The Spirit of Barney Rosset Lives on the Train to Pokipse
Iconoclast publisher Barney Rosset died three years ago, in 2012. His anti-censorship battles all the way up to the Supreme Court, which he won, maintains a lasting effect on our society to this day. But beyond historical significance, Rosset’s presence is very much in the ether, one a project he fostered, and the other a highly personal and unexpected final act.
Photo of Barney Rosset by Astrid Rosset
The first of these is Train to Pokipse by Rami Shamir. Self-published in 2012, this was the last book Rosset edited. His protégé Shamir was nearly arrested, alongside multi-media street artist Avoid, aka Adam Void (who designed the cover), by Homeland Security during the cover photo-shoot. It turns out the train yard by Coney Island that they were photographing houses a Department of Homeland Security base.
Cover: Train To Pokipse
When Shamir suggested to Rosset that he was considering publishing the cover without a title or bi-line, Barney pointed out that is exactly what he had done with Jean Genet’s Funeral Rites. Rosset noted, “It’s ok to do. I did it with Genet’s book, the only problem is the book didn’t sell very well. It’s a gamble.”
Grove Press: front and back cover
Next Shamir, an Occupy Wall Street activist, took to the streets, with a poster and sticker campaign across Manhattan and the outer boroughs. Significantly, Rosset had taken a similar tactic years prior, hanging posters of Michael Guinzburg’s book, Beam Me Up Scotty.
Rosset hanging posters for “Beam Me Up Scotty”
Shamir’s street campaign
The campaign paid off. Eschewing not only a traditional publisher, but also Amazon distribution, Rosset called Pokipse “a Catcher in the Rye for the new century, and Rami Shamir is an authentic literary voice for a new lost generation.” And Steve Dalachinsky, in the The Brooklyn Rail observed, “This intense first novel was 10 years in the making…. POKIPSE is a reading must from one generation to all generations.” The following year Shamir was the youngest recipient of the Acker Award, “a tribute given to members of the avant garde arts community who have made outstanding contributions in their discipline in defiance of convention, or else served their fellow writers and artists in outstanding ways.” There currently is a Kickstarter campaign for a second edition.
Rosset and Shamir at work in the East Village loft
The loft where Rosset and Shamir worked was a turn-of-the-century fourth floor walkup in the East Village, where Barney and his wife Astrid resided for over a quarter of a century, moving there shortly after his ouster as Grove Press Publisher in 1986. Lined with floor to ceiling bookshelves that contained his extensive library of Grove Press books and personal effects, Columbia University acquired the archives in 2010, leaving a large blank space where the shelves once stood. Barney, paintbrush in hand, began covering one 12’ x 15’ wall with an abstract painting that continuously expanded and transformed. Adding collage elements of Styrofoam used for packing, small miniature-train figures, cufflinks and more, the wall was a work in progress.
Rosset at work on the mural. Photo by Astrid Rosset.
Rosset’s first wife, Joan Mitchell, was a renowned abstract expressionist, and Rosset was equally at home with both the visual and literary artists of his time. When I worked with him for several years on his autobiography, his wish was for the book to be as visual as it was literary.
A documentary film by Sandy Gotham Meehan, Barney’s Wall, is soon to be released. Unfortunately the film may be all that remains of the mural. Astrid moved to East Hampton earlier this year, and while there have been articles supporting its preservation in publications as disparate as The Wall Street and The New Republic, the mural will most likely be demolished.
But Barney lives on: his long awaited autobiography will finally be published next year by OR Books (albeit sans the visual approach Barney envisioned) and they have also plan on bringing back the Evergreen Review. As John Oakes, co-publisher of OR Books and former Grove Press employee notes, Barney “reshaped American culture.”
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