Blake, zines, and gouda cheese: an interview with Max Reeves

Max Reeves (second from right) with members of the William Blake Congregation and Blake Bloc at Bunhill Fields, 2017.

As part of my research into Blake’s legacy in the realm of independent and self-publishing, I recently spoke to photographer, publisher, and activist Max Reeves. Reeves is the founder of a small press called Entropy Press, a not-for-profit collective which was initially set up in the basement of a faculty building at Auckland University in 1987.

‘Mind-Forg’d Manacles,’ one of the Papakura Post Office zines.

The project was re-launched in London in 2009, when Reeves began printing a series of zines called Papakura Post Office: A Spazmodical Zine and Raven’s Revenge. The Papakura zines collate Reeves’ own psychogeographical photography with poetry and art by those in his entourage including Niall McDevitt, Stephen Micalef, and Aidan Dun, to name a few especially Blakean contributors. Based in London’s East End, Reeves continues to publish experimental work of many kinds. Entropy creations fuse poetry, photography, and other artworks in multimedia books and zines that flicker with wide-eyed visions of a sometimes menacing, sometimes miraculous metropolis.

Reeves is also involved in a group called the Blake Bloc, an activist collective who march under a Blakean banner. The banner was designed by Matthew Couper and features imagery drawn from Blake’s illuminations, a portrait of Blake, and the slogan ‘Opposition is true friendship,’ excerpted from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

The Blake Bloc banner, designed by Matthew Couper.

Adopting Blake as a poster-boy for radical protest in the spirit of ‘60s counterculture, the Blake Bloc have participated in anti-fascist and anti-racist demonstrations, and in recent demonstrations at Tate Britain over staff cuts.

The Blake Bloc banner outside Tate Britain during a demonstration, August 2020.

The group also overlaps with the William Blake Congregation, recently joining in celebrations on Blake’s ‘death day’ on 12 August 2020 to commemorate the occasion. The gathering at Bunhill Fields, the site of Blake and Catherine’s burial, doubled as the first World Anti Fascism Poetry Day, marking the events of 12 August 1952 (The Night of the Murdered Poets), when thirteen Soviet Jewish poets were executed in the Lubyanka Prison in Moscow under false charges of espionage and treason against the Soviet Union.

In the interview, which you can read in full below, Reeves took us on a jaunt through his fascinating experiences with independent and ‘underground’ publishing. From student agit prop in ‘80s Auckland to poetry and photography zines in digital-age London, Reeves’ stories are alive with the spirit of Blake and with the radical zeal of so many independent publishing ventures to this day.

Highlights from the interview include Reeves’ stories about running photocopiers to the ground to churn out copies of Situationist Times issues during his student days, and ironing out crumpled poems from the pockets of his friend, the prolific poet Stephen Micalef. Reeves also spoke of the ‘resonance’ of William Blake in a present-day context:

People really personalise Blake, and people tend to be very very passionate about Blake, and kind of overly protective. And he is like Mr Archetypal Counterculture, so you can trace him through all sorts of movements—obviously Allen Ginsberg, and I think he’s on Sargeant Pepper, and all sorts of things… So he’s a really resonant figure. He’s almost like an icon to latch onto, especially these days when neoliberalism has sort of flattened everything and monetised everything. To have this sort of beacon to reach out to, I think, is incredibly inspirational. I think it’s something that people can form around in all sorts of different ways.

In Reeves’ work, Blake is there as an ‘icon’ of many things—self-publishing, experimentalism, protest, anarchism—and his comments push out into the wider ways in which Blake has been fragmented and reworked throughout an afterlife far more illustrious than his actual life.

 

Links

More about Max: https://maxreeves.com/.

To find out more about Entropy Press, visit their website: https://www.entropypress.co.uk/.

Other things mentioned in the interview:

See Niall McDevitt’s blog: https://poetopography.wordpress.com/author/niallmcdevitt/. Niall’s work is frequently published by New River Press: http://www.thenewriverpress.com/.

For Stephen Micalef, Helen Elwes, and The William Blake Congregation, see https://williamblakecongregation.wordpress.com/the-william-blake-congregation/.

 

This interview was conducted as part of research supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and hosted by Tate Britain and The University of York. For more information, see https://www.tate.org.uk/research/studentships/current/caroline-ritchie.

 

The Interview

 

Launching straight in, we started off talking about the 2019/20 Blake show at Tate, for which the tagline was ‘Rebel Radical Revolutionary.’

