The Many Arts of George Quasha and Station Hill Press | Chronogram Magazine

The Many Arts of George Quasha and Station Hill Press

Balancing Act

George Quasha spends a lot of time picking up stones. Axial Stones: An Art of Precarious Balance (North Atlantic, 2006) documents 39 sculptures in which one stone balances atop another at a single point, held by nothing but gravity and intention. Carter Ratcliff writes in his introduction, “Gathered into one another’s company, George Quasha’s axial stones establish a zone of riveting stillness.”

They also offer an apt metaphor for Quasha’s literary career, his vocations as poet and publisher poised in a balance that seems both hard-won and wholly organic. One supports the other; together, the two are much more than the sum of their parts.

George and his equally polymathic wife, Susan Quasha, are the founding publishers and lodestones of Station Hill of Barrytown, a distinguished literary press whose other principals include director Sam Truitt and contributing editor Charles Stein. Since 1977, Station Hill has released more than 200 volumes of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction (mostly on contemporary art, spirituality, and alternative health). A small sampling of Hudson Valley literati they’ve published includes Robert Kelly, Franz Kamin, Bernadette Mayer, Peter Lamborn Wilson, and Susan Gillespie; SHP Archive Editions also reprints seminal works by Gertrude Stein, Federico Garcia Lorca, John Cage, and other explorers of language.

“Station Hill was focused as a trade publisher from the beginning, as a publishing outlet for experimental writing which included trade distribution,” George explains, his graceful hands always in motion. “We never imposed a vision, but always invited people who were doing innovative work in the world. It’s a ‘like attracts like’ environment with a lot of really powerful people.”

The press is housed in an eccentric cluster of buildings on a quiet spur off River Road, flanked by Bard College and Poets’ Walk. The air outside is flat and sultry; a major storm is supposed to strike later today and the air is heavy with portent. Inside the Quashas’ art-filled home, George, Susan, and Sam Truitt sit around a dining table piled with books and snacks (seaweed crisps, almonds, watermelon juice), recounting Station Hill’s origins. A spicy fragrance of incense floats in from the adjacent mandala room, a large yurtlike space ringed with windows, its floor painted in vibrant colors for Tibetan ceremonial dancing.

George and Susan speak in a layered exchange of phrases—not simultaneously, but overlapping in synchronous patterns, like leaves falling onto a forest floor. The hipster-bespectacled Sam listens more than he speaks, but his carefully modeled sentences stand out like roots. Somehow it all works. The brain trust of Station Hill recalls Indra’s Erawan: three heads, one elephant.

Asked how the press began, George gives a gnomic smile. “What are you calling the beginning?”

There are many possible answers. Susan’s starts with her poetry professor Charles Olson, a veteran of legendary avant-garde haven Black Mountain College, recommending Stony Brook: A Magazine of the Arts, an ambitious journal which published Ezra Pound’s Cantos and work by Objectivist poets. Unable to find a copy, Susan called its editor, George Quasha, who was then teaching at SUNY Stony Brook; they met at a reading by Jackson Mac Low. “Within a month we were together,” says Susan. “For me, it’s very connected to Black Mountain, that energy. I wanted to make something like that.”

George cites another beginning. In 1973, he and Jerome Rothenberg coedited the Random House anthology America a Prophecy (just rereleased in a SHP Archive Edition), which includes, along with the usual suspects, translations from the Hopi and the Mayan Popol Vuh, Shaker songs and blues lyrics, and poems by women including Gertrude Stein, H.D., Sonia Sanchez. “We wanted to present the voice of the continent,” he says, noting that the book predates “the idea called multiculturalism.”

In George’s view, Station Hill Press evolved from America a Prophecy and the Arnolfini Arts Center in Rhinebeck, a performance series he and Susan produced in the former church that now houses Terrapin restaurant. Its name references the patron couple in Jan Van Eyck’s famous wedding portrait with a convex mirror. “We didn’t have enough money to be patrons,” says George, who solved that problem by launching a CETA job-training program that employed 42 working artists; participants included Meredith Monk, the Bread & Puppet Theatre, Jeanne Fleming, Gary Hill, and Paul Auster, who later became Station Hill’s first managing editor.

The Arnolfini series was not a financial success. “We were a little early for Rhinebeck,” George concedes. “They thought we were from Mars.” But it helped make the Hudson Valley a magnet for cutting-edge artists. The Quashas had moved there in 1975, when poet Robert Kelly lured George to Bard College as a visiting professor. After George won an NEA fellowship, he and Susan decided to put down more permanent roots.

