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Abandoned Museums
Thoughts Towards Calamari Press & Text/Image

by Selah Saterstrom

Derek White has worked on a movie in France, as a cook in South Dakota, as a field geologist all over North America, and still found time to get a Masters degree in Physics. Now he lives in NYC in a tiny apartment with his wife [luckily, he says, also tiny] and runs Calamari Press. Since its inception Calamari Press has published thirteen titles as well as the text/image journal, SleepingFish. Sensitive to the fact that many journals cannot publish hybrid forms for logistical reasons or will not because of other [perhaps more suspect] reasons, White sought to create a venue that would, in his words, “fill the gap.” SleepingFish began with an emphasis on visual poetry, but has since diversified into other cross-genre forms that resist simple categorization. What follows is less a response to any one publication and more an eruption of thoughts towards text/image as felt through the lens of Calamari Press.


Calamari Press titles and its journal, SleepingFish [in particular I’ve been looking at Issue 0.5], are environments in book-object form. Inside them I walk through questions concerning How and Why I encounter text/image work. The questions aren’t for answers, but exist like needs exist. What is important about the questions is that they are immediate presences that might reveal designs or possible implications. So in this way to pose a question: How does one encounter text/image pieces in a journal that also engages with these pieces through the layering and juxtaposition of additional marks, textures, and texts?


A lot of being a kid for me was walking. It’s how I found the abandoned museum downtown. A lot of stuff in the museum had been removed but a lot was still there. I entered the building through a busted basement window. The basement was carpeted in old exploded encyclopedias. It was a small town and the museum had been a kind of Natural History/Old South museum in its day. In it there was a rat-devastated stuffed flying squirrel in a broken glass box next to a mannequin in a rotting hoopskirt. The building was constructed after the Civil War as a dance and performance hall so there was an open center for waltzing and a raised stage. Above the stage a thick rope drooped from dust weight of red velvet curtain sag. There was a dead dog in the middle of what would have been the dancing floor. When I first broke into the museum the dog was just dead. Over time it became a stain on the floor outlined in gray bristle. The abandoned museum was the greatest place in the world.

"Other Than Carrots," illustration by Derek White, from John Olson's book, The Night I Dropped Shakespeare on the Cat (Calamari Press, forthcoming, 2006).

When I was in it I could be myself + the fractures. Without sentimentality the abandoned museum showed the most poignant version of every tension, every arriving, every receding, and all at once. All I had to do was be there and look at stuff. Like how I always wanted church to be, plus you could smoke cigarettes.

As inside the abandoned museum, inside Calamari Press publications the world is included in the reading, and the world is also the book, there for our reading. In SleepingFish, textures, stamps, smears, and stains are transcribed into the book-object which holds text/image pieces – pieces that often show the page as unbound. Page as wall or roof [graffiti and other unbound pages of the urban pastoral]. Page as various melded shelters, documents, forms of evidence, artifacts of process. Given to us via image, photograph, print, mixed media, or collage. It is an environment of juxtapositions: juxtaposition as a path of inquiry.

Juxtaposition suggests relationships and encounters. It suggests that to see and read is to encounter. The multidimensional nature of text/image work insists upon a whole-self encounter: the knowings of guts and sinews [marks, textures] / our own references [memory] / our intelligence [how we direct our mind].

This kind of encounter is not necessarily safe: we cannot remain unchanged by it. It is not a one-sided event, but an exchange. When the world is the book, how we read is how we encounter the world. It is how we are marked and how we mark. The juxtapositions of texture, text, and image raise the question: what is the quality of your presence?


In text/image work, one often encounters work that is partial, open, always/also pointing to absence:presence. Pieces as wound portals. I’m thinking of pieces like Spencer Selby’s “difficult to/mean that/I mean/stake he/involved in” [SleepingFish, 0.5]:

Layers are simultaneously pulled back and overridden in order to frame another revealing. One could also say such pieces are maps/diagrams that direct us to the texts of our wounds. As people and as cultures. I am reminded of this in pieces like “55 + 89 = Sapling Canopy Ceiling” from P.S. At Least We Died Trying, a collaborative Calamari title by Wendy Collin Sorin and Derek White, when I read: “There is another story of opposing spirals corresponding to a sign between them.”

