Cx72 Interview: Scarlet Imprint
April 13, 2017
Scarlet Imprint is a talismanic publishing company based in the UK, founded by Alkistis Dimech and Peter Grey in 2007. Shop select books from Scarlet Imprint here.
Cixous72 – For those unfamiliar with the publishing work that you’re doing, and the magical work that you’re doing, what does it mean to you to be a talismanic publisher? Will you explain how a book can be a talisman?
Alkistis Dimech – In a way, right now, it’s very much to do with having a book as a physical object that has force itself. So many of the books that are produced now have very bad quality paper, not bound properly, very little thought has gone into the design… With Scarlet Imprint we wanted to return to the art of the book, the whole art – both as a magical object, and a well-designed object materially and aesthetically.
'Mandragora: Further Explorations in Esoteric Poesis,' edited by Ruby Sara and published by Scarlet Imprint.
Peter Grey – As you were saying yesterday, it’s about having an object which is an antidote to the Simulacra. We exist in a world where we are presented with things which appear to be real objects, but are in fact are poor copies of real objects. There’s a real loss in people’s experience of the world when they are forced to only deal with synthetic versions of things. So we’re very much in favor of the book as a way in which people can re-orient themselves, and a way that they can escape from the madness of the modern world and actually have a deeper, and more introspective, experience of things. The study and practice of magic really requires a great deal of introspection and the ability to reconnect with the imaginal and to not have such a fractured attention span, which is one of the particular issues that people face nowadays.
Cx – Absolutely. In terms of a perspective of putting together books, are there any materials that you would dream of working with, ideal materials?
AD – We’re quite lucky with the fine editions, because we can work with more bespoke materials – materials that are harder to find. But even then, we’re quite limited with how much we can spend on one.
PG – There are some interesting, rare historical book-binding materials like purple vellum –
AD – Yes, I would love to use purple vellum! But it seems to have fallen out of use in the medieval period.
PG – We’ve had the extravagant conversations about binding books with human skin –
AD – We wouldn’t! [laughs]
PG – Which is one of the things that they allegedly used to do – they used to bind bibles in witches’ skins. So there are often people asking us about human skin bindings, but there are some ethical issues with that one. [laughs] But, we’re very fortunate in that we work with an old and established book-binder. So in terms of the fine editions, we’re able to dream as much as we want in terms of what we would like books to be. We’re not as constrained as others might be, other than by the purse.
AD – We have to keep it affordable. But truly, my main interest is in the standard edition. I sort of think of that as the form of the book that is most, the exemplar of it. And there are quite a few limitations for the standard edition, so we can’t use particular rare materials. We do use the best quality papers throughout all of our books, but binding itself – we don’t use leathers and such on the standard editions. It’s nice to work with the limitations of a nice book cloth, to have the emphasis more on the aesthetic of the book rather than on the costliness or the scarcity of the materials.
PG – So we produce three editions for most books, but the edition that we work on first is the standard edition rather than working with the fine edition and going backwards.
Cx – I guess it would sort of be the medium in terms of price point and material concerns.
AD – Yes. I find limitations good to work with.
Cx – I’ve thought a lot about this as someone who works with electronic music and sound, and in terms of technology, that openness can kind of look like a “wild west” of possibility – it’s almost more difficult to work with more freedom. It’s so hard to narrow things down when you can do anything.
AD – Having limitations also forces you to be more creative to solve problems, so you actually find more interesting solutions when you limit what you can do. I find that very fruitful. That’s why I like the standard editions to work from, because everything has to come from that. I’m not immediately thinking about the most extravagant book. We go from the standard edition, and then out from there.
Cx – What are some of your favorite books?
AD – I’m crazy for Alfred Jarry books, but I don’t own any of his originals. I’m very interested in his designs, though, and his interest in the occult, and mixing it up with his own avant garde interests and ideas.
