by Jeffery Beam
Jonathan Williams is perhaps best known as the genius behind The Jargon Society, which has published poetry, experimental fiction, photography, and visionary folk art (including the surprise bestseller, White Trash Cooking); among the press's distinguished offerings are works by Charles Olson, Paul Metcalf, Lorine Niedecker, Lou Harrison, Mina Loy, Joel Oppenheimer, James Broughton, and scores of other works by the American and British avant-garde. But Williams also has an international reputation as a poet, essayist, and photographer. His most recent books are A Palpable Elysium: Portraits of Genius and Solitude (David R. Godine, $30), an enthralling collection of photographs accompanied by nostalgically heightened commentary, and Blackbird Dust: Essays, Poems, Photographs (Turtle Point Press, $16.95), a "celebration of Outsiderdom" in which Williams proves himself "as companionable, jocular, and curmudgeonly as possible in our poor literary times." In both photography and words, Williams never simply reports on his subjects, but seems to converse with them.
Jeffery Beam spoke to Williams on a gray Sunday afternoon at Skywinding Farm, Scaly Mountain, North Carolina, where the man Hugh Kenner hailed as "the truffle hound of American poetry" has resided for much of his life. Joining them was Whit Griffin, The Jargon Society's intern.
Jeffery Beam: Jonathan, who or what inspired you to become, as Guy Davenport says in A Palpable Elysium, " a cultural anthropologist?"
Jonathan Williams: As Andre Gide wrote in The Traite du Narcisse, "Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again." I started collecting the Oz books when I was six years old. I saw Fantasia when I was 10, and began to collect records: Stravinsky, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Sibelius for starters. I bought a remaindered copy of the first American edition of The Hobbit when I was 10. I began collecting Indian relics in the fields around the Etowah Mounds in Georgia; I also collected gem and mineral specimens from the North Carolina and Georgia mountains. When I was 12, I began drawing and painting at St. Albans School. I was incredibly lucky at St. Albans in that I had three great teachers: John Davis, Ferdinand Ruge, and Dean Stambaugh. Music, English, and Art were opened up for me on a platter. I cuddled up in bed with about a third of our Class of 1947—but don't be alarmed. They came out straight as arrows and became things like Major Generals in the U.S. Army and members of the House of Representatives.
JB: I think one of the most revealing moments in Blackbird Dust is your story of Stambaugh taking you to the Phillips Gallery to see the Redon and Ryder paintings. You say you realized that the painters were "celebrating human difference." Why does it matter that human difference be celebrated?
JW: Well, at the age of 12, to be put in front of an Odilon Redon painting is tough. It's a world I knew nothing about—mystical and so strangely colored. I think the painting is Girl With Flowers; the girl looks like something out of James Thurber and the flowers are simply very weird. It seemed completely inept. It's like the first time I heard Anton Bruckner, also age 12—I thought, "God, this guy's such a dummy. How can he go on after introducing the first movement of the Seventh Symphony like that?" I didn't have the ears for it at that age; Bruckner's as grown-up as it gets. When you are confronted with people who are so different from oneself, you need to have your eyes and ears wide open... , I felt much closer to Albert Pinkham Ryder's painting Moonlit Cove. I'd been to the New England coast and read some Hawthorne and Emerson. Moonlit Cove is the kind of transcendental night scene he was so great at; I think he's really the greatest American painter of the 19th century and that Thomas Eakins is maybe the second greatest. But let's not get caught up in the "Greatest Game." Charles Ives and Walt Whitman were not great in their own times. We barely know how to read and listen to these men today.
JB: I can see how a 12-year-old would be able to respond immediately to the Ryder—the darkness, the melancholy...
JW: The boat...
JB: ... and the Redon is really the opposite—less accessible because it's not the real world, it's another world. Was there something that Stambaugh said to you that helped you make a connection between the two?
JW: When he saw my laughing distress he told me to hush up. Be polite! (laughs) You are in Mr. Duncan Phillips's home!
JB: So Stambaugh in a way offered that lesson that you've mentioned a number of times in different ways in your work, and that is just to be quiet, and take it in?
JW: Yes—as I say he was a remarkably kind and very astute man. Very quiet. He enjoyed teaching at a prep school. He hardly ever entered his pictures in competitions. He wasn't trying to get ahead of the curve. He stayed at St. Albans, I think, perhaps 30 years. He came from Potter County up on the Pennsylvania-New York border—where there are some hills. He painted these patiently over the years. His landscapes are fine, and as modest as he was, his clothes were impeccably tailored. He should have taught a class in "How to Dress." He had terrific tweed jackets and good shirts and good ties.
JB: So these early guys taught you your "style"... your fashion sense too?
JW: Yeah. Of course, St. Albans had a very conservative dress code. You had to wear gray flannels and a blue blazer, white shirts, and you had your choice of ties. That's what I grew up with and I must say I find nothing wrong with it. Gore Vidal went to St. Albans for a while and photographs of him show it. Even in the country I put on ties, and try to wear decent clothes when we go into Highlands here in North Carolina. It's a dressy little resort filled with Atlanta money, porcine day-trippers in Florida sports dress, and the odd retired proctologist in a black suit.
JB: Do you think that's why someone said that you were "only gay below the waist"?
JW: Below the waist! (laughs) Below the waistcoat!
JB: Somehow the tie and everything else confuses people.
