“TANGIBLE THINGS / Out of a stark oblivion”: Spellbinding TOM TIT TOT

Guest Post by W. Scott Howard, University of Denver Department of English

TOM TIT TOT is a unique letterpress volume of textual montage, visual art, and collaborative design and production by Susan Howe and R. H. Quaytman, the poet’s daughter.

Cover

Cover, Tom Tit Tot (2014). Image Source: University of Denver Special Collections and Archives.

The unpaginated book, measuring 12 3/4 x 10 inches and hand-bound in green Japanese buckram by Mark Tomlinson in East Hampton, Massachusetts, was published by the Library Council of The Museum of Modern Art in a main edition and a deluxe edition.

Colophon

Colophon of Tom Tit Tot (2014). Image Source: University of Denver Special Collections and Archives.

Multi-faceted instances of the work first appeared respectively in 2013 and 2014 within context of Howe’s exhibitions at the Yale Union and the Whitney Biennial.

TOM TIT TOT was hand-printed at The Grenfell Press by Brad Ewing and Leslie Miller, who designed the volume with Howe and Quaytman.

Title Page

Title Page of Tom Tit Tot (2014). Includes frontispiece. Image Source: University of Denver Special Collections and Archives.

The printmaker Brett Groves worked closely with Quaytman to produce all of the images, which include the frontispiece, “The Temple of Time,” printed as a six-color silkscreen at Axelle Editions; digitally at the Lower East Side Printshop; and by letterpress at The Grenfell Press.

The volume’s title alludes to an English variant of the German Rumpelstilzchen story collected by Joseph Jacobs in English Fairy Tales (1890) in which these words—“Nimmy nimmy not / Your name’s Tom Tit Tot”—break the spell. Whereas the spinning of flax into skeins weaves the folktale’s plot, here the collaging of “words from images twi[sted] /  [f]rom their original source / [h]istory scattered to the fou[r] [winds]” shapes Howe’s transfiguration of texts into letterpress pages of concrete poems resembling textiles or wordwhorls.

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Poem in Tom Tit Tot (2014). Image Source: University of Denver Special Collections and Archives.

Poems

Poem in Tom Tit Tot (2014). Image Source: University of Denver Special Collections and Archives.

Howe fashioned her sixty-seven poems for TOM TIT TOT from splicings of typeset excerpts from a range of documents in American and British literature, folklore, poetry, philosophy, art criticism, and history from 1815 to 2013 as well as from Hellenistic and Roman sources—all of which are acknowledged in a bibliography. These works include, for example: Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” Coleridge’s Collected Letters, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Spinoza’s Ethics, Yeats’s Collected Poems, and Elizabeth Sussman’s and Lynn Zelevansky’s Paul Thek: Diver: A Retrospective.

The geographical atlases and histories of Emma Hart Willard (1787-1870), an American author, educator, and civil and women’s rights activist, inspired Quaytman’s design and images for TOM TIT TOT.

 

Emma Scott Willard's Temple of Time

Image Source: “Susan Howe and R. H. Quaytman, Tom Tit Tot.” Museum of Modern Art, 2014: http://www.moma.org/learn/resources/library/council/howequaytman

Two of Willard’s visual representations, Picture of Nations and Temple of Time, inform Quaytman’s frontispiece. TOM TIT TOT includes three more images (each untitled) by Quaytman printed by letterpress at The Grenfell Press. One of these could easily be mistaken for a carbon typing sheet, or a detached opaque interleaf: this shiny black, moveable page includes, in the bottom right-hand corner, a composite of thumbprints in white. Another of Quaytman’s images limns a slightly unraveled knitted baby’s sock, which also resembles a winding-cloth and derives from a photoengraving in Thérèse de Dillmont’s Encyclopedia of Needlework (1886).

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Print by R.H. Quaytman in Tom Tit Tot (2014). Image Source; University of Denver Special Collections and Archives.

The third of these images, appearing just before the bibliography, echoes the artist’s frontispiece. Quaytman also designed the pattern stamped in gold on the book’s spine, which was created from a woodblock handmade by James Cooper that alludes to the edges of the plywood panels used in the composition of the artist’s painted and silkscreened works.

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Spine of Tom Tit Tot (2014). Image Source: University of Denver Special Collections and Archives.

The poems in TOM TIT TOT emerge from a sequence of Howe’s residencies, gallery exhibitions, performances, lectures, publications, and works-in-progress (since 2010) dedicated to the artist, Paul Thek (1933-1988), and also to the collector, Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924). In 2013 (October 5-December 6) the Yale Union gallery in Portland, Oregon hosted a multi-faceted presentation of TOM TIT TOT, highlighting the first in a discrete series of the work’s public appearances and Howe’s first solo exhibition. This event was curated by Andrea Anderson and Robert Snowden.

Yale Exhibition

Susan Howe, Yale Union (2013). Image Source: W. Scott Howard.

