A fisherman can always spot another fisherman from afar – this goes true for Mark Valentine and his folk. At various turns fiction writer, critic, editor, publisher and musician, Valentine has quietly burrowed away in arcane artistic soil, digging his own tunnels to depths few people ever reach. If he can be called any one thing on a professional level, the level where society demands one must peg themselves, it’s “fan”, however odious that may sound. Starting off in the published world as a contributor to fan magazines, he has grown into an author of more than 20 published books, editor/introducer of quite a lot more than that, and the editor of Wormwood, a journal on fantastic, supernatural and decadent literature. This journal, as with nearly half of Valentine’s authored books, is published by Tartarus Press, a specialty publisher of contemporary and rediscovered weird fiction, whose output largely consists of finely-produced limited editions that sell out quickly. It is this last area where Valentine seems to dwell with a dark relish – his career almost delights in its obscurity, as it puts him in league with the writers and artists he works so hard to champion. I can’t help but be drawn to a figure like him because, well, I’m one of him, a navigator in the Sargasso sea of forgotten art – frequently tangled in the foliage but entranced by its irrepressible life force.
I first encountered Valentine’s work by searching for blogs on obscure books deserving of attention, and came across Wormwoodiana, the blog companion to Wormwood written by Valentine and his good friend Douglas A. Anderson, editor of The Annotated Hobbit. I was struck not only by the wide banquet table of writers I’d never heard of, and the quality of the appraisals of their output, but also by how consistently Valentine and Anderson were able to mine a seemingly narrow genre focus and come up with effortless depth. I also came across a video created by R. B. Russell, Tartarus’s chief editor, that interviewed Valentine as a book collector rather than as a writer. His tastes and peculiarities have brought him to create something of a private research library for fans of his favored authors, and seeing rows and rows of scarce first editions from a century or more ago made my mouth water – thought admittedly I don’t think I’d want to read all of his books, or even half of them. The achievement, noble or otherwise, is startling, and a few titles he has are rare beyond belief. The one I’m the most interested to see the inside of is A Book of Deadly Sonnets by “N. B.”, most likely an eccentric, unprolific writer by the name of Norman Boothroyd. The book was likely printed privately at his expense, and rarely have I seen such a small book I’ve wanted so badly.
The video is not only a showcase of a collection, but also a portrait of the man, here an incomparably British figure in a tan waistcoat, surrounded by a lifetime’s supply of fin-de-siècle literature that only a connoisseur of the Old, Old World could assemble. His darling authors gravitate around that most glorious star in artistic history, the Golden Afternoon before the Great War, and to a lesser extent the verdant, chaotic reconstruction between it and the second World War. I haven’t had the pleasure of reading any of his own stories (mostly because they are so hard to get ahold of at modest prices, or at all), but his own descriptions and publisher blurbs prove their allegiance to his fan interests. For Valentine, collecting is an art a lifetime in the perfection, so much so that favored sellers, and fellow travelers in book appreciators, are given obituaries in his blog.
He has also, with the partnership of his wife Jo, self-published his own fine books, designing and hand-making extremely limited edition chapbooks of scarce literature, some of it translating authors into English for the first time. This imprint, Valentine & Valentine, is only advertised on Wormwoodiana, its books are all in editions of 25 only, have all sold out, and have been left without new titles for a few years now. If there are books I’d like more than A Book of Deadly Sonnets, these titles are among them. They are mostly poetry, an area Valentine has a periodic but fruitful interest in, and the genre is the one that normal observers might least likely guess he’d have an affinity for. This is not his fault, or the fault of the public, but more the subtly narrow focus of the mainstream poetry world itself, which, even though it allows for a striking variety in techniques, has an accepted mode of thinking and feeling that doesn’t often allow for certain non-self-conscious aspects of Valentine’s art – those of horror, beauty and wonder for their own sake, something he shares with the Decadent authors who are among his frequent literary haunts. While early Modernism is among his interests, he more frequently finds writers who care less for technique and movements and more for his own taste needs – bringing us to today’s book, Star Kites.
Published by Tartarus Press in 2013 (and apparently still available), Star Kites is Valentine’s most recent collection of poetry, composed half of Valentine originals and half of “versions” of a slew of late 19th- and early 20th-century poems by authors largely or completely forgotten. Like all of Tartarus Press’s books in hardback, its plain dust jacket conceals gorgeous boards, and the printing and paper quality are through the roof. Limited to 250 copies and signed by the author, it was a lucky find for me – it sat at a local book store for so long it made its way to the clearance rack, seemingly just for me to scoop up and adore. I wasn’t sure what to think when I saw that he had written poetry – something just seemed fishy about the concept – but I was won over as soon as I opened the book to see the results. His thematic focus is in character: shimmering, elusive portraits of mysterious, dark imagery. No new techniques are created here, but it’s no matter – I’d call his method Imagistic, a term he uses himself to describe one of his poem “versions”, and the allow his poetic ideas to present themselves untroubled, and with precise timing. Take, for example, the title poem:
The uneven, rhymeless lines are still sympathetic to effective end-stopping of ideas, and the swirl of exotic and arcane images is pleasantly intoxicating. Many poems relate scenes of ominous, possibly supernatural design:
Others simplify their microcosms to a needle’s point, and in doing so enter the brain swiftly and silently – a feat achieved a century ago by the Imagists, though few of them, perhaps just Evelyn Scott, attempted his projection of awe in darkness.