JW: Oh yeah, I've had that happen. I went into The Cedar Tavern in the Village one day in 1958; that's where a lot of the Black Mountain people who lived in New York hung out. And I had been out trying to sell our Zukofsky book, our Robert Duncan book, our Denise Levertov bookÉ I was going around to places like Scribner's and Brentano's and some of the bookshops on Madison Avenue, and I was wearing a brown worsted suit, a beige Oxford cloth shirt, a striped tie, black socks, and brown shoes (well polished). I was tired of carrying this heavy briefcase, so I walked into The Cedars, and way in the back was, of all people, Gregory Corso. I'd never met him, and he'd never met me, but before he shook hands he said, "Why are you wearing those silly, awful clothes?" (laughs) Well, that was all I needed to hear from him, so I went back to the bar and left them to it.
So, you're right, clothes can be misleading. Take Jack Spicer, who was gay as three grapes. I had not met Spicer and I wanted to—this was 1954 in San Francisco. Somebody with me said, " Hey, it's Halloween, let's go to The Black Cat." It was right next door to the police station, interestingly enough, but they didn't hassle the gays. I asked, "How will I know Jack?" My friend said, "He'll be the only guy wearing a business suit!" I really liked that. People ought to dress they way they want to, unless it frightens the police sergeant.
JB: I think of your photograph of Charles Olson at Black Mountain, where he doesn't have his shirt on. When you were at Black Mountain had you already developed this formal way of dress? And while you were there did you stand out as someone who was less relaxed in the way they presented themselves?
JW: Well, I was the only person at Black Mountain who had been to prep school and gone to Princeton and spent time in New York and all that. I didn't dress any differently than anybody else did, I don't think, at Black Mountain. Certainly, none of the faculty made a thing of it É Lou Harrison was rather dressy, but nobody else. Lou had a long-time San Francisco/New York background. I don't think anyone wanted to stand out at Black Mountain. I often wore a blazer on Sunday morning in case people got religion and somebody needed to pass the collection plate.
JB: Is there an easily defined artistic aesthetic that describes what, and how, and why you do what you do?
JW: Uncle Remus says: "Hit run'd cross my min' des lak a rat Ôlong a rafter." I have a mind like that. It darts and shimmies all the time. It thinks of six things (besides sex) all at once. So the trick is to slow down, focus, concentrate. Someone said that craft is perfected attention. I like making well-crafted books, and poems, and images, because it pleases me so to do. And it's nice to please some of one's friends now and then. I have never cultivated a commercial audience. I try never to do anything just for money, and I seem to have been quite successful at that. My old friend, Ephraim Doner (whose father had been an Hassidic rabbi in Poland), once told me about "The Lamed-Vov." In the ancient Hebraic tradition the Lamed-Vov were the 36 great souls of the earth. Wonderfully, they never knew they were great souls, but Yahweh knew. If they dwindled to fewer than 36, then Yahweh would pull the plug and go to work on a better animal. As long as we can sell 36 copies of a Jargon book, we will keep at it.
JB: How long have you been "at it"—that is, at making poems, publishing, photographing, and telling "The Great Unwashed," as you describe the culturally bound, about things and places and people they ought to know about but don't?
JW: 1951 is the precise year, arriving at Black Mountain that summer to find treasures named Aaron Siskind, Harry Callahan, Charles Olson, Robert Motherwell, Lou Harrison, Katherine Litz, Dan Rice, the Fiores, Johanna Jalowetz, Ben Shahn; and fellow students: Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Francine du Plessix, Joel Oppenheimer. One evening Olson told his class this: "There are four legs to stand on. The first, be romantic. The second, be passionate. The third, be imaginative. And the fourth, never be rushed." The Big O dun won the kewpie doll!
JB: Do you ever feel you are, as we say here in the South, "preaching to the choir?"
JW: In earlier times the "Avant Garde" could be defined as a community of particular sympathy, as in Black Mountain College, or a Shaker village. I don't think I am preaching the Gospel of Beauty like Vachel Lindsay. It's more like Beethoven's hope—"from the heart, to the heart." Like I said before, one person at a time. Sad to say, a lot of my readers and supporters are by now dead. A lot are not yet born. Yet, quite a number in their twenties write letters (real ones with stamps, etc.) And some come to visit, look at the view, and listen to the talk. That's a good sign. And the talk is good. Tom Meyer, the fine poet I have been living with for 34 years, talks better than I do.
JB: In 1979, Gnomon Press published a collection of portraits and paragraphs, and in 1982 North Point published an earlier book of essays, The Magpie's Bagpipe. The cult of celebrity was much less monumental than it is now, but many of your subjects in Portrait Photographs were ignored for being "beyond the pale," or "too minor." Twenty-five years ago it somehow seemed more likely that one could chip a little opening in our cultural blinders. Do A Palpable Elysium and Blackbird Dust face a more impossible task than the previous works?
