About Assemblage Poems

At the beginnings of the late age of print—that is, the late sixties and early seventies when disco, Richard “I am not a crook” Nixon, and Xerox machines dominated our imaginations—literary magazines began appearing that resisted the cost structure and editorial controls of traditional small press publishing.1 Groups of authors were asked to submit not poems or stories but copies of finished pages on which they had written and designed anything they wanted, and those pages were then collated and bound by the editors into magazines. Editorial control came not in the review of the pieces but in terms of whom the editors invited to participate. Early examples of this form were Notebook and Omnibus News, both published in 1969. The most well known and successful magazine in this genre, however, was Assembling magazine, edited by Richard Kostelantz. Here is how Kostelantz described the process of creating the magazine:

In brief, Assembling was founded in 1970 as an outlet for “otherwise unpublishable” creative work. Since its founders were bothered by the authoritarian restrictiveness of conventional magazines, whose editors wanted everything to fit neatly into a pre-determined formula and format, we wanted a medium that would, by a radical counter-editorial stroke, transcend these deleterious practices. The simplest way, we discovered, was to invite artists and writers whom we knew to be doing innovative, “otherwise unpublishable” work to contribute a thousand copies of whatever they wanted to include. Assembling in turn would bind the contributions into a thousand alphabetically collated books, and return two copies a piece to each contributor. In spite of the requirements that contributors prepare all of their own pages for the copy-camera, literally self-publishing their work from scratch, hundreds of writers and artists around the world have joined me as colleagues in Assembling. Indeed, the medium has become so thick with contributions that Eighth Assembling (1978) has to appear in two volumes. (p. 5)

The magazines were produced by an almost anti-editorial process (arrangement was strictly by alphabetical order):

Work appears as contributors want it to appear: they need fear no censorship; any typos in the work are their own fault; any compromises that may be made are their own responsibility. Participants contribute the work that seems most appropriate to them. THEY, rather than the editors, decide what is their best work, or what they feel best represents them, or what they feel would be most useful . . .(Young, 1986).

Kostelantz produced ten issues of Assembling and another three issues were put out by his collaborators, the last appearing in 1987. Though Kostelantz’s magazine is the most well known in this genre, Perkins argues that in the seventies and eighties, “assemblings have flourished as an important international self publishing activity with approximately nine new assembling projects starting yearly from 1968-86”.

Assemblage in the Classroom
Throughout my career, I used assemblage as a community-building activity. I had students created print assemblages in a variety of classes. Students have created magazines in first-year writing classes; a collection of found poetry in a literature class; multimodal explorations of words and images in visible rhetoric classes; collections of personal essays about reading in introduction-to-the-English-major courses; collections of PageMaker documentation for technical writing classes; and in a technical writing pedagogy class focusing on narrative where the students created a page that told a story based on their final project. My final assemblage, just before I retired in 2015, was for an a multimodal composition class in which student contributed videos (rather than pages) responding the Sherry Turkle’s wonderful book Alone Together. I gather these videos together in a wordpress site.2 All of the assemblings have all been a success. The work may have been uneven, but the excitement and the sense of community that emerged was a constant. I am convinced that it is the act of performance that builds this community: The experience of being responsible for text, design, and printing, and then sharing what you have created brings a class together like nothing else.

In many of these assemblages, the assignment was quite simple: design a poem or some other piece of text that has moved you to reflect your experience of reading the poem. The students would create seventeen copies of this page, I would create a cover, an introduction, my own reading of a poem,  and a back page, and we would assemble the book the last day of class. Most of my contributions were celebrations of poems I love, but several are original typographic poems which I am including here because they first appeared in an assemblage.

As I got better at the assignments, I put students into groups to create the covers and the introductions. These intros eventually evolved into a collage quotes from their reading response journals which I found amazingly effective. The papes in this section are a collection of my contributions to these assemblages.