Max Reeves: I was sort of saying to the curator, you know, what’s so ‘radical,’ ‘revolutionary’ about it—it doesn’t bear any particular relation to the exhibition, it’s just branding. That’s the thing about Blake: why are the establishment so keen to colonise Blake? He is the archetypal countercultural figure, he’s the archetypal outsider. These are the kind of people who hated Blake, but there you go, therein lies the rub, I guess.

Caroline Ritchie: I came to Blake’s ‘birthday party’ celebration at Tate Britain in 2019—I think you were involved in that?

MR: Stephen Micalef and Helen Elwes, they run the William Blake Congregation, which is for living Blake people. They live the life, they don’t just quote the quote. They’ve been doing that for twenty odd years, every time, every Blake birthday, which again ties into psychogeography and all that. In the Blake room at Tate Britain, they’ll have a sort of live performance celebration, and it’s kind of been more or less tolerated by Tate. Actually at the last one, which happened during the exhibition, so we couldn’t actually go into the room—well, there wasn’t any Blake in the room—I managed to basically get the Tate to agree to have an after-hours walk-through for the Congregation or whoever wanted to come. It was a two-hour walk through the exhibition. It’s kind of become semi-official now, it’s part of the agenda of Tate now, which is quite nice, and interesting as well. We didn’t put it on Facebook, it was sort of word-of-mouth.

CR: I’d also like to know a bit more about Entropy Press. Could you tell me about how that came to be?

MR: Basically, I went to university in Auckland—Auckland University—where I became involved in this anarchist group called the Pleasure Party that used to put on gigs—there was a big underground music scene at the time. We used to put on gigs for all our friends who were all in bands at the university venue. The guy that ran it—this guy called Simon Coffey (aka Saint Simon) —he also made a magazine called Catalyst. I was doing a literary magazine thing called Catacomb with one of my friends called Joanna Larkin. In those days everything was xeroxed. So you’d cut and paste and glue things and then go back to the xerox machine and reduce it by 5% to fit it in and all that.

CR: Very old school.

MR: Yeah, so then through this network, and one of my friends who was in my little group—a guy called Ian Collins. Basically there was this guy who wasn’t a student, but you know back in the ‘80s, back in those days it was free to go to university, so university was like a place for people to hang out, you had these people who were ‘professional students,’ some guys that had been enrolling in the same courses for twenty years just to hang out and do stuff and join the clubs and all that, it was much more of a cultural thing. There was this guy who was about twenty years older than us called Bruce Grenville, and he ran a printing press—he had a Heidelberg electric pattern press, so we’re talking all linotype and type and ink… We kind of got to know him and he had this table-top press called an Adana, it’s about A4 sized, and you’d print each page individually. So me and this guy Ian, basically we bought one of those. He had a room in the basement of I think it was the Human Sciences building or something. We used to go there and do all sorts of stuff, you know, print stickers for all our friends who were in bands, sticker the city with bands. I remember there was this really annoying group called Youth for Christ who were just everywhere trying to convert people and pushing a very conservative social agenda, so we made a false Satanic group called Youth for Antichrist and printed these Satanic tracts and just plastered them all over town, which of course was just me and Ian, but they freaked out and spent lots of money on a counter campaign. So it was sort of a little bit agit prop, a little bit doing things for our mates—you know, printing letterhead. But also we used to make books and bootleg books. So the Situationist Times—I don’t know if you ever encountered that, by Larry Law—these little A6 books. We’d print covers and we’d xerox the insides.

In those days you had photocopier salespeople: they’d give you a photocopier on trial and you’d pretend you were interested, so Bruce would get a photocopier dropped off like on Friday afternoon at someone’s flat and then just run it to the ground—we’d have a solid 24-hour Friday to Monday morning kind of party where people would have shifts, and whatever anyone needed photocopying, they’d photocopy. So we’d buy tons and tons of paper and toner. And the poor salesman would show up on Monday morning and the thing would just be having a nervous breakdown and falling to pieces. So we’d photocopy the inside of the books and guillotine them to size, and then we’d print the covers. So we did all the Situationist books—bear in mind this was the ‘80s and New Zealand was way out alone in the middle of the Pacific and overseas books were not that easy to get.

CR: Did you then distribute them around the university mainly?