JW: Yes and no. Blackbird Dust has sold maybe 2000 copies. That's better than The Magpie's Bagpipe. A Palpable Elysium is doing okay, the grapevine tells me. It was reviewed in Newsweek; The Washington Post Book World's Christmas issue called it the best picture book of the year; the Los Angeles Times gave it a two-page spread. I assume there are still a few mad people who will run for the bookshop. Unfortunately my most excellent publisher, David Godine, has the habit of communicating with his authors just once a year. All small publishers of prose, poetry, and photography in this country become rather eccentric. One can understand why. Kenneth Rexroth remarked that 90% of the worst people he knew were poets. Charles Olson said: "I make $26 a year from poetry—I mean, in a good year." Olson also called America a pejorocracy—which means every day things get worse. I live in the hermitic trees and miss most of it. I dutifully listen to Jim Lehrer, but otherwise mostly watch Duke win basketball games and Greg Maddux throw the circle change, which, when it gets to the plate, drops off the table.
JB: How did you ever become the German romantic, Carolina crank, French oriole, and British gnarly folly that you are?
JW: I just did it. I never like to think about how and why. Be imaginative, as Olson suggested. Follow your eyes and ears—they will take you as far as you want to go. And remember Duke Ellington: "It don't mean a thing/ if it ain't got that swing."
JB: I know you started out in graphic design—what led you to becoming a book publisher, poet, and photographer?
JW: I dropped out of Princeton in early 1949. Then I studied painting with Karl Knaths at the Phillips Gallery in Washington, D.C. Next I studied etching and engraving with Stanley William Hayter at his "Atelier 17" in Greenwich Village. Next, on to the Institute of Design in Chicago for one semester. I had some terrific teachers there—Harold Cohen and Hugo Weber chief among them. And I was just a couple miles north of the University of Chicago where a pal of mine named Eros was studying English. But Eros was way into Rainer Maria Rilke (a poet I never get) and he let me light no fires. So when M. C. Richards turned up at the ID one afternoon to tell some of us about Black Mountain College's summer program, it sounded just right. Particularly since Harry Callahan would be teaching photography. At the ID he was teaching advanced students. I had yet to pick up a camera.
So, at BMC all cohered, as Ezra Pound promised it would. Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind taught me the rudiments of the camera. And the bonus was the Big O. Charles Olson was the largest poet known to man, the one who had stolen the sacred boogie from Mount Olympus and was ready to push the poet-button in your heart. And he said, "The artist is his own instrument." So I founded Jargon when I was 22. Pound had told James Laughlin to leave Italy and the Ezuversity and go back to the U.S. and be a publisher—hence, New Directions—and he was also 22.
JB: You are a bit of a self-described sorehead—cranky and irascible. Why would such a person take such loving photographs and write such deeply felt essays about oddball, ignored, and neglected art and artists and places?
JW: Ezra Pound—I seem to be quoting him a lot today, but, why not, I still have my EZ FOR PREZ button—once said that all the people he genuinely liked were very irascible. One wants to be irascible in the manner of H. L. Mencken, who said "Boobus americanus is a plant always in season." As one gets older it is astonishing to find out that imbeciles run the world. And remember Catullus: odi et amo—I hate and I love.
JB: You say in your introduction to Elysium that you "have pressed triggers in a very simple, straightforward, square way?" Just what does that mean for the first-time reader and viewer of your photographs and your writings about them?
JW: It just means that I have always used cameras that give you a square image: the Rollei, the Mamiyaflex, the Hasselblad, and the Polaroid SX-70.
JB: Who are the photographers and critics who nurtured this aesthetic?
JW: I worked with Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan at Black Mountain College in the summer of 1951. Much of their output is square format. Pound said that young people in the arts have an obligation to visit the great men of their time. When I was 15 I went to see Alfred Stieglitz at "Gallery 291" on Madison Avenue in New York City. He was having a conversation with the painter, John Marin, and they asked me have a glass of wine, and listen in.
JB: I know there are hundreds if not thousands of photographs and negatives in your collection yet to be curated or printed. Can you describe the process by which these new photographs were salvaged from their oftentimes 50-year sleep?
JW: There are two or three thousand color transparencies still in hand. I started using Kodak Ektachrome-120 film in 1954. I liked the results and, besides, I never set up a proper darkroom at Highlands. I can't describe the digital processes that somehow revive these faded, scratched, torn pieces of film. My expert is David Kooi, who was a photo-lab technician at the Hartford Courant. He's now working in California, enjoying the vapidity of it all.
JB: How did you approach these folks to do these photographs? I mean, was it just something that everyone knew that you did, or did you set out to go to Rexroth one day and say, "Today, I'm going to take your photograph and this is what we're going to do."
JW: I think he probably knew I took pictures. I had taken black and white pictures of him, but I think that that color picture is the best picture of him I ever got.
JB: So you just carried your camera around with you all the time?
JW: Yeah. I photographed him quite a lot but I think that's the best one. The color is really nice. And in its current form, in its digitized form, it's wonderful. It looks better than it ever did.
JB: It's one of the things that I think stands out in the photographs in Elysium, that you capture these folks in the way that they are most real.
JW: Uh-huh. I guess that photograph of Merton, you know, he's outside of his little hermitage and seated at a kind of little metal chair and he's wearing dungarees—dungaree jacket. I somehow didn't expect that cause most of the people, most of the monks at the Abbey of Gethsemane were in—I don't know what the term is—full habit, I guess you might say. And he wasn't. He was allowed to dress in this other way.
JB: How long had you known him when that photograph was taken?
JW: Maybe a year or two. I think I met him about 1964.
JB: But you visited him pretty regularly, didn't you?
JW: Yes, a couple times a year, and through about '67 maybe. I think it was maybe '68 when he was on that trip to the Orient, when he died, through this crazy electrical system in his hotel.
