On the Fringes of the Small Press Scene: Solving the Hors Commerce Press Mystery

Reader services assistant and independent researcher Bruce Wilkinson talks about solving the mystery of the Hors Commerce Press.

The Dave Cunliffe Collection holds a wide array of 1960s US countercultural publications and avant-garde poetry pamphlets of the ‘Mimeograph Revolution’ but some of the most intriguing are those produced by the Hors Commerce Press from Torrance, California. As is often the case with small press publications the pamphlets contain little bibliographic information, which makes research difficult. Some, but not all, are dated. Those that are show a span from 1962 to 1969, while there is zero editorial detail beyond the place of publication. A search of libraries and archives on both sides of the Atlantic elicits little information about Hors Commerce and the 37 different publications in Cunliffe’s archive seems to be the largest collection of its output in either the UK or the US. Even the most reliable sources about the rarest of little magazines such as the Verdant Press website, Mimeo Mimeo or enthusiast and collector Thurston Moore seem to know little about this material. The multiple copies of some publications in the Cunliffe archive indicate that he and his fellow editor, the poet Tina Morris, probably acted as European distributors for Hors Commerce (as they did for other small presses) so they must have considered the experimental verse, prose and art featured as worthwhile.

The mystery of the identity of the Hors Commerce Press editor appears to be solved in a Steve Richmond poem entitled ‘James D Callahan’ in issue 97 (P23) of the significant US little poetry magazine Wormwood Review (copies of which are also held in the Cunliffe Collection). It begins:

he used to put out hors commerce press

in a little backyard bungalow

behind his Torrance house

The fact that the small press put out six of Callahan’s pamphlets (see bibliography at the end of the blog) also supports the assumption that it was probably his press. Hors Commerce is a publishing term which, translated literally from the French, means ‘without charge’, but more generally represents the free issues often used for promotion, as samples or gifts to fellow authors or publishers. Another suggestion is that the publishing title could be a play on the sound of the words – i.e. money made from selling one’s self. Whatever the meaning behind the name, it was a small press which produced limited runs of experimental pamphlets of poetry, literature and art with a single issue of Dyptsych little magazine, almost certainly for little (if any) profit and probably gifted to other small press editors and writers.

The Hors Commerce roster has a few well-known poets, the most significant of which are d. a. levy, William Wantling, Kirby Congdon, and Carl Larsen, all of whom are connected to Morris and Cunliffe through the transatlantic little magazine network which formed in the early 1960s. As I have written about these poets and publishers before (see here for instance) I will focus here on a few less celebrated artists whose work featured in the Californian press:

Abstract red spiral design over black cube shape

The reason for the substantial number of Hors Commerce pamphlets in the Cunliffe collection might be due to his relationship with one or more of the four better known poets above. Or it may have been because Tempted Monk, the work of John Igo, a Texan playwright, composer, author, poet and archivist had previously appeared in his Poetmeat magazine. Born, raised and resident in San Antonio for most of his life, Igo became a Texan cultural hub, mentoring numerous young artists towards innovative creativity and lecturing on English Literature at the local college for 49 years; his influence suitably recognised by the creation of the John Igo Library in his hometown.

Black lettering The Tempted Monk on green coloured cover
Hand printed green floral pattern and red spot on inner sleeve

Amongst the lesser-known authors published by Hors Commerce is Taylor Mead (1924-2013). Mead was a writer and performer who acted in numerous underground movies of the 1960s and 70s but is perhaps best known as part of Andy Warhol’s Factory scene. He appeared in several Warhol movies which included Couch (1964), Imitation of Christ (1967), and Lonesome Cowboys (1967), but also had cameos in mainstream films, showing up briefly in the multi-Oscar winning Midnight Cowboy (1969) alongside stars Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight. A Bohemian New Yorker, Mead read his verse at the Bowery Poetry Club although Impressions, his Hors Commerce pamphlet, is actually a tale of his travels around the US, Mexico, and France rather than poetry. Mead represents the creative underbelly of a city which was then struggling financially, leaving large empty loft spaces inhabited by artists, writers and musicians who generated some of the greatest work of the late-twentieth century.

Ink portrait of Ernest Hemingway on white background

Californian poet, artist and musician Toby Lurie is not a well-known figure in mainstream culture, but Kenneth Rexroth was a fan of his unique approach which fuses sound poetry, music and painting into an entirely new artform. His Measured Space Hors Commerce pamphlet appeared in 1968, but Lurie, currently in his nineties, is still working. He composes spoken-language symphonies and improvises on stage inviting audience participation to make each of his events unique in ways reminiscent of the Mike Horovitz Live New Departures concerts in the UK.