MR: Yeah, we’d give them to our friends or we’d put posters up. We had PO boxes. Also we were sort of illegally living in the inner city in office spaces and things like that, because in those days the inner city was kind of empty. So we’d set up sort of temporary galleries and all sorts of stuff. I remember Ian printed Principia Discordia as well, things like that, underground things that are sort of ten-a-penny now but were in those days actually quite difficult to get. Bruce Grenville, besides being an anarchist and a printer, was also an Egyptologist and philatelist, so he actually invented his own country and managed to get UN recognition by Belgium and some American company gave him thousands of dollars for exclusive rights to print the stamps, so he made a sort of strange empire. There was all sorts of weird stuff going on like that, so printing stamps and just whatever took our fancy. I remember making a book called ‘The Proverbs of Amenemope,’ who was an Egyptian prophet. There’s a book in the Bible—‘Proverbs’—kind of ripped off this Egyptian so we printed the original as another swipe at Youth for Christ. Challenging the hegemony so to speak. So we were sort of doing that, and we had our little hand press, which we could carry around easily, because we’d move from flat to flat or whatever. I ended up getting a Victorian treadle press which I gave to a friend of mine. So that was that—that was all in Auckland.

The other thing was that in New Zealand—you know ISBN numbers?—in Auckland you just wrote off to the central library and they just posted you, for free pages and pages and pages of ISBN numbers. So everything was ‘official’ because we could chuck an ISBN number on it and it would go to the archive and stuff. And it got logged in perpetuity in the National Library. We used to print badges as well, used to get a bit of money by printing badges. We were sort of existing on nothing—we were all really poor students eating Hari Krishna food and stuff. I remember Tuesdays were Art Openings Day and in those days most of the gallerys laid on food at openings so we’d had a nice art dinner. We had a sideline in homebrew as well, which we’d sell to all the underage punk rockers. So we’d print the beer labels and just stuff like that. So anyway, I left Auckland in 1990, and kind of left everything behind, and basically moved to London. I’ve stayed here ever since.

CR: What brought you to London?

MR: Oh, just Auckland—especially in those days—seemed super authoritarian. Very conservative and seemed tiny. I thought it was really boring. In hindsight, with our little counterculture movement going on, it was pretty exciting, but at the time it just seemed like the arse-end of the planet… which it kind of is—and authoritarian, which kind of ties in with Blake. It was a very different world back then. People who dressed diferently, thought differently, were not just expressing their individuality but seemed to be challenging society itself. Which I guess many of us were. Classic small town stuff. You’d almost risk getting beaten up for not wearing an All Blacks jersey, (well not really but you know what I mean) if you walked into a bank or somewhere like that some people would just look at you like you were just not welcome… not that there were any pubs, but you wouldn’t get let into any pubs because you were looking too scruffy and all this. It just seemed like a sort of authoritarian nightmare. And of course, you just want to see the world. And everything seemed to be happening in London.

Basically, then I just started doing other stuff, photography and dark room sort of stuff. Then everything was kind of on a hiatus, I guess. And then I went from black-and-white analog to digital, photography-wise. So then I found myself with digital photos. I still very much like printed matter, I don’t particularly like websites as a platform to present photography and that, they’re okay obviously, but there’s nothing quite like a thing in your hand, a book. Then I was in this housing co-op called Phoenix and we had the idea to make a little annual zine thing. Obviously I used to do a zine at university about literature and poetry and whatever. And then I thought yeah, let’s do a zine. And it just so happened that one of the guys in the co-op worked at a bank—a socialist guy. He basically did his own projects on the side. And then I thought, oh I’ve got these ISBNs, even though it’s a different country, chuck an ISBN on it I got enough of them why not? So we did this one-off zine for the housing co-op and I met the printer and to cut a long story short I thought, I’ll do another zine, why not. It was very cheap printing, I just used to chuck him twenty quid or so for beer. And so then I started the Papakura Post Office, which was supposed to be a collaboration of all my different friends, doing things, and ended up being mostly my photography, because it’s a pain to chase people all the time, and if you can just do it yourself, you just do it. The idea was to have this outlet for our London-based bunch of people.

CR: Where does that name come from—Papakura Post Office?

MR: The city where I’m from, which has now actually been swallowed up by greater Auckland, was called Papakura, in the south. And there was some graffiti we saw when we were teenagers during the punk era. There was one band called Papakura Post Office and I don’t even know if they existed as a band but they just spray painted—they had a graffiti campaign which I really enjoyed. And of course when you’re sort of isolated in a cultural outpost, post office—tying into this philately thing and fictitious states, there’s a network of fictitious states. So for example I used to correspond with this Native American guy who has his own state on a houseboat in Seattle. His name was Dogfish and his girlfriend was Dragonfly—we used to send them stamps, and they used to send us stamps, and so the post office was a way of reaching out and communicating and keeping a sort of underground network. It just seemed like a funny name and it sort of alliterated, so…

CR: So some of the work was contributed by other people who you were friends with?