WG: How did you become aware of Thomas Merton's work?
JW: Well, I had read some, and knowing James Laughlin at New Directions, he would send me books of Merton's. It was like that, you know.
JB: Was it Davenport that took you there first, or Guy Mendes?
JW: No. I think I first went there on my own and at some point we arranged a picnic with Merton and I introduced him to Guy Davenport, Guy Mendes, and Gene Meatyard. Those three guys. We just all went down there and had a picnic!
JB: Meatyard took some photographs of Merton, didn't he?
JW: He took a lot. In fact there's a book collecting the pictures.
JB: So all of sudden there's this conversation going. You mentioned this morning that Edward Dahlberg once said "Literature is the way we ripen ourselves by conversation," and that seems to me very much present in both Elysium and Blackbird Dust. How do you think that happens?
JW: Well, as you know, a lot of my poetry is found and I think that's because I'm willing to lay back and listen. It's something to do with living in the country. There are times when Tom Meyer and I will only see somebody from the outside world once or twice a week. And we've known each other so long that we don't talk as much as we might. Tom can talk up a storm, he's up there in the Duncan/Olson class. So I like to listen and I like to hear things, and if you listen carefully then you do find things. I do it all the time. My early book Blues and Roots was done by walking a big piece of the Appalachian Trail: I listened to mountain people for over a thousand miles and I really heard some amazing stuff. And I left it pretty much as I heard it. I didn't have to do anything but organize it a little bit, crystallize it. That's the thing I love about found material—you wake it up, you "make" it into something.
JB: I think that's also true of An Ear in Bartram's Tree: the way you've put the poems on the page allows the reader to "hear" them exactly as you heard them, which is very hard to do because what most writers want to do is to elaborate and editorialize—to try to explain how this person sounded. You don't do that and there's a great lesson in that for all of us.
JW: Well, it's the old Einstein saying: "Keep things as simple as they are, but not simpler."
JB: Do you think this is partly a southern trait? Of course, people think of southern writers as talkers, as storytellers, but it seems to me that there's a great deal of listening that goes on in southern culture.
JW: In the mountains, a lot of people are shy and taciturn. Down in the Piedmont, it seems everybody's out there on the porch jabbering away and whole novels are based on what they talk about on the front porch. I do get a little tired of that. As does Cousin Cora, who's back in the kitchen making cat-head biscuits and buttermilk for the whole crowd.
JB: Do you think it's something to do with the mountain landscape that allows that space for listening?
JW: Yeah. People are very reticent up here. I mean once you get to know them, like Uncle Iv Owens, who lived across the road—he was the best mountain talker I've ever found. He was in a class by himself! This is going back 50 years, but anytime you'd sit with him, he'd just say the most extraordinary things. I'd run home to write them down as fast as I could; I loved his language. He had some of the best language of anybody I've ever heard, and he didn't know how to read or write. He sure knew how to talk—that's the one thing he could do!
JB: You've done the same things with folks in northwestern England...
JW: Yeah, Yorkshire Dales, where you're dealing with people who talk funny as far as the people down in London are concerned. It's a class thing; if you don't sound as though you went to Cambridge and Oxford, you know, it's demeaning. And all the BBC announcers are taught to speak in a certain way. Not quite as much as it used to be, I mean, there'll be the odd Scotsman in there telling you about the weather, which is rather refreshing, really... but I'm dealing with one or two people. I'm getting something from them, and putting it on paper, then I'm hoping a couple of people will respond to it. It's a very simple thing.
JB: I want to get back to the portraits for a second. We talked earlier about how you had said you pressed triggers in a "very square" way. And when I asked about that you simply said that the camera that you used took square photographs. But is there something in the square form that is sympathetic to the way you approach creating a portrait of someone, whether it's through a photograph or an essay?
JW: Well, that format, the 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 negative or slide, is what I like. Some people are very comfortable painting square paintings—you know, Mondrian or someone like that. Whereas a lot of people work in rectangles. Almost nobody works in circles anymore, but they used to. I was trained to work with a Rolleiflex, and then the others are just improvements on it. SX-70 Polaroid is great, but having learned that, I've never used a 35-millimeter camera. I've never used a view camera, which is more like 4 x 5 or 8 x 10. The important thing is I now and then get a good image.
JB: And I can't imagine you ever taking up a digital camera.
JW: No, I don't think so.
JB: And there are thousands of Polaroid shots also, right?
JW: Lots of Polaroids and probably three to four thousand color transparencies. I've got a big batch over in Corn Close, the cottage that we have in Dentdale, Cumbria. I've got probably 1000 Polaroids. I've got a few hundred here.
JB: The English collection... is it mostly from walks?
JW: Quite a few portraits too.
JB: It seems to me that those photographs are the most fragile and could easily be lost if something is not done relatively soon—I assume their life span is not very long.
JW: I think they are more fugitive than the other film. But I keep them in albums where they are protected from light. A lot of them hold up very well. I guess I started taking Polaroids in 1977. SX-70 came out in maybe 1976. That's about thirty years ago. Some of them really look good and I suppose can be digitized—I don't know anything about this process, but I would think so. Some of them I self-published in a little book called Twenty-six Enlarged Engorged Polaroids.
JB: I can imagine a work called Jonathan Williams's Encyclopedia Elysium. Are there more volumes of photographs to come?