Measured Space by Toby Lurie black type on yellow block on red cover
Measured Space in yellow and red on inner page

This YouTube recording of Synesthesia is a good representation of Lurie’s unique approach.

Jane and AJ Hovde were artists and writers originally from Washington State but who moved around the US and spent a couple of years working in Italy. Jane exhibited her semi-abstract paintings from 1947 and was shown in galleries around the States including at the Smithsonian. AJ contributed verse and prose to more than 100 publications and as an academic he helped to found Fairhaven College, a liberal arts institution which still operates as part of Western Washington University leaving a creative legacy which still influences that region.

Walt Whitman and the Kid in the Woodshed in red and black type on brown background

What I enjoy about all the publications is their distinctive style, often using different combinations of just three colours on the covers and throughout the pamphlets. Although I would like to think that this represents Callahan’s attempt to create a new small press aesthetic, it is more likely that it highlights the limited palette forced upon him by financial limitations. The publications often feature hand-drawn, simple, sometimes cheeky illustrations based around the theme of the chapbook, many created by the artist David Stanislaus. The 46 Hors Commerce pamphlets which I have identified represent a substantial output stretching over seven years, which is much larger than the production of many other similar small presses – most only lasting just a couple of years and publishing a handful of editions. I am hopeful that James Callahan’s poetic imprint will one day become better known as both the verse and design of the pamphlets becomes better appreciated.

Box figure holding out a flower with red petals and green stalk on yellow background

Although currently uncatalogued a full searchable list of the Dave Cunliffe Collection is available from the curator, Jessica Smith, and (within the usual Data Protection restrictions) most of its contents are ready to be viewed through the John Rylands Library Reading Room.

Hors Commerce Press Bibliography

13 Random Shots at Distant Targets*, James D Callahan, 1962

Bucolics & Cheromanics*, Marvin Malone, 1963

Fr. McNutt’s Notebook*, James D Callahan, 1963

Christ: A Symposium, James D Callahan, 1964

By Their Works ye Shall Know Them, Frank Ankenbrand Jr, 1964

3 One Act Plays, Kirby Congdon, Carl Larsen & d a levy, 1964

Against a Wall of Light, Ben Tibbs, 1964

A Very Colorful Highly Controversial…*, Trevor X Delahanty, 1964

The Day the War Ended*, James Hazard, 1964

The Way it Was, Veryl Rosenbaum, 1964

These Doors Ajar, Phyllis Onstott Arone, 1964

Through Man Fly Angel High*, Harold Briggs, 1964

A Christmas Poem*, Barbara Howes, 1964

Prelude to Armageddon, James D Callahan, 1965

Memoirs of a Parasite, Christopher Perret, 1965

Titled and Untitled, Bernard A Forrest, 1965

The Mountain Climbers, James D Callahan, 1965

Five Poem Songs, William Wantling, 1965

Not as a Faceless Number, Carl Robins, 1965

Lost Natives & Expatriates, Jay Nash, 1965

A Door in the Wall, Ellen Tifft, 1966

The Night of the Terrible Ladders, David M Kelly, 1966

Walt Whitman and the Kid in the Woodshed, Ken Dobel, 1966

The Road to Oblivion, Louis W Roddewig, 1966

A Birdness Flown, Ben Tibbs, 1966

Dypstych, Issue 1, 1966

There are Birds in the Computer, Bernard A Forrest, 1967

A Benediction and Other Poems, William C Dell, 1967

Revelations and Doubts, Harvey Tucker, 1967

The Tempted Monk, John Igo, 1967

Sunset Beach, Gerald Locklin, 1967

The Kissed Cold Kite, Ellen Tifft, 1968

That Poor Devil Eire…*, Malachy Quinn, 1968

Measured Space, Toby Lurie, 1968

Time and Against*, Ben Tibbs, 1968

HOVDE FOLIO 10:10, Jane Hovde & AJ Hovde, 1968

The Wind is Rising, Carl Robins, 1969

Furies, Robert Haller, 1969

Saintly Milk to Better Wine, Emily Katharine Harris, 1969

Children of the Moon, Danny Mondschein, 1969

Cyanide and Society, James D Callahan, Undated

Impressions, Taylor Mead, Undated

Search, William Wantling, Undated

Suns, Kirby Congdon, Undated

A Dirge for Three Artists, William Wantling, Undated

Landscape, Kirby Congdon, Undated

Atlas Schatt!, Trevor X Delahanty Undated

1 comment on “On the Fringes of the Small Press Scene: Solving the Hors Commerce Press Mystery

  1. Kent Taylor

    fascinating article-i encountered Callahan’s Hors Commerce publications in Jim Lowell’s Asphodel Book Shop in the early sixties in Cleveland.

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