One of the gallery’s walls arranged poems from an unbound copy of Howe’s Frolic Architecture (Grenfell Press, 2010) together with related photograms by James Welling. An open-square table designed by Scott Ponik displayed the sixty-seven letterpress poems from TOM TIT TOT as thirty-three facing pages and one single page, each visible through a pane of glass set flush with the table surface.

A collectively assembled, freely-distributed catalogue, Susan Howe: TOM TIT TOT, accompanied the exhibition. Yale Union concurrently published a chapbook, TOM TIT TOT, consisting of poems not appearing in the 2014 MOMA edition—“Unseen in canoe or cut glass / skiff to drift around centuries”—some of which may be found in Hambone 21 (2015).

Yale Exhibition (2013). Image: W. Scott Howard.

Susan Howe, Yale Union (2013). Image Source: W. Scott Howard.

In another room, during one evening, Howe and the composer David Grubbs performed for the first time a new sound-work,

WOODSLIPPERCOUNTERCLATTER, which emerges from TOM TIT TOT and is available as a studio recording (2015) from Drag City. Yale Union also released a cluster of open-access digital artifacts providing selections from TOM TIT TOT, the exhibition catalogue, interviews with Howe, passages from commentaries on Howe’s work by Grubbs and others, and related audio, text, and video links.

Yale Exhibition

Susan Howe, Yale Union (2013). Image Source: W. Scott Howard.

Howe’s kaleidoscopic transformations of TOM TIT TOT continued in 2014. Sixteen facing pages of the poems were shown in the Whitney Biennial—four of which appeared in the exhibition catalogue. The Whitney also concurrently published, on their web site, poems from the work, an audio guide to the exhibition, and an audio excerpt from one of Howe’s performances with Grubbs of Frolic Architecture.

The University of Denver Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives holds an increasing number of works by the poet, Susan Howe, including:

  • The Nonconformist’s Memorial. (The Grenfell Press, 1992). First edition. One of 18 deluxe copies, numbered in Roman, specially bound, and with a separate original woodcut, numbered and signed by Robert Mangold.
  • Hinge Picture. (Telephone Books, 1974). First edition of Howe’s first book, (300 copies printed) signed by the author.

The main edition of TOM TIT TOT includes one hundred fifteen copies, each signed by the artist and by the poet and numbered. The University of Denver’s copy is number eighty-one. A deluxe edition of thirty copies includes Quaytman’s print, A Sketch of the Whole Complicated Subject of Universal History. Each deluxe volume is signed and lettered a through z; the four artist’s copies are signed and lettered aa through dd.

“I don’t know yet where I will go next in terms of my writing. TOM TIT TOT broke my poetry, opened a new path to follow that began with the poems in Frolic Architecture and has been encouraged in acoustic directions while working on collaborations with the musician and composer, David Grubbs. I still felt somehow that Frolic was anchored-down to some material, a document or fact—to Hannah Edwards’ original text—whereas TOM TIT TOT tosses chance and discipline together in a more kaleidoscopic way—seeing the Paul Thek show and then my experience of living at the Gardner Museum in Boston on a fellowship. All my life, I’ve loved fairy tales, and the magic appearance of those three monosyllabic three-letter words as both name and title reminded me of Thek’s wonderful title to a series of sculptures, The Personal Effects of the Pied Piper, which led me back to Browning’s poem and beyond that to his wonderful “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” I began My Emily Dickinson with “Childe Roland.” So, at the very beginning of my work and now here so many years later in TOM TIT TOT—via Thek, Browning, even Yeats, who also made use of Childe Roland and the black tower—I have circled through spontaneous particulars (fable and folklore) ending with the beginning.”

—Susan Howe, September, 2015

TOM TIT TOT was featured in an exhibition of Susan Howe’s work at the University of Denver (September – December, 2015):

Tom Tit Tot exhibition 2015

Susan Howe, Tom Tit Tot, University of Denver Libraries Exhibit 2015.

R.H. Quaytman is a contemporary artist, educator, and author based in New York City. Winner of the 1992 Rome Prize, she taught for many years in the Bard College Summer Program. Quaytman’s site-specific, photographically based, silkscreen-printed paintings on wood panels combine architectural, historical, and social elements in sentences and chapters. Quaytman’s works were selected for the 2010 Whitney Biennial.

Susan Howe is a poet, educator, and sound artist based in Guilford, Connecticut. Winner of the 2011 Bollingen Prize, she taught for many years at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Howe’s context-specific, sonically based, collaged facing pages of concrete poetry and poetic prose combine historical, literary, and philosophical elements in wordsquares and soundforms. Howe’s works were selected for the 2014 Whitney Biennial.

Sources Consulted:

“SUSAN HOWE: TOM TIT TOT.” Yale Union, 2013: http://yaleunion.org/susan-howe/

“SUSAN HOWE.” Whitney Museum of American Art, 2014: http://whitney.org/Exhibitions/2014Biennial/SusanHowe

“Susan Howe and R. H. Quaytman, Tom Tit Tot.” Museum of Modern Art, 2014: http://www.moma.org/learn/resources/library/council/howequaytman

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