JW: It would be easy to pull together three or four collections like Elysium. But there have to be 5,000 or 10,000 avid readers to purchase them. I often remember the very dour comment by a London journalist whose name I can't remember: "Only the profoundly unattractive have the time or the inclination to read books."
JB: What is it you look for in a photograph—whether it's a photograph you are taking or one you collect? Is there some one thing or cluster of things that really does it for you?
JW: I'm sure that's a very complex question. Increasingly I think of Charles Olson saying, "One loves only form"É When you think about that you can argue about that a lot. I think it's one of those situations where you don't think, if it's presented in a formal way that's satisfying to you.
JB: Olson's use of the word "form" is a broad term, really. It has precision within it, but it's taking in a whole world of experience...
JW: Creeley then took that idea and said, "Form is nothing more than an extension of content."
JB: I've always like Denise Levertov's revision of that. She changed it to "revelation of content."
JW: I'm not thoughtful enough to want to pursue those things very far, but whenever I think about "One loves only form"—it could be visual, it could be the form of the music, what you see on the page—I think that's true. It's like pornography—I know it when I see it. (laughs) Let's look at some more!
JB: The photographs in Elysium are often very spare in terms of the backdrop, but clearly there are compositional choices going on to help you create such vivid portraits. One of the things I respond to is the contrast of the human being in front of a real space but somehow you've found some abstracted shape in the real space. For instance the Duncan photograph: it's just a remarkable, almost shocking, sort of image, with that great red swath, as if some Abstract Expressionist had painted it. Where was that photographed?
JW: That was some rusted piece of industrial machinery in the Mission District of San Francisco. If you live in San Francisco in 1954 and 1955, you're looking at all that expressionist painting: Clyfford Still, Hassel Smith, Elmore Bishoff, Richard Diebenkorn and whoever. Duncan was very involved with those painters. Anyway, I was going to galleries and I met a couple of those guys and that sensitizes you to see, in the outside world, similar kinds of marks as they were making. When I studied with Siskind at Black Mountain, he said a very good thing: "When other people take photographs of a wall, it's a wall," he said, "but when I take pictures of a wall, it's Siskind." (laughs) He saw himself in that image, which I thought was great, and I think it's very true.
JB: I've seen a number of versions of the Duncan photograph over the years, but all I'd ever seen was the backdrop—so it was really wonderful to see the picture of Jess on the next page, where you get almost like this Greek ruin, or even something more Etruscan or Cretan.
JW: Then you see the whole structure, whatever it is. As I say, I had studied painting. I had spent time in New York and I'd been to Black Mountain where there were certain kind of Bauhaus principles of form, you know. I had experience in a quiet sort of way.
JB: You've been working on a book about visionary folk artists—are any of those photographs yours or just the texts?
JW: You mean the unpublished book? It's called Walks to the Paradise Garden. The photographs are either by Roger Manley or Guy Mendes. The texts are mine.
JB: It seems to offer the same kind of conversation between you and the artists as Elysium. Many of these artists are completely unknown, at least, when you were traveling around visiting them.
JW: They were mostly taken from about 1984, basically through about '89, and then a few more after that.
JB: How many artists are represented there?
JW: I think it's 83—all in the southeast, right, from Virginia to Louisiana, including Tennessee and Kentucky.
JB: Why do you think a publisher hasn't been smart enough to publish that book?
JW: Well, I can't answer that. I mean, I did have an agent and she's a good-willed person, but I don't think she knew much about that kind of artless art—she's a New Yorker, and they don't know about stuff like this. So I don't think she presented it, perhaps, as well as she might have, if she had been a little bit keener on it. She was very helpful with White Trash Cooking; it was featured in Vogue and magazines like that.
JB: I think one of the charms of Paradise Garden is that your texts are as "outside" in a way as the artists that you are talking about. They're a little "wilder" than the texts, say, in Elysium or Blackbird. Has that made it more difficult to sell?
JW: I think it's better written than the 15 or 20 collections on Outsider Art that have been published in New York and at various academic institutions. But, again, the problem is we're sitting in a remote corner of the North Carolina mountains, and I make no effort to go to New York very often. This agent took it around to about ten publishers, and she never really told me what the problem was. But there was one. As there's a problem with my quote book. I've shown it to people in New York and the idea these days is that what you want is a "niche." They want it in sections, like all your quotes about wine, all your quotes about sex, all your quotes about sports, all your quotes about politics—and on and on and on.
JB: What they're not understanding is that just as in these photographs and essays, there's a conversation going on with the way these quotes follow each other without defining them.
JW: It's absolutely chronological. These are the quotes as I found them. It's like picking flowers on a hillside. Here's a daisy. There's another daisy. Let's pick a book full of daisies.
WG: Would you say that publishers are resistant to publishing work that may seem fragmented in some way? People are very put off by not knowing where they are going.
JW: Well, they shouldn't be. It's like walking—one thing leads to another. It's great fun and it makes it more interesting, I think. Here's Thomas Jefferson, here's Thelonious Monk, the next one is Yogi Berra, and the next one is Herodotus. And here's Miss Mae West! Sometimes, inadvertently, amazing things happen—suddenly something entirely new is made.
JB: Well, it's the serendipity and the absurdity of life, which is what keeps us all going. It seems to me that part of the problem is a distrust from the publishing world of the ability of American readers to be willing to work a little bit.