MR: I had all these networks from various places. There was a network of poets from this pub—there’s an old bank turned into a pub venue—called the Foundry in Shoreditch, and there was this open microphone poetry evening called Wormworld, which is where I met Niall McDevitt. And then Phoenix, and there was this magazine called Mute, which had this cultural milieu and scene around it. And just the squatting scene and Tony’s Café and Broadway Market when that was a squatted concern and all those things. And New Zealand connections—lots of New Zealanders came over and squatted in Peckham in the 90s and, some I knew from Uni and Ilam (Auckland’s Art School) you know, just people that you pick up, I guess a sort of underground network or something, sort of non-mainstream.

CR: I noticed that there are a few of those pamphlets—the Papakura Post Office ones—that have Blake stuff in them. Was that when you started getting into Blake, or had that been there earlier?

MR: I grew up in the suburbs. I used to go to the local library and peruse the Encyclopaedia Britannica and later my parents bought an old set of World Books Encyclopaedia, I think it was called. I wanted to educate myself, so I think probably I knew of Van Gogh or something, so you’d go to Van Gogh and then read that, and then in the footnotes would be ‘see Byron’ or something, so you’d go to Byron, and eventually everything seemed to lead to Blake. So it was in my consciousness. Also, I lived in the East End and my kids went to a school just off the Barbican, so basically I’d end up going through Bunhill Fields to drop them off and pick them up. For the best part of twenty years I’d be walking past Blake’s grave, strangely. So Blake’s always been there even if he seemed difficult and strange, and meeting people that I got on with, people like Micalef and Niall… Most of what I know about Blake I get filtered through these proper experts who live and breathe Blake. Niall’s walks, endless nights in the pub… Me and Niall and Anthony from Mute started this thing called the Wetherspoons Underground Sykogeosophy club. We’d do a series of walks.

CR: Did you say psychogeosophy? Or psychogeography? What do you mean by this term?

MR: Sykogeosophy. My son Marlowe, when he was about three or four, invented this thing called SykoGeosofy, and then forgot what it was. I like to keep it as a vague, slightly brainy sounding thing. So we’d follow the underground rivers and Niall would come on the walks and different people would come on the walks, like my friend Glen, who was in Class War, for example, he’d know a lot of political stuff, and he’s also a gardener, so he’s bring a lot of facts about the flora on the way, following the underground rivers. Niall, likewise, was a poetry expert, so that the walks took on a very poetic aspect. And Niall’s actually got his own thing going on called ‘Poetopography’.

CR: Are Niall McDevitt and Steve Micalef your main Blakean comrades?

MR: Yeah, I guess so. They’re both poets who live and breathe the spirit of Blake. There’s another friend of mine, Robin, who is peripheral to the Blake Society as well, I think he’s still a member, but kind of an outside member. He used to be the caretaker, I think, of Bunhill Fields. He’s very much a Blakean and he was looking after that, and he used to run events at Shoreditch Church—a lot of theatre, but I remember they’ve done things like a reading from beginning to end of Jerusalem, which I think was like nine hours long. There were about twenty people there all taking different parts and reading it out loud.

CR: Have you had much to do with the Blake Society? Have you joined in their events and such, or not so much?

MR: No, I’m not particularly interested. You know about Blake’s birthday at Tate Britain; every Deathday the Congregation have done an event on his grave—have a picnic—and poetry readings and stuff. And last year—or whenever it was, the year before—it coincided with the unveiling of this plaque, so it was this weird truce between the Blake Society and the Congregation and we had started this thing called Blake Bloc, which is supposed to be like a pretend paramilitary wing of the Congregation. So we had our banner up and the Society were there, and it was a perfect example of what Blake’s about—you had this awful public school choir doing the worst version of Jerusalem I ever heard, and then you had this sort of right-wing nationalist ‘comic’ doing some spiel, on the other hand you had Micalef talking about punk and Blake… and then you had Bruce Dickinson from Iron Maiden, who’s a complete Blakean as well. He did a fantastic story about when he was a rockstar in some hotel crawling about on his hands and knees with his hair all down, naked, and then looking in the mirror and having a vision of Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar. So that kind of illuminated the contradictions that Blake is. I guess what I’m about, and sort of what we’re all about, is sort of claiming Blake—although I mean who knows what Blake would’ve thought, we can’t speak for him—but claiming him for the counterculture, for what he was, which was a political radical, a religious visionary, a proto-anarchist actually. In fact, I’ve got a book in front of me by Peter Marshall [Max showed Marshall’s William Blake: Visionary Anarchist]. I think the nadir for me was Tracy Emin coupling herself with Blake at Tate Liverpool… Who the hell allowed that! That’s very un-okay.

