, and I play chess and teach chess, and I’m active in my wife’s church, and I have the synagogue to boot, so I have a lot to do. I could easily neglect Unicorn, but I don’t think I will—I think I’ve found a way to integrate Unicorn into the rest of the details of my life in a happy way. Another thing that has happened is that I’ve been writing a lot of scholarly essays of my own, and of course, with Unicorn, I don’t have to go through all the soreness of finding a publisher and whatnot—I’ve got a publisher, and that’s been part of the selfish reason to keep Unicorn going. I think when you’re sixty-eight you begin to reflect on the things that are important, and you write them down, and if you have a publishing house, you can add that to the flux. I have so many friends out in the world: Robert Bly, for example, when he was here in College Station, he says ‘Al, are you still doing broadsides? I have a broadside for you.’ I haven’t published a broadside in thirty years, but of course, I said ‘Yeah, sure—you give me a broadside, I’ll publish a broadside.’ What do you do? If Robert Bly offers you an original poem to publish as a broadside, then you’re going to publish broadsides. I think there’s a lot of Robert Blys out there; there’s a lot of people out there whom I’ve published that come to me and offer poems and manuscripts. Somebody sent me a manuscript a couple of weeks ago. I didn’t want any more manuscripts, but it was Richard Kostelanetz, and I’ve admired him for thirty years, but I’ve never published him, so I’m going to publish that. I think it’s very hard to give up publishing, so one way or another I think Unicorn will continue.

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