WG: Bunting said "Never explain—your reader is as smart as you." So often publishers assume that the people they are making books for are much dumber than the people writing the books, and so they have to dumb down whatever is being published. It's sad.
JW: Well, we may have to publish Volume One of it. I don't want to wait forever. The first volume is called "If you can kill a snake with it, it ain't art" (laughs), which is a profound statement Lyle BongŽ (photographer) came up with one day. That goes through 1990. Volume Two would go from '91 to now and it's as big as volume one, which went from the '50's through the 80's, so I've been increasing my pickups.
JB: It's another example of Guy Davenport calling you a cultural anthropologist. These in a way are like walking through a ruin and picking up shards. If you put the shards together, all of a sudden you've got something. If you leave them on the ground and walk on then you have nothing. In a way, you collage these shards into an image of literary or cultural thought. A. R. Ammons, another North Carolinian, once said, "A poem is a walk," and every time I read that I think of you. You don't travel as much as you used to, though. Do you miss it? Is there a different focus now with your work?
JW: It's complicated I suppose. I've been having problems with my feet, which means I don't feel that it's safe for me to drive. I'm driving a stick shift VW Jetta, and there are times when I try to get to the clutch pedal smoothly and I don't get there. So Tom has had to take over the driving. He does fine but he's not fond of driving and has trouble with driving at night. That tends to keep you close to home.
I remember I had a letter from a wonderful London publisher by the name of Rupert Hart -Davis, who among other things did the great Oscar Wilde letters. He retired about 25 years ago and he came up to the Yorkshire Dales. We had a mutual friend in John Sandoe, the London bookseller, and John wrote him a letter saying, "Oh you must meet these two American poets who live in Dentdale," and Rupert Hart Davis wrote back to him and said, "Never meet new people after the age of sixty-five." (laughs) "You must not do it. You spend too much time with them, cultivating them and getting to know them, while your poor old friends are like a deserted garden—they're not getting water, they're not getting weeded, and they don't get the attention they deserve. People you've known thirty or forty years, they're the ones that deserve attention." That makes a lot of sense in some ways, because I think everybody's stretched too thin in this society.
JB: It's true, the opportunity to meet someone new is constantly in front of you—the potential to completely drain yourself, and as you say, not water the garden, or weed the garden that's there in the back yard.
JW: Firm friendship. I really took that to heart. Whit has been observing the volume of email that comes in here. There's no way in the world—I could have seven heads and fourteen hands and I couldn't deal with it all.
WG: Even now, as Jargon seems to be floundering in the wake of so much mass culture, it still receives so much email and physical mail—there's no way that even five persons could respond to all the communiquŽs that come through.
JB: It's encouraging in a way to know so many people want to connect whether it's with Jargon, with you, or with each other, but at the same time it's impossible. In the days of letter writing—and you are one of the great masters—you could only write letters to, say, 30 people regularly ...
JW: I write about thirty to forty letters a week, I mean, year in, year out.
JB: So has that changed now? I know I'm guilty of this myself—I much more easily send an email than I write letters now.
JW: I don't think I have more than 15, maybe, correspondents who do it the old way.
JB: A number of your correspondents have also passed away É I know in the last decade you've seen a number of really important and wonderful people leave us. I think that might be one of the reasons your new books have found an audience: people are realizing now that there's a generation of artists and writers that are leaving us—and that you can tell us about them in a way that makes them more present than most people can do.
JW: Well, the color pictures started in 1954 , so that's close to 50 years ago. And I think it's wonderful to see Robert Duncan looking like that in 1955—it's great to see some of these people as younger, younger people. It's one thing I always liked about Albert Langdon Coburn, the American photographer who mostly lived in England for a long time. He's got pictures of people like Sibelius when he's only about like thirty-five—he looks like a completely different person. You know, most pictures of Sibelius, he looks like some granitic old Scandinavian master É and Matisse: he's got a picture of Matisse that looks like a kid! I think that's great. I was lucky enough to know a lot of these people, you know, when...
JB: At that vibrant moment when they are just grabbing hold of what it is they are going to do in their life.
JB: You see a lot of that in Elysium and also in the essays—it's that moment when they sort of burst into view.
WG: I know that younger people, like myself, do have a real interest in a lot of the poetry that came from the 20th century. To know there's someone who is active in the world of letters who knew William Carlos Williams, or knew Ezra Pound, or published Lorine Niedecker, gives the younger generation such great comfort and hope that we can fill the roles that people like Jonathan have opened up for us.
JB: It always makes me aspire to do better, and often makes me think I should give up! Knowing you and reading your works has allowed me to know Stevie Smith, Thomas Merton, Frederick Sommer, Harry Partch, Simon Cutts, and countless others I might never have known of in an inordinately intimate way. How did you ever come to know all these people and go all these places?
JW: Like they say: one thing leads to another. Pound, in "Canto LXXXI," says it gloriously: "What thou lovest well remains, / the rest is dross..."
JB: Now that you are here and you're not traveling around so much, how do you spend an average day? Do you work seven days a week?
JW: Well, when it's just Tom and me É He's on a very different schedule than I am. He gets up at 4:30 and runs through the wilds and goes to bed at 9:30 or 10:00 ...
JB: While you're still communing with Elgar at 1:00 a.m.