PG – We’ve got some nice books; we’ve got a little bit of a book habit. The Trianon editions of William Blake are really very striking, and we’ve got some lovely Baudelaire. Those are sort of pretty expensive books, but there are also a lot of battered paperbacks that we’ve got strong attachments to.
AD – Books seem to be more important because of the history they have with you, for me especially. It’s about history.
PG – The power of the book is also in the journey that it’s been through. So we’re also very keen on second-hand books, rescuing books from libraries… We live amidst thousands of books. We’re a little out of control with our book habit.
Cx – Alkistis, I listened to the episode of Rune Soup in which you talked a little bit about Ayahuasca. That’s a plant that I had a catalytic experience with – it wasn’t in the Santo Daime tradition, as your experience was, but it was this kind of similarly-derived folk Catholic take on the traditional ceremony of the plant. I was curious about your experiences with Ayahuasca, because for me it was very transformative. I haven’t experienced a ceremony in a very long time, but the experience itself was very profound in terms of my development.
AD – Like you, I had very transformative experiences with Ayahuasca. I have just done a couple of ceremonies since – I kind of stopped just before I met Peter and started Scarlet Imprint – since then, just a couple of small ceremonies… So I haven’t had a relationship with in the past ten years or so. How to put my mind back into the past!
The strange thing about that was that it sort of happened to me by chance. I had dropped out of my normal life, and I was doing Butoh and living a bit between places. I was in London at a party, on the way back on the tube – I never went out that much, so it was strange to be there, it was a place I’d never been – and someone came up to me, and was staring at me, and just started talking to me. I didn’t recognize him at all, and he asked me, ‘Don’t you remember me?’ And he was some guy that used to come into a shop I worked in. He had transformed into some kind of shaman or something [laughs]. And he told me what he was doing, and he got my number. He didn’t give me all the details of what he was doing; it was very mysterious, and he was about to get off at his stop. So, that was it – by pure chance, I met someone who had started working with Ayahuasca. And he kind of saw me and got me involved in it. Just like that – grabbed me out of the underground and arranged it. Just a few weeks later I had my first session. Even the way it started for me was really unexpected. I was living like that at the time – I was very random, and using chance a lot to make decisions for me, so I went with these things.
And nothing has had such a profound effect as that did. The intensity of it, every single time, is just something else. And it takes a lot of – I mean, I don’t know how people can do it again, and again, and again, and again. It takes so long to process it, as well. But it all seemed to tie in, and after I did this session for ten days in Cornwall, a couple of months later, I met Peter. It sort of transformed everything, and Scarlet Imprint started out of that. I very much connect the big change in the direction of my life with being involved with Ayahuasca. Very much. And Babalon as well – she appeared to me in a vision for the first time before I met Peter, which was after this session in Cornwall. We were extended, out on the edge of England, no distractions – just a sort of endless intensity of this confronting everything that you never usually touch. It’s very strange that it was through Ayahuasca that I became involved in Western esotericism and magic, because it wasn’t this new age path or anything – after I met Peter, we started working with the grimoires, too, so it actually became a way of reconnecting to the traditions of western magic rather than going forward into the new age. We became quite involved in this reconnection with the past. It’s curious to think back to how that came out of Ayahuasca, which is an Amazonian brew.
From Alkistis Dimech's dance for Bouschet and Hilbert's Metamorphic Earth, with costume by Azimuth Clothing. Image courtesy of Scarlet Imprint.
Cx – It’s fascinating – I had never really thought about Babalon in connection with Ayahuasca. I remember something that you said about the importance of not re-interpreting, Babalon as this specifically feminist archetype – not to put her in that box. And I love that.
AD – I just think it limits her. It’s not that she is not a strong feminine figure but simply to see her only in those terms limits all the other aspects of her character, and history, and the reason she’s here now.
Cx – I was totally fascinated by that, because I am a feminist myself, but feel similarly – it makes sense, as well, with Ayahuasca. Because it’s very much this female spirit, but she’s not necessarily quantifiable in that way – too big to put into that box.
