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For more than fifty years Jonathan Williams published from his home in North Carolina an extraordinary number of poets and writers, many claiming diverse affiliations to the poetic tribes that compose the heart of the New America poetry. The Jargon Society, a now-legendary small publisher, proved what single-mindedness and determination could accomplish in the world of American letters. Williams’ exceptional legacy as publisher, provocateur, poet, essayist, and photographer maps out numerous possibilities available to other artists intent on keeping alive the various folkways and urbane intelligences that commingle in the local attention of the artist. In many ways he established a model for how to build a community of writers from the ground up. With James Laughlin, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Amiri Baraka, Diane di Prima, and many others, Williams contributed to the fertile and energetic continuation of North American literature in a period of increasing cultural consolidation by the New York publishing industry. As a model of what a publisher can be, Williams certainly ranks among our greatest.
Through his work with the Jargon Society, Williams introduced many authors to print, including James Broughton, Basil Bunting, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Paul Metcalf, Lorine Niedecker, Charles Olson, and Louis Zukofsky. His appetite for little known writers and photographers revealed him to be a man driven by a curiosity to possess perspectives formed in hidden details, exotic oddities, and introspective visions. His search for the hidden and over-looked spread from his publishing life into other orders of attention as well. Such a need to apprehend phenomenal details and to make them available to others should be instructive to any DIY publisher today. Instead of looking for strategically fashionable exemplars of the arts, Williams expressed preference for the unknown or forgotten. Not only did he publish the likes of Wisconsin poet Lorine Niedecker, practically unknown in the 1960s when Williams encountered her work, and Alfred Starr Hamilton, a New Jersey poet who lived much of his life in a Montclair boarding house, he looked at the world with a similar appetite for the disclosure of unknown things. In “The Poetry of Work,” he writes:
On a Pennsylvania dresser in my workroom in Highlands, North Carolina, I have six pots and vases: a Ch’ien Lung mirror-black; a tall Ming celadon; an alchemical form by M. C. Richards; a small, spotted Bernard Leach celadon; a plump, white piece by Toshiko Takaezu; and a polished black piece from the Santa Clara pueblo with eagle-feather design by Camillo Tafoya; on a wall behind them is a portrait of Charles Edward Ives, by W. Eugene Smith. A small quotation from the Shakers is pinned next to it: “No vice is with us the less ridiculous for being in fashion.”
Discussing the publication of a book of graveyard photos by Lucinda Bunnen and Ginny Smith, Williams recalls:
When I first looked through several thousand slides and several hundred prints spread over the refectory table here at Skywinding Farm, I asked: “Lucinda and Ginny, don’t you think Scoring in Heaven is too strange even to be a Jargon Society book?” They thought that was the nicest question anyone had ever asked them. I was, of course, just kidding. I love to visit the Strange like some people love to visit the Country, as I say over and over again. The Jargon Society has, after all, been the publisher of Ernie Mickler’s glorious amalgam of pig-grease and sass, White Trash Cooking. And of Tom Patterson’s monument to the late, bodacious Eddie Owens Martin of Buena Vista, Georgia, St EOM in the Land of Pasaquan. And we have espoused artists and poets as curious, visionary, “ugly,” and far-off-the interstates as Bill Anthony, Glen Baxter, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Lyle Bongé, Doris Ulmann, Alfred Starr Hamilton, Mason Jordan Mason, and Richard Emil Braun. Stephen King says somewhere: “I guess when you turn off the main road, you have to be prepared to see some funny houses.”
Such devotion to “the Strange” gave Williams an impressive ability to punctuate art with intrusions of the unexpected. By listening to what was most delightful, he was compelled to present a complex body of work that gave insight to the American experience in all its wildness of form and attitude. Along with some of the most valuable poetry of the 20th century, Williams published Ernest Mickler’s White Trash Cooking, which became Jargon’s only commercial success. While today some small publishers carefully prepare catalogues as if they were constipated with a grand sense of their contribution to the world of literature, Williams provided a model of fertile introspection, showing us how to proceed according to the interests and desires of the publisher. Creative motive, for Williams, rested within individual perspectives and capacities for delight, not in some sense of social importance, publishing what others require.
In a letter to the editor of The New York Times Book Review, Williams once claimed that poetry readers could be counted “somewhere between the number of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers (several sighted in Cuba recently) and the number of California Condors.” He observed too that “[t]he only poetry readers I have unearthed lately lived near Pippa Passes, Dwarf, and Monkey’s Eyebrow in Kentucky; at Odd, West Virginia; and at Loafers Glory and Erect, North Carolina.”
More recently Williams’ poetry met a larger audience when Copper Canyon published his selected poems, Jubilant Thicket. In it we witness the hilarious and insatiable mind Williams possessed. With the ear of Basil Bunting, a regionalist attention to “the Strange,” and an obvious commitment to poetic lore, Williams crossed the hayseed with the aesthete to retrieve such remarkable moments as this one:
Uncle Tot Harper
off a hog
the good man
Miss Stein said Mr. Pound
was a village explainer
ok if you’re a village;
if not, not
In another selection of his work from 1972 called The Loco Logodaedalist in Situ, a sequence called “History” stands out for its wit and pliability. The “history” in question is Williams’ adolescence, through which he delivers insights ranging from the profound to the naughty on lines that seem almost to float off the page:
about 16 lying on the grass in the sunshine
one his hand
with all his might
opened, exposed manipulated
to this day
grew up normal men.
the organs of generation
the caprice of male captors,
over my body,
in my face!
“The face he presented to the world was of an irascible crank, a loose cannon, a gadfly,” said Williams’ life-partner, Thomas Myer, in a conversation with the New York Times after Williams passed in March 2008. “But as a publisher he was extraordinarily generous, always looking for the overlooked.” Likewise, in his poetry, the overlooked occupied his attention. The masturbatory fantasies of youth emerged, giving wonder and joy with sympathetic laughter to experiences that often remain hidden in the backward abysm of memory.
As a young publisher and writer, Williams’ example helped me better understand how to locate attention in many facets of life. The local competed with broader national scenes to help me become aware of the kind of poet I wanted to be—and the kind of publisher I hoped to become. I had to learn how to trust my own prejudices, too, and follow instincts and preferences that may not necessarily agree with the tastes of others. Williams’ examples in his own writing and in the books he published helped guide my work. His sense of printed words on the page, too, led me to see book-making as an art that makes poetry present to readers according to the printed environments that support it. At the heart of American poetry for decades, Williams’ legacy will be felt for many more to come.
Hevesi, Dennis. “Jonathan Williams, Publisher, Dies at 79.” New York Times. March 30, 2008. Available http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/30/books/30williams.html?ref=todayspaper
Williams, Jonathan. Blackbird Dust: Essays, Poems, and Photographs. New York: Turtle Point Press, 2000.
Williams, Jonathan. Jubilant Thicket: New and Selected Poems. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2004.
Williams, Jonathan. The Loco Logodaedalist in Situ: Selected Poems 1968-70. London: Cape Goliard, 1972)
Dale Smith lives in Austin, Texas, with the poet Hoa Nguyen. His work appears in Bookslut, Chicago Review, Jacket, and in other print and digital media. He is the author of several books and the writer of a popular poetry blog, Possum Ego (http://possumego.blogspot.com).