JW: Yeah. Listening to something. But anyway, I like to read in the morning if I manage to wake up by around 7:30; I like to read for about two hours. I can read well once I'm awake. Then I try to come into the office and do what has to be done. After breakfast I can get started. Tom puts the latest emails next to the bed and I have a look at those and think, "I really wanted to work on something else but I can't do it cause there's two people who insist on having instantaneous responses!" It doesn't happen to all of the emails, some of them have been here over a year!
JB: You're lucky to have Tom who I'm sure vets and answers some things.
JW: Yeah. I don't know the machinery at all. I've only looked at the Internet once, I think; Jargon has a site and Tom showed it to me one day and I thought, "Gee, that's great!" I believe the Internet is the younger sister of the Gorgon Medusa—if you look more than about twice you're going to get turned into stone or something much more unpleasant!
So, as I say, I usually do that until 5:30. We live a very organized time around here; I think it's something to do again with living in the country. The whole operation kind of seems monastic in a way. Comes 5:30, I stop what I'm doing and go downstairs and get in the hot tub for half an hour, jump out and come back up here and watch Peter Jennings and the News Hour. It's like going to Baptist Church. You feel like you've got to do it. Sins upon your head. You've go to do it! And that's probably all the television we watch. I like the Sunday Morning program on CBS and occasionally we will watch Antiques Roadshow. But that's it. We're about a month away from baseball, and I watch that a lot. I probably watch about five games a week. Mostly the Braves cause I'm a Greg Maddux fan. I love to see him pitch! Other than that we don't go anywhere much. We don't have a lot of money to spend on things like traveling, or going out to expensive restaurants. Tom cooks better than most restaurants anyway.
JB: Oh, absolutely.
JW: So we don't need to worry about that. We've got a small social life in Highlands. There are five or six people that we like to see every once and a while.
JB: Over sixty years you've certainly traveled enough to see quite a lot of interesting things. Again the books are testimony to that.
JW: I've traveled a lot. I've done a lot of walking. I know certain parts of Europe pretty well. England extremely well.
JB: One of the new developments in the life of Jonathan and Jargon is that there's a new generation that's finding your books.
JW: Art Blakey, the great drummer, his groups were always called the Jazz Messengers, and every year there were new personnel—some of the best jazz men of the period from about 1950 to maybe the '80s. He said something on one of his records that I thought was just great. He said, "Always stick with the youngsters. When they get too old, get some new ones!" (laughs)
WG: In terms of Jargon, so much attention is paid to the books published with Black Mountain references that it seems like Jargon is overlooked in some circles as a publisher of other people, like Russell Edson—so many have come after the Black Mountain era. Right now you are preparing to publish C. A. Conrad's Frank. How does a manuscript come to you that you really want to publish?
JW: C. A. Conrad came through a poet in Philadelphia named Jim Cory. Jim had published a little pamphlet that had about five or six of the Frank poems—must have been seven or eight years ago. You know Jim Cory?
JB: Of course, Jim has helped to edit your selected poems, which I thought Black Sparrow had been looking at, but Black Sparrow is gone now.
JW: Copper Canyon has it. It's so funny. Publishing is crazy in this country. I had had communications with the kindly Jonathan Galassi who's a publisher at Farrar, Straus & Giroux; he was a friend of James Laughlin. He said, "You must come and have lunch when you come to New York," so we did, and we had a very pleasant lunch. I had asked him could he stand the thought of looking at my new and selected poems and he said certainly and so at lunch I gave him this thing and he wrote back in about six weeks and he said "I really like this book. It's really unusual and it's absolutely 'you' and I'm sure somebody is going to want to pick it up." (laughs)
JB: It's "too" you, "too you for us."(more laughter)
JW: He said, "The problem is I can find no context within which to publish this book." I looked at that word "context" for about a month, scratching my head, and I asked people what it meant, and finally an old friend in New York who is very suave and sophisticated and involved in the arts said, "Oh, that's just a nice word that New Yorkers have come up with so they don't have to say no!" (laughs)
JB: So it was just a no.
JW: I suddenly realized, well, that's it. Though they publish a lot of good books of all sorts. So, about that time I was in communication with Sam Hamill at Copper Canyon—he was wanting the photograph of Rexroth for the jacket of the Complete Poems that is just published. I just happened to mention that I had sent this manuscript of mine off to Farrar, Straus & Giroux and he said, "When the fuckers turn it down, send it to me." (laughs)
JB: Sam Hamill, perhaps, is our greatest salvation. Of course he started Poets Against the War, too. James Laughlin's name has come up also—Laughlin became one of your masters in publishing as well as just a friend and mentor, and yet New Directions was a great commercial and artistic success, while Jargon, except for White Trash Cooking, was never really a commercial success.
JW: New Directions was not in the black until sometime in the Ô50s though. He started about 1936. But he had the rights to Tennessee Williams and some of Merton and any number of other people, and finally William Carlos Williams began to make a little money. James was the heir to a steel fortune in Pittsburgh—he had a trust fund. He spent a lot of money on all these guys, Patchen and Rexroth...
JB: But did he have some sense that he was after commercial success?
JW: He had enough money that it was possible. It's like David Godine says to me, "You've got no business being a publisher. You're too poor." I said, "Yeah, that's true David, but I've published some better books than you have." (laughs)
JB: What is it about the world of fame and fortune that has you turn your face away from it?