AD – I don’t know if I really experienced Ayahuasca as a distinctly female spirit; I found Ayahuasca to be encompassing everything – appearing in all kinds of forms, from animals, to insects, to anthropo-figures. I didn’t find her especially feminine, or gentle. [laughs] But I’m really intrigued by the way Babalon appeared after that experience. With the Ayahuasca, I had a lot of experiences going into my genetic past – it’s the only way I can think about it. I felt as though the history of my family was coming up a lot, and I had to work through a lot of emotions to do with that. There was also strong sort of ecstatic feeling. I’ve got a lot of craziness in my family, and this had a release in a sort of ecstatic mysticism I was experiencing a lot then as well. So perhaps she came through in that, I don’t know. It’s interesting as well, with Ayahuasca becoming such a strong force in the world in the present time. It’s not unconnected with the reasons that Babalon is making such a strong resurgence now. Because it’s not just me and Peter who are feeling this, and working with her; I’m aware that many people are responding to this and feeling her presence. I think it’s connected with the crisis that we’re in, ecologically and as a culture as well. We’re in a very strange situation; it’s unprecedented. So perhaps the uniqueness of the moment is why all of these things are coming forward very strongly.
Cx – Are there any plants that you’re working with on a regular basis, or specifically connect with?
AD – We work with Mandragora, and we have worked with Salvia, but not for a while. Mushrooms, too, sometimes… but we don’t really overdo it; it’s very easy to be drawn too much into that. It’s usually enough to do just the regular work, and have the plant work as something more special.
PG – There’s a tendency to view psychoactive plants as a silver bullet.
AD – I think it’s wonderful working with plants. But you can also do good work using quality frankincense.
Cx – Oh, yes. I meant even just medicinally – the plants you interact with regularly.
PG – We work with a lot of plants medicinally like that, a lot of herbs… we make it part of our diet, as well. We have a straight door into the woods, so we’re wildcrafting, eating wild food a lot. We have a fairly plant-based diet – not entirely plant-based, but fairly plant-based – we pursue a lot of useful supplements in the kind of work that we’re doing, to support the endocrine system. Magic can burn people out pretty quickly.
AD – I have to be careful with my diet as well, because I have bipolar disorder – and I don’t like this word, bipolar disorder – but it essentially means that I have to be very careful because my energy levels fluctuate a lot, as well as my mood. Eating a lot of plants and herbs is kind of the basis of my keeping well. So yes, plants, absolutely. And then those psychedelic plants very occasionally, for a serious work.
Cx – I would love for you to talk a little bit about your particular perspective on witchcraft. I’ve read Apocalyptic Witchcraft, and some of your essays as well, and I’m very struck by them. How do you see witchcraft in this particular age, this very complex time?
AD – It’s so hard to talk about witchcraft, because I personally consider witchcraft to be the things I do that I don’t talk about. With magic, it’s easier to speak about in that there’s maybe a system, or something you can appeal to – a common language that you can share. But I find a lot of the things I do that are witchcraft, I don’t talk about. They are naughty. [laughs] It’s hard to say. It’s very much a thing you do because you have no other way to effect change or to bring something about. You speak about this in the book, Peter…
Peter Grey in the ritual room at the Abbey of Thelema. Image courtesy of Scarlet Imprint.
PG – Witchcraft is very much a strategy against power. It’s something which is done by the outcasts, by the people on the edges of society. It’s something for which you don’t have to have anything other than the everyday items that you have around you. You can practice witchcraft based on what you have in your kitchen, and what you have growing in your herb garden, and the immediate denizens of the local environment. You’re building a very direct relationship with spirit and place, with a variety of smaller local spirits, and engaged in works which are often very simple. One of the things that people often miss with witchcraft is that it’s characterized by very simple acts and intention. Combinations of word and herb and charm and stone – these very basic, simple things people can do which on one level enable them to feel a sense of empowerment and agency in their lives which might be lacking. On a psychological level, it can be very important to people. We’re interested in the magical advocacy and the change that that can bring about. It’s exciting to see that so many people are responding to witchcraft – they have in the 60s, the 70s, the 80s, but it’s a different character now, with a sharper edge on it. There are new ideas about gender and sexuality coming through now as well that people – and women in particular – are latching onto as a way to take power. And that’s an incredible thing to see happening. We are most interested in the practical magic aspect of it more than anything.
