John Martin: Patron and Small Press Entrepreneur

His most important patron, John Martin, had appeared on Bukowski’s porch in 1966 to say that he was starting a press and wanted to see some of Bukowski’s poems. He was the manager of a furniture/office supply store, a Christian Scientist, and a book collector. If he seems an unlikely gatekeeper, it is because we under-estimate what his religious and commercial faces might mean when combined with the collecting, from which he had gained a sense of both the avant-garde and of collectors’ limited opportunities. D. H. Lawrence was his passion, and from that he had learned that the path of collectable literature sometimes ran through magazines like Evergreen.35 He could either continue the low profit-higher risk collecting of Lawrence or he could find the next Lawrence and make a low risk-possibly high profit investment in him. He genuinely loved literature, but he also understood the “comparative advantage” of locking up his own resources.

He had noticed Bukowski in Outsider magazine and wanted to know if he could see some more poems. Bukowski was drinking but “pointed across the room and told him to ‘Open the closet.’ A mountain of paper was stacked haphazardly inside.”36 Martin took the three or four poems that he thought might be salable. He called a few days later to offer $30 each to publish them as broadsides on deckle-edged fine paper. Then Martin sold his collection of first edition Lawrences to provide working capital for his new Black Sparrow Press. This was a daring move, but he knew collectors and he understood their sense of being in on something. Say that he published a limited edition of 500 broadside poems that sold for $10 each: that would yield $5,000, or about $2,000 profit after he paid the poet and the printer and all costs. The unsold copies might actually increase in value over time.

Initially there was no profit, but eventually he would publish a dozen books a year, achieving $1 million in annual sales. Martin was a patron, though differently from Jacques Dupin, whom we meet in the next chapter. Bukowski was so prolific, so lacking in self-editing, that Martin just picked through the pile and printed a small portion of what Bukowski wrote. One of his functions, he must have thought, was to maintain a level of quality in the works that he was publishing; he was a kind of check valve. This would prove to have disadvantages. He also disapproved of sex writing, so he sold off material that he thought was obscene. The raunchy, often awkward columns collected in Notes of a Dirty Old Man did not interest him. He also sold off poems that he found less than stellar, often to a small press in Glendale called X/Change/ Litmus, which eventually published them as Poems Written Before Jumping Out of an 8 Storey Window and then sold the rights in Germany. In this way Martin’s fastidiousness cost him some potential profit.

Martin was focused on the collectors market, for which he envisioned an anthology of Bukowski’s poetry. This would appear in late 1969 as The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills. To help him finish that, Martin put Bukowski on a $100 a month salary so that he could quit the Post Office job. In this way Martin truly became a patron as well as publisher to Bukowski, who had to give Black Sparrow all of his output. Part of this deal was to be a memoir, although Martin had his doubts that Bukowski could write prose.37 This kind of subsidy may sound strange (in the days before writers’ grants), but it was not unknown—Michael and Joy Brown funded Harper Lee for a year, as a Christmas gift in 1956, so that she could work on her fiction. But author funding was not usually exclusive.38

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