‘They’re a small, independent publisher and they publish a lot of experimental foreign literature,’ is my feeble answer to the somewhat questioning, blank look I’ve become accustomed to (from most people I’ve met in Kolkata or New York), whenever I mention the name of New Directions to anyone who wants to know what I’ve been doing in the last four months.
And, as was just implied, that’s hardly an exhaustive introduction. But bearing in mind the malleable nature of ‘introductions’ which can be as exhaustive or inexhaustive as one pleases, I will conveniently excuse myself at this point, and not even attempt at being exhaustive (which could indeed propel boredom and kill intrigue). But what I will attempt is a delayed snapshot of New Directions, as I indeed forgot to carry my bulky Canon camera to the office on time. I will attempt to create a candid photograph with my words, which will hopefully give a befitting glimpse of the phenomenon that is New Directions (or ND), and my time with them—just like a suggestive image, which seeks to evoke much more than what it captures within its frame.
. . . is liberating. Because it is liberated (and you get a sense of that as soon as you walk into the office—the presence of an informal, personal, touch—the little balcony and its stunning 19th-floor-downtown-Manhattan-sunsets being the first point of interest in the little ND tour, and as I soon realised, also the highlight). James Laughlin, the legendary, tall and charismatic founder—whose handsome face greets you from a portrait a few steps down the corridor—was advised by Ezra Pound to do ‘something useful’ with his life—and he did just that. He created a landmark—something so special in the history of American publishing that it still deserves to be called New Directions, not just when it was literally new.
This sense of the ‘new’ or the freshness that characterises ND is largely, according to me, because of this: they still seem to only publish what they truly love.
Stuff that deserves to be out there—beyond the comfortable confines of the notebooks of those special writers who are often just content with the sublime and euphoric union of their pens with paper (because I am told that sometimes the act of writing itself can be so satisfying that you don’t give a damn about what next). One of those special individuals, according to me, was the French writer Albertine Sarrazin, whose Astragal, a new lead title of ND’s, is a beautiful, lyrical creation of touching simplicity and honesty based on her life, which I was lucky to proofread and help promote. And interestingly, it was the American punk rock star (and ND author) Patti Smith, who recommended it to them, and even wrote the introduction, it being one of her favourite books. And yes, I did get to see her in the office the day she came to autograph her memoirs, picked one by one, from a sculptured block of gorgeous Woolgathering books stacked by me in Barbara’s (ND President) stunning office.
Such are the aesthetics of ND. Combined with Alvin Lustig’s classic, and Rodrigo Corral’s contemporary book cover art, New Directions books are nothing short of pieces of art in themselves. Perhaps this is why they are so generous with them, missing no opportunity of giving them away as gifts (secretly, I think, a way of seeking pleasure for every individual at ND, by showing off the books they’ve worked upon), almost as if they are priceless, and the price tag only a trifling formality when absolutely necessary.
This passion proved to be contagious, and I began to look forward to every Monday, not just my first. Delightful surprises such as the annual Cherry Festival were welcome interruptions to hard work, where cherries picked from the tree in the office balcony were baked into a beautiful, delicious pie by Laurie (Executive Vice President), and devoured by all of us after we tried to keep up with Laurie singing the Japanese cherry blossom song. But the biggest of all interruptions during my time there, the autumn of 2012, was of course, Sandy. Which meant: the facade of the building next to ND’s came off, revealing the interiors just like a life-sized doll house; all public transport shut for a good few days; downtown Manhattan partly flooded; no work for a week. Not fun.
But unlike here, things did not end with a storm. The fun before and after more than made up for it.
P.S. Proofing digital files of titles being converted to ebooks, editing website content were some of my other everyday tasks at ND. Writing about Gandhi, Diwali, P. Lal and Qurratulain Hyder’s Fireflies in the Mist for the ND blog gave me some explicit space for creativity. And Leonid Tsypkin was a fantastic new Russian discovery for me at ND—highly recommended.
P.P.S. Well, yes I did take some pictures. But I did not lie about not carrying my bulky camera—these are all taken from my phone, in and around ND.
(Seagull School of Publishing Batch 2012)