Cx – How does your locale, the specific place where you are living, feed into or influence your magical practices?
AD – Quite directly, in that we’ve got our circle out in the local hills.
PG – We’re working in a spirited landscape, so we’re surrounded by ancient sites, by ruined castles, by graveyards, by these locii of spirit contact. So rather than magic and witchcraft being something that’s an abstract thing, we’re actually embedded in a place that is full of spirits, nature spirits… the dead from the Roman legions who were massacred here, the Welsh tribe who made their last stand here and died. So there’s a lot of spirit activity and a lot of spirit epiphany through the flora and fauna, through the animals and plants. Magic is about where you stand, it’s about doing what is common to the place that you’re in. We’re aware that we’re in a very privileged position in that we live in as rural a place as we can, whereas many people are in cities and have a very different approach that they have to take. You can have the same approach if you’re living in a city; you’re just dealing with plants that are growing up literally through the cracks in the pavement. You’re dealing with a very different geography. You’re dealing with a lot more noise. But there’s still a lot of spirit activity there.
Cx – Where do you see magic moving in this time of Trump, and Brexit, and all of these wild overarching political themes that are developing globally?
AD – In relation to politics, hmm… I think one of the things that I’ve noticed most about what’s changing and what’s driving the transformations of magic now is the amount of material that the academy is putting out. We have actually a lot more texts available to us, a lot more information – not just of our own culture, but of any other culture we might wish to look at. I think this causes both problems as well as great changes. There’s almost too much material to deal with; people aren’t able to focus or do one thing. But at the same time, it’s also very useful and inspiring. I was just talking about this the other day – with the medieval period, you could put it down to almost just five texts that the entire culture bloomed from. Just a few texts that everything was created out of. So it’s hard – I’m not thinking about this in terms of politics. I’m noticing most of the changes in magic as having to do with this abundance of material which has really exploded in the last few years. So, how might that relate to ‘the world?’ We do have an information overload.
PG – Well, we’ve moved into a crises space where previously, people who were interested in magic and witchcraft had to seek out the orders, or had to join a physical group. It was very difficult to get hold of books and materials – it was very, very difficult. Now, we’re in an age where there’s an incredible abundance. There’s an abundance of good material, if people are willing to put in the research; there’s an abundance of rubbish as well. But that’s always been the case. With the occult, it’s always going to be 90% nonsense. But we have an opportunity to carve out a very interesting practice and understand that we do have a magical history and that there are core texts you can go to. There are also smart people you can listen to, like Gordon [White] or whoever – those who can help people start to take these steps on the journey. What I think we’ll see with Trump and Brexit is that the members of the counterculture, in particular those with an interest in magic and witchcraft, rather than try to define themselves by their differences – which identity politics seems to have created, which has fragmented the community more than bringing it together – I think people will understand that they have more in common, and that these external forces, whether Brexit or Trump, will mean that people will start to look at what they have in common rather than look at what they have as difference. That, I think, in particular will have a very positive effect on the magical community.
Cx – Alkistis, as a Butoh dancer, where do you see the overlap between Butoh and magic?
AD – For me, it’s got a lot to do with Hijikata Tatsumi’s understanding that with his dance, a dancer could transform themselves into anything in nature. I used to really, really think about this and try to work out how this happens. When I came across the work of Merleau-Ponty, and his work regarding ‘the flesh of the world,’ and I came to understand that we have a flesh and this is how we can effect the transformations and understand ourselves as part of the entire nature, and then to use one’s imagination or one’s body to participate in that in a very active way… I think Hijikata created a kind of shamanism. It’s been noted by other people as well; a lot of techniques are very close to magic, there’s a lot of crossover with magic there – being able to enter this other space, this in-between or liminal space, and from there make the connection with the spirits, communicate with spirits and bring this through as well for other people. So there’s the communicative aspect as well as the contact with spirit, which is very strong. I’ve always felt this with Butoh. Even before I was involved with magic, when I was doing Butoh, I would go into altered states, and see things differently – it was almost hallucinatory sometimes. It would really alter your sensory perception, and dial down a lot of the dominant visual. The whole body opens up in a much more dynamic way to all the information and influences around it that are dancing with you.
