August 3, 2023
by Robin Lippincott
In the fall of 2022, Tidal Press, the original publisher of Blue Territory, decided to close up shop, which meant that my book fell out of print. But only briefly. I have revised (and revived) this post, written around the time of the book’s original December 2015 release, to celebrate the republication of Blue Territory: A Meditation on the Life and Art of Joan Mitchell by Rabbit House Press.
It’s my hope that those of you reading this will find strength and inspiration from Blue Territory’s long and arduous journey. The subtext of this post is—Be yourself (no matter how eccentric); Follow your dream (no matter how unusual); Don’t give up (no matter what). Miles Davis said, “Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself,” and that is exactly how I feel about this book.
No doubt, Blue Territory is an unusual creature. As Kirby Gann wrote in the blurb he composed: “Robin Lippincott has created a genre of his own in this revelation of Joan Mitchell and her world.”
Who was Joan Mitchell? No, not Joni (whom I also admire). Joan Mitchell was one of the post-WWII American abstract expressionist painters, a contemporary of the far more renowned Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning. She is better known now, in 2023, than she was when I started writing my book seventeen years ago, but she is still not as well-known as the aforementioned painters. And why? Simply because she was a woman, and because she spent most of her working life in France: she moved there in the early 1960s and remained until her death in 1992.
Why did I write this book? Because I love and admire Joan Mitchell’s paintings, and the fact that she and her work aren’t better known, and the reasons for that—sexism, nationalism—piss me off. And because as I began to research Mitchell, the woman I met was so fascinating and complex that I kind of fell in love: she was a great reader of poetry, among the most poetic of painters, and she’s often cited as one of the more intelligent of modern artists (she was a synesthete, and she had an eidetic memory). Over time, this project became something of an obsession, which I believe is always a positive thing for an artist, regardless of the medium. Susan Sontag said, “The writer must be four people: 1. The nut, the obsédé, 2. The moron, 3. The stylist, 4. The critic.”
As often happens when I start writing a book, searching to find the right form for it, I worry that what comes out sounds crazy. These are the first words of Blue Territory I wrote:
“JOAN, JOAN—the name alone as fully resonant as the sound inside of a drum (under the skin), or in the inner ear; bone deep (deep as the ocean and as wide and vast as a windblown Midwestern sky); a tone poem or a koan; room to roam, and yet also contained (within the frame of J and N)—not unlike her paintings.” This passage continues for another 120 words: you get the gist.
After being reassured by a few trusted readers that the work did not, in fact, sound crazy, I kept going. And in retrospect, I believe writing the above passage helped me realize that I wanted to employ different, ever-changing narrative strategies throughout, even to write in different genres: some of the book is creative nonfiction, some straight biography, there’s a dash of fiction, and even a smidgen of poetry, too . . . I see the text as a vast field, much like the oversized canvases Joan Mitchell painted, with different passages and styles or approaches to painting. Van Gogh wrote, “When the object represented is . . . at one with the way it is represented, isn't that what gives a work of art its quality?” That was my hope for this book.
I started writing it in early 2006, though in hindsight I see that it had been percolating since at least 2002, if not before; that’s almost ten years from first writing to publication. Now let me provide an idea of just some of the things that happened along the way: I finished the manuscript in 2009. My agent loved the book but deemed it uncommercial, thought it best that we focus on small presses. Subsequently, publishers of numerous small presses also said they loved the book but that they wouldn’t know what to do with it, how to market it; it didn’t fit into a prescribed box.
In 2013, roughly four years after I had finished the writing, I found a nice small press, a letterpress, signed a contract, and the book was scheduled to be published in the spring of 2014. I was over the moon, especially because how a book looks, as a physical object, has long been paramount to me, and this little press was known for creating beautiful work. Everything was going well until—after the editing process, after the publisher and I had had dinner and discussed, among many other things, the cover, just a few months before the scheduled publication date—the publisher stopped communicating with me: nothing untoward had happened, we hadn’t disagreed about anything; it was pure and simple (and unethical) radio silence, despite my repeated attempts at communication, or my pleas. This went on and on, and I still to this day don’t know or understand what happened. I was devastated, fell into a deep depression, felt betrayed and heartbroken; I wasn’t sure that I would be able to go through the process of submitting the work for publication ever again (talk about blue territory). But in March of 2015, I found another publisher. And then, in December of 2015, at long last, after a lot of blood, sweat, and tears (you see how hard I had to fight for it), the book was finally here.
And now the book is here—again!
Robin Lippincott is the author of six books. He has been teaching in the MFA Program of the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing since 2001. He lives in a cottage outside Brattleboro, Vermont.