My First Assemblage, East Lansing, MI 1971
This interest in assembling class anthologies dates back to my undergraduate days at Michigan State University when I participated in a small press assemblage in 1971 (a year after the first issues of Assembling magazine had been published). One of my creative writing teachers, Albert Drake, was a truly remarkable multimodal teacher working a full decade before the personal computer. He had been producing a small press magazine, Happiness Holding Tank, on 8-1/2 by 11 mimeo pages lovingly hand-pulled from the English department’s mimeo machine. On the verge of burning out, he decided to give Kostelantz’s notion of assembling a try and sent out invitations to writers, artists, and students in the East Lansing area.

I was excited by the invitation, but also utterly stumped. As the day of the assembling neared, I had nothing.

It was the height of protest against the war in Viet Nam, passions had been spiked by the bombing of Cambodia, and the day before we poets were to gather, the campus was blanketed with computer punch cards (3 x 8-inch beige cards on which we punched information to be fed into mainframe computers, really). At the top of the cards was printed “Grand River 4 PM Strike.” Grand River was the main drag that separated the campus from the town. I went and chanted slogans such as, “Hell no, we won’t go.” Although nothing much else happened (this was East Lansing, not Ann Arbor, Madison, or Berkeley), the image of the local police standing shoulder to shoulder across Grand River Avenue dressed in riot gear and billy clubs while the bittersweet smell of tear gas curled along the sidewalk is my most vivid memory of the anti-war movement.

The next day, the day we were to assemble the magazine, a picture appeared in the local paper of the police standing across Grand River Avenue along with another picture of some woman being tear-gassed. I grabbed a punch card, cut out the pictures, wrote a quick anti-war poem, typed it up on the Art Department’s Compositor (an IBM typewriter on steroids), and rubber-cemented everything together. And about two hours before we were to gather, I went to a local printer who said, sorry, I can’t print something that uses the F-word. My luck to find a printer who actually read what he printed. I raced to another quickie offset shop (Xerox machines were rare then and very poor quality) with a mournful tale of procrastination, inspiration, censorship, and a look of sheer desperation that got my poem printed. Instant publishing circa 1971.

The party at which we assembled the magazine was itself a happening: One art student constructed a large plastic inflatable dome (which the children loved), while an American Studies major showed 16 mm Speedy Alka-Seltzer commercials (his page was a homage to Speedy, complete with a two-inch slice of film from a real commercial stapled to the page). I particularly remember the long line of glittering pages snaking through Drake’s house. We took turns collating copies that he would staple together and bind with red tape. At the end of the night, we each got to take home fifteen copies to sell or give away.

Two years later, Drake (1973) wrote an article about the life and death of small press magazines, and his own frustrations with producing Happiness Holding Tank. What he had to say about the assemblage issue is particularly notable in terms of our experiences today teaching digital, multimodal composition:

Essentially each contributor was faced with a question: what to do with a sheet of 8 1/2″ X 11″ paper? They answered it in really imaginative ways; no editor could plan a mag like this, and he could never get this kind of work if he waited for it to come through the mail . . . As a learning process the magazine was much more successful than any class I’ve had. I watched some of the contributors work to get something on that sheet, and had seen their ideas shift, change, grow; good ideas were tossed out, developed into better ones. People who were somewhat stumped for what they considered a suitable idea in the beginning ended up with more ideas than they could carry out. . . The people in HHT 6 were, for the most part, strangers to each other even though they lived in the same community; the magazine brought them together, and it’s nice to be able to be in the same room with the writer whose work you’re reading, and to know your work is being read by that person as well (np).

I love the materiality here: “each contributor was faced with a question: what to do with a sheet of 8 1/2″ X 11″ paper? ” and then forming a community for an afternoon.  This is surely the essence of assemblage. The material nature of the page and the ways that communities can build around and inform those pages was at the core of my teaching for thirty-five years.


  1. The material in this post is adapted from my essay, “Reading the Archives: Ten Years on Nonlinear (Kairos) History.” Kairos, 11(1). Retrieved July 29, 10, 2018, from http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/11.1/binder.html?topoi/kalmbach/index.html
  2. See https://alonetogetherremix.wordpress.com