The property on Station Hill Road was “dirt-cheap”—$42,000 for five buildings, including an 1851 octagonal gatehouse, a former bordello once called The Hungry Pig, and several smaller buildings that now serve as studios and rental cabins. (Barrytown’s literary past may have added some luster: The late Gore Vidal owned the adjacent Edgewater Estate for decades.) “We’re very lucky,” says Susan. “Buying these buildings in the 1970s made all this possible.”

Along with the Arnolfini Center, she and George ran the Open Studio press, which offered high-quality typesetting and printing for both literary and fine artists. Susan designed many event posters and books, which in turn helped to fund Station Hill. (She still does book design for such clients as North Atlantic and Performing Arts Journal Books.)

Expanding from a press-for-hire to a publishing imprint was a natural progression. In 1977, Station Hill released its first two books, by Franz Kamin and Theodore Enslin. It has since published as many as ten books a year.

Sam Truitt, a relative newcomer to Station Hill, met the Quashas in the 1990s via “literary and Tibetan connections” (all are students of Chögyal Namkhai Norbu). His book Street Mete, a multimedia poetic collage incorporating site-specific photos and spoken-word recordings, was accepted for publication in 2010. At that time, George and Susan needed someone to manage the press, and Sam stepped forward. His first title was managing director; somewhere along the way, he simplified it. (“I liked the idea of being director,” he quips; George says, “As long as he does the work, he can call himself God if he wants.”)

Sam is excited by Station Hill’s upcoming releases, which include Michael Ruby’s Memories, Dreams and Inner Voices; Susan Gillespie’s translation of Paul Celan’s poetry; George Quasha’s Scorned Beauty Comes Up from Behind; a compilation of seven early works by Bernadette Mayer; and In/Filtration: An Anthology of Hudson Valley Innovative Poetics, edited by Sam Truitt, Anne Gorrick, and Deborah Poe. He’s also drawn to new technologies. Street Mete includes a QR scanning code for smart phones, which links to additional text on Sam’s website. He envisions Station Hill evolving to include e-books and a website archive with “videos and access to a lot of free and important materials.”

George is also involved in multiple video projects, including his ongoing art is: Speaking Portraits series. To date he has interviewed more than a thousand artists, poets, and composers in 11 countries, asking each talking head to finish the sentence “Art is...,” “Poetry is...,” or “Music is....” The work has been exhibited internationally, and locally at SUNY New Paltz’s Samuel Dorsky Museum. George has also been videotaped while balancing axial stones, making his signature two-handed drawings, and performing in collaboration with Gary Hill and Charles Stein, or with composer David Arner. Asked how he would answer the classic cocktail party question “So what do you do?” he says without missing a beat, “That’s why I don’t go to cocktail parties.”

When pressed, he responds, “Poet first. Artist. Publisher would be way down at the bottom of the list as far as my identity goes. I’ve also studied and practiced bodywork; I’m also a drummer.” (He cites William Blake as a “spiritual mentor” and “model for not stopping with one art form.”)

Sam says, “It feels a little self-conscious or puffed-up to say ‘poet.’ I’d say, ‘I make things. I’m a maker.’”

Susan concurs. “I’m with Sam. I make things. I work with words, but photography is my central focus.” She’s currently collaborating with Robert Kelly on a book that will include her photographs and his poems, and has worked as a ceramic and lapidary artist. “I’m very much into matter—the alchemical tradition held some play for me.” Unconsciously, she touches one of the 10 rings she wears on her fingers.

A native New Yorker, Susan grew up in Queens. Sam’s family moved between Washington, DC and Japan, his father a Washington Post executive and his mother a sculptor. After deadpanning, “I was dropped from the air,” George admits he was born in White Plains and grew up in Florida, adding darkly, “I escaped at 16.” As state debate champion, he won a scholarship to travel with the International School of America for nine months, living with families around the world and meeting such dignitaries as Nehru and Eleanor Roosevelt. (“It blew my mind. I had never met such a powerful woman before.”)

The vaunted storm has still not materialized. Sam excuses himself to pick up his kids from a swimming class while George and Susan offer a tour of their his-and-hers studios, separated from the house by a thriving bamboo grove. Pausing in front of an axial stone pairing that seems to defy gravity altogether, George muses, “It’s about relationship, when the relationship shows up in alignment. For me it’s all the same thing—how can you release in order to let things come into relationship?” He looks at his wife. “Real relationships happen. All the arts I practice are about staying in the open mode, listening, letting it speak.”