JW: I don't know where it comes from but I have never liked the idea of competition. Except, maybe on the volleyball court! But that's why I left Princeton. I was sick of all those rich boys; I didn't want to live with those guys.
WG: I think the anecdote about the $1500 inheritance that you received might be worth telling. You could either buy a Porsche or ...
JW: Or a Max Beckmann!
WG: Speak a little bit about how Jargon came about.
JW: That's so mysterious. I don't even think I know how to explain it. My parents became sort of upper middle class. My father was successful in his business in Washington, D. C. that had to do with designing systems and visible indexes. And I just decided I didn't want to pursue money, you know, and that maybe if I became a writer, and then a publisher, there'd be some money. But, of course, that's not been the case.
JB: If you stayed at Princeton, you could have become an expert on Byzantine art. And clearly there would have been an income and some notoriety in that choice.
JW: I would have had to do graduate work, but I just couldn't like those guys. I stayed three semesters—I only had two friends—they were interesting but strange guys. I just couldn't get on with those people.
JB: So were you a curmudgeon then, too, (laughs) or has that sort of grown as you've traveled and met and developed your tastes?
JW: I'm just a little bit ornery like most hill people!
JB: You mentioned H. L Mencken has been a great hero. A propos of this, do you see yourself in the tradition of Mark Twain?
JW: Mark Twain, Mencken, W. C. Fields, Mae West—these are people, again, who can use language so wonderfully. That's tall cotton as we say down South, but that's what I like.
JB: I think, though, it should be said that you and Jargon may not have done what you have, except because you were outside. It may have been the death of Jargon if there had been endless sums of money coming at you. You've done better with less money than some.
JW: We can only do so much. At this point we can do two books a year. When you get older you really don't have as much energy. All we need is support from a certain number of people to do the couple of books a year we have time for. I've got to push on. Tom is always writing and producing a lot. I'm not producing as much these days but I'm still doing stuff. The third book of essays has just gone out.
JB: Are there any literary models for your essays?
JW: The only model you need for essays is Montaigne. His essays are anything. He's remarkably inventive. It's the style. In a sense there's no such thing as an essay—it's the word "try." You're trying to do something. Trying to interest people in something.
JB: Is the third book more fugitive pieces? Are they spread among the whole range of time?
JW: Yes. A lot of them haven't been published before. I seem to have a lot of things like that. (laughs)
JB: What's the title? We've got Magpie's Bagpipe and Blackbird Dust.
JW: Well, I'm sorry you asked about that. It's another one of "my" titles. One of my nom de plumes is Lord Nose. So this is Lord Nose's Gnosis.
JB: I thought there would be a bird in the title.
JW: It should have been, butÉ the wisdom of Lord Nose. It rambles all over to hell and gone as most of my things do. That's one thing about me, I'm a rambler.
JB: Peripatetic as you've been described. The essay books seem to me somewhat in the tradition of Pound's Guide to Kulchur, Henry Miller's The Books in My Life, and Kenneth Rexroth's Classics Revisited, except they were mostly writing about books written before their lifetimes. You're writing about people and places that you have experienced. Have you ever thought of writing a classics revisited? "The Moon Pool and Others" in Blackbird does a little of that. It would be interesting to see what would happen.
JW: I haven't read as widely as I might have; there are huge gaps in my knowledge of English literature. I'm no scholar. I'm not an academic. I love Tolkien, I love Harry Potter in his way, The Wizard of Oz, the children's books. I read very good children's books when I was a child. Wind in the Willows is a magnificent book, Dr. Doolittle, Kipling's Just So Stories... I've always thought if a kid didn't appreciate books like that, they probably would never as adults like anything much.
JB: I remember you saying one of the things that led you to be a publisher was that you wanted to be able to recreate some of that magic.
JW: Yeah, grown up books that have that same kind of appeal. Some of ours have. One keeps hoping to publish something that does it, you know.
JB: This is a morbid question, but I hope a revealing one. Someday—a long time hence, since you are as mean as a cottonmouth and you're going to live a long time—what would you like your epitaph to be?
JW: It's the one I wrote for Uncle Iv Owens: "He did what he could, when he got round to it." (laughs)
JB: Despite all these serious questions about artistic origins, and aesthetics, and "knowing," the emotion I most think of when reading your work and looking at your photos is joy—childlike, innocent, wild-eyed fun.
JW: Well, Mompou said he never learned anything after he was about ten, and Gustav Mahler, of all people, said the same thing. Everything about his work was based on childhood. Again, it's nothing I think about too much, but I suspect that it's very strong in my own person. But that of course excludes the sexual element. I can't remember having any kind of sexual feelings much as a child.
JB: But children are sexual in a pantheistic way.
JW: They're sexual; I fooled with boys in prep school, but in a very simplistic way. I never really got involved with anybody emotionally until I was 20. But it's the joy of childhood you mean, really. Do you know Schumann's Scenes from Childhood, the piano piece?
JW: It's such a beautiful piece. Poor old Robert Schumann was half out of his head, you know, really crazy, and he wrote this absolutely sublime piece. It's like the world should be. Like somebody said on television recently, Americans need to be nicer people. I hope people think about that. Henry James said, "The first thing in life is to be kind. The second thing in life is to be kind. And the third thing in life is to be kind."
Click here to purchase A Palpable Elysium at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003