Or, is that what I read? It’s not all I read. Often text in text/image work can be read from multiple vistas within the installation space of the page. The above text could, for example, also read: “There/is {in the shade/of an apricot/another/sewing thread…” Between the space of possible readings: endless hatchings. Why enter the fecundity? One implication: within surrender one may find connection. Not a connection that undoes one’s non-negotiable solitude, but the kind of connection one experiences in blues music – the backbone pattern: call [spark] & response [spark]. In surrendering control of how a text should behave we might be broken open into something more poignant than our expectations.


In text/image work one often reads words or parts of words. Made by industrial marks, human marks, accidental marks. Accidental: where time and conditions inscribe signatures, poems, dreams, riddles, etc. into surfaces. All scripts are included. Each font/mark/texture arriving with its own resonate history, by which I mean patina: the evidence of so many accidents.

Staring Inward the Sun
Derek White, 2004.

Sartre’s idea of a writer’s contract with word-objects comes to mind. In pieces like “Staring Inward the Sun" by Derek White [from BODH[I] CIRCU[IT]S / ALG[A]E[BRA D[RA[IN]]] I am reminded that words might be erased/scraped hollow of utilitarian impacted meat in order to mean. We scrape, break, and erase. The marks of our gestures are visible, not separate events from writing, but a form of writing. So that we might speak the languages of the dead and/or the “over there” languages of the heart. Or rather: try for them to speak us.


Does this all seem dense? To include the world in one’s reading, for the world to be the book we read from, is to engage with density. But that’s how it is, that’s life. Standing in the flow of consistent genuflecting.

Illustration by Derek White, from James Wagner's Trilce (Calamari Press, 2006).


After two years I decided to start marking the abandoned museum. Not in an original way, but I can say it was a typical and melodramatic way. With spray paint and rock lyrics. When I first began going into the museum I took a thermos of coffee or a Peach Ne-hi. As a teenager, joints. So that above the devastated flying squirrel there was a Captain Beefheart quote questioning the conventionality of toasters. So that above the mannequin in the rotting hoopskirt there was a Pink Floyd lyric (“the child is grown/ the dream is gone,” red, ALL CAPS). So that there was a narrow black arrow on the floor pointing to where a dog had been. The book I had been reading became one I was helping write. Why write myself in?

The communion that happens between the intentional and the accidental.

Poste Q Fijian Field Data
Derek White, 2006.

There is a feeling in much of Calamari Press’s publications that they are not just books cataloguing pieces. Though the writers, artists, book designers, and editors did make these pieces, there is an infused sensibility that the making also has to do with being present and prepared when certain marks, textures, texts, and images intersect.

An implication for artists and writers is that creating work can be a kind of present moment practice. Something that happens in the world. So that we might return to our desks or studios seeing better, which is the only hope for producing better work.

Exhibit 1. Charm Coefficient Gap
Derek White, 2006


I stopped going to the abandoned museum when a guy who worked at the nearby insurance office caught me slipping through the basement window. He grabbed my arm as I was half in, half out, and asked what I thought I was doing. The next day the window was boarded up. As an adult I have longed for the abandoned museum. The old story of being homesick for what you can’t return to.

Text/image work and efforts from presses like Calamari suggest we don’t have to return exclusively to our ghost versions [whatever forms they take] in order to make contact – in order to be + the fractures – because we have the world: these cultures, these belief systems, these marks, these countless relations. The abandoned museum is everywhere, all the time. It is a condition and a space. The condition is human and the space is co-creative. Where we might learn something if we can bear awareness – that we might claim accountability for our hand in writing and imaging the book of the world.

Selah Saterstom is the author of The Pink Institution (Coffee House Press, 2004), and The Meat & Spirit Plan (forthcoming). Her work has recently appeared in Cranbrook Magazine, 14 Hills, The American Book Review, and other places.