CR: Are you still making books at the moment?

MR: Yeah, so I did the Papakura Post Office books—I think there’s about eight of them—the last two just ended up being showcases for my photography, so I thought it was getting boring. I was still using the New Zealand ISBN. This is kind of personal, but for me, for my photography, I’ve always wanted to make books, to make kind of coherent statements. But it’s always been impossible to get published unless, you know, whatever—I’ve always found it difficult. So basically, the price of online printing used to be very astronomical through things like Blurb, and then it kind of came down into a vaguely affordable realm. So then I thought, okay, I’ve got this press, I may as well start making my own photo books, which is what I’ve always wanted to do. So then I thought, okay, I’d better get some UK ISBNs, only to find out that instead of being like millions for free, they’re like 80 quid each, or 150 quid for ten. So I bit the bullet and bought ten of them, and started slowly experimenting and trying to figure out how to make photo books.

And then Steve Micalef, he’s really really interesting. He’s very much from a punk rock background—DIY—in fact, if you ever meet him, he’s got pockets full of poems. Which is a nightmare—me and Helen are kind of ironing out his poems so we can scan them. So yeah, apart from my photo books, I thought, god, Micalef’s never been published, this is insane. So with this online thing that’s super cheap, you can print it. Because he’s always essentially broke himself—he’s never had a job other than being a poet—i.e. he’s never been monetised as such. So we found a really cheap way of printing his poetry, so we’ve done two now. He was the editor of this really seminal punk zine called Sniffin’ Glue—he was one of the editors for a while. So we did a book on his punk years. He interviewed all the punk bands—was probably the first person to interview tons of these people. We did a book of his poems on that, and then we did a book of his poems on Felpham. We’re currently supposed to be doing one on Soho. I’d like to publish tons and tons of his books, because he’s really worthwhile. So that’s how it is now. I think we’ve made five or six of my photography books, then two of Micalef’s. I’m using the lockdown to try to make more…

People really personalise Blake, and people tend to be very very passionate about Blake, and kind of overly protective. And he is like Mr Archetypal Counterculture, so you can trace him through all sorts of movements—obviously Allen Ginsberg, and I think he’s on Sargeant Pepper, and all sorts of things… So he’s a really resonant figure. He’s almost like an icon to latch onto, especially these days when neoliberalism has sort of flattened everything and monetised everything. To have this sort of beacon to reach out to I think is incredibly inspirational, I think it’s something that people can form around in all sorts of different ways.

CR: Do you get the feeling that that’s been sort of reawakened more recently, or has it always been there while you’ve been working?

MR: I think it’s always been there. It’s just maybe harder to see. I don’t know how old you are, but obviously we’ve gone from a very dichotomised world where there’s been the establishment, the mainstream, and the underground, whereas now everything’s been so… This is kind of irrelevant, but South of Auckland, somewhere near Huntley, there was this Dutch guy that made a little cheese home factory thing, next to the Waikato River. It’s about an hour-and-a-half drive from Papakura, so I used to go on these drives down to buy some Gouda. The last time I went, which was ten years ago, I couldn’t find the place. They’d built this entire motorway system. It’s actually funny, they wanted to steamroll through things but the local Maori claimed that there was a Taniwha in the water that needed protecting—I think it’s the first time that a river’s been protected from a mythological creature. It’s a fantastic story. Anyway, I was driving ‘round, thinking, god, it’s gone, after all these years. I think I went online and phoned them up and they said, no no, we’re here. So I found them eventually and I said, I’m sure you guys were over there—have you just moved? And they said, no no, we’ve always been here, everything else has been landscaped around us. So they’ve always been here doing their thing, making cheese, it’s just the entire environment has changed. And I think that’s kind of the same: it’s easy to overlook, and you have to look for it, but it’s never left.

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