Apr/May 2007

He is Curious (Yellow)

In Ira Silverberg's home, Acker, Burroughs, and Cooper will always be the "ABCs of the library."

Elizabeth Schambelan


Students of publishing lore know that Andrew Wylie used to be a poet, but few have had the chance to peruse Yellow Flowers, a 1972 chapbook that collects some of the vaguely Mephistophelian superagent's youthful versifications. "There's a rumor that he has tried to buy up all of the copies," says literary agent Ira Silverberg. It's easy to see why: Thumbing through Silverberg's copy of Yellow Flowers, one can only imagine what a Wylie client like, say, Benazir Bhutto would make of such poems as "Hands up Your Skirt," "Warm, Wet Pants," and the determinedly unlyric "I Fuck Your Ass, You Suck My Cock." There's a robust vein of camp in Silverberg's sensibility—when he was editor in chief of Grove Press in the late '90s, he reissued the novels of Jacqueline Susann—but his appreciation of Yellow Flowers is surprisingly low on irony. "I actually hold it in great reverence," he says. "It's totemic in a certain way—it's like it represents why many of us work in the field."

Ira Silverberg.

What he means is that Silverberg, like Wylie, got into the business because he was passionate about literature. In a career spanning more than twenty years, Silverberg has maintained a deep commitment to avant-garde and experimental fiction and poetry, as the books in the SoHo apartment where he has lived since 1990 attest. His collection is carefully edited, he says: "There's no room—about a year ago I sent eleven cases of books to Housing Works, because they had taken over the space." (He later tried to buy some of his favorites back.) Even so, his wall of minimalist white shelves presents a remarkably concise précis of a particular cultural genealogy, one that encompasses literature from Sade to Genet to the Beats to the downtown New York literati of later decades. Additional branches extend into visual art (Andy Warhol and the Factory milieu, Jack Smith, Nan Goldin), pop culture (with an emphasis on the darker effusions of Vietnam-era Los Angeles, as represented by Manson in His Own Words and a first edition of Joan Didion's White Album), and unreconstructed kitsch. In the last category, in addition to Susann's complete oeuvre, Silverberg possesses a copy of singer-songwriter Dory Previn's 1971 book of confessional poems On My Way to Where. Explaining how this curio survived the Housing Works purge, he stares at the cover, which shows an impassive Previn working an Ossie Clark look, and muses, "Just the whole idea of her writing about her husband [composer André Previn] being stolen by Mia Farrow, and being photographed in that coyote coat with the aviator sunglasses and what I would call a Jew-fro, though I don't think she's a member of the tribe—I mean, how can you give that away?"

Also assured a berth on Silverberg's shelves is the complete line of Hanuman books. These tiny volumes, each sporting a brightly colored cover adorned with gold lettering and a tinted image of its author, were published out of the Chelsea Hotel by Raymond Foye and Francesco Clemente in the '80s. Together, they amount to a perfect distillation of a certain recherché downtown aesthetic, mingling the writings of artists and curators—Max Beckmann, Francis Picabia, Bob Flanagan, Henry Geldzahler—with poetry by writers like David Trinidad, who was Silverberg's partner in the '90s, and Amy Gerstler, whom he came to know through Trinidad.

At its core, Silverberg's collection comprises the work of authors (notably Kathy Acker, Dennis Cooper, Gary Indiana, Lynne Tillman, and David Wojnarowicz) to whom he has a personal connection and with whom, in many cases, he has worked as a publicist, editor, publisher, or agent. One, William S. Burroughs—"the whole reason I went into publishing"—has pride of place. Born and raised in the Bronx, Silverberg became an avid Burroughs reader as a teenager, when he was also discovering John Rechy and Alexander Trocchi, and got to know the countercultural eminence in the early '80s. Interspersed among two shelves' worth of Burroughs novels and compendiums (including Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader [Grove Press, 2000], which Silverberg coedited with James Grauerholz) are some fascinating rarities. A newsprint pamphlet titled APO-33 (Beach Books, 1968) turns out to be a sort of cutup dossier in which Burroughs revisits and détournes the article that he famously published in the British Journal of Addiction in 1957. Looking at the yellowed price sticker—"Two pounds fifty, but to me, this is precious"—Silverberg speculates that he probably stumbled on this find at the Charing Cross shop Henry Pordes Books, where he used to go whenever he was in London, and where he also scored his Olympia Press edition of Genet's Thief's Journal, packaged, like all of Maurice Girodias's titles, in an ironically demure moss-green cover.