I always felt that sort of underlies my entire magical practice – this understanding that no matter how formal, it still has this ability to take the dancer into a trance, a deeper state of consciousness. This is where magic gets done, where the communication with spirits happen. In language, it’s constantly stressed that there is this importance of the mind over the body, that the body and the mind are these two different things. For me, if I say the mind, I really mean the body, and if I say the body, I’m not meaning the body isn’t thinking. The body is logical, and intelligent; it’s rational, it’s not irrational, and it knows exactly what to do. I think the magical reality is the reality where everything is connected by these forces and bonds of love – sympatia. Being able to enter into that consciously and to experience that with your body opens up magic in a way that I can’t imagine any other way, really. Peter does a lot of physical practices too, but not the same as Butoh – different sorts of work. It also informs your understanding of ritual. There’s no way in which the physical training doesn’t effect; even dance discipline is useful. In every way, it’s changed how I perceive and practice magic.
From Alkistis Dimech's dance entitled EVE (first mirror). Image courtesy of Sabbatic Dance.
Cx – For both of you, are there any specific practices, whether mental or physical, or those that overlap between, that you would recommend as part of a regular practice?
AD – Lots of spinal work. [laughs] Lots and lots of spinal work.
PG – I think most people who are pursuing magic should consider having a parallel physical practice to keep them honest. Whether that’s yoga – and I think everyone who does magic should be doing yoga – or whether that’s a martial arts practice… I think martial arts is very good for keeping people honest, because it’s very easy in magic for people to get inflated ideas of themselves. Learning a martial art and discovering that the smallest person in the room can choke you out, or punch you on the nose, kind of keeps people’s egos a bit more in check. So I think it’s useful to do that. But also, I mean, running is important, distance work is important...
AD – There are so many things. It’s about doing something physical that you enjoy that you’re not going to give up, and take it from there. Just about everything can be taken in a very fruitful direction when you actually practice it, rather than simply talk about it.
PG – Magic is about extending the control over yourself and control over your unconscious systems as well, so any physical action that you perform mindfully can produce that. We’ve talked about this before, and the difficulty that we find is that when we talk about these things, we run into people claiming that we’re ableist or that we’re saying there’s a prescribed body type – and nothing could be further from the truth. We just think that in a sedentary, closed, slave-body world, people need to unlock their body systems to discover who they are.
AD – It’s not just to discover; it’s that by doing the work, you actually become something. It’s how we develop from infancy, from the womb. In the womb, we’re this little piece of flesh that’s molded from the mother’s womb. We come into the world, and we explore it, and by exploring it we become something. The actions we take train our bodies. With a physical practice – as with any aspect of the practice of magic – repeat, repeat, repeat! It took me quite a long time to learn this. I was quite old when I finally got it into my head. To do things again, and again, and again is how you master something, and how you put it into your body’s knowledge as opposed to being something that you have to think about too much. It becomes part of who you are, physically as well as every other way.
Cx – I have to say, I actually found your work because of that controversy; a friend of mine found your imprint because of that controversy. I don’t currently dance Butoh, but I used to, and I know what you’re speaking about in terms of this liminal space or finding a crisis point within the body where you’re existing in discomfort – there are all these different practices in which you’re prioritizing or developing the will.
PG – I think it really shows how much trauma people have in their bodies, and how much pain there is out there –
AD – There is a discomfort in facing that.
