b. July 7th 1947 d. December 23, 2023
printer, publisher, poet, friend
“Turtle Island books were imagined with no less modest an idea than to broaden the idea of an“American literature” by publishing poet-scholars, mystics, teachers, shamans, musicians, ecologists, poets, essayists, and ethnographers outside the academic life whose work could (and would) reshape ideas about the American Continent and the legitimate voices therein. The Village Voice wrote in a review of. Turtle Island books that if presses could be rated like base-ball players with an earned run average, then “Turtle Island was the only publisher whose work could be recommended sight unseen.” - Eileen Callahan writing on the event of her partner Bob Callahan’s death in 2008.
From the early 1970’s to the late 1980’s Eileen and Bob ran Turtle Island Foundation, one of the
seminal (she would object to that word) literary presses in Berkeley. Their prophetic vision helped to bring attention to multi-cultural literature before such a category really even existed. Through their books and the periodical New World Journal they published Ismael Reed, Zora Neal Hurston, Lucia Berlin, Jaime De Angulo, Nathanial Tarn, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Ernesto Cardenal, Susan Howe, Dennis Tedlock, and scores of other writers who would influence generations to come. Max Milton acted as publisher and financier, Bob guided editorial, and Eileen managed design and production, with opinionated overlaps throughout. After their son David Orion Callahan was born, they settled on Buena Vista Way in the Berkeley Hills.
They were Irish Catholic kids from Connecticut who drove a VW Beetle West to attend San Francisco
State in 1969. Bob had been a campaign worker for RFK, and in the wake of Kennedy’s death, was
looking to start over. Eileen, a few years younger, was lace-curtain Irish, famously bright and ambitious. One of her early jobs was as the speech writer for George Moscone when he first ran for mayor of San Francisco. She became a letterpress printer, founded Hipparchia Press, and with Bob helped run Turtle Island. For each of them publishing was a political act.
Anyone who makes books, writes or publishes them, leaves something of the shape of their life inside. The book becomes a place they’ve lived in, at one time, or still do. I like to imagine that Eileen has gone back into the books, that she helped to bring out. So she could be now at a Pomo campfire up in Clear Lake, or vodou ritual in Port Au Prince, perhaps hanging out with Lucia Berlin in Angel’s Laundromat somewhere in Oakland.
This morning I find my old very tattered and worn set of Indian Tales by Jaime De Angulo, which Eileen gave me in 1980, when I first began working for Turtle Island. Two small cloth bound volumes, letterpress printed, Shabegok and How the World Made, slipcased in a black box. California native voices, the stories raw and nature charged. Stories from when people were animals, it claims. No other gloss forthcoming. There are the Zora Neale Hurston books, Tell My Horse, Hurston’s account of her vodou research in Haiti. The phrase refers to being mounted by a spirit, or Iwa, the person being mounted is the “horse”, so anyone wanting to talk to the spirit needs to talk to the horse. Another Hurston book Spunk, a collection of short stories, was among her favorites. Eileen had spunk. That’s for sure.
Both the Hurston and the De Angulo were books that had been published earlier in the century then faded, or some might say, were buried. Bringing them back into print as Turtle Island Foundation did, was an intentional act of cultural revision. But the discussions, at that time, were never about publishing as a kind of reparation; but publishing because the work of black, Latino, indigenous, Asian, nomad, writers was more often just better writing. It was more dynamic than what was in the mainstream, richer, more alive, more full of the news.
Eileen was also more dynamic than the mainstream, her mind a constant torrent of motion and light. There have been few minds, that I’ve known before or since, as alive as Eileen’s. I learned from her how to take an intellectual stance. How to support it, or how to fight about it. Her mind was rigorous, and wild by turns, analytic, nuanced, precise, a mind that took pleasure in being mind. And a mind that sometimes flowed uncontrollably, burned too brightly, exhausted its own reserves.
Always when I think of her madness, I think of dark blue. A particular book cover, an austere midnight blue, textured paper, (Strathmore probably). It was to be the cover of the first edition of Bernadette Mayer’s epic poem Midwinter Day. Eileen was designing the book. The size was taller than usual, to allow the hours in the poem to flow down the page, suggesting how long a winter day can feel. Like they have here the last few days, temperatures hovering at five or ten. The kind of weather that’s always adjacent to death. The crunch of footsteps on frozen ground.
The design would suggest only what was essential, the dark of winter, and on the blue background in white calligraphic letters, the title and the author’s name. Eileen had hired the best calligrapher in Berkeley who had sent over the work in three or four variations, one with a larger initial letter, one with more of a flourish on the M than the other. The idea was to suggest through the calligraphy, a writer writing, it was an elegant concept. All the elements were there, it was ready to go, the printer was waiting for it and the publication date was near.
But she couldn’t. Let it go. Something was off with the calligraphy. One of the letters was too thin, another stroke descended too far. She asked the calligrapher to redo it and she did. But still, something wasn’t right. I remember so clearly the room where we worked in the house in the Berkeley Hills, the windows wide view of the Bay and her standing there, with the book in her hands urging me, the assistant, begging me, to see the flaw! Can’t you see it she asked me. Something is off. See how heavy this word looks. See how that letter size is off. We knew each other well and I knew my role. But, no. It looked perfect. Look closely she urged. I did. It looked good. You are not seeing it, she said. But I was. I saw that what she saw did not exist. And I saw that day the tragedy of her obsession.
The world she saw was often flawed, and it pained her deeply. From these barely existent (except to her vigilant eyes) flaws, others came in a cascading torrent. From the ‘problem’ in the calligraphy flowed a problem with the calligrapher, then an argument with the printer over the delay, her friendship with Bernadette on the line, and a surge of resentment against her partner, who after all was not helping her. Each flaw a crack through which further problems might seep until all too easily flaws beget more flaws, disintegration, doom. Whether or not she created difficulties in order to fix them, I'll leave for some higher authority.
Because here is the thing, and the reason I loved Eileen so deeply; she believed wholeheartedly in the possibility of righting whatever was amiss. She was a world restorer. She would passionately, tirelessly, relentlessly, pursue the cure to what-ever ailed a friend, or a book, or the world. If you were up for the crusade, there was never a better ally than Eileen. Never a more ardent heart than hers.
"My tender friend, let’s step onto the deck for a cigarette. Look the fog is clearing and you can see the outlines of the bridge."
NOTE: Much more could, and should be written of Eileen’s work, and of Turtle Island Foundation. A
Turtle Island archive is housed at UC Santa Cruz. Comments, tributes and memories are welcome.