Silverberg got his start as an assistant at Peter Mayer's Overlook Press, supplementing his meager income by working the door of the Limelight's VIP room. In 1985, at age twenty-two, he became publicity director at Grove, where he had always dreamed of working. Grove was then in the twilight of its golden era as a publisher of transgressive fiction avant la lettre, but it kept the flame alive via Acker and, later, Cooper, the latter of whom Silverberg brought to the company. Silverberg left Grove in 1990 to launch his own literary public-relations business; during those years, with coeditor Amy Scholder, he gathered the writings of Karen Finley, Bob Flanagan, Mary Gaitskill, Tillman, and Wojnarowicz, among others, into the anthologies High Risk (Plume, 1991) and High Risk 2 (Plume, 1994). In 1994, he became the publisher of High Risk Books, a New York outpost of the London-based Serpent's Tail. About two dozen books, mostly paperback originals, appeared under the High Risk aegis; their distinctive, horizontally bisected Photoshop-baroque covers, by San Francisco designer Rex Ray, are imitated to this day.

High Risk's list "represented the talent of the culture wars; the whole idea was that we were trying to find voices from marginalized communities and edgier, riskier stuff," says Silverberg. Asked to name some favorites, he points out reissues of Tillman's novel Haunted Houses and Lydia Davis's short stories (the latter "felt like a major achievement, because it was before the resurgence of interest in her work"); Indiana's novel Rent Boy ("Gary's funniest book ever"); the poetry collection You Got to Burn to Shine by John Giorno ("He hadn't been published in years and years"); Sapphire's debut poetry collection, American Dreams; Renault Camus's Tricks ("a celebration of the gay male sexuality of another era"); and Ask Dr. Mueller, the collected writings of John Waters muse and Lower East Side bon vivant Cookie Mueller, who died of AIDS. "She was a voice that had been lost. So much of this [list] represents a response to what was happening in the AIDS crisis," he says.

High Risk, sadly, lived up to its name by lasting only three years; after it folded, Silverberg returned to Grove as editor in chief but soon decided that author representation was where he wanted to be. Since 1998, he has been an agent at Donadio & Olson. "It's more interesting to me—being there on the ground level," he says. "The nature of my list is far more diverse than it ever was as an editor, and that's great. I can represent someone like Kate Spade, the accessories designer, or Katie Brown, who's a domestic guru, alongside Ishmael Beah"—author of the New York Times best seller A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier—"or young talent like Adam Haslett, and make it all work somehow. So the bookshelf at the office is actually really interesting, because the diversity there is bizarre at times. But they're all people I really love working with. And of course, I've worked on Kathy's estate since her death in '98 and continue to work as a consultant on the Burroughs estate, and Dennis is a client." At home, these three—Acker, Burroughs, and Cooper—will always be, as he puts it, "the ABCs of the library."

As for the many books he has parted with, Silverberg tells an eerie story. During another recent purge, this one focusing on art books, he and his partner, New York Times Sunday Styles columnist Bob Morris, "put tons of books out on the street, because we felt, 'Someone's going to take them and enjoy them. Why take them to the Strand?' And this guy started picking through the piles, and he's like, 'These are good books, man,' and then he says, 'You know, I was named for a writer.' And I'm like, 'Who are you named for?' He said, ‘Beckett.'" Silverberg knew instantly that the guy could only be Beckett Rosset, the son of legendary Grove publisher (and early Samuel Beckett champion) Barney Rosset, who had hired Silverberg more than twenty years before. "It was bizarre, almost a kind of karmic cycle," Silverberg recalls. "So Beckett walked away with a bunch of books, and I felt like that was exactly the right thing.

Elizabeth Schambelan is an associate editor of Artforum.

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