They are assured, memorable pieces, indebted to past masters but crafted by a warmly singular mind. As much as I admire this work, its time passed before it was born – something I’m sure Valentine is aware of. It is very fitting, then, that the latter half of the book is devoted to his “versions” of other poets’ work, something that he had practiced before but now gets a proper venue here. The difference between a translation and a version can be seen in a Wormwoodiana post of his, where he offers two English takes on a forgotten poem, originally in French, from the 1890’s literary journal The Spirit Lamp, edited by Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, the object of Oscar Wilde’s doomed romantic attachment. It took Valentine digging several layers beneath the mainstream to even see the poem, but this level of research is everyday for him, and it took a sustained effort in the same area to produce the versions contained here.
The pieces he showcases originate from several different nations and languages, ranging from French to Esperanto, and cross multiple decades, from the 1890’s through the middle of the 20th century. Some of the pieces were only published in obscure periodicals, such as the 1920’s Romanian Avant-Garde journal Contimporanul (which I thank Valentine for introducing me to), and some were in scarce, self-published volumes. A couple of well-known poets are featured, like Antonio Machado and Fernando Pessoa, but most are shadowy figures, due variously to early deaths, off-putting personalities, or simply the bad luck of being born in a country that went to pot during the Wars. Some writers’s lives and careers were so fugitive they edge the tragic, making the inclusion of their work an act of noble rescue, which I can’t help but feeling in the background of much of what I do as an artist. It’s a remarkable way for Valentine to “give back” as a collector – give back to the reading community, and to a world that demands that people produce in order to prove their right to exist.
It’s this last point that I come back to the older I get, looking back at all the time I’ve spent building my own not-quite-ivory tower of art I admire. Collecting, accumulating, curating – all are fine pastimes, but they don’t dig ditches. What is the point, if it doesn’t create something new, or encourage people to spend their money in worthwhile capitalistic venues? Something can be said for the latter, as the volume got me to check for further available titles by each other authors, bringing me to actual volumes (from other translators) of enticing figures such as Maria Louise Weissmann and George Bacovia, “versioned” twice by Valentine:
The former issue, giving back to the reading public itself, revolves around the central issue in preserving writing in the first place – if it’s not in a book, it can’t live forever. Most authors who are known are known because of printed books – sturdy, stackable, enduring objects – that preserve their work, and ephemeral publications such as magazines and websites, or even more fragile forms of printing, fade when their readership dies or loses momentum. Valentine’s quest for unknown greatness began with full books, as did many others’ – I am currently reading A. J. A. Symons’s The Quest for Corvo, an experimental, almost gonzo biography wherein the author recounts his search for the biographical truth of Frederick Rolfe, the eccentric, self-styled “Baron Corvo”, and that journey begins with the author being lent a copy of Rolfe’s first novel, the acclaimed Hadrian VII. The book has an official permanence in the psyche, and so, in many cases in Star Kites, Valentine had to scour scans and facsimiles of long-vanished periodicals to find worthy poems of which to make versions. I can relate – it was the same technique I used to make The New Pagans, my anthology of early Modernist American verse, and I am eternally indebted to non-profit internet archives who took the time to track down print copies of elusive magazines and journals and scan them for public view. I wouldn’t expect every reader of my book to like every poem in it, as hopefully Valentine doesn’t expect all his readers to share each of his nodes of taste, but this is part of the wonderful, organic reality of a free art appreciation society. We love what we love, and we fight for the recognition of those artists we love who others have left by the wayside, hoping that others do the same for theirs so that our collective unconscious can be fuller and richer. We’ll naturally differ, so the more people working means that less work is left in the dust, so any collection as varied and sparkling as Star Kites is a welcome addition to the libraries of those who care to further the Cause.
Mark Valentine’s poetry was an endearing surprise, displaying remarkable imagery and sensitive technique, and his versions are a fine accomplishment in curation and good will. The price point is a bit steep for a book this slim, but, to quote Peter Quennell, “As a reader of modern poetry, I know that, if one enjoys (and it is seldom) one is content to enjoy by ounces”, and ounce for ounce it is a very enjoyable collection. It’s a rare one by design as well as quality, and its value will grow even as its physical presence fades from view.