Cx – And the truth is that not everyone can do everything. But it’s more about being in your particular body in the way that you can – because we’re all already in our bodies; we’re all having an embodied experience.
AD – And everybody is. That’s the thing – we’re all here, no matter what their body is like, how it is, or any of this. We’re embodied beings.
Cx – It’s interesting practicing magic as a “sick woman” – that’s something that I think sometimes. I have Lyme disease, and so I have a constant experience of physical pain, among other symptoms, but it’s actually been positive for me in certain ways. I’m a little suspect of people who claim to be ‘grateful’ for their traumatic experiences, because I don’t necessarily feel like it’s a ‘gift,’ but in certain ways, it has been. This is because I had to learn to use my body in different ways than I used to, or that other people might, and it’s created a different form of consciousness for me. So it is more about being embodied in the way that you specifically exist, the way that your body has specifically manifested in space.
My last question for you is, what kind of things are running through your minds lately? Where do you see Scarlet Imprint going in the coming years?
AD – We’ve been thinking a lot about this because it’s our tenth birthday in July. We’re drawing together our essays from the last ten years.
PG – We’re kind of recapitulating. It’s a recapitulation regarding, what is the best use of our energy? We don’t want to become a giant publisher.
AD – I like what we do – to just put out maybe three or four books a year, probably three – and to do something special with each one, to make everything a focused magical act in that sense. It’s about choosing where we put our energy.
PG – We spent ten years traveling and lecturing and really putting a lot of effort out into the community and world, and now we’re in a phase where we’re looking at retreat. We’re focusing on getting more of our work out, because we’ve probably published less than we would have done if we hadn’t spent our time doing a lot of traveling, talking, and doing the kind of ‘find the others’ phase. Now we’re having a slightly darker period in which we’re able to engage in more introspective, personal work. That’s where we’re at at the moment. We’re also excited to see what’s happening now that we’ve had ten years of putting this information out for people – after ten years, there are people with all of our books on their bookshelves. There are people who are building practices out of it, and it’s exciting to see those people coming through and to see the next generation come up. We’re really excited to see what’s going to happen in the next ten years.
AD – Yeah. The kids. The times are getting more and more interesting by the day, and so I’m interested in seeing what the kids do. Because they have to deal with it even more than we do.
PG – The crises that we talk about in Apocalyptic Witchcraft get worse on a daily basis, and the feedback loops that are happening with the environment – the extinction crisis – will continue to accelerate. Some of the ideas that we were talking about initially were considered fringe, and now they’re on the front of all these newspapers. So, it’s a very different world now.
AD – I think at the beginning, we were making some kind of difference by pointing out that something is happening, a crisis is happening, we’re in trouble. But it doesn’t need to keep being said now. I’m much more interested in retreating, and doing our personal work and being more creative in that way. Now is the time to actually find solutions for the future rather than to wave flags and say, ‘Look what’s happening!’ It’s pretty obvious what’s happening.
PG – But for other people, it’s a time to be on the streets. It’s a time for people to come together and to take action. We just live in a very quiet part of rural England; we’re in the middle of nowhere. If we were in a city, we’d be in a very different position.
AD – I think everyone’s got a particular thing that is what they want to do. Their response to the present times. It depends where you are, who you are with, what your health problems are – I can’t protest because of my health.
Cx – Yes, but writing is protest too.
AD – Yes. Everyone is contributing now, I think. One of the elements that needs to be contributed. It’s not about one individual over others – it’s just that everybody has to do their ‘thing.’ And as a whole it will create what needs to happen.
Cx – Absolutely. I think it’s interesting to consider that idea of – there are so many writers whose books were banned, or whose work was held in question. Even just in terms of thinking about Butoh as a transgressive practice, there are so many different ways to bring protest in that aren’t necessarily literal, the way one would normally think of ‘a protest.’
AD – Yeah. We have to be making the culture that survives when modern consumer culture starts failing. There have to be things already in place, things that are starting to grow.
Interview conducted by M. Elizabeth Scott in Spring 2017.